Monday, 17 July 2017

Did Viking women settle in England?

This is a contentious and long-standing question for students of the Viking Age. And it’s one bound up in the wider debate about the scale of western Viking settlement more broadly. Those who argue that the Vikings who settled in England in the late ninth and tenth century (following decades of raiding) were a numerically small warrior-elite see the Scandinavian settlement as a largely masculine affair.  But those who (like me - see my recent debate paper in Antiquity or a popular article here) argue that the settlement was large-scale and involved whole families migrating across the North Sea maintain that Scandinavian women were integral to the establishment of new farmsteads.

In the past, the small number of known Scandinavian female burials in England has given fuel to the argument that few Viking women settled in England.  But over the last two decades, a fresh source of data has emerged giving an entirely different perspective. New discoveries of female Scandinavian jewellery, made by metal-detecting, offer the first tangible evidence for a substantial contribution of Scandinavian women to the Viking settlements.

A Scandinavian snake pendant (Borre style) found in Norfolk. This pendant would have hung from a woman's necklace. The snake may have acted like an amulet, protecting the wearer from misfortune. Image copyright PAS. 

To date, over 150 female jewellery items from Scandinavia have been discovered in England – almost exclusively in areas known to have been settled by the Vikings (East Anglia, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire). These items are brooches and pendants, often decorated in the popular Viking art styles of the time: Borre and Jellinge. They are identical to jewellery items found in Scandinavia, especially in southern Scandinavia (modern-day Denmark). And there are lots of different types – trefoil brooches, with three ‘arms’, small domed disc brooches decorated with animal faces and contorted bodies, different styles of pendant, some in the form of snakes (see above), others disc-shaped……the list goes on and on. Most are made of copper or lead alloys and are not especially high-status - more Zara than Prada. In archaeological terms, 150 is a lot. And we have to remember that these are only the items that were lost at the time (and not recovered), survived in the soil for over 1000 years, found by a detectorist, and reported to the relevant bodies. 150 is likely just a tiny fraction of the actual number of brooches circulating at the time.

While the pendants were worn suspended from necklaces, the brooches would have been pinned to the chest, with larger brooches securing an outer cloak. Anglo-Saxon women also wore brooches, but the types I’m talking about look very different – in their shape, decoration and even their pin fittings. They would have stuck out a mile if worn in rural Norfolk circa 895.

A Scandinavian disc brooch in the Barre style. Three staring animal heads poke out from
between the lobes of a trefoil. Found in rural Norfolk in 2014. Image copyright PAS.

A large Scandinavian trefoil brooch, worn to pin a cloak, decorated with Borre-style interlacing animals. Unusually, this brooch was found in an area not known to have been settled by the Vikings. But the lack of pin-fittings may indicate it had been recycled. Image copyright PAS. 

But do these jewellery items necessarily imply the presence of Scandinavian women? Couldn't they simply have been imported trade goods, or represent local products that were worn by Anglo-Saxon women in imitation of Scandinavian fashions? In my opinion, no. The material is far too diverse to represent the average stock of a merchant, while technical features such as the pin arrangement on the reverse of the brooch, and even the metal alloy, indicates that they were not made according to Anglo-Saxon methods. Moreover, the distribution of this material is rural and very widespread, as if these items had been lost by women on or near their farms. If items were being imported and sold on, we would expect clustering in towns.

Pin-fittings on the reverse of brooches, including the middle loop with the ring attached, show that these brooches were manufactured in line with Scandinavian traditions. This brooch has been gilded to look like gold, but it was made of copper-alloy.
The jewellery offers a tangible marker of a female Viking presence in England. But other evidence also points to Scandinavian women living in England. Scandinavian feminine names are preserved in minor place-names, referring to fields, streets and rivers (names that are likely to have been coined by local Norse-speaking farming populations). Hildr in Hilderholm (Lincolnshire), Gerđr in Gerdeswelle (Norfolk), and, interestingly, from the perspective of Scandinavian women in towns, Guđrún in Goodramgate (York), are all examples. Place-names incorporating women’s names and ending in ‘by’ (meaning village/ settlement) and ‘thorpe’ (meaning secondary settlement) suggest independent landholding by women bearing Scandinavian names. Gunnhildr in Gunby (Yorkshire), Ragnhildr in Raventhorpe (Lincolnshire and Yorkshire), and Ingiríđr in Ingerthorpe (Yorkshire), are all examples.

More broadly, it is likely that women who shared a common, Scandinavian culture with male settlers had a decisive role in preserving that culture in a new setting. In historical migration contexts, it is typically women, more than men, who maintain international kinship connections, store knowledge about personal histories, preserve social customs and adjust cultural practices. Critically, the mother’s cultural background usually filters down to the next generation more strongly than the father’s. In the context of the Viking settlement of England, we know that Old Norse survived in some parts of England into the tenth and eleventh century. A prerequisite for this must have been the presence of Norse-speaking women, using Scandinavian speech in the home and passing their language on to their children (The alternative scenario: that Scandinavian male settlers married local, English-speaking women, who then learned Old Norse and raised their children in that language, or bilingually, is far less likely).

The evidence for a female contribution to the Viking settlement of England continues to grow, as new finds are made year on year. Perhaps it’s time we re-cast our image of the Vikings in England, to include women (and children) alongside men.


You can read more about the debate over the scale of Viking settlement in England (including my response to a recent controversial DNA study) in the latest (July/ August) issue of British Archaeology Magazine, and here.