So I was scrolling down my Facebook feed and I saw this Tumblr exchange. It’s starts off with an alleged fact about the Viking women having the right to castrate her husband if he mistreated her and is then added to. (Having studied Old Norse societies on and off for a few years and having googled this to death there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for the first claim. )
On the basis of these claims a user states that we should be romanticising the Vikings rather than the Victorians. There are many issues with this.
Firstly, do we romanticise the Victorians? Maybe for their many innovations, but certainly not the attitudes to women and human rights. I don’t think I’ve seen any mainstream modern promotion of 19th century attitudes to women, which I believe is what the crux of this post is about.
Secondly, why would you want to romanticise a society where mutilation of people’s genitals is seen as a good thing?! I think the people applauding this would react very differently if it were women who were being mutilated. It seems to be some sort of misguided female empowerment that’s in fashion at the moment (obviously I’m not against female empowerment, just the misguided stuff).
Unfortunately, examples of this happening in the modern day have been seen as amusing to some people. An example being Sharron Osborne making light, on a US TV talk show, of a man having his penis cut of by his female partner and then put in the garbage disposal (that’s an American thing in sinks that’s supposed to grind up food or something), and the audience and other panel members laughed along with her. It’s sort of portrayed as women getting their own back on men for centuries of oppression, but clearly not a lot of thought is put into that position. It’s a very childish view of gender issues. Basically it’s an extension of the playground boys vs girls attitude. This is spilling over into people’s views of history, which I don’t think is a good thing. We need to realise that people are not responsible for the actions of other people who happen to share the same gender, especially if the other people have been dead for century.
Another side to this issue is cherry-picking historical evidence to make women seem to have had more power or influence than they actually did, and to make past societies seem more progressive than those in the present day or more recent history (like the Victorians). I take particular issue with the touching of the hand claim. It is true that men could be punished for touching a woman without permission in Old Norse society, but it’s missing crucial details. There were various fines for different body parts being touched. From this post you’d think that the more intimate the touching, the higher the fine would be, but that was not the case. The fine would be lower for intimate places because it was assumed that the woman had consented to other areas being touched before that without complaint. Essentially, this is the equivalent of telling sexual assault victims that it was their fault for leading the other party on.
This leads me to my next point. Viking society was extremely patriarchal and was infused with what would be called ‘Toxic Masculinity’ today. There were a class of insults under Icelandic law which a person could be murdered for saying without repercussions for the murderer. One of them was calling a man gay, but it’s slightly more complex than that. It was not an insult if you were doing the penetrating, but was if you were the one being penetrated because it reduced you to the level of a woman. Therefore women were considered inferior to men. As such, they were constantly under the authority of their male relatives (fathers, brothers, husbands, etc.). The men could force their female relatives into marriages for their own gain.
The magic claim is the wrong way around. Women were not seen a magic. It was magic that was seen as feminine. It could be seen as dishonourable or unmanly for a man to practice magic. This fact is covered in some of the Sagas as Odin was a practitioner of magic.
Being seen as feminine was considered very negative for Norse men of the Viking period. This is played for laughs in a few sagas. Lokasenna is an Old Norse story in which Loki basically goes around insulting all the gods by calling the male gods gay and the female gods sluts. In another saga Thor is forced to dress up as a woman (which he finds humiliating) because his hammer has been stolen, so he had to pretend to marry the guy who stole it in order to get it back as a wedding present (Loki also features in this as an all too willing bridesmaid – Loki is strange). This demonstrates that femininity was looked upon in disgust in men, and that’s probably not a society that we should be romanticising.
Also of note is the revelations about the ancestral DNA of Icelandic people. While the male DNA was mostly Scandinavian, the female DNA was mostly Irish. The most likely scenario that caused this would be Viking raiders taking Irish women captive as slaves and bringing them back to Iceland. Again, not really a society that you want to romanticise.
All in all, you shouldn’t romanticise the Vikings or the Victorians. To be honest, I don’t think we should be romanticising any society, past or present. If a society is romanticised, the picture painted is shallow and very simple. We won’t do history justice by acting in this way. Societies are complex and should be treated as such. There are ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ things about every society and our opinion of them is biased by the environment that we have lived in. Therefore historical facts (or fictions in this case) should not be evaluated without the context of the society they came from, and people should do more research before posting or believing claims that they read online.
Tl;dr – don’t romanticise any historical period and fact check claims made online.