On Viking Warrior Women

Kathleen O’Neal Gear and Michael Gear have an excellent post on Tor.com today discussing the evidence for warrior women in the Viking world.* It’s a really great summary of the evidence as we know it and I encourage you to read it.

As a historian, I wanted to note that this is an excellent illustration of an important but tricky historiographical principle: many weak but different arguments can sometimes add up to a strong argument. As Gear and Gear note, every individual piece of evidence for Viking warrior women is problematic:

  • Sagas are works of fiction, or at least fictionalized history. Many of the warrior women who appear in saga literature are clearly mythical.
  • Ethnographic commentary by outsiders, especially by outsiders with an explicit cultural agenda, is highly suspect.
  • Artistic representations of women bearing arms might represent the fictional Valkyries rather than actual warrior women.
  • Bioarchaeological evidence may not be able to distinguish the bones of a woman who routinely wielded a sword from those of a woman who routinely chopped firewood or cut grain.
  • Weapon burials do not necessarily indicate warriors, because weapons were status markers that might be put in the graves of people who had never used them in life.

The important thing is that all of these pieces of evidence are from different sources that were unlikely to have influenced each other. While each one on its own is equivocal, put together they add up to a convincing argument that at least some individual women in the Viking world armed and fought as warriors.

The tricky thing with this kind of argument is to make sure that the individual pieces are actually separate. If, for example, we could show that artwork, burial customs, and outsiders’ perceptions were all influenced by fictional saga stories of warrior women, then the argument would be much weaker. The wide separation of the various pieces of evidence in time and space, however, makes them more convincing. When 10th-century Swedish burials, 11-century German ethnography, and 14th-century Icelandic sagas all point in the same direction, we can be fairly confident that they’re showing us something meaningful.

* Note: There is an ongoing debate as to whether the word “Viking” should be capitalized or not. I have no dog in that fight. I have capitalized it here because it makes sense to me to do so, but I have no interest in arguing the point.

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