Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Women in Old Norse Society

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Women in Old Norse Society

Article excerpt

In this closely written study and its forthcoming companion, Old Nor,re Images of Women, Jenny Jochens concludes that `the allegedly strong Norse women' depicted as guardians of heroic values in Eddic poetry and the sagas of Icelanders did not exist outside the male imagination. Without its sequel this book remains incomplete, lacking an explanation of the usefulness of this image in an ideology affirming aggressive masculine values.

Jochens examines women's lives under two headings: betrothal and marriage, with the related issues of sexual behaviour and reproduction, and their essential economic role in the workforce. Gleaning this material from resolutely male-centred texts reveals as much about the masculine as the feminine, producing a well-rounded cultural study which interprets a range of material largely unavailable in English and neglected by historians.

Although detailed, the analysis is sometimes imprecise. What exactly is `Old Norse society'? Sometimes - when we are told that the medieval system of nomenclature `still prevails' (p. 3o) - the reference is specifically to Iceland. But Jochens traces continuity from the pagan Continental origins of Germanic society, deducing its remnants from surviving Icelandic and Scandinavian law codes, through the sagas of Icelanders and of Norwegian kings, and the lesser-known contemporary sagas detailing Iceland's thirteenth-century political struggles. The shifts among these varying contexts are bewildering chronologically and generically.

Although treating literary context more spaciously than in earlier articles, Jochens blandly conflates the sagas of Icelanders in elaborating her theory that consent in marriage, where aLlowed to a woman - or where withheld, with dire consequences - was a Christian ideal anachronistically and didactically imposed by clerical thirteenth-century saga writers on the pagan system of marriage as commercial transaction between males. …

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