Greetings, History Fans! I wanted to take a quick timeout from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland to talk about women! Hell yeah! I fully intend on posting a more in-depth review of his book once I get all the way through it, but the idea of women during the Viking period has always been something that peaked my interest. So we are going to take a quick break from the overall picture to look at the women in Iceland, how the law restricted them, and how they found a way around the law to meet their needs.
A large portion of Byock’s book deals with the question of whether or not sagas should be used as an historical reference. The stories are not completely factual. However, Byock points out that the seemingly mundane details within the stories give us a really great vantage point into what life was like during the early period of Viking Age Iceland. Now, it is also important to remember that the sagas deal with the dramatic. So the portraits of characters, particularly women, are not altogether flattering. Of course the authors aren’t going to write a nice saga about a wife who treated her husband very well and had a normal boring life. That could very well have been the majority of the cases for women. Think about this: when our country gets blown to smithereens and all that’s left to explain our culture are the Alien movies starring Sigourney Weaver, later cultures are going to be scratching their heads for sure!
Icelandic society provided some opportunities for women. They were allowed to own land, and some, including Aud the Deep Minded, became wealthy and powerful landowners. A woman could even inherit a chieftaincy, but she could not become the chieftain. She would have to find a man to fulfill the role of a chieftain. And while women could not hold the role of chieftain or an advocate in the official sense, they could, with their influence of raised status, become unofficial advocates. A woman like Aud the Deep Minded could hand out terrific advice but could not do it officially within the legal system.
While women were allowed to attend the things, even the Althing, they were not allowed to take part in the courts or really speak at all. Up unto this point, women could virtually live alongside men and still take part in a social life, or whatever social life there could be on an isolated farmstead. But the courts were where it was at! It’s like all the blonde bimbos were invited to the local high school sock hop, but not allowed to dance! Iceland was built around the legal system that existed not just to protect a person’s rights, but more accurately and more importantly, it existed so that a person could exercise his rights. It was more of an offensive weapon than a defensive.
So you can see what kind of position this would put a woman in. She could enjoy many of the same rights as men, but had no way in which to enforce them. Since the legal system allowed for only men to flex their muscles, a woman had little choice but to try and get their husbands, fathers, sons, and kinsmen to flex their muscles for her. It is this point that the authors of the sagas drive home, and we see the conniving and manipulative women who lean on the best weapon they had in order to get their way: goading.
Now some of you might be saying, “Now, Zack, all women goad!” And I’d say that’s sexist! Plus, you’re thinking of nagging. And yes, all women nag. But the women of Iceland would goad their kinsmen into action. They were extremely cunning and impossibly patient, often waiting years before taking action. To understand this method of persuasion and of action, two questions must be addressed. First, what action was so important that a woman had to keep bothering her husband or relatives to perform? And second, why was it so difficult for her to persuade them?
Without diving deep into family relations in Medieval Iceland, it is difficult to understand how a family unit functioned. When a man and a woman got married, their alliances were bilateral, which meant that the new couple stayed connected to both sides of the family. This could lead to rough situations in which extended family members that supported different chieftains could end up on opposite sides of a feud. These feuds could erupt from small infractions, like someone grazing on another farmer’s property, or stealing cattle. But one of the main causes of conflict was the murder of a relative.
In Iceland, as in many places around the medieval world, the killing of a relative called for vengeance. In the Viking world, blood vengeance was an obligation. In Iceland, however, it was an option. A man had a right to, within the confines of the law, demand compensation for the killing of his kinsmen, or, if no middle ground could be sought, he could kill a member of the accused’s family. You see how these blood feuds could really get going! But imagine this: what if a woman’s nephew or son is killed, and her husband settles for compensation, or a payment. Or, what if her father or brother was killed, and her husband, who was not that close to that side of the family, accepted terms that did not involve violence. Would the wife feel cheated of justice? Maybe she thinks some silver doesn’t replace her lost loved one. There is not much that she legally can do. This is where goading is an invaluable tool. She can convince the men of her family to take action. There are some great examples within the sagas of a woman who waits until her husband dies to convince her sons to avenge her father’s death. Another woman, whose father was burnt inside his home, serves her family charred sheep heads to remind them of what happened. Another woman waits years before she shakes out a blood-splattered cloak of her husband, in order to shame her sons into action.
At a quick glance, women, then, are painted in a rough hue. It is THEY who demand blood. It is THEY who keep those blood feuds rolling. But, there are examples of level-headed women who calm their hot-headed husbands from taking action. A wife keeps her husband from challenging a younger man in combat, which her husband would surely lose, and shame would come down upon their family. So we need to keep that initial thought in mind: we are getting the dramatic tales, the extreme cases, and that these manipulating women, who are doing what they can to find justice in the midst of inequality, are not the standard.
Why did women have to work so hard at getting the blood vengeance? Surely, in the midst of the carnage and chaos of the Viking age, men would love to swing an axe and take a life for the Almighty Thor! But the answer lies deep within the philosophy of why Iceland was settled in the first place, and in how it thrived as an egalitarian Free State with minimal warfare for as long as it did.
First and foremost, Iceland was not the center of Viking activities. In fact, Iceland seems to be a place to lie low or to retire. Sure, sons of farmers would join in the activities of the Vikings from Scandinavia or the Orkney’s, but it wasn’t really way of life on Iceland itself. Once the constitution was put into action (after some revisions) in 960, it became clear that though violence was an option in Iceland, it was not a preference. Iceland was a patchwork of isolated, independent farmers. There were no cities! No towns! And the chieftains were non-territorial. This means that even IF a chieftain wanted to get in a scuffle, his thingmen, who swore no oaths and could easily switch allegiance to another chieftain, could be scattered across the island. It would take a while to get all of his followers together for a battle, which is why these large acts of violence typically occurred around the assemblies (things). But a farmer could not afford to be gone from his isolated farmstead for an extended period of time. Who would watch it? Who would take care of it? Iceland’s constitution was made without the presence of a king or authority figure who demanded taxes, fealty, or allegiance. These were free men!
This is not to say that killing, or even extended violence, did not occur during the Free State period on Iceland. But, for most men, it was a last resort. Your typical man was considered a hof, a man of moderation. This means that a man would know the law, know when to push and when to hold back. They believed in a balance. If a kinsman was killed, a blood vengeance was available to them. However, to barrel ahead and murder the offenders would be just as bad as the first killing, and balance would not be secured. A man of moderation believed in honor. And if a compromise within the courts could not be met, he would look to violence as a means of justice. For these reasons, men were reluctant to enter into an extended blood feud. Women, who could also be hof, suffered few of the social consequences because of their exclusion from the legal system and could therefore push her husband or her relatives to take an action that they might otherwise try to avoid. Women! Am I right, fellas?!
Well, I accidentally wrote a lot more than I intended. Time flies when you’re restraining the rights of women. But in all seriousness, I’m glad that Jesse Byock spent some time discussing this subject. It’s been a question of mine since I started studying the Vikings. I’m sure that the role of women in Scandinavia and the actual Vikings is much different, and I look forward to learning more about it. Until next time!