According to a new journal article by Shane McLeod in Early Medieval Europe, the concept of the male Norse invaders migrating across England in the 9th and 10th centuries CE is potentially biased. He argues that based on burial evidence, females were equal in number if not outnumbering the males, leading to a new interpretation of the Norse migration. Textual evidence of the Norse invasion into Britain notes the presence of women and children in some of the invading groups, but primarily they focus on the high number of male warriors. McLeod argues that there were more women than previously thought based skeletal analysis, and this requires a reinterpretation of the Norse invasion.
Textual evidence from England records two major Norse invasions prior to the 10th century CE. The first was during the 870’s, in which three Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Eastern England were overrun. During this invasion, records never mention any Norse females or children. The second invasion took place during the 890’s. The records discuss the kidnapping of a number of Norse children by London. Wives are also mentioned, with specific reference to the capture of the Norse leader Haesten and his wife. “Then came the king’s troops, and routed the enemy, broke down the work, took all that was therein money, women, and children and brought all to London”. Beyond this, there are no precise accounts of the ratio of men to women. By 1087 CE, the Domesday Records show that there were 400 settlements in England owned by Norse males and only 21 by Norse females- although this isn’t comparable to the actual ratio of men to women. The lack of women has further been argued through archaeological and skeletal evidence. Excavations of Norse burial grounds in Repton and Heath Wood revealed that only 17% were female, and further analysis of the mass grave at Repton found that the female remains were more likely Anglo-Saxon than Norse females. Archaeological evidence of females is also scarce, with few of the diagnostic oval brooches found throughout Norse sites in England. The dearth of evidence has led researchers to interpret the invasion as male dominated.
However, new evidence of women’s jewellery and female burials has caused previous interpretations to be questioned. McLeod notes the flaws in the argument, such as the lack of women in the text. It is no clear indicator of the actual ratio of men to women, as the text itself is fairly gender neutral, and the only mention of gender is primarily to the Kings of both the English and Norse sides.
Interpretations of the grave goods has relied upon swords meaning male and brooches meaning female. When both swords and brooches were found, the individual was assumed male with a female offering, although McLeod argues that there is no feasible reason why a woman couldn’t be buried with a sword. When comparing analysis done by osteological assessment against the grave good based assessment, McLeod found that the ratio of males to females was more equal. Using skeletal materials to sex an individual can be difficult if the remains are fragmentary or damaged, but it is more reliable than interpreting sex from grave goods which are assigned by unknown cultural standards rather than biology. McLeod’s reanalysis of the skeletal remains from Repton and Heath Wood show that it was more likely that the ratio of males to females was even, and that the mistakes in interpretation was more likely the fault of equating grave goods and gender with biological sex. From this evidence McLeod argues that women did accompany the men on the two great invasions from 876 to 896. This also changes interpretations of the past where it was thought that Norse males intermarried with Anglo-Saxon females. If the men were bringing their wives, it is less likely that the proposed intensive intermarriage occurred.
Another study that warns against the equation of swords with Norse males, and the problems of gender was done by Anne Graslund. She assessed a similar bias of interpreting swords as male and jewellery as female. She argued instead that osteological sex was just as important, as females with warrior style burials had been discovered. She concluded that women were equal to men, but served a different role as caretaker of the house, and had the agency to become extremely powerful. With the Norse intending to settle England, it would have been important to bring the women with them. Further, textual evidence from the Vikings themselves discusses the roles of powerful female queens such as Thyra who ruled in her husband’s absence, and Saxon text from 1200 states that “there were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills”.
While there is no clear answer as to the ratio of Norse men to women in England, or the actual gender roles and attributions, the study itself is still important. Gender roles are not dichotomous, and treating them as such is detrimental to our interpretations of the past. By allowing fluidity in gender roles, and letting the evidence speak for itself, we can create more nuanced interpretations of the past.
McLeod, Shane 2011. Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse Migrants to eastern England up to 900 CE. In Early Medieval Europe 19(3).
Graslund, Anne Sofie 2001. The Position of Iron Age Scandinavian Women: Evidence from Graves and Rune Stones. In Gender and the Archaeology of Death (81-99)
Anglo Saxon Chronicles. http://omacl.org/Anglo/part2.html