I was 14 when I saw The Two Towers in the cinema, and I never forgot it. The narrative leads inexorably to the Rohirrim, who even then I recognised as something from England’s ancient past. They wore mail, fought with spears and round shields, lived in wooden halls and had fantastically Old English sounding names like Théoden, Éomer and Théodred. For me, the most striking character was Éowyn, niece to the King and shield-maiden of Rohan; in an epic tale of kings, warriors and wizards, she stands out as an iconic female figure. As I learnt more about the Northern World, I became fascinated by the role that women played, and came to appreciate just how much symbolism Éowyn carries as an avatar. Tolkien has been criticized for his depiction of women, or lack thereof, but Éowyn is unparalleled as a window into the values of a culture that is familiar and foreign all at once.
In the public imagination, early medieval women are often portrayed as domestic paragons, scheming queens, or axe-wielding shield-maidens. For example, the historical-ish fantasy romp of Vikings is filled with these larger-than-life figures; Aslaug, Torvi, Gunnhild, Siggy and Lagertha. It makes for enjoyable TV, and there is some truth behind all of these figures, but the full truth in none. Millions of women lived and died in the Northern World between the fall of Rome and the Norman invasion, and their stories are half of the entire lived experience of that fascinating time. A blog post could not encompass such an enormous scope, so I will focus on a few areas, to give a kind of overview and introduction. To finish, I’ll consider the significance of that most iconic of northern women; the shield-maiden.
In surveying this topic, it is important not to condemn the past out of hand because it does not conform to current-year values, or to proof-text the historical record for what we would like to see. Both of these approaches obscure and weaponise the past, but the role of the historian, whether professional or amateur, is to establish what actually was. It would be naïve to argue that early medieval society was a proto-liberal paradise, and dishonest to portray it as an abusive, corrupt patriarchy. That is to read modern sensibilities and worldviews into a setting that was utterly different. The truth is far more interesting, and so with that necessary dour caution aside, let us start with an overview.
Laws & Charters: Women Before the Court
In terms of women’s legal status, the Norman invasion was an enormous step backwards. The incoming feudal structures effectively reduced them to chattel, that is, an owned piece of property. In contrast, under Anglo-Saxon law codes, such as those of Alfred or Offa, women could own and sell land in their own right, instigate divorce, appear as witnesses and testifiers in legal cases, and could not be forced to marry against their will. Penalties for rape or assaulting a woman were severe. Along with physical punishment, these crimes had a set price, the weregild, which had to be paid to her husband, father or nearest male relative. This may sound foreign to us, fixing a price on a woman’s wellbeing, but in a world without modern medicine or the stability on which we rely, women were much more vulnerable, especially during pregnancy. How closely these laws were followed is a matter of debate, but they are proof of at least formal recognition that women needed protection and legal redress for their grievances.
Another way of tracking an individual’s prominence in Anglo-Saxon society is looking at witnesses to charters. Charters were edicts of a king, granting land, privileges or duties to a person, group or community, and these legally required many witnesses. Painstaking work has been done on analyzing the thousands of charters that survive, and it is possible to track the rise and fall of people from royal favour as they appear or disappear from witness lists. One curious aspect of Alfred the Great’s reign is that his wife Ealswith signed very few charters. Indeed, it was the custom of Wessex not to refer to the wife of a king as queen. This has been seized upon as proof of prejudice built into a patriarchal society, but that seems at variance with a king who stridently sought to protect his people from exploitation. According to custom, a previous queen had poisoned her husband, and so bought shame upon the title of ‘queen’. This has a strange echo in our world, for the late Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was also never called king, although for different reasons. The interesting question is why did Ealswith sign so few charters? Given the independence she showed, it is likely that Ealswith simply did not wish to participate. She was always a stalwart supporter of Alfred, but she never showed an inclination to be involved in matters of state. Given her husband’s efforts and the prevailing cultural attitude, her absence is likely evidence of autonomy, rather than proof of invisibility.
Heath & Hearth: Male & Female Roles
Alfred and Aelswith are an example of the differing gender roles in the Northern World, and Modern English contains traces of how the relationship between the two genders was imagined. Our words for lord and lady come from the Old English hlaford and hlafdige, meaning ‘bread-provider’ and ‘bread-kneader’ respectively (the hlaf– prefix being the source of the Modern English ‘loaf’). The word wife is from the Old English wif, meaning not a woman who is married, but as a suffix denoting mastery of a trade, such as housewife, fishwife or alewife. In the Germanic languages that formed the foundation of English, mann simply meant ‘person’, and the gender divide was noted by wœpmann and wifmann, literally ‘weapon-people’ and ‘wife-people’. Men and women were expected to have mastery and responsibility over different and complimentary aspects of life.
Deviating from accepted gender responsibilities could have serious ramifications. In more than one Icelandic saga, conflict breaks out over allegations of men wearing women’s clothes or behaving in an effeminate way. The reasons for this have been studied extensively but in short, in a more physically dangerous world, the role of men as providers, hunters and warriors was an immediate necessity. To fail in such a task left vulnerable members of a society open to death or starvation; the abdication of responsibility posed a very real danger.
