I’m delighted to present my interview with Jóhanna Friðriksdóttir, Norse scholar and author of Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World.
In popular culture we hear all about The Norsemen and the Vikings are often epitomised by the stereotype of the testosterone filled, masculine, bearded warrior. Was your book fuelled by the desire to challenge the reliance of popular culture and casual history documentaries on the stories of Viking men?
It’s hard to say if there was any one key event that prompted the book – I was probably thinking about it subconsciously for a while before doing something about it, but my time teaching at Yale in 2017 to ’19 was certainly the catalyst. I don’t actually watch very much TV, and especially not much about Vikings since I get enough of that during the day! So it wasn’t a direct reaction to pop culture, but more like a case of having been bogged down in really specialised research for a while and then looking up from that and approaching the subject anew and through my students’ eyes, and deciding to write a book they might enjoy. Almost everything about the subject was new and fresh to them and their enthusiasm filled me with renewed interest and joy. I’d already started writing it during #metoo and the discussion surrounding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme court, but those events also made me feel more urgent about it, and hopeful that people would be interested in reading about and discussing women’s lives in the past as well as now. But having said that about pop culture, I watched Norsemen a while ago and I think it’s actually very good at poking fun at the more lame stereotypes about Vikings, and I even said so in the book’s epilogue!
Was Scandinavian culture as patriarchal as the rest of Europe during the medieval period? Is it correct that Viking women divorced their husbands and owned property?
Scandinavian culture was certainly patriarchal, and even though we could characterise it as less bad for women than the rest of Europe doesn’t mean that it was a proto-feminist utopia. One of the things I wanted to get across was that we have to be wary of oversimplifying history, and the question of divorce is a good example. There are several different sources from the Viking and medieval periods which suggest that women had the right to divorce their husbands. But realistically, managing to get one was a whole other issue and a woman wouldn’t always have been in a strong position to do so. The sagas give us a good insight into the kind of interests and agendas that were at stake and made things harder for them – women in unhappy marriages normally have to have an alternative lined up if they are to get out of it but that’s not always possible. So, if the woman’s family or her lover considers a divorce against their interests for some reason, the woman usually has little alternative but to stay in the marriage, even though she has some notional right to a divorce. I took the example of one character in Eyrbyggja saga who is married to her brother’s loyal supporter – the brother benefits from the status quo and the woman’s lover never comes up with an exit strategy for her, so she’s stuck with a husband she despises until he dies! The right to inherit property or a widow’s right to refuse another marriage are other issues where we similarly need to pay attention to the circumstances – there are certainly examples where the law seems to have been followed, but often, women were in a weak position and had no leverage against a more powerful man, so their rights were disregarded.
Can you tell us a little about the Viking Shieldmaidens – are the popular perceptions fact or fiction?
The shieldmaiden is strictly speaking a literary figure that turns up in the type of sagas usually called legendary sagas. They are set in a different literary universe than the kings’ sagas or sagas of Icelanders, which do not portray any female warriors alongside the male ones. Shieldmaidens appear alongside other fantasy elements such as dragons and dwarves and so the legendary sagas are not very good for studying Viking warfare, though they are useful for many other types of analysis. The texts written by people who witnessed Viking raids or were close to the events in some way, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Bella Parisiacae urbis by a Parisian monk called Abbo, mention Viking women being there with the men, but not in warrior roles. The question of ‘fact or fiction’ is really tricky and this debate goes into archaeology too, such as how to interpret the graves of biological women buried with weapons, and then whether everyone who was buried with weapons must have been a warrior or if there are other explanations. I’m not sure where or when that discussion is going to end but my position is that we don’t have any concrete, indisputable evidence, either textual or archaeological, for women warriors. We have to take cultural factors into consideration, i.e. the gendered upbringing of children, women’s unequal legal, political and social status, and so on, and judging from these factors, it’s unlikely that many young women received training in combat. Biological factors are also important, because the lack of contraception meant that women were unable to control their fertility in the way we can now, and thus it would have been difficult for many women to participate in the warrior life without getting pregnant, at least if we look at the issue on a structural scale. But on the other hand, women have often found ways of participating in war, sometimes by cross-dressing or other surreptitious means, so I don’t want to exclude the possibility of some women warriors, but then the question also arises of whether everyone identified with the gender they were assigned at birth. As I say, this is a complicated issue, but I also think it receives a disproportionate amount of attention given that most women’s lives in the Viking Age were certainly not spent on the battlefield – in my work, I tend to focus on the wealth of information we actually do have about the women of the Viking world.
