A news story suddenly started doing the rounds this week excitedly declaring that HALF OF VIKING WARRIORS WERE WOMEN! I tweeted a link to it yesterday without following up on the original. I knew that Viking women did come over and that some of them may have fought, and that not all bodies with swords are men, so I just accepted the whole thing. Shame on me. And as people RTd me, I want to correct that.
To break it down. The article is from 2011 by Shane McLeod and can be found here.
Of the 14 burials of Norse individuals that have been found from this period, McLeod notes that 7 were of men, 6 woman, while the one remaining individual’s sex could not be determined. While previous research on the Norse had concluded the Norse who came to England were overwhelmingly male, McLeod concludes that we “should caution against assuming that the great majority of Norse migrants were male, despite the other forms of evidence suggesting the contrary.”
This is a small data set. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem with McLeod’s work, but it DOES mean we can’t look at 14 burials and then say they’re representative of ALL Vikings. And you CERTAINLY can’t extrapolate from this that all Viking women were warriors or that 50% of the warriors were women.
This is a another brilliantly written, clear explanation of McLeod’s work.
To summarise what his article says: The written sources about the earliest Viking raids (AD 865-878) don’t mention women or children (despite DNA, place-name and jewellery evidence strongly suggesting women came over at some point), but the bodies McLeod studied fit in this date range, giving evidence that women were among the first wave of Vikings to come to England. The isotope analysis for his set also confirms that the bodies were Norse originally, rather than being English people who were buried with Norse grave goods.
Grave goods (things found buried with the body like swords, or brooches, etc) are not a clear indicator of sex. When you analyse the bones themselves a much higher proportion of bodies turn out to be female (McLeod notes that he’s talking only about biological sex, not gender). Looking at the bones suggests that there were more Norse women in England at the time of the Viking invasions (he suggests women were maybe a third, possibly half, of the total). BUT, we don’t know what their role was. They could just as easily be migrant settlers. There’s no evidence that they were warriors and constituted half the Viking fighting force. Nice as that idea sounds.
The presence of more Norse women settling (whether they were warriors or not) does have implications for the way we view the intermarriage between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings though. If they had their own women, perhaps there was less intermarrying and cross-cultural contact than previously thought. And perhaps there were Viking war-widows, so as well as the already-accepted model of Viking men taking Saxon wives, maybe Viking widows (or indeed single Viking women) took Saxon husbands?