I came across some commentary and reactions that were posted in regard to a study of Viking burial sites which had included information about the gender of the deceased. Without citing the actual text of the study, here is some of the reaction (via Invasion of the Viking women unearthed):
So much for Hagar the Horrible, with his stay-at-home wife, Helga. Viking women may have equaled men moving to England in medieval invasions, suggests a look at ancient burials.
The author presents a conclusion which seems commonplace today in the sense that it shatters our stereotypes about what we thought we knew about medieval women. This sentiment was then echoed by more recent commentary on the supposedly myth-busting find (via Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female):
It’s been so difficult for people to envision women’s historical contributions as solely getting married and dying in childbirth, but you can’t argue with numbers—and fifty/fifty is pretty **** good. The presence of female warriors also has researchers now wondering just how accurate the stereotypes of raping and pillaging actually are…
This second conclusion has us imagining wild Viking battles in which every other warrior rampaging through Carolingian villages is a long blond maiden-fighter named Helga or Olga. It’s backed up, supposedly, by archaeological evidence. Right?
Not so fast. One of the comments to that same article was left by a historian (“Andrew”) who just so happens to study early medieval burial sites (in other words, an expert on the topic). According to Andrew, the conclusion about the 50/50 gender split on the battlefield is simply not a correct one to be made, and that “…while many women have been found buried with weapons, the evidence doesn’t support the claim made in the title of equal gender representation on the battlefield.” The underlying rationale behind the women-on-the-battlefield theory is that warriors were typically buried with weapons, and archaeological evidence indicates that some of those with weapons are the remains of deceased females.
Andrew goes on to say that the actual rate of graves containing females with weapons is under 10%, and even that percentage might not accurately reflect how many women saw the battlefield (i.e. simply being buried with a weapon does not automatically mean that the deceased was a warrior). His conclusion:
Archaeologists who ignored evidence that Viking women weren’t all housewives caused great harm, but going to the other side and saying that men and women were equal on the Viking battlefield isn’t really any better. It minimizes the reality of gender inequality that Viking women had to struggle against, much like the inequality faced by their modern counterparts.
Good advice, except for the curious conclusion in the last sentence, which seems to violate at least the sentiment of avoiding unfair conclusions that he had been advocating. Did Viking men and women share the same roles? Did they have the same responsibilities, or enjoy the same benefits as the opposite sex? Certainly not, but using a loaded, modern term such as “gender inequality” inserts biased socio-politically-motivated language into a discussion which up to that point had been about archaeology.
Personally, I thought that it was interesting to see the display of cause and effect in regard to archaeological findings, even if the effect caused some erroneous conclusions to be made. It doesn’t really matter to me how many Viking women were on the battlefield, but it does make more intuitive sense that the percentage would have been quite low. Quite understandably, men would have been more valued for their physical prowess in war, and women would have been more valued for their gifts of childbearing and home life. This isn’t to say that this was absolute, but just a general rule. As unfashionable it may seem these days, it’s far wiser to get one’s knowledge by learning the general rules about how the world works (or worked in history) than it is to be educated in a thousand exceptions.