Due to the male viewpoint of a large proportion of medieval sources, would you say it’s especially challenging to research women and gender in comparison to other aspects of the history and culture of the time period, or are there more sources available than we might think?
It’s true that the sources can be very ‘male’ at times – for example, when you read some of the written sources, you can go for pages and pages with barely a woman mentioned except maybe in passing. There are endless battles, and nuanced accounts of political wranglings between factions, but women are often a complete non-entity in the narrative. And that certainly should be kept in mind when we discuss Norse society, so we don’t go too far in characterising it as forward-thinking and equal when it comes to gender. But if you look at the question from the perspective of how rich the characters are that the authors of sagas and poetry created, you certainly get the sense that many of them saw women as fully rounded, complex human beings, with hopes and ambitions of their own, capable of both love and merciless cruelty and all kinds of bigger and smaller achievements. The same can be said about runestones – there were a huge amount of men who raised stones in memory of their fathers or brothers, so the inscriptions on them can read like endless lists of men talking about other men. But then you have an inscription like the one on the Hillersjö stone, which is the second longest runic inscription preserved; it is commissioned by a woman and discusses the fate of several women who are all named. So I’d like to say that quality matters as much as quantity here, and there are some really rich sources available which give us a good insight into women’s lives and thinking!
Do you have a standout Viking woman you particularly admire or find especially interesting to study? Can we read about her in your book?
Where do I begin! I run through different favourites depending on how I’m feeling and what’s going on in the world, but I could mention the legendary figure Brynhild, who is a valkyrie according to some sources, and she falls in love with the hero Sigurd the dragon-slayer. Brynhild’s insistence on her own honour and self-worth in the face of all kinds of challenges is a characteristic which resonates through the Norse narrative world, and one can arguably find aspects of her in various other women, both fictional and real. I most definitely write about her in the book, but lots of other women too, who are equally steely!
The cover art of your book is really striking and powerful. Were you involved in its design?
I’m glad you think so! The photo was taken by Ash Thayer, who is making a documentary about women reenactors on the Viking fighting scene – I’d been doing a bit of work for the film’s historical section and saw some of her photos, and my publisher also liked them so we chose one for the cover and their designer Terry Woodley did the design. The runes were not my idea but I suggested that they read ‘smash the patriarchy’.
Finally, can you recommend us a history book you enjoyed?
I read a lot of books, or parts of books, for work that I enjoy, and anyone looking for a pleasurable introduction to the history or myths of the Vikings could do worse than Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth, or The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes by Carolyne Larrington. Off the top of my head, a non-work history book I enjoyed in the last couple of years was a 1000-page doorstopper of a book about the Brontë family by Juliet Barker – it was so exciting and well written that I couldn’t put it down. But I mostly read fiction in my free time, and the last novel I read was Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, the Nobel Prize winner. It was so funny and warm, a real treat!
Dr Jóhanna Friðriksdóttir is a medievalist, literary scholar, author and historical consultant. Her research interests focus on Vikings, Old Norse-Icelandic sagas, Norse mythology, and poetry, medieval manuscripts, medieval Iceland, women and gender, and identity issues more broadly.
You can buy her book, ‘Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World’ which was published through Bloomsbury just a few months ago.
Check out her website here!