With tedious regularity, one reads words to the effect of, ‘women were highly invisible members of early medieval society’. The life of everyday women is underrepresented in written, later records, but that is to examine a painting through a telescope. For every warrior grave and gold hoard, we have thousands of loom-weights, spinning whorls, thimbles, cooking containers, tools and hearths; the province of early medieval women was largely in the home, and there they were highly-skilled workers. They made clothes and prepared food, fed and reared animals, acted as healers, managed farms and raised children. At the time of Alfred the Great, something like 85-90% of the English population were employed in agriculture, making the farmstead a vital economic unit.
These tasks also imbued women with a unique power in the early medieval mind. I have written more fully on fate and destiny in a previous post, but the short version is that women, owing to their skill with weaving and ability to bear children, allied with a more emotionally intuitive engagement with the world, were thought to perceive the hidden machinery of fate. This power was thought to be so pronounced, particularly in pre-Christian England, that while women stood at the vertical looms, working in pairs or threes, they were careful to never mention individual names in their gossip, for fear of involving that person in the weft of fate. This control over matters of life and death dovetailed neatly with their role as healers. Before the growth of monastic medicine, the role of healer was nearly always performed by women, who handed the knowledge of herb-lore and healing practices down through generations.
Lady of the Mercians: Daughters of Kings
I considered the role of Alfred’s wife above, and now we move on to his daughter and eldest child, Athelflaed. She was married to Ethelred, senior ealdorman of Mercia, to cement a political alliance in the dark days of Alfred’s early reign. Following Ethelred’s death in 911, she assumed rule of Mercia. We have no evidence that she ever wielded a sword in battle, but we know she led armies. Her younger brother Edward ruled Wessex after his father’s death, and the siblings were a formidable pair. Following in the footsteps of Alfred, a giant on the early medieval stage, was no mean feat, but they did it. Athelflaed was not crowned as Queen, owing to Mercia’s subservience to Wessex, but there was no opposition to her reign, and the people accepted her as Myrcna Hlafdige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Popular and wise, she proved every bit as cunning and fierce as her Danelaw opponents. During her campaign to regain the ‘five boroughs’ (Derby, Nottingham, Stamford, Leister and Lincoln), some towns simply surrendered at her approach. She proved canny and unwilling to abide by convention, earning her a reputation among the Vikings as fighting like one of them. One such trick involved luring a Viking army inside the walls of Chester, and then butchering them with concealed soldiers.
We see Éowyn in an uncannily similar role, as Tolkien’s tribute to this early medieval leader. It is worth highlighting, because it portrays her with symbolic exactitude. She appears dressed in garb of war; “Alone Éowyn stood […] the sword was set upright before her, and the hands were laid upon the hilt. She was clad now in mail and shone like silver in the sun”. She too marries the ruler of another realm, becoming co-ruler of Ithilien with Faramir, and she too is accepted as ruler by the people, and achieves a seemingly impossible goal by force of arms. When Théoden is leading his army from Meduseld, he contemplates who shall rule in his stead. The reply from his leading thanes is, “There is Éowyn, daughter of Eomund, his [Éomer’] sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone”. During the king’s servitude under Saruman’s baleful influence, “there also waiting upon the king […] the Lady Éowyn”; she is beside him even in his darkest hour, standing in the hall. Although she is his niece, and not his daughter, she fulfills much of the same function.
Hail Lady: Women in the Public Sphere
Fate-weaving women as fate-weavers have left a lasting impact on history. In the early 7th century, Raedwald, king of East Anglia, faced a momentous decision. Seated in his high hall at modern-day Rendlesham, Raedwald had accepted Edwin of Northumbria as a guest, promising to protect him from his brother-in-law Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria. However, an opportunity arose to betray Edwin, and thus gain the support of Aethelfrith, at that time a powerful king. Promises of power, gifts of silver and all manner of rewards had been whispered into Raedwald’s ears by Aethelfrith’s emissaries, and Raedwald, conscious of his kingdom’s exposed position, was on the point of betraying Edwin.
However, at this point, his queen stepped in. She reminded him of the honourable vow he had made to Edwin, as well as the binding offer of hospitality. Galvanized into action by his wife’s counsel, Raedwald mustered his army, and marched north with Edwin to confront the Aethelfrith. The armies met at the battle of the River Idle, and the fighting was apparently so brutal that the river ran red. Edwin became king of Northumbria, and although Raedwald lost two sons in the battle, his wife’s words had directly altered the course of English history; in time his actions would be a cause of the Northumbrian ‘Golden Age’ of the later 7th century.
This example of the political power that women could wield is not an isolated one, although the results were not always positive. Ælfthryth, mother of Ethelred Unraed (‘Unready’ in modern parlance) was a complicated and powerful figure in his reign. As regent to the young king, she and her cabal of supporters wielded considerable power and influence over him, possibly even murdering his older brother Edward, to ensure his accession to power. Depending on which record is believed, she was either a devout sponsor of religious activities or a scheming villain behind a nation in decline, but what is really striking about the records is that no-one considered it unusual for a woman to wield power at such high levels.
