It feels like a lifetime ago that Megan Fox launched Legends of the Lost with an episode devoted to the question of women’s roles in Viking society, and it is just possible that the number of articles and reviews devoted to the show outstripped the number of people who actually watched the series. Indeed, if December hadn’t been such a slow month, I’d have probably ignored the show entirely. But I reviewed that first episode, and archaeology professor Howard M. R. Williams of the University of Chester, who specializes in mortuary archaeology, particularly in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian contexts, has posted a lengthy rebuttal to my review, and those of other critics of Fox, accusing me of not fully appreciating the depth of originality in Fox’s depiction of Viking life, calling my review “completely wrong.”
Williams and I approach the subject from very different perspectives and are writing for very different audiences. This is one reason that our views tend to diverge over the issue of what we mean by the “new.” For example, Williams, believes that Fox’s discussion of the role of women in Viking culture is markedly different from previous depictions of the Vikings in the mainstream media, and therefore I am wrong to criticize Fox from trumpeting her evidence as new:
Regarding the story of the episode – the historicity of warrior women – his main point is that Fox is claiming something as new evidence, but we already know it to be true. Apparently we already knew that women had a greater role in Viking society (greater than when?). This is, however, a stereotype of its own, rooted in 13th-century saga literature and its romanticisation of the era of settlement up to and immediately following the Christian conversion (9th-11th centuries AD). This is therefore a medieval elite perspective that needs sustained debate and critique in itself.
Here we have a bit of a divide in terms of what we mean by “new.” Williams is correct that many documentaries fail to fully describe the role of women in Viking society as framed through the lens of modern scholarship. A lot of crap on cable regurgitates 1960s stereotypes and whatever claptrap they can dredge for free from the public domain. To that limited extent, Fox did something good in putting on television material that was otherwise largely confined to books, academic articles, and museums. Thus, to that limited extent, it is “new” in the sense that TV audiences probably haven’t seen it before.
But is it “new” in the sense that nobody knew about it before Fox? Or, to a lesser extent, before the 2017 academic journal article that identified a Viking warrior burial known as Bj581 as that of a female?
As Williams points out, the historicity of women warriors is not universally accepted. One of the reasons for this is the division between those who give greater credence to historical sources and those who require unimpeachable physical evidence. To this extent, the Victorians had it slightly better than we because they had not yet divorced history from archaeology and were more accepting of literary accounts, which Williams considers problematic. If we only had myths and legends, then this would certainly be the case, but to my mind the fact that the same claims are made both by people writing within a Scandinavian context and those operating outside of it, like a Byzantine historian, reinforces that these claims are not wholly fictitious. A similar problem faced those who believed that the Vikings reached North America. Prior to the discovery of L’anse-aux-Meadows, the Icelandic Sagas were the primary evidence, and they were accepted by the Victorians and rejected by twentieth-century scholars. But the fact that the claims in the sagas were also found in Adam of Bremen, and before the sagas were written, should have indicated that the claims were more than wholly fictional.
After the world wars, however, archaeology and history traveled diverging paths, and it became fashionable for archaeologists to assume that historical accounts were false, or even to ignore claims about history that were outside the increasingly narrow definition of archaeology. (This is not dissimilar to the way Victorians correctly deduced that claims about the bones of Giants came from the discovery of mastodon, mammoth, and elephant bones, but postwar scholars minimized, ignored, or forgot about the subject until Adrienne Mayor revived it in 2000, largely because the subject was seen as outside the concerns of archaeology.) Yes, Saxo Grammaticus wrote romanticized pseudo-history—his accounts of how the Norse gods were Trojan heroes should prove that. But the cultural details embedded within the fictional narratives can’t simply be dismissed as imaginary. If nothing else, they show that his audience accepted the idea of women warriors as plausible and didn’t simply laugh him out of Denmark.
As an aside, I will also note that when Williams says I took a “cheap shot” in criticizing Fox for visiting an early edition of Saxo’s text in a museum instead of reading it online, I was not referring to showing the old text on-screen. My point was that Fox presented access to the early edition as access to implied forbidden knowledge which only an elite can behold. The knowledge in the book is freely available to anyone, and presenting it as forbidden and secret only discourages viewers from pursuing primary sources and encourages them to trust peddlers of false narratives. It was lovely to see the book; it was much less lovely for Fox to imply that seeing that old copy produced insights unavailable to regular folk.
