Nowadays, Nordic countries are almost a byword for progressive policies, gender equity, and women's rights. 

Yet did the Vikings really sow the seeds of feminism that their later ancestors have reaped so advantageously?

Hold your horses

First things first. Before we all bask in the feminist glow of Viking society, let us hammer this point home.

By today's standards, Viking societies were a horrible place for women. The modern women of Scandinavia and the Nordic countries would be appalled and aghast by the inherent, inbuilt, and ingrained sexism, misogyny, patronization, and violence (sexual, physical, or psychological) regularly committed against their Viking ancestors. 

Though a few Viking-era women bucked the trend and led such extraordinary lives that their names (e.g., Freydís Eiríksdóttir, the Norse explorer) have been passed down to us, the sad fact remains that the role of women in Viking society was limited. Women, generally, have been silenced and written out of Viking-era history.

They were, at best, second-class citizens in a society where they constituted roughly half the population. Women were economically, politically, culturally, and socially inferior to men. However, the Viking societies were, after all, of their time, and throughout early medieval Europe, the patriarchy ruled supreme.

In Viking societies, each gender had a distinct set of roles and expectations that could not be crossed. Men were expected to raid and trade, whilst a woman's sphere of influence was the domestic scene. 

Although there is much speculation about the possibility of female warriors, women generally did not participate in Viking raids or trading parties. These gender roles and expectations were not just airy societal norms and expectations but codified laws and judgments, as we shall see.

The legal framework for gender roles in the Viking Age

These rigid roles and expectations would be famously codified, in the 1260s CE, as the Gragas (Grey Goose Laws). 

Though they were compiled two centuries after the traditional end of the "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE), it was believed their compilation was from laws, legal practices, and codes practiced by Viking societies. 

One such law strictly prohibits any woman from, among other things, cutting their hair short, carrying a weapon, or wearing a man's clothes. 

Furthermore, these laws also stipulated that a woman was, legally speaking, under the direct authority of her father, husband, or male relative.

Whilst modern Nordic countries have all experienced national female leadership, as either heads of state or heads of governments, since the 1980s, wind the clock back a millennium, and women, in Viking societies, were prohibited from participating in most legal and/or political activities.  

Like most pre-modern societies, females could not even glimpse the reins of power, let alone hold them. A woman was not allowed to be a chieftain, a judge, or even a witness. 

She could not appear in court or even inherit any of a man's (even if this man was her husband!) inheritance. Time and time again, women were ignored, dismissed, silenced, and legislated against in every aspect of society.

A small number of women in the Viking Age were artisans and entrepreneurs. Photo: Anna Kepa / Shutterstock

What could women do, then?

Let us leave the depressing facts about what women were not allowed to do for a moment to focus on what they could do. The answer may very well surprise you. 

Whilst it is true that women in Viking societies were a victim of an early medieval misogynistic, there was a limited amount of agency for some women.

In a sort of early medieval forerunner of "The Handmaid's Tale," most societal expectations of women revolved around childbirth, family care, and other "domestic matters." Yet there did exist a small number of women artisans and entrepreneurs. 

Archaeological records have uncovered a wealth of high-quality (and high-priced) textiles that only women could produce. These were often prized possessions and could net a tidy sum. This production gave a limited amount of both financial and social capital (prestige) to the women who produced these.

Speaking of money, women were obliged to manage the household finances. Financial management fell under a "domestic sphere of influence," so women were expected to balance the books.

Furthermore, when their husbands were away raiding, trading, or whatever Viking men did, they were also expected to manage not only the household but large estates or farms. 

Women were not only expected to run a kitchen, prepare food, take care of children, sew, mend, or repair clothes but also know enough about animal husbandry, crop yields, or the best forms of fertilizer in this situation.

Finally, though there has been a recent archaeological sensation – the unearthing of weapons next to female skeletal remains at Birka – there is little hard evidence of women battling, raiding, or doing what Vikings did best. 

Though the sagas are ripe with brave female warriors and figures (think of the Valkyries), there has been little archaeological record to back this up... yet. There is no doubt that some women may have fought in battles or been part of raiding parties, but they, at present, appear to be the exception rather than the norm.

Some scholars argue that women in Viking societies were better off than many of their contemporaries in other cultures. Photo: LGieger / Shutterstock

Sexual slavery

A final thought on the role of women in Viking societies: many were subjected to slavery. For much of the Viking period, women were routinely raped, violated, assaulted, and battered without even so much as an afterthought.

A key part of the Viking economy and trade networks was human bondage. The Vikings were, perhaps, the preeminent slave dealers of their time, dealing in human souls on a larger scale than any other contemporary European society. 

They had slave routes from the Black Sea to the British Isles and everywhere in between.

Slavery was not only a part of everyday life in Viking society but helped underpin it. A countless number of women were taken from their homelands, their cultures, and their families to serve, literally or sexually, their Viking captives. 

Recent studies of the genetic composition of countries in the British Isles and beyond show a steady flow of foreign females into these areas during the era of the Vikings.

Final thoughts

There has been much current academic research and writing into the role of women in Viking societies. 

Some scholars have even argued that women were better off than many of their contemporaries in other cultures, civilizations, and societies and that a Viking woman was a sort of proto-feminist. This is only partly true. 

Whilst some women in Viking societies did enjoy more agency, independence, and freedom than other women, this was not the case for all. Women in Viking societies were subjected to the early medieval gender norms, rules, and expectations.

Most tragically of all, women in Viking societies were also victims of domestic abuse, sexual and psychological violence, and domestic or sexual enslavement.  

While some gained a little social or financial capital from entrepreneurial skills, they could not shape their society as they had no political or legal voice.

For more on the power that some women in Viking societies managed to gain, read an article from the Scientific Magazine here

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