Women and Weapons in the Viking World, Leszak Gardela

Women and Weapons in the Viking World, Leszak Gardela

This study was inspired by the discovery of items normally associated with male warriors in female graves of the Viking era, most famously the Birka grave, which made the news when the occupant of the grave was discovered to have been female, despite the grave containing military equipment. The author’s aim is to look at all of the evidence connecting women and weaponry in the Viking world, to try and work out if it proved the existence of female Viking warriors. 

There is a detailed examination of the possible meanings of grave goods, an area in which ideas have moved on from the simple acceptance that items in a grave were what the deceased wanted to be there. The rather obvious point has since been made that it was the survivors who chose what went into a grave, even if the deceased had expressed their opinions before their death, and that their choices were perhaps restricted by existing traditions. The meaning of individual items in a grave is thus not as simple as saying that sword = warrior. One thing that did occur to me while reading the sections on the meaning of items in burials is that it’s possible that modern academics have put far more thought into this than any individual ever did in the Viking era. The emphasis is on everything being placed incredible carefully, with significant meanings for everything, but this ignores the possibility that sometime simple family tradition was at play – this is what we’ve always done, or a memory of events a generation earlier.

As well as the grave goods, there is a good examination of all of textual mentions of armed women, which are found in the chronicles and in the Old Norse sages, including the Icelandic sagas, the legendary sagas and the Eddas. This doesn’t just include clear cases of women choosing to be warriors, but also self defence or more symbolic uses. There is also an interesting chapter on the appearance of women with weapons in Viking artwork, including carvings, tapestry and a collection of intriguing miniature figures of horse riders.

I was particularly impressed by the chapter interpreting the evidence weapon by weapon. Some types of weapons – swords in particular – were really only associated with fighting, but things aren’t as clear cut with axes, which had a multitude of domestic uses or with arrow heads, which were also tied to hunting (the rather gruesome point is also made that some of the arrowheads found in graves may have been what killed the occupant!).

This is a very thoughtful examination of this topic, looking at the full range of available evidence, and drawing convincing conclusions from them. The author has avoided the temptation to make dramatic claims about the presence of women warriors on the Viking battlefield, and instead has come to a series of well supported conclusions about the possible role of women in Viking warfare, and the other possible reasons why individuals might have been associated with weaponry.

1 – Introduction: the methodological and theoretical framework
2 – Historiography
3 – Women and weapons in medieval textual sources
4 – Women and weapons in Viking archaeology: the burial evidence
5 – Interpreting the arsenal of armed women
6 – Women and weapons in Viking iconography
7 – Women with weapons: a cross-cultural phenomenon
8 – Amazons of the North? Women and weapons in the Viking world

Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 200
Publisher: Oxbow Books
Year: 2021

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