Shield Maidens: A Modern Fantasy?

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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.

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12 Comments

  1. snowfox66 says:

    And yet in many societies (Pagan rather than Monotheistic) Women actually did fight along side their men, hunted and even held council. I doubt if the women wanted to go to war with the men that the men would have objected. After all, they also know how to use the weapons. I would agree that it may not have been 50 %, but those days many pagan women knew how to handle most of the same things their men did in order to survive. Common sense shows that if women were weak, they would not have survived.

    1. Christophe says:

      Thanks for reading!

      To your comment, I did not say that women could not fight, hunt, or use the same tools as men. You are correct, they did do all of those things. In fact it was expected of them to be able to do all of those things, particularly when the men were off at war and the women were left to defend the farmstead (this was most accurately described in the saga of Egill Skallagrimsson). But to suggest that they would have fought as warriors in battle I think goes too far–there is no evidence for it. There are aspects to Norse warfare that are male-centric, such as swearing on the arming, blood oaths, among other forms of fraternization in which women were not included. Every text, every eyewitness account from the Annales D’Angouleme to the Annales Bertonni to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle make absolutely no mention whatsoever of women fighting in the Norse ranks. This cannot be dismissed as a point of view issue because seeing women taking up arms would have been an incredibly shocking thing to the chroniclers, and they would have used it to further dehumanize the Norse.

      Again, there may have been exceptions, but there is no evidence for it to date.

      1. snowfox66 says:

        I don’t know why they would not fight in wars. Women do so now and I am sure they did back then. Not saying you didn’t say that. Just commenting that there were most likely women in the wars as well. There were probably many (especially those who were not tied down by children) who may definitely joined the war parties. If I were younger and trained to use weapons back then, I might have done so. As it is I am past the warrior age and into the protect the homestead age. As I was going to say, it was nothing against your comments and research, just my opinion on the subject from my research of the pagans and their traditions. 😀 Loved your article by the way. Looking forward to more.

  2. Christophe says:

    I appreciate the feedback, thanks!

  3. Interesting post. I have read some articles that suggested something more in the area of 1%. I believe that it would have been more for tall women or those talented with a bow. Celtic women did fight, and women were found amongst the dead after a battle involving the Rus. Plus Viking raids often plundered small villages or abbeys, and a trained woman would have been superior in battle skills to a monk or a peasant. I don’t think they often went to war unless the situation was desperate, and they certainly weren’t hired as mercenaries. But they likely had enough skills to defend their home against the occasional robber.
    Also the sagas about female warriors suggest that they were the exception rather than the norm, but did exist.

    1. Christophe says:

      Great comment! And great reference to the Celts who did allow women to fight along side the men as observed most candidly by the Romans. You are correct to assert that Norse women would have had the ability to defend their home, in fact it was expected. As I have written about in previous posts, wives were given ownership of land in a marriage, not the husband. This brings up the important cultural notion in Norse society that women were expected to stay at home to defend the farm, not leave on expedition or to war. My main point, and the reason I wrote this article in the first place, isn’t to dismiss the involvement of women in the bellicose activities of the Norse, but rather to dispel the modern myth–largely propagated by History Channel’s fictional series Vikings–that women were active, and indeed numerous participants in Norse warfare. The evidence does not lend to this notion. Unless we find a mass grave with a significant number of armed Norse women, the prevailing conclusion must be that they did not fight as warriors. Any attempts to suggest otherwise in the absence of evidence is wishful thinking, or, as with the show Vikings, interesting fiction. This does not mean that Norse women were not interesting or otherwise involved in the politics of the day. My first novel highlights strong Norse women who could, if they so chose, run the show, and take up arms if necessary.

      By the way, how is your next novel coming along?

      1. >>Unless we find a mass grave with a significant number of armed Norse women, the prevailing conclusion must be that they did not fight as warriors. <<

        The problem with that assumption is: Traditionally, remains of a corpse with weapons have always been assumed to be male. It wasn't even questioned, sword — male, brooches — female. DNA analysis of bones has only recently been applied to excavations. There is a nice write up and some interesting comments about that here http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/09/female-viking-warriors-proof-swords, which is admittedly not exactly an archaeological magazine.
        I've been trying to write about a viking woman and I've been struggling with finding sources that even mention women, it's so frustrating.

      2. Christophe says:

        Thanks for the comment!
        You are correct that there is not much information about Viking Age women out there. I can help you a little with your research, however, by recommending a few books:

        Jenny Jochens, Women in Norse Society.

        Stephen A. Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic in the Early Norse Middle Ages.

        The above two are a goo place to start for an in-depth look at Scandinavian women of the Viking Age.

        Good luck on your writing journey!

  4. Somehow I can’t reply to your comment, Christophe so it goes here. Thanks for the book recommendations, I made a note of them. I would like to recommend a book myself if I may that I found very informative: Women in the Viking Age by Judith Jesch. Her and Jenny Jochens are pretty much the only reliable sources about vikings and women I could find.

  5. Women were also useful back home not *just* for procreation, but also because when the men went raiding women often did a lot in terms of holding down the homestead and keeping the community going in the absence of all those men who went off. Hence why women of that age appeared to actually have more property rights, since often enough their men didn’t come home but the world had to keep on turning anyway.

    The thing about strength in battle is that it’s subjective. Different kinds of warriors would have different kinds of strength and different values in battle. Just being smaller doesn’t necessarily factor in to whether someone is a capable warrior. Being smaller also tends to make you quicker and more agile (not always, of course, but especially if you have proper fighting training) and that is certainly useful. I would honestly assume that the need to have people staying at home and tending the property and farms would be as much of a factor just because pragmatism, though I can’t claim to know the motivations of the people of the time.

    1. Christophe says:

      Thanks for stopping by my blog! I appreciate your feedback. I agree with you that needing to stay home to take care of a farmstead would have been a major motivation for keeping women off the battlefield. There are stories in the sagas (I’d have to go back and look for the appropriate citation) that tell of women fighting to defend the farmstead from invaders. Likewise, the founders of Iceland, two women whose husbands had died on the voyage over, were the military leaders of their colony. So it is clear that women did participate in warfare on occasion. The question is how much. However, to propose that half of all warriors were women, or that women in war was commonplace, is not possible to prove with the current body of evidence.

      If you are interested in the topic of women in the Viking Age, you should check out the work of Judith Jesch, if you haven’t already. She has done a marvelous job of reconstructing the lives of women from that time with the most current scholarship available (when she wrote the book, which I suppose is starting to be dated, I think it’s almost 20 years old).

      1. Yeah, I look at the 59% thing as something of an over eager, over compensation of historic neglect of women in history, but c’mon guys. Going overboard is still being wrong, just in the other direction. Is about my take on it. 😄

        I’ve definitely heard the name but I’ve never read any of her stuff. I’ll have to check her out! Most of what I know is from history classes while studying in Sweden, so I haven’t really dived into it too far yet.

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