The “great village” mentality of Medieval Iceland, as Jessie Byock describes it, probably helped to curb feud violence in Iceland.
Conflict did occur however, and the Icelanders had institutions to deal with this problem.
The central institution for conflict resolution was the Althing, while local chieftains called goðar handled minor local problems.
If these institutions failed to resolve a conflict it could be handled by an older, if less peaceful institution, the blood-feud.
The first two solutions were controlled and run by men. Women played very little if any role in the Althing and though they could act in their husband’s stead on some matters, the men of the community, alone, were charged with handling the legal matters.
This does not hold true with the Feud, as an examination of the Icelandic Sagas proves.
In the age-old institution of feud, the women in the Icelandic Sagas played important roles.
The most common female role in feud was as ‘goaders’, verbally coercing the men to take bloody revenge.
Women seized upon other roles as well. While the majority fell into the goader position, some also served as key planners of the vengeance, while some (not content to sit home and await the outcome) accompanied the men to serve as witnesses.
Some took on the roles of men as blood-letters and others as mediators. As evidence for this, I will refer to three of the Icelandic Sagas: The Saga of the Volsungs, Laxdaela Saga, and The Saga of Grettir the Strong.
The Goaders: Viking Women as Inciters of Violence
Any examination of women’s involvement in feud should begin with their most common role, that of the goader. Although Icelandic women were precluded from the official institutions of conflict resolution, they frequently played a major role in the unofficial institution of feud.
In this way, women exerted some degree of control within their families, communities and the legal system.
As goaders, the women of the sagas worked to incite the men to act.
In Volsunga Saga, Brynhild urges her husband, Gunnar, to kill Sigurd. Thorgerd and Gudrun work their men into a frenzy in Laxdaela Saga. Gudrun convinces several men to ambush Kjartan. Then on the morning slated for the attack, she threatens her husband Bolli with divorce if he refuses to join them;
“if you refuse this journey, it will be the end of our marriage.”
In response to Kjartan’s murder, his mother, Thorgerd, goades her remaining sons into exacting an exceptionally bloody revenge on Bolli. After dragging them past Bolli’s house, she breaks into full goading mode:
“I know that Bolli lives here, your brother‘s killer. And you are remarkably unlike your noble kinsmen if you don’t want to avenge such a brother as Kjartan was…I for one believe it would have suited your better to have been your father‘s daughters and been married off.”
This is scathing abuse, but effective, as they promptly put together a plan to murder Bolli in his summer house.
Why is Goading Necessary? Aren’t Vikings Inherently Violent?
The degree of goading involved in both of these cases begs the question; why was such abuse necessary?
Icelandic women sometimes had to work very hard to get their men to exact revenge. This is mostly due to the nature of the ‘great village’ communal idea that Byock refers to.
According to Byock, Iceland’s feuding practices were different from other Scandinavian, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, because of the insular nature of the Icelandic community. While the other countries organized themselves along familial and clan based lines, in Iceland, due to the isolation of the island, families intermarried more often, confusing and complicating familial alliances.
This was further complicated by the fact that women retained their alliance to their father’s line, as well as to their husband’s. This intermarriage meant that there were rarely clear-cut alliances or enemies. Without the sense of ‘us versus them’ that one finds in more clannish societies, like Scotland, men were more reluctant to take revenge through feud, as their enemy was more often than not, blood-related.
We can see this reluctance play out in the sagas.
In Volsunga Saga, after Brynhild threatens to leave her husband, Gunnar, unless he kills Sigurd,
Gunnar “became very distressed. He thought he did not know the best course to pursue, for he was “bound by oath to Sigurd.”
Gunnar knows that he will be an oath-breaker if he kills Sigurd and this is an unforgivable act in Icelandic society.
In Lacdaela Saga, in response to Gudrun’s tirade of insults, both Ospak and her husband Bolli show reluctance to take revenge on Kjartan.
Ospak tells her that,
“she was making too much of this,”
and Bolli argues that,
“it would not be right for him to do that because of his kinship with Kjartan, and he recalled how lovingly Olaf had brought him up.”
