Viking-Age society had a powerful upper class, an aristocracy of magnates and chieftains, some of whom called themselves kings, though they ruled mainly over people, not territories, via alliances based more on personal loyalty than on ethnicity. But while the society was hierarchical, social positions were not always as fixed as we might imagine. It was possible for individuals to both improve, and lose, their social status.
A large proportion of the population – perhaps between 20 and 40 percent – was unfree, or thralls. Locally born slaves had more freedom that those who had been captured and forced into captivity. While some unfree people were simply labour slaves, others were given significant rights. A ‘housecarl’ on a farm or estate could, if he was lucky, advance to the level of ‘bryte’, a type of farm manager or overseer.
The trade in thralls or slaves for labour was highly profitable. Indirect evidence of the trafficking of thralls in Viking-Age Scandinavia comes from archaeological finds such as shackles, neck-irons and similar restraints.
Land, family and farming were at the heart of Viking society. Owning land was very important and determined your social position, history and future. The white male warrior roaming the high seas with his horned helmet and warship – the image so commonly evoked when thinking of Vikings – is more myth than historical reality. Though there were plenty of men, warriors, testosterone and bloodshed in the Viking Age, fascinating new research has concluded there were also women, children, peaceful farming and trade. The warrior stereotype does not represent this era nearly as much as popular images would indicate. Nor does the figure of the plundering seafarer; this was not primarily a maritime culture, but instead an agricultural economy of stock breeders and farmers.
One of the most tenacious myths about the Viking Age is that armed men in warships fought battles and plundered monasteries, or set off on distant trading journeys, while the women stayed at home on the farms spinning yarn. Both the archaeological evidence and the written Norse sources, however, paint a completely different picture.
The women’s role was multifaceted, and women in the Viking Age seem to have had a more equal position to men than those in later periods. Their contributions to production and reproduction were not valued any less than men’s. Relations between the sexes seem to have been complementary, with women having responsibility for the private ‘indoor sphere’, and men for the public ‘outdoor sphere’. One of the roles of the free woman was that of housewife; she was the mistress of the farm and the undisputed head of the household. Since the farm was in many respects the very centre of the human world in the Viking Age, this role was probably not as limiting as it might seem to modern people.
The role of mistress of the house is symbolised by the key that she wears fully visible over her clothes, often hanging on a chain from a tool brooch. These symbolic keys were usually made of bronze and furnished with artistically executed shafts. Keys, both ornamental and everyday, are a common find in Viking-Age graves. Ornamental keys are found frequently, and exclusively, in women’s graves, and show little or no wear. They differ considerably from ordinary keys for practical use, which are usually well worn and made of iron. Unlike symbolic keys, ordinary keys occur in the graves of men, women and children alike.
Women were not confined solely to the farm, however. Statements in Norse literature show that women took part in such activities as trade and colonisation. Trade-related finds such as weights and scales are just as often found in women’s graves as in men’s. As well as archaeological finds indicating that women engaged in trade and colonisation, there is evidence from Norse literature. One is the tale of Unn the Deep-Minded, a leading character in Laxdæla Saga. One energetic and impressive woman in the sagas is Freydis Eiriksdottir, who set off from Greenland, together with her husband and others, towards Leifsbudir, the site in Newfoundland where her brother Leif Eiriksson (‘the discoverer of America’) had previously tried to establish a settlement. Soon after they arrived fighting broke out, both among the colonists and with the indigenous population. A frequently retold story concerns the heavily pregnant Freydis who, after the Norsemen had been killed or put to flight by the natives, mocked her fellow countrymen for their cowardice, grabbed a sword and entered the fray bare-breasted. At the sight of this valkyrie, the attackers ran for their lives.
Excerpt from: ‘The age of Vikings: artisans, traders, slaves and buried treasure’, Signals quarterly, published by the Australian National Maritime Museum, Edited by Janine Flew from essays by curators Gunnar Andersson and Kerstin O Näversköld and Associate Professor Fredrik Svanberg of the Swedish History Museum. Reproduced with permission. Gunnar Andersson’s book Vikings: Beyond the legend, which accompanies the exhibition, is available from The Store.
Become a Member of ANMM and receive a free copy of our journal, Signals, every quarter.