All Clad in Shining Mail: Women in Song & Battle
But now we go from the court of the battlefield. The shield-maiden is a favourite fantasy figure, from Éowyn to Lagertha from Vikings. It appears in D&D sessions and fantasy fiction the world over. The image of the athletic, fearless and beautiful warrior stirs the imagination and the heart, often appearing as a kind of Anglo-Saxon Wonder Woman. But the question is, did this figure have any basis in reality?
The short answer is no. Firstly, we must consider what historical basis there is for women on the battlefield. Men did the lion’s share of the fighting, and so it is not surprising that there is little undisputed evidence for female warriors in extant grave-remains. The presence of wounds on skeletons, as well as their location, tells us much about the way that person lived and died. Thus far, some female graves have been found containing weapons, but the presence of weapons does not mean the interred person was necessarily a warrior, as weapons were often given as gifts and status symbols. Interpreting grave remains is fraught with difficulty, but so far, very few female warrior graves have been identified.
That being said, we move now to the realm of legend and folklore, which teem with incredible female figures. The wife of Hrothgar, Gudrún of the Gjukings, the Valkyrie Bynhild, Gudrún of The Laxdaela Saga, the list goes on. These tales are mythic, featuring dragons, trolls, sorcery and magic weapons, but they reveal much about the ideals of the cultures that produced them.
In Beowulf, the hero and his warband are celebrating in the mighty hall of Hereot, but a delicate situation arises. The hospitality and honour cultures of that world come into conflict; in deciding who shall sit at his table, Hrothgar must honour these warriors for their feat, but not dishonor his own son. It is his queen who steps in, with deft words and heartfelt praise, in the ancient female role of cupbearer at the feast. Interestingly, we see this same role reflected in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, where Éowyn offers the cup of Théoden and Aragorn at the victory-feast following the battle of Helm’s Deep. A woman’s role as cup-bearer was symbolic of her role as peacekeeper.
In the light of these influential roles, it is small wonder that women’s speech was considered to sometimes be literally magical. Women in sagas, particularly mothers, often say words to the effect of, ‘this has been spoken, and so will be’. It is a female seer who tells Odin of the fate of the world, and it is the three female Norns, who spin fate on a loom at the foot of the world-tree Yggdrasil. These, along with figures like the Valkyrie Brynhild in The Volsunga Saga all highlight this duality; women inhabit the present but can perceive the future. In the saga, Gudrún’s dream is a foreshadowing of the husbands she will have. Acting in accordance with her fate, she decides the fate of kings and nations, and golden-haired Gudrún, imbued with the weariness of foreknowledge, is a clear inspiration for Tolkien’s Éowyn, who again serves as an avatar and tribute for these mythic figures. When Aragorn sees her; Tolkien tells us that, “Grave and thoughtful was her glance […] Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver, but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings”. Importantly, Éowyn too has prophetic dreams, which Aragorn interprets, emphasizing the relationship between women and far-sightedness.
The Point of Balance
I will finish by returning to the figure of the shield-maiden. It is a prominent and powerful one, forming part of the cultural imaginings of the Viking world. Although the presence of women in the frontlines of a 6th to 11th century battlefield was unlikely, the idea appears frequently enough in the literature of the time to demonstrate its popularity. They appear carved on jewelry and furniture, as well as on weapons, ornaments and statues, but what do they represent? Some medievalists seem them as a warning about the dangers of trespassing into the wrong gendered space (for many shield-maidens in the literature die or make their way back to domestic spaces) whereas others interpret them as objects of pure enjoyable fantasy for both men and women in the northern world. They enjoyed these stories as much as we do now.
However, I would argue that the shield-maiden represents something else, drawing together all the strands of cup-bearer, fate-weaver, mother, healer, ruler and artisan, into the role of inspiration and bridge between the masculine and feminine spheres. This is demonstrated in Tolkien’s description of the battle before Minas Tirith. As Théoden King lies stricken, “The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away,” but, “One stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father”. Dernhelm is none other than Éowyn in disguise, and seeing her stand alone before the awful power of the Witch-King, “Into Merry’s mind flashed the memory of her face […] and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke […] She would not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided”. Thus, the devoted shield-maiden and a hobbit, who the Witch-King, “heeded no more than a worm in the mud”, bring him to destruction. In this way, the shield-maiden acts as an inspiration to both genders, blending the strength, courage and honour of the traditional male warrior, with the grace, beauty and prophetic power of the lady of the hall. They are the idealized, even fantasized feminine, but also representative of women who control their own fates.
It is clear that women in the northern role lived lives every bit as complex and skilled as their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. They performed roles as peace-keepers, prophets, healers, mothers, cooks, housewives, crafters, spinners, advisors and oracles. For more information, or for good reading, I can recommend the following:
- The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
- The Volsunga Saga, available in many translations
- Peace-Weavers & Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society, by Kathleen Herbert
- The Warrior Queen: The Life & Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great, by Joanna Arman
- Anglo-Saxon Crafts, by Kevin Leahy
- Anglo-Saxon England, by Sir Frank Stenton
- Beowulf, available in many translations
- Aethelred the Unready, by Levi Roach
- The Anglo-Saxon World, by Nicholas J. Higham & Martin J. Ryan