Women, War and Words: a Verbal Archaeology of Shield-maidens


  • Judith Jesch




Scholarly discussions of the question of the participation of women in war in the Viking Age have based their arguments on a variety of evidence, including both archaeology and texts. However, even those scholars who make substantial use of the textual evidence have not paid sufficiently close attention to (a) the vocabulary used in the representations (whether historical or fictional) of women acting in the supposed male role of warrior and (b) the literary-historical contexts in which the texts were produced, including potential relationships between texts.

To further these discussions, this paper proposes a method which might be called the ‘stratigraphy of texts’ to demonstrate how a careful sifting of the cumulative textual evidence can enrich discussion about this important question. With close attention to the vocabulary used by the texts, and by considering the date, genre and sources of, and – importantly – the relationships between, texts in Old Norse, the discussion will demonstrate what can and what cannot be deduced from these textual representations of female warriors in the Viking Age.

The paper will focus on tracing the development of the Old Norse concept of the skjaldmær, ‘shield-maiden’, through a variety of texts in which this term occurs, and also suggest a probable origin for the concept. There will also be a brief consideration of the term ‘valkyrie’ (ON valkyrja).






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