Caught Between Worlds: Gendering the Maiden Warrior in Old Norse

  • William Layher
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In Liber VII of the Gesta Danorum, an early thirteenth-century chronicle about the history of Denmark, the author Saxo Grammaticus pauses for a moment, after narrating the fantastical adventures of a swashbuckling female pirate named Alvhilda, in order to deliver a brief excursus about the shield-maidens that populated the Nordic world centuries ago.


Burial Mound Maternal Grandfather Male Persona Male Heir Early Fourteenth Century 
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  1. 1.
    J. Olrik, and H. Reeder, eds., Saxonis Gesta Danorum, 2 vols. (Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard, 1931), 1: 192.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    On some historical, legal, and anthropological facets of the warrior woman figure in Old Norse see Carol Clover, “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 85 (1986): 35–49, to which I am indebted for much early inspiration on this topic. A broader focus on the topic of warrior women is presented in Megan McLaughlin, “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe,” Women’s Studies 17 (1990): 193–209. For a comprehensive and authoritative overview of women in Norse culture, see Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995) and her other book, which might be seen as a companion volume to the first, Old Norse Images of Women (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). Her chapter on “Warrior Women,” in Images, pp. 87–112, is essential reading. The most detailed look at Saxo and the shield-maidens is found in N.H. Holmqvist-Larsen, “Skjoldmodigressionen,” in Meer, skjoldmøer og krigere: En studie i og omkring 7. bog af Saxo’s Gesta Danorum (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 1983), pp. 40–73.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, eds., An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2d edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), p. 79.Google Scholar
  4. 19.
    See Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1991). On the archaeological evidence see also Jochens, Images, pp. 107–8.Google Scholar
  5. 22.
    Stephen A. Mitchell, Heroic Sagas and Ballads (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 27. On the fornaldarsögur, see also Torfi Tulinius, The Matter of the North: The Rise of Literary Fiction in Thirteenth-Century Iceland, trans. Randi C. Eldevik, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross, The Viking Collection, 13 (Odense: Odense University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  6. 24.
    Else Mundal, “Kvinnebilitet i nokre mellomaldergenrar: Eit opposisjonelt kvinnesyn?” Edda 82 (1982): 349 [341–71].Google Scholar
  7. 30.
    See, for example, Kari Ellen Gade, “Penile Puns: Personal Names and Phallic Symbols in Skaldic Poetry,” Essays in Medieval Studies 6 (1989): 57–67.Google Scholar
  8. 38.
    Riti Kroesen, “Hvessir augu sem hildingar: The awe-inspiring eyes of the King,” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 100 (1985): 41–58.Google Scholar

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© Sara S. Poor and Jana K. Schulman 2007

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  • William Layher

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