Williams also chooses to read my review in a decidedly uncharitable light. I remarked that, from the above texts, and from earlier archaeological reports of at least one female warrior burial prior to the recent 2017 claim, there was evidence for female Viking warriors, evidence that the sexism of the postwar era purposely downplayed.
So … the popular discourse of specialists is now that anyone who finds a problem with Bj581’s interpretation is a ‘sexist historian’. We were all expecting to find women warriors in the archaeological record, and only the sexism of some has prevented this happening until now.
Except that this isn’t what I said. I wrote that “the evidence for the role of women in Norse society was always there, but often downplayed by sexist past historians.” And it was. The medieval texts have always been available. The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal reported the discovery of the burial of a woman warrior in 1902 and nonchalantly related it to the medieval sagas. The same literary and historical documents today used to paint a picture of Viking-era women as relatively powerful and active in business existed in the past. It’s fascinating to see how scholars before World War II were more open to the idea than those after the war years, and that certainly says something about gender roles in the middle twentieth century. Consider that feminist historian Mary Wilhelmine Williams’s Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age from 1920 matter-of-factly notes there were real women warriors trained in ways of war, and rather plainly notes how many jobs associated in modern times with men that Viking-era women held, including rune-carver and financial sponsor of shipping. She even contrasts Scandinavia’s powerful women with the restricted role of women in Classical Greece, calling their authority and power “remarkable.” Indeed, her book covers the same topics as Fox’s show, almost point for point, including women’s involvement in medicine and magic. It’s almost as though they based the episode off of her chapter. I’ve placed it in my Library so you can see for yourself.
Fox presented this material as basically “new,” but it was in print in 1920, cited to books like the Origines Islandicae, some of the same texts (specifically The Tale of Freydis Eric’s Daughter) used to make the same claims today. (The argument, logically, is that the sagas would not depict women this way if they didn’t actually have the right to invest.) This is not to say that before World War I everyone accepted women warriors—a number of romantic Victorian books imagined golden-haired Viking studs protecting pale-skinned blonde maids—but the evidence was available for those who wanted to see.
Williams, though, seems to want to have it two ways, to make the evidence for women warriors “new” and to also claim that we shouldn’t make assumptions about gender based on that evidence. In an earlier posting on the grave of the so-called “warrior woman” Bj581 that forms the centerpiece of Fox’s show, Williams took issue with the very notion that the skeleton was “female” in any meaningful sense. He does not deny that it contains a body whose DNA features two X chromosomes, but he questions whether biological sex can translate into perceived gender and faults the authors of the 2017 journal article that launched this discussion for their failure to explore other gender options. “Other interpretations are possible, but why should we consider them? … Still, the resulting lack of nuance, consideration of only binary genders, inferential jumps, and limited contextual analysis is a tad unnerving.” This highlights one of the differences between academic writing and TV: Academia should (ideally) be searching for how the Vikings understood themselves, but cable pseudo-historical TV shows aren’t really doing that. They use the past to comment on the present, a point that Fox made explicit by repeatedly likening her discussion to contemporary pop culture and even her own marriage. Williams praises Fox for this, despite the obvious challenge it poses to his preferred approach.
Williams considers it valuable and revolutionary for Fox to, basically, present the same material outlined in 1920 as “new” because there is additional archaeological evidence in support of the historical evidence known to past historians. The issue, therefore, is the weight one attaches to historical vs. archaeological evidence, but Mary Wilhelmine Williams’s book more than proves that the claims about the role of women in Scandinavian society were available prior to the 2010s, even if midcentury historians chose to reject the evidence and archaeologists would not accept it without bones to back up the texts. Therefore, Howard M. R. Williams is incorrect to criticize me for stating that the overall story Fox told was not, in fact, new, even if some of the supporting evidence is of recent vintage.
1/3/2019 11:06:37 am
From the review:
1/3/2019 12:35:35 pm
I just finished reading Dr. Williams review and, in this rare instance, find myself in complete agreement with Mr. Scales. I did not in any sense think that his commentary was a personal attack on you or your blog commentary. I think you are at times over-sensitive and react defensively when it is unnecessary.Your critic of Prof. Williams revue would have been just as interesting if it had been a bit more impersonal - as his revue, in reality, was.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/3/2019 01:04:36 pm
I read the review and found it tedious and overlong. It's clear the good doctor has wood for Thumbelina and could have benefited from an editor.
