Viking Age Women

Viking Age woman wore an ankle length linen under-dress or shift, with the neck closed by a brooch. Over it, she wore a shorter length woolen dress suspended by shoulder straps fastened by brooches. This kind of suspended dress is sometimes called a hangerock or an apron-skirt. The rear straps of the suspended dress were long enough to pass over the shoulder to the brooches, while the front straps were much shorter, as seen in the photograph to the left. A pin and catch on the inside of the brooch held the loops of the straps to the brooch. In modern times, these brooches are sometimes called turtle brooches, since their shape is similar to the shell of a turtle. A number of different kinds of head-coverings for women are mentioned in the sagas, some of which are elaborate headdresses, which may have been worn like jewellery on special occasions. It has been suggested that the type of headdress worn served to distinguish married from unmarried women.

Kona is the Old Norse word for "wife" - today also called Frau, after the goddess Freyja - also called Husfrau - or House Freyja meaning Lady of the House as opposed to Huskona who did not hold as high a status as the former being a woman of social standing and substance. Viking Age weddings were celebrated with an elaborate feast often lasting a month or more. Viking wedding guests enjoyed eating huge portions of food at these feasts and drunkenness was the norm but not usually all done in a day as in modern times? They were also filled with music and story telling. The guests were seated on benches and the bride was seated separately from the groom. The Saga of Egil and Asmund tells us that this allowed the older, more experienced ladies to give them advice about how they should conduct themselves. The written text and the archaeological evidence on how weddings were performed by our honoured Germanic heathen folk remains sketchy even so much less the fragmented heathen traditions surrounding the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England today. Vikings did however inter-marry with the English, another point we should bear to remember. Is it just possible then that by borrowing elements from the Icelandic Sagas, and incorporating heathen elements both oral and historical, a Viking Age wedding ceremony may just be possible to reconstruct such a ceremony?

For our honoured Viking ancestors, the date of the wedding would have been certainly limited by the climate. For example travel for the wedding guests assuming the bride or grooms family came from far and wide rather than in close proximity which was unlikely would have been impossible during the harsh winter months. The wedding actual would have been a week long affair which hasten the need for plentiful food and honey ale making the wedding most likely around the harvest time of the year. Part of the legal stricture regarding the wedding would have been the consumption by both the bride and groom of the bridal ale which meant usually mead. The confusion arises when we have a play on words regarding the honey moon suggesting one lunar cycle of approximate 28 days. But accounts suggest that there must be enough of this ale so that the couple could share it for the preceding month to come. Friday would have been the date chosen for Viking weddings in honour of the Nordic goddess Frigga.

Heathen era Viking Age matrimonium
The earliest weddings were very different from our ideas of what marriage is today. Germanic girls of the Late Iron Age were married between the ages of 12-16. The girls had no say in the marriage and they were then expected to run a household. Current anthropologists suggest that our primitive ancestors came together as a collective in the main for protection and survival rather than for meaningful romantic love or hormonal based relationships. The Vikings did not practice courtship, where a man and a woman could evaluate their compatibility, or in which love could blossom. Marriage amongst the ancient heathens was meant to provide a financially stable environment in which children could be raised and a contract or bargain between two families.

But according to Germanic law in elder times, there exist five different types of marriages but only the first three would have been considered lawful marriages or a matrimonium:
1) Contract Marriage
2) Friedel Marriage (ON friδla)
3) Concubinate
4) Abduction (with consent)
5) Abduction (without consent)
Marriage amongst the ancient heathens was always considered an important institution. It meant a financially stable environment in which children could be raised. Essentially this was thought of as a business contract or bargain between two families. Many of the pre marriage rituals were set up to ensure that the future wife and any offspring’s the marriage may produce were cared for. Thus marriages were negotiated by both parties involved. A Viking male wishing to have a woman in marriage would approach her family first, hopefully with prestigious friends to negotiate on his behalf. If an agreement was struck, these friends served to witness on handa sellan, that is the handshake that ended the agreement the couple should be wed. At this time the morning gift was agreed upon as well as the hand geld or dowry, and other specifics. Consider also that when Viking children grew up as teenagers, their adult life really began. By contrast, at the age of fifteen both boys are girls were likely to be married. A husband was chosen for the girl and was usually part of an agreement of peace and support between two families. The girl brought with her bedclothes made of wool and linen, a loom and a bed as her contribution to the marriage agreement.  There are strong arguments for the father of the bride seeking the daughter’s approval of his choice for her husband but I feel that it was a contractual matter between two families to which the father of both the households involved had the final say. After all blood feuds resulted very often when Viking Age courtships go wrong. Examples of this are depicted in the sagas
1) Jochens, Jenny M. Women in Old Norse Society.  Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press.  1995.
2) Lotte Motz Mythological Women: studies in memory of Lotte Motz 1922-1997 Fassbaender, 2002 374 pages