Bolli had been raised by Kjartan’s father, Olaf, and as such was Kjartan’s foster brother. This is a perfect example of how interlinked Icelandic society was.
After suffering the verbal attacks of Thorgerd, her sons sought the assistance of a friend, Bardi, who warned them,
“To violate a settlement with one’s kinsmen would be widely condemned.”
He goes on to say, in reference to their invitation to join in on the killing,
“I know you would think it improper of me to shirk it…Nor shall I, if I cannot dissuade you from it.”
This demonstrates three things all in one statement; the reluctance that Bardi has to join in the violence against a kinsman, the anticipated fallout that will come from the society at large, and the strong ties of kinsmanship to Thorgerd’s family which sway him, in the end, to join in the feud.
To convince men to break such strong bonds of kins-manship and to risk the condemnation of their community, women had to goad them severely.
Viking Women as Generals and Witnesses
When the goading was over, there was still the problem of carrying out the vengeance and sometimes this required solid planning, a hidden talent of some Icelandic women: the role of General.
Sometimes the men needed help to plan out the bloodletting and their women were happy to pitch in. Planning revenge could be tricky, especially when the ones slated to do the killing are a group of reluctant men.
Gudrun certainly had no compunctions about planning the counter-revenge for the murder of Bolli. She held a long discussion with Snorri the Priest on the particulars of whom to kill and who should do the killing. She even pretended to promise an engagement to Thorgills Holluson in order to get him to agree to lead the attack.
Not to be outdone by her rival, Thorgerd was not only involved in the planning, but insisted on tagging along to keep her sons in line.
She told them in no uncertain terms,
“for I know you well enough, my sons, to realize that you will need spurring on.”
Then she takes on the role of battlefield strategist and general when (as Bolli is desperately struggling to keep his intestines from rolling onto the floor) she gives them play-by-play instructions,
“there was no need to shrink from dealing with Bolli thoroughly; she told them to finish off their work.”
They promptly separate Bolli from his head and the killing ends. Thorgerd was certainly intent on seeing the job through to the end.
There is one more woman in Laxdaela Saga who can be labeled as a ‘planner’: Aud, who takes on the sole responsibility of planning revenge on her ex-husband, Thord. However, as she also falls into another category, she is better left for later.
Viking Women as Witness to Honorable Death
Thorgerd and Gudrun are also the best examples of women as witnesses to feud.
In the aforementioned attack on Bolli, it was not only Thorgerd who is present at the killing, but also her rival, Gudrun. Gudrun had been sent out of the shieling by order of her husband, Bolli, but she returned afterwards to ask his killers how the event played out.
A witness to a hero’s death is an important part of the taking of vengeance. Someone must witness how the hero dies in order to uphold his or her honor after death. In this scene, Gudrun plays this role and is probably the most haunting witness in the three sagas:
She [Gudrun] asked them how their encounter with Bolli had gone. They told her what had happened. Gudrun was wearing a tunic with a tight-fitting woven bodice, and a tall head-dress, and around her waist she had tied a fringed sash with dark blue stripes. Helgi Hardbeinsson went up to her and took one end of the sash and wiped the blood off the spear with which he had run Bolli through. Gudrun looked at him, and smiled.
Gudrun is a bold and fearless woman. As a result, she obtained the story of her husband’s death, his bloody clothes and her own sash to use later as goading tools to exact revenge on Helgi.
Thorgerd served as a witness to a job well planned and well executed.
Both Gudrun and Thorgerd represent ways in which bold Icelandic women could take an active part in feuding. However, neither woman steps completely over the boundary into the roles reserved for men. Neither Gudrun nor Thorgerd take up weapons themselves or personally arbitrate the end of the feud.
Viking Women with Weapons
There are two women in the sagas who do assume roles generally reserved for men alone: Aud and Thorbjorg.
In Laxdaela Saga, Aud lost her husband Thord, who accused her of wearing men’s trousers, apparently grounds for divorce in Medieval Iceland.
