Fighting, Viking-women Style pt.2!

Posted on 24. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Viking Woman Warrior by Hans Splinter on Flickr.

What would be the biggest difference between Medieval Icelandic women who fought using weapons as opposed to using their wits? I’d say it would be in the amount of casualties. Let’s count!

Auður Vésteinnsdóttir (Gísla saga Súrssonar) 

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – at least 2 severe ones.

Auður is one of the most loyal wives of all sagas. Not only does she fight alongside her husband but also refuses to betray his whereabouts to his enemies, not even when faced with threats of maiming or death. Bribery doesn’t work either, one of her injury count actually comes from smacking a man in the face with a bag of silver that he offers her so she’d tell him where her husband is hiding. She may have in fact caused more injuries: at the final battle she fights an armed warrior wielding only a club but the warrior still fares badly against her. Besides he’s wearing whatever men wore when they went to a battle, she’s wearing a nightie.

Þórdís Súrsdóttir (Gísla saga Súrssonar)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – 1 severe one.

When her husband insists that she serve her brother’s killer food Þórdís becomes the only known woman of the Icelandic sagas who actually uses a sword. Seeing her dead brother’s sword with his murderer Þórdís feigns dropping a box of spoons, bends down to pick them up but grabs the sword instead and attempts to run him through with it. The only thing that saves his life is that a table is on the way and therefore she merely cuts him in the thigh.

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Brakarsund by Luc Van Braekel on Flickr. Skalla-Grímur is throwing a rock at Þorgerður brák who’s seen trying to swim to safety.

Þorgerður brák (Egils saga)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – 0.

Wait, why am I mentioning this lady? For one reason – she went alone and unarmed against Skalla-Grímur who was in full berserk rage. He was attacking his own son Egill and would have killed him had Þorgerður stopped him. He then turned towards her instead and drowned her in a place now known as Brákarsund, named after her. She may not have caused any damage but there’s no way that wasn’t a courageous move, especially considering that among all the people gathered she was the only one who dared to step in.

Þorbjörg katla (Harðar saga og hólmverja)

Deaths – 1, Injuries inflicted – 0.

Upon seeing a man attempt to assassinate her son she attacks him and bites him to death. Yes, that’s what happened.

Viking woman by Hans Splinter on Flickr.

Steingerður Þorkellsdóttir (Kormáks saga)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – not mentioned but likely many.

Steingerður and Kormákur’s love story is somewhat unusual: first they’re engaged to be married but due to a curse Kormákur breaks off the engagement. Steingerður is married to someone else, at which Kormákur stops at nothing, following her and occasionally harassing her (on at least two counts forcibly kissing her). At one point he hits her husband on the head with an oar and Steingerður takes this so badly she steers their ship over Kormákur’s, capsizing it. No one dies, the saga says, but only because there are other ships nearby to save Kormákur’s crew.

Auður, also called Bróka-Auður (Laxdæla saga)

Deaths – 0, Injuries inflicted – 1 severe one.

Here we finally have a woman who deliberately takes on a man’s role as part of her vengeance. Her husband Þórður falls in love with another woman and divorces Auður on a lie that she’s a cross-dresser. Auður then indeed dons men’s clothes and attempts to murder Þórður in his sleep. Only luck saves his life and he gets gravely wounded, his arm never healing completely. This act by Auður is curiously not only praised by her brothers but also accepted by Þórður himself, who says she did only as she should have done.

Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Vinland saga and Grænlendinga saga)

Deaths – 65, Injuries inflicted – none mentioned.

This one’s a real piece of work. On one hand she stands up against a group of natives while heavily pregnant; she’s that saga lady who cuts her shirt open and presses a sword against her bare breast, spooking the attackers to retreat. On another she also kills five unarmed women with an axe because they’re witnesses to her earlier plotting that lead to the deaths of their husbands and other men in their group, 60 altogether.

Kjartan’s death by Andreas Bloch on Wikimedia Commons. A far more typical casualty of a saga woman hellbent on revenge.

This actually brings me to the next point, casualty comparisons between women who fought with weapons and those who used the more typical fighting styles of Medieval Norse women that I spoke of in the previous part.

Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir (Brennu-Njáls saga)

Deaths – at least 6 , Injuries inflicted – many.

Bergþóra Skarphéðinsdóttir (Brennu-Njáls saga)

Deaths – at least 7, Injuries inflicted – many, also it could be said it was Bergþóra who began the hostilities by publicly humiliating Hallgerður.

These two stand together because they waged a war against each other. Not alone, mind you, there were other people who had their interests in the battles and sought to further stir things up. It’s also possible I may have overlooked some deaths because the saga is long and many, many people die in it! Most of the deaths here are caused by sending men to kill others, which is actually something that men in sagas do far more often than women – women typically ask their male family members to avenge a death, but Bergþóra and Hallgerður actually command forces just like chieftains of their time would have done.

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Gísli, Auður and Guðríður their foster daughter from Wikimedia Commons. Note the clubs the ladies are carrying!

