It was a time of gladiators and warriors. Songs of heroes and legends of fearless soldiers rang through the cities. The words and whispers of blood and glory made men infamous; it made them immortal. It was a time of Zuess and Odin and many other gods that inspired honor through battle and glorious deaths. The statues and monuments dedicated to these brave men still stand in parts of the world today. Where were the women at this time? Did they make their mark somehow other than family, home, and hearth?
The search of who we were, who we are, and who we will become continues.
I grew up watching shows like Xena Warrior Princess, Wonder Woman, and most recently, Vikings. As a young girl, my eyes would sparkle as the brave women fought fearlessly in their leather bodices. They were my heroes.
As I got older, I would close my eyes and imagine the sound of steel on steel. I would see myself lifting a heavy shield to protect me from an ax or broad sword with my long hair swishing wildly in the wind. I would stop and wonder if I could do that? Could I lift a broad sword over my head and split a man into pieces? Would I want to? The fierce survival version of myself says yes, but the softer, nurturing, part of me repels it. Would I want that responsibility or weight upon my shoulders? I had to know more. Were there female warriors at that time? How did they do it, and who were they?
Between the years of 793-1066 AD, there was a significant presence of the infamous “Vikings” or Norseman. They were made up of the Danes, Scandinavians, Norwegians, Swedish, and Icelanders. They were a world away from many empires and civilizations. They had their own gods and way of life. They lived very similarly to the early Mesopotamian/Sumer people. They were nomadic and had small villages. They were mostly egalitarian.
Men mainly ruled and raided, but women had many freedoms that were not so in other parts of the world. Women held positions of power and had a significant influence on many things. Scandinavian women had the power and freedom to own property and request divorces. If their husbands died, women were expected to take on their roles and positions. Some women even became earls and ruled lands and villages. (1)
A considerable influence of women in this time and culture was as a priestess or a “see’er.” Women were revered as magical and spiritual beings. They led ceremonies, made sacrifices, and were the final word on many decisions for battles and seasonal harvests. At times they held more power than the male warriors or leaders due to their connection with the gods.
There is still the question of:
Did they fight? Were there really sword toting, courageous shield maidens in their leather armor or is it all just Hollywood?
After doing some research, I found information on new evidence of gravesites of the Norsemen/Viking warriors that had been discovered. They were previously assumed to be men due to the armor, weapons, and type of burial ground. New DNA research has found that many of these gravesites filled with swords, arrowheads, and two sacrificed horses were significant to warriors of high honor. When they tested the DNA of the bones in the tombs, they found that many of the sites that they had initially presumed to be filled with men, were actually women. (2)
What a colossal discovery and wave of glory for the world of women!
There are also records of an 8th-century battle where 300 shieldmaidens held the field in the Battle of Bra’vellir. This was also the battle where historians believe that the love story of Ragnar and Lagertha began. Lagertha was rumored to be one of the 300 shield maidens that fought that day. Ragnar was so overwhelmed by her courage and ruthless fighting that he sought to marry her. Ragnar became a Norseman/Viking legend. Some later called him a god. Ragnar did not fall in love with a damsel in distress or a fair maiden; he fell in love with a fearless warrior, a woman he knew could fight off any enemy.
Their story would live on in history, inspiring many to believe that love was not always about the brave male warrior and the frail princess. Lagertha inspired many women to be everything and anything they wanted with no fear and no regrets. It is written that many women followed in her footsteps, fighting bravely to their deaths. They played a large part in the battle against the Bulgarians in 971 AD. (1),(3)
There was also another way that women rose to power at this time. Through their beauty, psychological skill, and tactics, yes, I am talking pillow talk. Many men, no matter how strong or powerful, could not resist the temptation of a beautiful woman. Even harder to resist are the words she whispered after their minds turned to mush post ecstasy. Not all women learned this tactic or used it, but some did and most succeeded in their strategic goals.
In 497-548 AD there was a woman named Theodora in Constantinople (or now Istanbul). She began as a singer and actress. She later became a prostitute working in the brothels. Her beauty and intelligence stole the heart of Emporer Justinian. He made her his mistress and then married her.
Empress Theodora’s influence on women’s rights and laws at that time made her the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. She passed strict laws prohibiting the trafficking of young girls and added divorce laws to give more significant benefits to women. She may have used her body to rise to power, but in the end she used that power and intelligence to fight for all the women of her time and beyond. (4)
If beauty and sex can bring power, then can chastity or virginity as well? Let’s rewind even further to the first century, where we meet the two most famous woman in history. I am talking about the Virgin Mary and Eve.
To keep this portion of my piece as objective as possible, I will try not to comment on the spiritual or religious aspect of these two women. I will only speak of their influence on women and women’s history.
Let’s start with Eve. She was the first woman according to Christian doctrine. She is said to be formed from Adam’s rib and created to be a companion for him. I am not discounting this story or trying to tear it apart, but in terms of equality, it is not an easy story to swallow. It is said that she was the first to bite the apple or the forbidden fruit. She then gave it to Adam, which resulted in them being banished from the garden of Eden forever. Hm, not a great start for women’s reputations.
