A Brief Reflection on "Viking Warrior Women"

As a history student in that sad limbo between a B.A. and the ability to justify grad school financially (albeit an Americanist), I confess to some dismay at the "Half of Viking Warriors Were Female" story that's going around amongst the literary-minded. I have not read the entire article in question, only the abstract* and some other summaries, but even so cursory a glance reveals that the "Viking Warrior Women" story simply isn't accurate (in fairness, some of the news coverage has been dialing back a bit, but the chatter has been slow to catch up). Below is a fairly simplified breakdown, based entirely on what I have read so far (undoubtedly someone else with a background in the field could do this better; if you know of any history blogs that have tackled this, let me know and I'd be happy to add links).

What we do know:

  • Of the 14 Norse migrant corpses studied, almost half were female
  • At least one woman was buried with weaponry, which is traditionally associated with men

What we can legitimately infer from this data:

  • This pattern may hold for other Norse migrants (but maybe not! *spooky no-fun historian finger-wiggle*)
  • Early Norse migrations to England (maybe elsewhere?) could have included substantial numbers of women
  • Some of these women were buried with weaponry for some reason
    • Maybe because they were warriors
    • Maybe because they were important people
    • Maybe for some other reason

What we cannot legitimately infer:

  • Half of all Viking warriors were women

I like the idea of expanding our understanding of the complex roles women played in past cultures, because people (of both sexes) are complex and generally don't interact with culture in totally rigid patterns. I like the idea that women played important roles in history. I admit that the idea of Viking ladies kicking butt is entertaining.

But I don't like stretching the evidence all out of shape and ignoring the real stories of real people with real complexity and real agency in order to fulfill our desires.

P.S. This story is a bit more cautious.


*"Various types of evidence have been used in the search for Norse migrants to eastern England in the latter ninth century. Most of the data gives the impression that Norse females were far outnumbered by males. But using burials that are most certainly Norse and that have also been sexed osteologically provides very different results for the ratio of male to female Norse migrants. Indeed, it suggests that female migration may have been as significant as male, and that Norse women were in England from the earliest stages of the migration, including during the campaigning period from 865." (Source)