An example of a more traditional role is Hildigunnur Starkaðardóttir, whose uncle Flósi does not agree to avenge her husband. She then fetches her husband’s cloak into which she mopped up his blood and body parts, and throws it over Flósi. At this he can no longer back off from the deed, so we can maybe set Hildigunnur’s casualty count to 6 – Bergþóra, her husband, their three sons and a nephew. It’s thanks to this lady that the whole burning from which Brennu-Njáls saga takes its name happened.

And of course there’s Guðrún Ósvífsdóttir from Laxdæla – the very same whose second husband was the aforementioned Þórður. Death count at 4 but injury count through the roof, Guðrún’s not only one of the smartest but also most ruthless. She has Kjartan, the love of her life killed in revenge to him humiliating her, stands up to the murderer of her husband when he wipes the murder weapon clean on her clothes and eventually sends her 12-years old son to avenge his father’s death. Near the end of her life her son asks her which one of her men she had loved the most, to which she gives the famous reply “Þeim var eg verst er eg unni mest” – the one I treated the worst was the one I loved the best.

 

Previous parts of this series:

Fighting, Viking-style!

Fighting, Viking-women style!

Fighting, viking-women style!

Posted on 20. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

 

Eiríksstaðir. Front of a Viking woman. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber from Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Norse women tend to make people think of either of two things first: either a stoic-looking linen-clad lady who does nothing besides carrying horns of mead and popping out heroic babies, or a shield-maiden in a skimpy armour. Both images are wrong, but because they answer to two romantic ideals it’s easy to see why they’re as popular as they are.

An Icelandic noblewoman was by no means helpless, yet she was not usually a warrior type either. Going to a battle was not something that was a source of honour for women, which is why you’ll always see a fighting woman have some other motive behind her actions. She may be forced to fight, her husband may be in danger, she’s blinded by anger and gets a chance, these are three reasons I can easily think of off the top of my head for those rare few women that take up arms (on one occasion a whole ship – one lady decided to avenge an earlier attack on herself by sailing her ship onto the attackers’ one, capsizing it).

These cases were treated as unusual. Typically women used what actually was considered a source of honour for Norse women: their wits, strategic thinking, clever manipulation and a technique that is usually referred to as whetting, a way of talking one’s male family members into fighting mood. It was often used in situations where the men seemed none too eager to break an armistice for the sake of revenge.

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Guðrún smiled at Halldor by Andreas Bloch. Halldor has just murdered Guðrún’s husband and is wiping the murder weapon on her clothes, but she merely smiles back at him, already knowing how she’ll avenge her husband. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Because of our modern view whetting is often seen as a sign of evilness, yet back in the day it was actually a way of preserving family honour. It was only done to encourage the men to avenge the death of a family member which, if left unavenged, would tarnish the whole family’s name. It did not matter whether someone’s death was avenged right away or many years after but it still had to be done at some point while people still remembered the case. A whole family could sink in society if they let a member of theirs be killed without retaliation, the men who decided to follow certain noblemen might begin to change sides if they felt theirs was the weaker one, not to mention that a family that was seen as unable to defend itself was an easy target for attacks. A woman who failed her part in these matters risked losing far more than just her own face.

So was that all they did – hid behind their male relatives’ backs, nagging all the while? Far from it. A noblewoman could also command her own warriors as Hallgerður and Bergþóra did in Njáll’s saga, where a disagreement eventually spiraled into an endless vendetta. Both women sent their slaves, servants and allies to attack the other’s side in turn, causing one of the lengthiest and bloodiest family wars of the sagas. This was also no doubt the way women defended their homestead while the husbands were away.

This of course relied a lot on what type of people were left in the house with the womenfolk: in Grettis saga the attackers outnumbered the house-carls, and what even worse, arrived with the precise idea of attacking the ladies of the house. It was therefore only due to Grettir’s quick thinking that the attack was thwarted. Though the Medieval noblewoman might not be helpless she was not always safe from harm either, which brings me to the next point, the myth that “Medieval Norsemen/vikings never harmed women”. They did, sometimes even targeting women as in the above example, but fact is that attacking a free woman was both illegal and not seen as a honourable thing to do. Likewise most warriors would always avoid killing children, because harming one did two things: it set the whole family after your life and gave you a reputation as a coward… but children still did occasionally die during battles.

The Valkyrie’s Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

What about the shieldmaidens then? Alas, they’re largely a myth, possibly based on valkyries. In Iceland it was even illegal for a woman to carry a sword. They could own swords of course, swords were powerful status symbols that could be kept for one’s own children or be given away as priceless gifts, but to use one was strictly forbidden. There are a few exceptions in the sagas but nowhere near enough to make shieldmaidens a thing – if anything, a female warrior was such a rare occurrence (though most likely a few did exist) that she was most definitely written about, therefore perhaps making shieldmaidens seem more common than they actually were. Gesta Danorum (link) may not always be a reliable historical source…

But what about women who actually did fight? Let’s look at these unusual ladies in the next post!