This story’s weight and influence caused women to be thought of as temptresses, evil, weak, and sinful. Women were blamed for being the reason why we were not in Eden and had to suffer the darkness of the world. It had also become the reason for “woman’s suffering” as in why women get their monthly menses and the curse/pain of bearing children. It is interesting to me that both of these things are referred to as a punishment or a curse. Women can grow and carry life. I would call that a gift, not a curse or punishment.
“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence, for Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”
I Timothy 2:11-14
The only saving grace at this time for women’s reputations was the influence of the story of the Virgin Mary. She birthed a savior that men would spend their lives fighting for and following his teachings. How could you demonize all women if your savior was born of a woman? Mary was not a normal woman, according to the story. She was a holy virgin chosen by God that birthed Jesus Christ as a miracle birth. Her story gave Christian woman a chance to crawl out from the weight of the reputation caused by Eve to the now desired holy and sacred roles of virgins.
Virtues of chastity, obedience, and submission were essential to women’s survival. In the eyes of early Christian men, women were treacherous, deceptive sinful creatures. If they were virgin, now that was a whole other story because their blessed mother was a virgin (Mary). These beliefs and ideals held true in Islamic teachings as well. The concept that a woman’s value depended upon her virginity or virtue still bears a heavyweight today.
The Virgin Mary may have saved many women from being branded as evil temptresses, but also gave women everywhere the new burden of only being of value as pure virgins. We will see this being strongly evident in the story of Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth I.
In terms of power thus far, I have spoken of queens, empresses, warriors, and prostitutes who shaped the way of the future for women to rise up. Although, it is the mother and the virgin that will continue to be the most necessary attributes for women for thousands of years even to today. The Virgin Mary is the most well known, influential person in women’s history.
That leads us to the middle ages or otherwise known as the dark ages. For women, they were dark times. The middle ages were from about 100-1453 AD. Women had no rights or freedom, and they were not permitted to read or be educated. They were only allowed to be wives, mothers, nuns, prostitutes, or slaves unless they were in a position of power or great wealth.
“Throughout the middle ages, the place of women in society was often dictated by Biblical texts. The writings of the apostle Paul, in particular, emphasized men’s authority over women, forbidding women from teaching, and instructing them to remain silent.” (5)
Small groups of women who would defy these ideals would be burnt at stake and accused of being a witch or a hieratic. This became a trend of the times, and sadly many women were charged and burnt at the stake as witches. Another rocky wave for the freedoms of women.
Then along came Joan.
In 1412 AD Joan (Jeanne D’arc) was born a peasant girl in France. She believed she was being called by God to end the war between England and France. Joan began hearing voices at the age of 13. She claimed it was God speaking to her. She made a vow of chastity and fought the courts when her father tried to marry her at age 16.
In 1428 Joan set out to see Prince Charles VII whom she believed was the true King. She was ridiculed and turned away many times, but one day she was granted a chance to speak to Charles himself and told him a secret message from God. He was impressed and allowed her to state her case. Charles eventually granted her permission to take some men and horses to start her quest. Joan cut her hair and dressed in men’s clothing. She vowed to the court and to France that she would win the war and have Prince Charles crowned King.
Before Joan was allowed to leave, she was put through extensive testing to prove she was a virgin. Can you imagine if a man had to go through several rectal or penile exams before he took a job or a mission? I am pretty sure most men would walk right out the door in a fit of rage. Joan stayed strong and passed all of their tests proving her worthy as a true virgin.
At age 18 with no formal military training, Joan led armies to defeat England and win the crown for Prince Charles of France. Joan succeeded in her quest. She became a beacon of light to all women and even men of France. The people loved her. She stood next to Prince Charles as he was crowned King Charles VII.
In 1430 Joan was becoming too famous and too influential. King Charles and his court were growing weary. When Joan was thrown from her horse while defending the town; she was captured by the Burgundians and traded to England. England wanted to make an example of her insulance so they pulled out all the stops. They charged her with more than 70 charges, including heresy, witchcraft, and dressing like a man. The Anglo-Burgundian/English were determined to do everything in their power to bring down the virgin hero of France and King Charles’ crown with it.
They imprisoned Joan for about a year and then on May 30, 1431, she was burnt at stake. Her death became a catalyst to her fame, and 20 years later Joan’s name was cleared. She was later canonized in 1920 and named a patron saint of France.
Joan of Arc has become one of the most famous female heroes in history. She came from nothing, showed no fear, never gave up and in the end stayed true to herself. It took a few hundred years for the church to acknowledge her works officially, but better late than never.
Who were we? Who are we now and who will we become?
The search continues…
I still don’t know all the answers to these questions, but what I do know after learning about Joan of Arc and the others is that we as women will not quit. We will persevere and even if it takes a few hundred years…
WE WILL FIGHT AND WE WILL BE HEARD.
Sending you all love and light,
Glass Ceilings: the rocky waves of freedom 1600 AD- 1900’s
(1) : History101.com
(2): National geographic
(3): History Channel- Sarah Pruit
(5): Dr. Alixe Bovey – “Women in medieval society”