During the Viking Age, a man’s wife was not regarded as his possession
Quite to the contrary, she was considered still a part of her former greater family. She was given responsibilities and trust, and even the right to divorce her husband if he mistreated her or was adulterous. To do so she called some witnesses and made them aware of her intention to divorce. In front of these witnesses she declared herself divorced from her husband at the front door, and then at their bedside, declared her divorced from her husband once more. In Iceland, she would have had to also declare her intentions and reasons for divorce before a public assembly such as the Thing. This sealed the divorce. Viking woman had more rights than any other woman in Europe at the time. Everything a woman brought into a Viking marriage was hers, and did not become the property of her husband's estate. This included her dowry, which usually included linen and wool, a spinning wheel, a loom and a bed. This off course may vary according to the wealth of the bride's family. Husbands as a matter of course trusted their wives and allowed them to be responsible for many important things. They had to because they were often away hunting, trading or fishing for food.The woman of the house wore the keys to all the buildings tied around her waist as a sign of her authority and responsibility. She did not get a choice about whom she married though.  This was in the hands of their respective families and very much an arranged matter. The remit therefore of every modern Northern Tradition couple in my view should be to drop modern day values so ingrained in society today, that is of a man having total dominance over his woman and to treat her truly as an equal in all things. Remember that Viking Age women were considered equals.

There have been arguments that Viking Age men only travelled to far away places when they went e-Viking. This is not entirely correct. Women could and did play a part in this process of settlement. Iceland, for instance, was uninhabited, and a permanent population could only be established if women also made the journey there. In regions with an established indigenous population, Viking settlers may have married local women, while some far-roving Vikings picked up female companions en route, but there is evidence that Scandinavian women reached most parts of the Viking world, from Russia in the east to Newfoundland in the west. Most journeys from Scandinavia involved sea-crossings in small, open ships with no protection from the elements. Families heading for the North Atlantic colonies would also have to take all the livestock they would need to establish a new farm, and the journey cannot have been pleasant. The Viking colonists settled down to the farming life in their new home, or established themselves as traders and became town-dwellers. Both farming and trading were family businesses, and women were often left in charge when their husbands were away or dead. There is also evidence that women could make a living in commerce in the Viking Age. Merchants' scales and weights found in female graves in Scandinavia suggest an association between women and trade, while an account of a ninth-century Christian mission to Birka, a Swedish trading centre, relates the conversion of a rich widow Frideburg and her daughter Catla, who travelled to the Frisian port of Dorestad.

Viking Women and their links with weapons according to archaeology

Skjaldmær better known in English as Shieldmaidens were Late Iron Age (Viking Era) women who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Skjaldmærs  are often mentioned in sagas such as Hervarar saga and in Gesta Danorum. Controversy surrounds the existence of such women and scholars have varying opinions as to their existence or that they were simply part of the romance of the sagas. In my view, defending the homestead against attacks would also qualify a woman to be a warrior in the literal sense and I agree whole heartedly with the views of Prof Neil Price on their existence in the historical timeline