By the way, the article circling around the internet about grave finds supposedly proving the existence of female warriors is a hoax. Sadly, because it would be pretty awesome if it was true! The material it’s based on does not say anything about warriors though, just settlers, and though you might find a sword in someone’s grave it does not mean the person ever used said sword, merely that they owned it. Deciding that a female with a sword was a warrior is just the other side of the coin of modern ideas colouring the past, where the other side is to mark every single sword-grave as a male one.

Other posts in this series:

Fighting, viking-style!

Fighting, Viking-women style pt. 2!

Fighting, viking-style!

Posted on 11. Nov, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

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Vikings fighting… I can’t begin to count how many movies get this one entirely wrong. There’s the age-old mistaken idea that Norsemen were some kind of mindless frothing-at-the-mouth barbarians, that fights mostly consisted of swords hitting swords, Hollywood-esque spins in the heat of a battle and a weird conviction that Medieval Norse warriors somehow had some kind of a moral code – most battles had any number of men attacking any number of men for example, often trying to overpower an enemy known to be a great fighter with numbers.

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Gunnar with a romanticized atgeir, a long-bladed Icelandic glaive. In reality they looked a bit different…

First of all Norsemen did not just blindly charge into a fight. They wore many types of armour, each type exceedingly well-suited for keeping the wearer as safe as possible while also giving them a free range of movement, or as much as was needed for a particular style of fighting (a war field is an entirely different manner than a one-on-one duel, for example). In large battles every warrior would likely have been wearing some, an assumption I base on the fact that berserkers were said to fight naked or just “in a shirt”, without armour, and were considered insane by most.

Safe to say viking era Norsemen’s armour really was easy enough to move in. Gunnar af Hlíðarendi comes to mind easily, a man who could even somersault while wearing full battle gear.

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Axe-throwing – you gotta start young! :D

Swords in movies are highly overrated. Most of the men would not be using one, if they even owned one, as their first choice of weapon. An atgeir (= a very Iceland-typical spear/glaive), a more continental type of a spear or a long-handled axe would have been a better choice because it put some distance between the wielder and their opponent, spears having the additional bonus that they can be thrown as well. Then again spears also had a minus side. If you didn’t hit your target he was likely to pick it up and return it to sender, pointy bit first.

But why pick only one weapon? A sword and a shield is just one possible combo. How about two axes, a long-handled one and a short-handled one? A battle axe and a sword? Atgeir and a bow? A spear with an extra sword dangling from the wrist? All of the above combos can be found in sagas! Let’s also not forget that a shield could be used for far more than just a defense: you could throw it at someone, distracting them or injuring their legs. You could try to fool your opponent into lifting theirs in front of their field of vision for that split second it takes to spear them. You could even make a man’s own shield his bane: Grettir defeated a raging berserker by waiting until he bit the top of his shield* and then kicked the bottom of it, crushing his skull.

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Gunnar using his atgeir to spear his opponents, lift them up and throw them in the river below. He was also simultaneously composing poetry.

If you for some reason did fight with a sword the last thing you’d want to hit with it was a long piece of metal such as somebody else’s sword. Dents, dulling, even the whole sword bending out of form, swords were often damaged in a fight so the aim was to minimize the damage and to kill the opponent as fast as possible. Forget about lifting the sword high above your head to deliver a blow because that leaves the entire side open. A shield in the way? It was better to try to go around it than hit straight to it.

Finally, for all things holy, spinning in a fight is the silliest Hollywood idea ever. You can guess what would have happened if you turned your back to a skilled opponent in a battle. Medieval Norse warriors saw nothing wrong in sticking you in the back or ambushing you in any way of their liking, so trusting the other side to not fight dirty would send you to Hel’s home rather fast.** Medieval Norse men used any means possible when they were going to kill someone: they could attack from behind, hide in the toilet, hide in a bush for a, heh, bush-ambush***, pick up a rock to throw that at the opponents face, throw clothes over the opponent, pull his trousers down, yank his head back by hat, beard or hair, or to even sneak up to him while he was preparing for some private time with his wife.

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Consider running.

Speaking of women, they were just as bad an opponent if not worse since they could easily command a large number of men: their own household, family members and servants. Some took this even further and picked up weapons themselves, but I’ll talk about the ladies’ fighting methods more in the next post – just trust me on this, you would not want to meet any of them in a fight either.

 

* Berserkers bit their shields. I don’t know why but it seems to have been a thing that they did.

** Hel’s home, only great warriors go to Valhalla or Sessrúmnir. Dying out of gullibility is probably not something Óðinn or Freyja look for in a man.

***I’m so sorry.

 

Don’t miss these posts either:

Fighting, Viking-women style!

Fighting, Viking-women style pt. 2!

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Hulda recommends:

Want to see Medieval Norsemen fight using many of the techniques and weapons mentioned in this post? Check Viking Fighting Moves from the Sagas, a series of videos that are choreographed according to saga references and often use several different sagas to form an entire fight. My own favourites are 2, 3, 5 and especially 6 because it shows many moves we would now consider unfair. Another great one is Sword Fighting as It Was for the Vikings (link) because it demonstrates why Hollywood fighting is so useless in close combat.