Research suggests Viking women accompanied warriors on overseas missions
A study has revealed that previous research examining the gender ratio of Vikings in Medieval England may have underestimated the number of Viking women because they assumed that graves showing individuals buried with a sword and shield were men. According to USA Today, the newer study, which determined sex by analyzing the skeletal remains, showed that nearly half the examined remains were female, including one of the ‘warrior’ skeletons buried with a sword and shield. The findings suggest that women may have accompanied male Vikings in early invasions of England, in much greater numbers than scholars earlier supposed.
Viking raiders first struck England in 793 AD, plundering unprotected monastic communities and pillaging small villages. Sporadic violence continued over the next fifty years, eventually expanding into full-scale invasions by the middle of the 9 th century. It was during this period that the first established Viking settlements in England developed. A second wave of invasions took place between 980 and 1012 AD. By this time, there were large-scale settlements of Scandinavians in various parts of Britain, and they had achieved political domination over a significant territory.
The Vikings were known as great seafarers. They were able to reach lands such as Britain through their mastery of the seas. Image source.
Written accounts of the Norse invasion into Britain refer to the presence of women and children in some of the invading groups, typically from the 890s onwards, but primarily they focus on the high number of male warriors. In addition, archaeological evidence for Norse women in England during the period of the invasions has been scarce, leading researchers to conclude that the invasions were male dominated.
However, the results of a study published in the journal of Early Medieval Europe, which was first carried out in 2011, challenges this perspective.
"There is some archaeological evidence for early Norse female settlement, most obviously oval brooches, but this evidence is minimal. The more difficult to date evidence of place names, personal names, and DNA samples derived from the modern population suggests that Norse women did migrate to England at some stage, but probably in far fewer numbers than Norse men," wrote Shane McLeod of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Western Australia.
However, McLeod added that an increase in the number of Norse-style jewellery discovered in the last two decades led some researchers to believe that there may have been more female settlers than initially realised. McLeod and colleagues therefore sought to investigate this issue by examining 14 Viking burials from that era. Instead of the previous biased and unscientific method of categorizing gender based on the presence of a sword or shield, the research team classified sex based on anatomical differences.
The results showed that six out of 14 burials were of women, and one could not be determined. One of these graves, which had previously been classified as male because of the presence of a sword and shield, turned out to be female.
A number of important implications result from this study – the presence of weapons and armour in female graves could suggest that some women also fought alongside the men (although this cannot be determined from one grave alone); the relatively equal numbers of male and female remains out of the sample studied indicates that there may have been more female migrants than initially believed; and finally, the presence of women may indicate that the Vikings did not only arrive in Britain to pillage and plunder, rather the intention may have always been to colonize and settle in far-away lands.
[Note: The Old Norse word ‘vikingar’, upon which the term ‘viking’ is derived, is exclusively applied to men. So strictly speaking, there are no ‘Viking women’ only ‘Norse women’. However, the meaning of the term ‘Viking’ has evolved somewhat since then.]
Featured image: Artist’s impression of 13 th century Viking woman, Freydís Eiríksdóttir. Image source.