17 December 2019

Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? II

Reproduction dice and a gaming piece
made by Adam Parsons
(c) University of Nottingham
In my previous blog post, I looked at two recent television programmes on this perennially popular topic. I found a few things to like but on the whole concluded that the programmes were still very much driven by a strong desire to prove at all costs that there really were Viking women warriors (without really defining what those might have been). I also came to realise that what is essentially an academic debate was being carried out in the televisual sphere rather than in more academic fora, to the detriment, I think, of the discussion. Basically, when a TV programme has a particular message to sell (as both of those did), there is no real discussion, apart from a few knee-jerk references to 'debate' and 'controversy', which are not explored. I'm not even sure I think there's that much of a controversy, so one-sided have most of the discussions been - these are straw men to stir up interest in the programmes. What there certainly hasn't been is any nuanced discussion of the fragmentary, ambiguous and complex evidence, let alone the challenges of defining our terms, and reaching conclusions through interdisciplinary explorations.

I've never denied the possibility of female Viking warriors and, in case anyone still believes I am a warrior-woman denier, they should refer to what I wrote in 2015, even before the current discussions blew up in 2017 (The Viking Diaspora, pp. 104, 107):
...people in the Viking Age and its aftermath were perfectly capable of imagining women as warriors, or at least as imagining them carrying and using weapons, whether this occurred in real life or not. Doubtless it did occur in real life, since human beings are capable of most things, whether or not it is considered 'normal' for them to do so, but the strong emphasis on gender distinctions in Viking Age society already outlined suggests that it did not happen very often.
... that the very few women buried with weapons were warrior women in life seems the least likely explanation of all. 
I may have moved slightly on the last point, but not that much. But really, being the nerd that I am, what I am most interested in is not the answers but the questions. I'm fascinated by the past because we know so little about it, we have to piece things together using, as I have just said, fragmentary, ambiguous and complex evidence. I also relish the challenges of defining terms, and of interdisciplinary explorations. And there is no doubt that such things are hard to put across in a television show. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And I was heartened to come across yet another Swedish TV programme on Viking women warriors that shows signs of a more nuanced approach than the ones I discussed in my previous post. Even though it takes its starting point in the Bj 581 burial, and features some of the same experts as other shows, and despite its oddly provocative title, it does seem to be moving slowly towards that kind of more nuanced (and much more interesting) discussion that I have been looking for all along.

The programme was first aired in October and comes from the series Vetenskapens värld 'The World of ???' Unfortunately, we don't have an English word for vetenskap (as for German Wissenschaft). Although a literal translation would pick up on the root (from veta 'to know') and translate it as 'knowledge', it is a bit more than that, implying science, scholarship and all those kinds of things that go on in universities (sometimes), and sometimes elsewhere too. The actual programme is called 'Sanning i sagorna?' or something like 'Truth in the sagas?' but again it doesn't translate well since the 'sagor'  of the programme go beyond what we tend to think of as the (Icelandic) sagas. In this case, the anonymous Old English Beowulf, the Latin-writing Dane Saxo Grammaticus and the Byzantine historian Skylitzes all get a mention, and I would call none of their works sagas. So that is stretching it a bit, but despite the title, the programme takes an intelligent approach, at least to the female warrior question.

My advice is to skip the first 40 minutes of the programme (some self-indulgent stuff about Beowulf not relevant to my topic today) and just watch the last 18 minutes which takes up the question of Viking women warriors again, in supposed contrast to the 'masculine world' of Beowulf. After a brief repetition of the scientific identification of our old friend Bj 581 as a woman, the camera shows Tommy Kuusela, identified as a historian of religion at Uppsala, w ith quite a pile of books. The voiceover states by way of introduction that there are a lot of 'more or less' trustworthy textual accounts of female viking warriors. Kuusela reads out the usual bits of Saxo, and then the relevant bit of Skylitzes, which the voiceover narrator claims is more more reliable than Saxo because written down in the 11th century (not quite correct, but I'll leave all that pesky detail for another occasion). But when challenged about the textual basis for Viking warrior women, Kuusela admits that there is no 'certain' evidence. This is then immediately contrasted with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson claiming that the evidence of Bj 581 is 'certain' evidence for female warriors. But interestingly she straightaway modifies this by emphasising that this evidence does not mean that this was a common phenomenon. Also, unlike some other presentations, the programme recognises that the evidence could potentially be undermined by some of the find circumstances in which the bones might have been mixed up. Even though the osteologist Anna Kjellström reassures us that the remaining bits of the skeleton do in fact belong together and are from the right grave, it is still interesting to see these various admissions of potential uncertainty.

There then follows a bit in which our heroine the presenter sets out to demonstrate what might be required physically of a female Viking warrior by meeting a combat trainer. Compared to a similar episode in the National Geographic programme, this seems much more realistic and the presenter concludes that it was not that simple to become a female viking warrior after all. The emphasis is very much on the physical training that would have been required to wear all that armour and swing those weapons, not to mention wielding the shield. This leads into the point that the Bj 581 skeleton shows no traces of such physical training, or indeed of wounds that might have come from fighting. Kjellström does point out the fragmentary nature of the evidence, that not much of the skeleton survives, so we cannot say for sure, but again it's good that these counter-arguments are aired. Back to Hedenstierna-Jonson and we get once again the argument that the playing pieces suggest someone whose role in war is a strategic one, as a senior officer, for example. The suggestion is made that the nature of the grave-goods suggest a member of the elite and that it was such elites that could 'break the gender mould'. Hedenstierna-Jonson brings up the parallels of patriarchal societies where women could nevertheless rule because they belonged to a particular dynasty (presumably she is thinking of the likes of Benazir Bhutto).

It is then proposed that the spear in the Bj 581 burial was a kind of ticket to Valhalla for the deceased, but, importantly, it is stressed that this does not mean that she actually participated in battle in life. Kuusela's concluding suggestion is that she was the wife of a military leader who accompanied him on his expeditions (here I'm reminded of Admiral and Mrs Croft in Jane Austen's Persuasion) and who was buried in this way to follow him in the next world too. I'm not sure I really buy that argument, partly for lack of evidence of women in Valhalla (apart from valkyries, but they're another story...), but it's a thought.

Just when you think the programme is over and the credits roll, there's a curious postscript. Our friend Leszek Gardeła pops up again and gives a better brief summary of the Åsnes burial than in the National Geographic programme (where it was supposedly a centrepiece), and, unlike there, with at least a hint of why the skeleton has been identified as female (it is slight and gracile). On being questioned about the Birka burial, Gardeła admits that the lack of trauma on the skeleton complicates the warrior interpretation, and that gaming boards might have had other meanings than indicating military commanders or strategists.

All in all, I would say there is some considerable backtracking going on in this short programme from the original bombastic claims of 'A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics' back in 2017. There is some recognition of potential problems with both the physical and the textual evidence, there is an emphasis on what being a 'warrior' (however that is defined) involves by way of training, and there are alternative suggestions put forward as to why a woman might have been buried with what is traditionally regarded as male equipment. And all in 18 minutes. Well done Vetenskapens Värld.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting preview of Leszek Gardeła's research on women and weapons in the Viking world can be read here: https://www.medievalists.net/2019/12/warriors-warlocks-widows-women-and-weapons-in-the-viking-world/ In general, it's fair to say he is quite cautious about the conclusions he draws, and he stresses variety and ambiguity of the evidence.