A shieldmaiden was a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior in Scandinavian folklore and mythology. Something about a woman who wields a sword well that so appeals to me.The Grágás or Grey Goose Law is the name given to the laws which were used to govern the Icelandic Commonwealth until some where around 1262-1264CE. It consisted of six sections, the fourth of which was “The Wergild Ring List”. Wergild, was the reparation paid by an individual to compensate a family or clan for theft, injury or death. The revision of these laws of 840CE makes various provisions, including for the payment of Wergild by Skjoldmø. The nearest translation of Skjoldmø is “Shield Girl”, but it is important that we do not confuse them with the popular fantasy figure of the “Shield Maiden” (think Opera's Brunhilde) but rather honed professional warriors, given rights, privileges and status of their own within Norse Culture.
Indication of women warriors can be found in The Grágás or Grey Goose Law; the law-code of the Icelandic Commonwealth until 1262-1264 CE. More specifically, references are found in the code's fourth section; “The Wergild Ring List”. Wergild (nefgildi) was the reparation paid by an individual to compensate a family for theft, injury or death, and a revision in 840 CE makes specific mention of a class of payments by Skjoldmø. Skjoldmø (which means ‘shield-maiden from skjold + mœr) were expert professional female warriors who were afforded unique rights, privileges and status of their own within Norse Culture. At the age of about 12 years or so, The fittest and strongest girls, those who could compete in strength and speed with their male counterparts, were given the choice to become Skjoldmø, which entailed them leaving aside the traditional life of a woman and instead, to learn to take a trade and to fight. The Grágás was amended to extend to them the rights to hold a hall of their own, to be held accountable for themselves in the form of Wergild, and the right to take a husband (subject to being able to afford to keep a housewife to run their hall and to attend to her husband's domestic needs).

In Hrolfs saga Gautrekssonar, the only child of King Eirikr of Sweden is Thornbjorg, who "spends her girlhood pursuing the martial arts". Her father provides her with men and lands; and she adopts male dress and name (Thorbergr) and is known as king. (quoting “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons”) These girls were often from noble families (such as Freydis Eiriksdottir, who voyaged to America with her Father Eirik the Red. She and her brother Lief both commanded ships on this voyage) and that was likely to do with the environment of their birth (adequate food, warmth, etc.) being far more conducive to their growing to be strong and healthy. Certainly most of those mentioned by name as captains, were from noble families, but then, so were most of the men.
In many sources, not least the story of Auðr, we hear of these warrior women wearing “breeches like a man” and it is certainly likely that the Skjoldmø took the trouser as a practicality. Certainly they would have worn similar armour to their male counterparts and used similar equipment and weapons. Finds that bear this out include:A Spear and knife found in the graves of two women in Heslerton, North Yorkshire (dating to 450-650CE) and a Woman's burial (circa 500CE) with dagger and shield just outside LincolnSaxo Grammaticus, in his “History of the Danes” in around 1200CE wrote:

"There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers' skills."

He goes on to discuss these women in some detail and was clearly fascinated by them. However, he also appears to have been quite the fan of classical literature and this is betrayed by his tendency to mix the Norse tales he was told with Greek Amazon myths. For those who may be interested, Birgit Strand discusses this in depth in her book “Women in Gesta Danorum”.
We know that life was hard for all those who went “a viking” - the climate, high-stakes living etc are all well known and documented, (there are even sources that detail some of these women going “a viking” while heavily pregnant) but these women appear to have embraced and thrived upon the lifestyle and indeed, it is difficult to read Norse or even Anglo Saxon history without tripping over at least one of many of these warriors mentioned. Some notable names include:

Aethelflaed (also known as “The Lady of Mercia”) daughter of Alfred the Great, Freydis Eiriksdottir, Gurith, Alvid's daughter, Hervor (who later adopts the name Hervardr while seeking vengence for her father), Hethna, Kahula, Olga, widow of Igor of Russia, Queen Aethelburgh (destroyer of Taunton), Queen Gudit, Rusilla, Salaym Bint Malham, Sela, Stikla, "The Island Girl" of Procopius' history of the Gothic War of 535-552 CE, Thordis, Thyra, Queen of Denmark, Vebiorg, Visna, Wafeira

The second presentation by Neil Price, in this case, referring to the Viking women and their links with weapons according to archaeology. According to the results found in different archaeological excavations we can see how women had a similar status to that of men . The material remains show how you can talk about the valkyria woman, that she could participate in the war . Women could divorce their husbands and were free. The conference describes very well the differences in status and roles of women in the Viking societies.