A few weeks ago, an article was published on Tor.com with the title “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female”. This “news” quickly blew up on sites around the web including Reddit, and was even picked up by publications such as the Globe and Mail. However, it was quickly revealed that the article was based on a misrepresentation of a 2011 paper by Shane McLeod titled “Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD”. This article explained that many previous archaeologists had misidentified female Viking remains as male because they were buried with weapons. It asserted that many more Viking migrants were women than previously thought, and that women were sometimes buried with weapons, but made no claims about women’s presence on the front lines of battle.
Before people get too disappointed, though, we should remember that just because Viking women weren’t warriors as frequently as men doesn’t mean they were just sitting at home with babies, which the Tor article suggests is the alternative. Viking women could be quite powerful and influential in their culture—one of the most famous and lavish ship burials, the Oseberg ship, contained two women. Women were also held to the same standards as men in terms of honor; this can be seen in how they are portrayed in Norse literature. One saga where this is very apparent is the Saga of the Volsungs, which was written in late 13th century Iceland but based on earlier oral tradition. It contains the famous story of Sigurd the dragon slayer, but he only appears in about half the story; the saga is bookended by the tales of two women whose families have been killed by their current husband. Both women orchestrate the utter destruction of their husband and his followers almost singlehandedly, and are applauded for their actions, since they have fulfilled the societal obligations of taking revenge for their murdered families.
As a woman who also loves medieval history, I can see why it might be tempting from a modern perspective to propagate claims that women were out there pillaging and fighting with the men. However, as awesome as the idea of the empowered shieldmaiden is, it was not the norm—and we shouldn’t pretend that is was. But that doesn’t make actual historical women any less important or any less interesting, and we should respect their contributions to their societies, which were much more than just staying home and having babies. Until actual archaeological evidence confirms it, though, we shouldn’t allow wishful thinking to interfere with journalism or history.