Aud exacted bloody vengeance upon Thord, not by goading other men into attacking him, but by riding to his house, strolling into his bedroom and stabbing him as he attempted to get out of bed.
The scene is full of gender-bending allusions: Aud wore “breeches” (the charge that led to divorce in the first place) and Thord mistook her for a man. The gender issues draw attention to the fact that she was not acting as a woman, but taking on the role of a man. Aud is an excellent example of a woman in a man’s role as bloodletter. She is not alone in assuming a masculine role.
In Grettir’s Saga, Thorbjorg, a wife of an influential farmer, assumes the role of her husband as the arbitrator, or mediator of a conflict between a group of lowly farmers and Grettir, whom the farmers have captured while sleeping and are getting ready to hang from a tree.
The farmers had already dragged Grettir around to all of the local chieftains, but none of them wanted to deal with him. Thorbjorg warned the farmers against killing such a powerful and influential man and then freed him after making him swear an oath to cause no more trouble in her region.
The farmers apparently recognized her authority, because they released Grettir to her and Grettir had little choice but to recognize her power over his situation.
The existence of such women in the sagas begs the question of how realistic were such situations? How many women stepped into traditionally male roles?
Neither Aud nor Thorbjorn are criticized for their actions.
Aud’s brothers seem impressed by her actions if guardedly optimistic about the repercussions. Thorbjorn’s husband is at first upset over his wife’s actions, but is convinced by her argument that it will bring honor to them both for having acted thus.
This brings us to the final section and the question of what motivated these women to act in such bold ways?
While revenge might suffice as a motive for most of the cases, namely the planners, goaders and Aud, it is insufficient to explain the case of Thorbjorg.
In her case, she explains her motive to be the increase of honor. The easy answer would be to say that Thorbjorg was looking for honor and the others were in search of vengeance.
I would argue that they all were attempting to regain honor that they perceived to have been lost.
Honor was an important factor in Medieval Iceland, and all of Viking society, and indeed, all of Northern European society at the time.
In Volsunga Saga, Signy killed two of her sons and betrayed her husband, so she chose to die with her husband in their burning house, because
“I have worked so hard to bring about vengeance that I am by no means fit to live.”
She felt as if she had lost so much honor that the only way to gain any of it back would be to die beside the husband she had betrayed.
Brynhild repeats this same motive when she stabs herself to death. She lost honor because she had broken her vows to Sigurd, to Gunnar, and to herself. She also lost honor by not marrying the best man, Sigurd, who married another woman whom Brynhild sees as inferior.
In a similar situation, Gudrun lost honor because her first choice for husband, Kjartan married a lesser woman, so she plots his demise. When Kjartan’s widow died, Gudrun left the job of revenge to her mother-in-law, Thorgerd, who defended the family’s honor by goading and plotting the death of Bolli.
Aud felt dishonored by Thord’s rejection, but instead of goading her family into taking revenge, she regained some semblance of honor by attacking Thord on her own. In fact, one might argue that Aud should be awarded higher honor than many of the men in the sagas, as she carried out the attack solo, with no backup, an unusual procedure, even for the men.
While men dominated most institutions in medieval Iceland, women asserted themselves in bold and sometimes masculine ways. These three sagas suggest that if faced with the choice between honor and disgrace, Icelandic women would go to extraordinary lengths to retain or regain the former.
Sometimes this was accomplished within the traditional roles assigned to women. However, if the retaining or regaining of honor required an Icelandic woman to overstep the traditional gender boundaries, some at least, stepped over firmly, and whoa be it to the Viking man who fell into their crosshairs.
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Love Vikings? Check out my other articles:
Byock, Jessie. Viking Age Iceland. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001.
Laxdaela Saga. translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Falsson. London: Penguin Books, 1969.
The Saga of Grettir the Strong. translated by Bernard Scudder. London: Penguin Books, 2005.
The Saga of the Volsungs. translated by Jessie Byock. London: Penguin Books, 1999.