Viking Women: life and lore, by Lisa Hannett

This is not a standard “here’s what we know about Viking women” book. Those exist, and Hannett acknowledges them, and now I’m all keen to go buy them.

It’s also not a “here’s a reworked set of sagas”, which of course also exist. I’m less excited about those, to be honest, not least because most of the new variations just keep on focusing on the dudes (as far as I can tell).

Hannett is both an academic and a writer of fiction, so this book brings together both in an intriguing and fascinating way. Each chapter generally takes one woman from the sagas (there’s one chapter with two women, and another with three), whom Hannett both explores as a character in her own right, and also uses as a way of illuminating what we know about women in their positions more broadly. And in chapter, Hannett also tells the story of that woman, from her saga. So the history and the fiction are intertwined such that each reinforces the other. Also, Hannett wants you to be under no illusions about the lives of Viking women: while in some respects they did have advantages over the general perception of ancient and medieval European women, they were still absolutely second class citizens (or worse, as slaves).

Hannett describes the way she approached the fictional parts as “reasonably, carefully, colour[ing] them in” – which I think perfectly encapsulates what she’s done. There’s really so little about the women in the stories that a pencil outline just about covers it. Doing both the fiction AND the history means that the reader sees the research – archaeological, literary, intertextual and so on – that informs the fiction, and then how the saga also helps us understand the experiences and realities of life for Viking women. It brings together Hannett’s strengths in a truly glorious way.

I particularly liked that Hannett focuses on ‘ordinary’ women. There’s no royalty (well, not AS royalty), and there’s no goddesses or other, otherworldly women. They are all women who could, actually, have lived – and several of them are documented in less literary sources, so they probably actually DID exist. And so there are enslaved women; there are wives, to men of varying levels of honour, with a variety of experiences; there are mothers with varying experiences of child-bearing. Women who are witches and nuns, women who wield power in a variety of ways; those whose lives were (in context) fairly easy, and others who experienced trauma and exceptional difficulty. So, the whole gamut of life.

This is a fantastic look at the experiences of Viking women, and nicely situates the Icelandic sagas in history and literature. You do not need any background in Vikings to appreciate this.

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