I was delighted to yesterday attend the 2019 Richard Hall Symposium addressing the theme Women and Power in the Viking World. This was part of the broader theme of the 2019 Jorvik Viking Festival: ‘The Untold Story of Women in the Viking Age’.
I have created a Twitter Moment about the event that serves to encapsulate many of the themes addressed by the range of expert speakers: some of the speakers were very effective and active tweeters during the event!
Here’s my longer write-up of the day.
First up, Dr Alex Sanmark (University of the Highlands and Islands) addressed The Norse Thing: An Assembly of Women and Men. She explored how the evidence shows the range of categories of men and women who could be participators as well as attendees of open-air assembly places in the Viking Age. As well as widows and ‘ring women’, women in dispute with other women, and wives who maintained a household, were among those who could participate. As well as an evaluation of the strategic monumental and topographical settings of assembly places, Alex constructed a sense of the female agencies in judicial contexts. Furthermore, she emphasised how assemblies were places for socialisation of various kinds within which women might exercise power and authority in different forms beyond the judicial sphere.
Next, Professor Judith Jesch (University of Nottingham) presented Women, War and Words – A Verbal Archaeology of Shield-Maidens. Jesch considered the origins of the term ‘shield-maiden’ by exploring how the term appears in the fornaldarsögur. Given the current popularity of the term and the distinction made by others (Price et al. 2019) between valkyries (as mythological beings) and shield-maiden (as supposed references to real-world female warriors), she addressed how the textual ‘shield-maidens’ often are portrayed negatively and seem to ‘fail’ as warriors. She argued that they are probably later interpolations and/or refer to exotic behaviours of ‘eastern’ peoples outside of Norse society. Jesch regards the most likely source for these ideas as Virgil’s Aeneid influencing Saxo and other writers, reflecting also a broader popularity of the Amazons of Greek myth in inspiring writers in the North in the 11th and 12th centuries. While this cannot be conclusive, Jesch sheds doubt on the possibility that this written evidence fossilises an historical tradition of Viking-period real-world ‘shield-maidens’.
The third talk was by Dr Simon Trafford (University of London) exploring Hypermasculinity vs Viking Warrior Women: Pop Culture Vikings and Gender. His blog-post on the subject is here. Trafford argued that academics are under pressure to produce evidence for Viking warrior women given the wider popularity of the Vikings as exhibitors of hypermasculinity linked to violence but also excessive eating, drinking and sexual behaviours (the image above shows Simon discussing some of the popular literature inspired by the violence and virility of Viking men in the popular imagination). The Birka Bj581 story he showed to be a condensed and extended example of a phenomenon already witnessed in the 2014 viral dissemination of a misreading of Shane McLeod’s 2011 Early Medieval Europe article. He regards the popular desire to identify women-warriors as part a ‘perform storm’ of factors which enables the incorporation of a female component to the hypermasculinity of Viking male warriors, supercharged by the internet’s ability to rapidly disseminate stories to a global audience.
Next was me: I gave a last-minute additional in the programme. My talk was titled Women, Death and Power in Vikings and the Viking Age. I suggested that Viking-period archaeology’s theoretical cul-de-sac of equating burial practice with the social roles held by the dead person in life can be regarded as a persistent ‘biographical fallacy’. I suggested two ways forward to consider the power of women in Viking-period death rituals and commemorative practices to circumvent this legacy and its many resurrections. First, I suggested that TV series Vikings should focus our attention, since while there are manifold biases and issues with the show’s portrayal of death ritual, it does offer a nuanced and complex set of roles for women in relation to mortuary and commemorative practice. This should inspire public engagement and academic discussions of this subject in equal measure. For instance, the show includes examples of women treated in life in ways that differ from their status and identity in life. Moreover, Vikings foregrounds the social power of women as performers and practitioners in funerary ritual, and (to a limited extent) as social agents in death. Second, I suggest that this reflection should encourage our more extensive engagement with anthropological and archaeological theories of death and memory which afford us the ability to shift the focus away from simply reading off social roles from grave-goods to considerations of the role of select women’s power as custodians of social memory and as ritual practitioners, and their potential significance as ancestors installed in the landscape through material culture, structures and monuments.
Before lunch, we were given a special preview of a film called Viking Women: The Crying Bones by Ash Thayer, exploring the lives of female warrior re-enactors. I look forward to viewing the whole thing!
After lunch, there were three further presentations. Dr Pragya Vohra presented Women Migrants in the Western Viking World, identifying examples from Landnamabok of women who exercised a variety of powers and authorities in relation to land-taking and land-ownership. She compared these characters with Auðr the Deep-Minded and other far-travelled women who negotiated and fostered complex social networks and wealthy households through diaspora.
Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir presented ‘Geirríðr, Get Your Gun’: Trailblazing Women in Settlement Communities. She gave a wonderfully depressing view (i.e. by identifying hints of the stark realities of mental and physical atrocities inflicted on some women) of gender roles and experiences in the ‘frontier’ society of early Iceland. The purported magical skills of certain women was identified as a route to social power and influence. Dr Friðriksdóttir has a new book coming out about Viking women in 2019.
Finally, joining us via video-link from Newfoundland, Dr Shannon Lewis-Simpson delivered “Orð gerik drós til dýrðar”: I speak words to the lady’s glory”. Attitudes towards the “Female” “Viking” “Leader”. She offered a fascinating and detailed evaluation of the many routes to leadership in the Viking world, illustrated in large part by archaeological and visual evidence. En route, she emphasised our need not to dismiss transgender identities in our evaluation of the burial data, and I was also delighted to see stone sculpture making an appearance in the discussions of warriors and gendered identities.
With a friendly and inquisitive audience of c. 70 delegates this was a good and useful event for me: I learned a lot. I would like to thank the organisers sincerely for all their efforts and my only regret is that I couldn’t be in York for longer to enjoy the other events of the festival.
I believe the organiser – Dr Chris Tuckley of Jorvik – will be working with his digital gurus to make the talks available online via the Jorvik website.
This was my first time at a Jorvik Viking Festival event. I left having experienced a far-ranging and fascinating conference that show-cased a wealth of interdisciplinary research on women and power in the Viking Age, as well as the challenges of engaging with this theme in relation to 21st-century popular culture.