26 December 2014

Viking Women

In my self-appointed role as Viqueen, I not unnaturally take a great interest in the doings of all my Viking sisters in this most apparently masculine or even masculinist of historical periods. But when I indulge this interest, I do sometimes feel like a still, small voice amidst all the popular (and even academic) fascination with the war and the violence, the boyish obsession with transport (horses and ships), and all the shiny, shouty stuff like bling and skaldic poetry. At a conference just over a year ago in connection with the Copenhagen leg of the great Viking exhibition (currently in its final days in Berlin), I was amused to hear from one of the curators that one topic that was firmly excluded from their exhibition concept was that of 'daily life on the farm'. (Another was Viking art, but that's perhaps another blog topic, one day). Which is a pity, because I find 'daily life on the farm' just as fascinating as all the violent and blingy stuff, and perhaps just as foreign to the modern world, if not more so. After all, we still live in a violent and blingy world but how many in the western world at least still have to produce their own food, build their own houses and make their own clothing from sheep or linseed through to garment?

If there are any budding scholars out there, there is certainly still plenty of scope to research the role of women in the Viking Age, along with children, men, animals and all the accoutrements of daily life. And there are signs of renewed interest in the roles of women, as evidenced in a book just out, Kvinner i vikingtid (Women in the Viking Age), edited by Nancy Coleman and Nanna Løkka. The book has seventeen articles, in Danish, English, Norwegian (both nynorsk and bokmål) and Swedish, on a wide range of aspects of women's experiences in the Viking Age and after. I particularly liked Pernille Pantmann's chapter on women and keys, deconstructing the hoary old chestnut that keys in female graves represent the mistress of the house (an old idea that I have been guilty of myself in the past...). I'm less convinced by Pernille's alternative explanation, but she is properly cautious about putting it forward, and her piece certainly opens up the whole question for renewed discussion. We need more work like this.

Another recent publication, In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England, edited by Steve Harding, David Griffiths and Elizabeth Royles, also has a couple of papers relevant to the understanding of female roles and experiences. In particular, Christina Lee's chapter shows the range of information that can be gleaned from textiles and textile working implements. The production of clothing, and other textiles (such as sails for Viking ships) was probably the one job that took up most of most women's time in the Viking Age, and studying this evidence again opens up all kinds of interesting questions about craft production, agriculture, family life, and artistic expression, not to mention the symbolic roles of weaving and spinning in Old Norse mythology.

Which reminds me that, nowadays, the most obvious profile of Viking Age women in both the popular media and much academic research is that of the possibly more glamorous but certainly minority (and in some cases fictional) roles of sorceresses, valkyries and warrior women. Or queens. All of these have their interest, of course, and I have expressed my views about both valkyries and warrior women before. I blame Game of Thrones, myself. I have to confess I haven't read the books, but I have watched a few of the TV episodes and, from my limited watching, it is clear to me that the female characters are mostly a pretty clever, capable and attractive bunch, usually more so than the male characters. This is how we like to see women from the dark and distant past in the twenty-first century, and it is certainly an improvement on the embarrassingly almost female-free twentieth-century equivalent, the fantasy works of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.

But fantasy is just that, it's fantasy. When it comes to studying the past, I always struggle, both for my own part and in my teaching, to understand and to explain the paradox that, while human beings are human beings and always have been and always will be, the past really is another country. That's what's so fascinating about studying it - in what ways were people then just like people now, and in what ways were they different? Pinning that down in detail is the fun part.

On the whole, I think it's a shame that those interested in the Viking Age find it less interesting nowadays to explore the lives of real women, both those who stayed at home to cook, clean and bring up the children, and those who went out on great adventures, as settlers in the Hebrides or Iceland, or traders in Russia, with or without their menfolk or children. Maybe these new books will bring some redress. And at least some of these questions will be addressed in The Viking Diaspora, to be published next summer. But there is still plenty to do!