1/4/2019 05:00:25 pm
How else is one to interpret "they have gotten it completely wrong" other than the doctor saying...."he's gotten it completely wrong"? I mean, those are literally the EXACT WORDS that YOU quoted the doctor as saying. And that JASON quoted the doctor as saying.
1/4/2019 06:28:20 pm
Perhaps for those speaking the King's (or is it queens) English, "completely wrong" means something quite different from what it means among us wrongheaded Yanks? LOL
1/4/2019 07:18:44 pm
Primary sources are never a good source given that all knowledge belonging to history is known. If it is not widely known, than primary sources are charged with concealing the facts. If a theory is being presented by experts, then they are providing deception for an unstated purpose.
1/5/2019 09:39:14 am
The issue is within the context as stated by the professor V, and how it was paraphrased by our host to set up his rebuttal. Perhaps you too would respond with hysterics. That's a given.
1/5/2019 11:55:31 am
Well, I guess that when one can't grasp the meaning of things like completely wrong and cheap shot then it is to be expected that they will also struggle with a concept like hysterics.
1/5/2019 01:00:04 pm
Professor Bad Faith strikes again. Now beat it troll, handing you your ass is too easy.
1/5/2019 01:31:02 pm
Calling someone a troll and talking about handing them their ass after they have made perfectly legitimate points. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a bit more in line with most understandings of what hysterics would mean.
1/3/2019 02:13:28 pm
It's a difference of opinion, not a critical point. The person wrongly references Colavito, but also the other people, like Head and Muir, so based on that, the article is flawed and not worth the fuss. Now that a blogger is being referred to as a critic in academia is interesting, and telling, for a number of reasons. Clearly Williams is also a blogger, and thinks the people he is talking about are equal in some way to scholars, and to him, to be thusly judged by the glorious opinions.
American Cool "Disco" Dan
1/3/2019 02:45:10 pm
The syllable "muir" does not appear even once.
It is always interesting to see how others perceive your own texts. You at least can learn how to arrange arguments and wording in order to avoid misunderstandings. I would say: Congratulations that he took notice of your blog! You both have a point to make.
1/3/2019 06:56:13 pm
Someone being taken to task for failing to appreciate the originality of Megan fox's depiction of Viking life is just not on the list of things I would have expected to see before departing this world for that great three for one happy hour in the sky.
An Anonymous Nerd
1/3/2019 07:36:01 pm
I read the two parts of the article that related to writers I was familiar with: Mr. Colavito and Ms. Sera Head of ArchyFantasies. (I hadn't read her review but I know her work generally.) I also read the broad conclusion.
1/3/2019 08:12:20 pm
Keep in mind that professional skeptics often have as much to gain as fringe folks when it comes to publicity generated by public conflict or controversy. So, taking a pass on an opportunity to provide a "spirited response" to anything resembling a critical review of one's writings by a pro just wouldn't be good business. The same thing happens in academics from time to time. Or Jason could pull a wolter and just call the guy a hateful troll and leave it at that.
An Anonymous Nerd
1/3/2019 10:15:43 pm
[Or Jason could pull a wolter and just call the guy a hateful troll and leave it at that. ]
An Anonymous Nerd
1/4/2019 07:25:38 am
And since I (for some reason) made it a point to say that my reply wasn't posted.....I may as well also make it a point to say....Now it is! Mr. Williams responded briefly too.
1/3/2019 09:49:14 pm
Everyone on this blog should take a good hard look in the mirror. The people blogging are swayed like children to a different point of view every time a small people of evidence is unveiled. It's embarrassing to read some of it. Societies are complex, they generally fit within the same mold as you are living today... just with a few adaptations based on biology and technology over time.
1/6/2019 04:46:53 pm
Nicely said EAGLE FEATHER
1/7/2019 01:44:36 am
1/7/2019 03:36:48 am
American Cool "Disco" dan
1/7/2019 01:53:12 pm
I would like to wish everyone a very happy Mental Patient Day.
1/7/2019 07:24:08 pm
You should be dancin'... yeah
Horace T. Quagmire
1/20/2019 09:36:59 pm
Professor Williams clearly had the hots for Ms. Fox.
Horace T. Quagmire
1/20/2019 10:22:11 pm
Anyone who thinks Fox revealed something new clearly checked their brain at the door.
1/20/2019 10:33:20 pm
Horace T. Quagmire
1/22/2019 06:59:41 pm
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.