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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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