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It can often be surprising how different some of the aspects of gender roles were in the Viking age to what we might typically imagine of an early medieval culture. The Spanish-Arabic traveller al-Tartushi visited Hedeby in the 10th century and recounts how astonished he was by the fact that women could choose to divorce their husbands. Written records also tell us that women could manage their own business, whilst archaeological evidence suggests that the textile industry was almost entirely female-owned and operated. Men meanwhile were expected to be tidy, moderate and polite. The Icelandic collection of Old Norse poems, Hávamál, contains social rules for men, including ‘of the mead drink moderately, speak sensibly or be silent’. Archaeological evidence such as antler combs and personal grooming kits show us that long hair and cleanliness was expected of both men and women. Furthermore, Viking mythology features gender-challenging characters, from the war-like valkyries and shield maidens to the gender-fluid Loki, who transforms to take masculine and feminine forms.

Despite the fact that gender roles in Viking society were different from those of contemporary cultures, the evidence suggests that in many ways they were equally if not more strict. In Viking literature the domains of ‘men’ and ‘women’ were fairly clearly partitioned, and transgression was rarely tolerated. We know from legal records as well as stories such as those appearing in the Laxdæla saga that ‘cross dressing’ and behaviours that didn’t conform with assigned gender were considered adequate reasons for divorce. Both the Norwegian Gulathing Law and the Icelandic lawbook, the Grágás, explain that a man being called unmanly was considered such a grave insult that, legally, it had to be answered by ritual-combat. Those who failed to follow their assigned gender roles were to be shunned, and could be exiled from their community. In mythology, gender nonconformity was often invoked to emphasise the otherworldly, sometimes threatening, nature of the characters. This supernatural connection may have been embraced by some individuals however, as archaeologists have uncovered several graves whose occupants appear to transgress typical Viking gender roles.

Explore more about the LGBTQ+ Community in York

Anne Lister ‘The First Modern Lesbian’
Anne Lister in York
Molly Houses
John Brown / Barbra Hill
Homosexuality in the Medieval Period
John / Eleanor Rykener