Recently I’ve read a variety of articles from various sites stating that shield maidens were much more common than previously thought. Their arguments are based on not-so-recent findings using genetic testing correlated with archeological and textual evidence. Some articles go so far as to claim that shield maidens comprised up to 50% of those who left Scandinavia in search of raiding lands. What I see arising is a new mythology surrounding the shield maiden, one based in wishful thinking, but not based on an apt interpretation of new research.
First, the evidence: several recent articles shared around social media have sited THIS ARTICLE as the basis for their claims. In it, researchers found that up to 50% of Scandinavian migrants (not warriors) were women. From this article, however, many are seeing a fantastical revelation—they are seeing shield maidens. Unfortunately, the fact that genetic tests have revealed half of Norse migrants were female does not automatically or intrinsically indicate that these women were warriors by trade. All it really means is that when the Norse set out to colonize new lands, they recognized the need to bring a viable breeding population for the settlement to survive.
Contrary to the popularized notion that the Vikings raped their way through Europe, they likely would have been culturally disinclined to interbreed with indigenous populations of the new lands they settled. Certainly there was interbreeding going on—particularly in England where predominantly (if not entirely) male armies fulfilled their carnal desires on helpless women they captured. But in areas such as Dublin, Wessex, Cork, Limerick, Normandy, Iceland, even Scotland, Norse settlers, in my opinion, would have preferred their own women to any others for the purpose of colonization. Indigenous populations likewise would have not been inclined to intermix with settlers. On a similar note, Men were not the only victims of the changing climate, political strife, and upheavals that launched the Viking Age. Therefore, those who sought to leave and build new homes in new lands did so as a community of settlers rather than a raggedy band of marauders who simply refused to leave.
So, how common were shield maidens? The simple answer is we do not know. No one knows, and no one is entirely certain if shield maidens were an actual phenomena of the time, or instead the invention of the 12th and 13th century writings about them (specifically in the sagas by Snorri), and later the fantastical creation of the 19th Century’s romantic movement. There were no doubt brave Norse women, as there have been brave women in every culture in history. But I do not think, based on all the research that I have done, that the Vikings would have sent many women into battle considering their value to the community (i.e. procreation). Another factor that is often overlooked in today’s society is sexual dimorphism. This poses a tremendous problem to the idea that Norse women readily participated in raiding and major battles. By the end of puberty, a male human will (on average) possess twice the strength of a female human. This fact would have made warfare—especially hand to hand combat—a most precarious and dangerous venture for women of the day. In today’s world, with our advances in technology and weaponry, women can for the first time in history participate in major conflicts as soldiers. But prior to these advances, and prior to the very recent movement for women’s equality, the world was undeniably patriarchal, even in Pagan Scandinavia.
Therefore, to think that Norse women were actively engaged in warfare is, for now, a fantasy. Sure, there were likely exceptions to the rule, and I’ve written about them before, but to believe that half of all Viking warriors were women is not good history. It’s fiction.