Shield Maidens! True Or False?

My Wulfheodenas homie David Huggins asked me a good question. ”Shield maidens! True or False? Okay, that was a bit general, but female ‘warrior’ graves, symbolic or otherwise?”. I take this to mean “Were there female warriors in Northern Europe AD 500-1000?”

Let’s start by examining why everyone accepts that there were male warriors. Indeed, to my knowledge most scholars believe that at least, say, 99.9% of all warriors were men, and conversely that a considerable percentage of free-born men received some degree of weapons training. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, the written sources of the time not only assume that fighting is done by men and child-rearing by women – they also describe a male ideal where you aren’t really a man at all unless you’re a warrior. Scandinavians believed that after death only those who died in battle would go to the part of heaven reserved for real men: Odin’s mansion, Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain. Other people ended up in a dreary frigid underworld known as Hel and ruled by the goddess Hel. There may also have been a belief though, barely alluded to in surviving sources, that women’s souls would take up residence in Freya’s hall. And this opens the possibility that all the gods were believed to run boarding houses for souls of the dead. But still: the ideal male way of death was in battle.

Secondly, furnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.

Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.

Osteological sexing is a method with a margin of error. That margin is greater the more decomposed or cremated the skeleton is. And mis-sexing is biased towards masculinity, because old women who have worked hard have less feminine skeletal characteristics. David’s question thus pertains only to an extremely rare class of source material: inhumation graves that contain well-preserved female skeletons and full weapon sets. I am not aware of any such grave in Scandinavia. To someone who looks at hundreds of graves in aggregate, such a burial is just noise in the data. If shown one, I’m perfectly willing to believe that the woman in question wielded the weapons she was buried with. But since they’re so rare I don’t pay them much attention.

Next important question: given the above, why does anyone believe that there were female warriors?

This is mainly because of a rather common motif in the High Medieval written sources: the valkyrie or shield-maiden. These are scary female warriors who hunt in airborne packs and select the slain in battles. They also occur in Dark Ages metalwork (e.g. Hårby) and tapestries (Oseberg). And they are clearly fictional supernatural beings. Alaric Hall, in his fine 2007 book about elf beliefs in Anglo-Saxon England, suggests that supernatural beings were imagined to be gender benders: elves were effeminate non-combatant males, valkyries were butch belligerent warrioresses. And neither of them were seen as human.

There are a few celebrated Early Modern cases where women dressed up as men and fought in wars. This was seen as deeply deviant at the time. And my guess is that late-1st-millennium situation was similar. Did any women ever fight? Yes, I’m sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.

Finally, I should point out that to my mind the question whether there were in fact female warriors back then has no bearing on the issue whether women should be allowed today to be soldiers. It might be that that there were lots of female warriors in the Dark Ages but that everybody today should realise that this is an abomination. Or it might be that there were none back then but that we should see it as a great career for young women today. The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.