Monday, May 27, 2019

Women's Rights in the Viking Age

Over the last few weeks, women’s rights have been under attack from many different sides, and it goes beyond the abortion issue. It is the way that women are being treated when they are upset at their treatment. Now, I’m going to avoid being overly political in the blog, but I will say this much: I am an ally to equal rights for everyone. I have fought for it loudly and occasionally physically. I offer my assistance to anyone who needs aid in these issues. 

Very often, we see two conflicting ideas on the women’s rights movement: first, that women only started fighting for their rights recently. And second, that they have more rights now than ever before.

The first one is patently untrue; the idea of a woman fighting for her rights the world over has been happening since the first time someone else decided to take them from her. The second one is a little trickier; we are taught in school that prior to the coming of civilization and the age of enlightenment, women were second class citizens. That only through the hard work and the eventual permittance from the men in power, women have gained rights in Europe and the US. The truth is that the rights of women were taken away during the 11c and 12c, and it took 600 years for women to start to get them back. In this blog post, I’ll go over women’s rights as they relate to 10c Norse women. For obvious reasons, we will be
Lagertha from Vikings
Vikings may get some things wrong, but Lagertha
was a badass in the show and in history.
speaking about free women and not thralls, although I may do an entire blog post on the life of a thrall in the future.

For the purposes of this blog we are going to focus on three main areas of women’s rights: Body Autonomy, Property Rights, and Life Choices. Body autonomy will include how the Old Norse handled rape, and women’s rights to choose what happened with their own bodies. Property rights will be about what women were allowed to own, and what status they could claim independent of a man. When we get to Life Choices, we’ll discuss how much control women had over their own destiny in life through marital and career choices.

Body Autonomy

     In Europe during my time period, rape was considered a property crime because a woman was considered the property of her husband or father, which meant that the penalty for rape was repayment for the damage. In some cases, the victim would be forced to marry her assailant, a horrific situation for the woman as she must now serve the person who violated her. However in Iceland, rape and even attempted rape were considered among the most severe crimes, and were punished by being declared an outlaw, which is similar to exile and removed all the rights and protections of the violator. Being an outlaw removed a person’s right to hospitality and even their protections by law, a very dangerous position to be in. Even unwanted advances carried stiff penalties. In Kormak’s Saga, he is fined two ounces of gold and is nearly attacked for kissing a woman four times without her consent. 

     This is a modern hot-button issue. In ancient times in Europe, the fetus wasn’t considered a person until it was born, so abortion was treated as an issue only if the mother had the abortion without the father being told. In more rural cultures such as the ancient Norse, children weren’t typically considered people until they were claimed and named. The practice of infanticide for weak or deformed children was still practiced. This practice, while utterly barbaric, was important at a time when there was no way to care for the child, or for the child to help out. In the harsh times of the 10c, a child would be helping around the farmstead as soon as it was old enough to, and anyone that couldn’t was in a rough spot. We also know that the methods of abortion were well known and practiced throughout these times. It seems from my research that the life of the mother was the primary concern, and secondary was whether the household was capable of sustaining another child. 

     Norse women in the Viking age are portrayed as all different kinds of stereotypes, from the sexy seductresses to the badass female warrior to the domestic soft spoken housewife. None of these take into account who women actually were and how they handled their love lives. Information on this is a bit vague, as the Sagas tended to leave the home lives out a little bit. We do know that women were “allowed” to want sex and were not considered sinful or bad if they did. In Gisla’s Saga, we see Asgerdr being refused entry into her husband’s bed until she threatens him with divorce. He was upset with her for having an affair, which shows even more open sexuality, but that’s just more proof on the pile that women had sex and were allowed to enjoy it. The interesting side of this is that in some of my research, I’ve
Sigrid Storrada
A good example of a woman in control.
She denied many suitors including
Olaf Oathbreaker
come across the thought that women couldn’t become pregnant unless they orgasmed. This means that non-reproductive sex might have been unsatisfying, but it also means that when they wanted children (which was more common) the women were well taken care of.

Property Rights

Property rights for women in the Viking age were a little tricky; we know they were allowed to own business and inherit, but they were limited in their ability to claim titles and certain positions within a community. Women also weren’t allowed to vote or attend the Allthing.

So, what were women allowed to own? The quick answer to that is that women controlled nearly all major decisions in regards to the finances of the home. They were also able to inherit a husband’s wealth and title. This, compiled with the fact that there were fewer women than men, gave women a fair amount of behind-the-scenes power, something you see often in the Sagas: women using their positions as the keyholders of the house, or out and out threatening divorce to get their men to do what they felt was necessary. While this isn't direct power, it’s better than in many cultures where women are expected to be seen and not heard.

There’s also evidence of women in the Viking Age owning and running their own businesses. This would give the woman a fair bit of financial independence. These businesses were typically in what were considered womanly crafts: fiber arts, pottery, weaving, and the like. More “manly” trades such as blacksmithing lack any evidence of a woman owning a business, but I would argue that with the laws of an inheritance, we could see a widow taking over a husband's business and being a farris. 

Life Choices

     It seems that in the Viking age, most people lacked any real choice in career: you were
A grave that has had much contention, but
is now accepted to be a female warrior of
born into something, and with few exceptions this remained the case. One could go and test their luck in raids and battle to earn fortune and glory, but the opportunities were limited. This applied to both genders. Freemen and women had the opportunity to become apprentices and learn a trade, provided their parents supported them and could convince a craftsperson to take the child on.

     We see over and over again how much free reign women were given in matters of marriage. The ease of divorce and the fact that women were in the minority usually meant that a prospective bride had several choices when it came to choosing a suitor. We also know that unwanted advances were punished. All of this leads me to believe that, while the final say of a union was probably the choice of the father so that he could pick what was best for the family, only a foolish man would lock his daughter into an unhappy marriage. 


Overall l, we see that in many ways women in Viking Age Nordic lands had more rights than women on the mainland of Europe. In fact, more rights than women would have for many years to come. It wasn't perfect, since they had no direct political power, but they were not passive observers in the world around them. This is probably why we have so many strong female characters in the sagas; even the historians knew that they were not to be trifled with. Now, let me be clear: this was not unique to the Norse. The Celts also had their fair share of badass women, as did the Egyptians and the Greeks. My honest opinion is that
Freya by Irenhorror on Deviantart
Freya is the perfect example of a
strong female goddes. Goddess
of Sex, Love, Magic, and War.
cultures that have many deities, and have strong female deities among the pantheon, tend to have better rights for women. They view women as just a part of the society, as opposed to being property or worse. 

I am grateful for all the progress we have made as a society to once again acknowledge the strength and virtues that women add to our lives. Hopefully our current attitudes will catch up and surpass the ideas of our ancestors, who knew that any strong arm could hold a shield regardless of gender.

As always, opinions and discussion are welcome. Do you have additional sources that add or subtract from this? And as always, follow to get notified every time I post!

Icelander in the Viking Age: People of the Sagas - William R Short
Viking Answer Lady
Poetic Eddas

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