The Female Ruler

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


The social changes that took place in the wake of Iceland’s formal entry into the Norwegian monarchy in 1262–4, in conjunction with the influx and popularity of romance from the British Isles and Europe, brought about a transformation in the country’s cultural and political discourse. The effect of these developments can be found in indigenous Icelandic literature, which from the late thirteenth century onward became even more diverse than before. New types of popular texts emerged, bringing with them new images of women, especially the meykongr or maiden-king, a figure which features prominently in many of the late-medieval indigenous romances, (frumsamdar) riddarasögur. This (sub)genre is a fusion of different narrative elements, profoundly influ-enced by the structure and themes of foreign romance literature but containing motifs originating in native heroic legend, where images of independent women abound.1


Rape Myth Male Role Female Protagonist Traditional Female Role Late Thirteenth Century 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Olimpia in Samsons saga fagra is an active character who works toward establishing and preserving peace, see further Werner Schäfke, “The ‘Wild’ East in Late Medieval Icelandic Romance—Just a Prop(p)?,” in A austrvega: Saga and East Scandinavia. Preprint Papers of The 14th International Saga Conference. Uppsala, 9th-15th August, 2009, ed. Agneta Ney et al. (Gävle: Gävle University Press, 2009), p. 849 [2: 845–50]. Tecla, the lady-in-waiting in Clari saga, can also be seen as somewhat active. However, these figures’ actions are beneficial to the protagonist or the community and thus not portrayed negatively.Google Scholar
  2. Serena in Clari saga is said to practice kukl ok klokskapr“sorcery and wiliness,” p. 7; Sedentiana in Sigurðar sagap Qgla uses vandir gerningar “evil sorcery,” p. 101. Examples of supernatural objects are Nitida’s magic stone that enables her simply to fly away, whereas Viktors saga ok Blavus and Dinus saga dram-blata involve sleeping potions. For discussion of this feature in Continental romance, see Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), Chapter 5.Google Scholar
  3. Kalinke, Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland, Íslandica 46 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 90. In contrast, see the positive attitude to women’s wisdom in the fornaldarsögur discussed in chapter 1. as well as the image of Queen Astriör as a wise and eloquent woman, outlined in chapter 4. Furthermore, see the representation of wise women in Samsons saga fagra and Parcevals saga, discussed by Schäfke, “The Wild East,” and F. Regina Psaki, “Women’s Counsel in the rίddarasögur: The Case of Parcevals saga,” in Cold Counsel: Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology, ed. Sarah M. Anderson with Karen Swenson (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 201–24.Google Scholar
  4. See Ricketts, High-Ranking Widows in Medieval Iceland and Yorkshire. Property, Power, Marriage and Identity in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 2010), Chapter 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. The shield-maiden appears in many Old Norse-Icelandic and Germanic sources, including Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, and has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate, see for example, Carol J. Clover, “Maiden Warriors and Other Sons,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 85 (1986): 35–49.Google Scholar
  6. Lena Norrman, “Woman or Warrior? The Construction of Gender in Old Norse Myth,” in Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society: The Proceedings of the 11th International Saga Conference 2–7 July 2000, University of Sydney, ed. Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross, (Sydney: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Sydney, 2000), pp. 375–85.Google Scholar
  7. William Layher, “Caught between Worlds: Gendering the Maiden Warrior in Old Norse,” in Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre, and the Limits of Epic Masculinity, ed. Sara S. Poor and Jana K. Schulman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 183–208.Google Scholar
  8. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 33.Google Scholar
  9. See for example, Glauser, Isländische Märchensagas: studien zur Prosaliteratur im spätmittelalterlichen Island (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1983), pp. 206–7; Sävborg, Sagan om kärleken, p. 577; Jochens, Old Norse Images. pp. 102–3; Kalinke, Bridal-Quest Romance, pp. 78–79.Google Scholar
  10. SÍF Rikharösdottir, “Meykongaheföin i riddarasögunum. Hugmyndafrxöileg atök um kyn-hlutverk og þjoöfelagsstööu,” Skirnir 184 (2010): 410–33.Google Scholar
  11. and Henric Bagerius, Mandom och modom: Sexualitet, homosocialitet och aristokratisk identitet pa det senmedeltida Island (Gothenburg: Göteborgs universitet, 2009), pp. 167–74.Google Scholar
  12. Eichhorn-Mulligan, “Contextualizing,” pp. 198–207, M. F. Thomas, “The Briar and the Vine: Tristan Goes North,” in Arthurian Literature, ed. Richard Barber (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1983), p. 57 [3: 53–90].Google Scholar
  13. See Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (London: Sage, 2002), pp. 1–8.Google Scholar
  14. Jon Viöar Sigurösson, “The Icelandic Aristocracy after the Fall of the Free State,” Scandinavian Journal of History 20 (1995): 158 [153–66].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Sigriöur Beck, I kungens franvaro. Formeringen av en isländsk aristokrati 1271–1387 (Gothenburg: Göteborgs universitet, 2011), pp. 156–63.Google Scholar
  16. Larrington, “‘What Does Woman Want?’ M^r and munr in Skirnismal.” Alvissmal 1 (1992): 14.Google Scholar
  17. Shaun F. D. Hughes, “Klari saga as an Indigenous Romance,” in Romance and Love in Late Medieval and Early Modern Iceland: Essays in Honor of Marianne Kalinke, ed. Kirsten Wolf and Jόhanna Denzin, Íslandica 54 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 2008), p. 156 [135–63].Google Scholar
  18. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 161–62.Google Scholar
  19. Corinne Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), p. 74. Medieval authors often had dÍFficulties reconciling the two ideas, resulting in a theory of the separation of women’s rational will, and their carnal desires and pleasure, which, according to some, give way to the former during rape; for discussion.Google Scholar
  20. see Joan Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 94–95, 142–43.Google Scholar
  21. Luce Irigaray, “Commodities among Themselves,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 192–97.Google Scholar
  22. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). See also Saunders, Rape and Ravishment, p. 70.Google Scholar
  23. Paul Bibire, “From riddarasaga to lygisaga:The Norse Response to Romance,” in Les Sagas de Chevaliers (riddarasögur): Actes de la Ve Conférance Internationale sur les Sagas, ed. Régis Boyer (Toulon: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 1985), pp. 55–74.Google Scholar
  24. Guöbjörg A0albergsdóttir,“Nítí0a og aörir meykóngar,” Mímir 32–3 (1993 4): 54–55 [44–55].Google Scholar
  25. Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir, Property and Virginity: The Christianization of Marriage in Medieval Iceland 1200–1600 (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2010), p. 98; Jochens, “Consent in Marriage,” 144.Google Scholar
  26. Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 46. Canon law and secular law did not always agree in Iceland and were a matter of contention between representatives of the two spheres.Google Scholar
  27. Georges Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France, trans. Barbara Bray (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp. 221–22.Google Scholar
  28. See also Ad Putter, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 188–229.Google Scholar
  29. Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Inga Huld Hakonardóttir, “I nunnuklaus-tri—Kirkjubær og Reynistaöur,” in Íslenskt samfélag og Rómakirkja, Kristni a Íslandi 2, ed. Hjalti Hugason (Reykjavίk: AlÞingi, 2000), pp. 225–29.Google Scholar
  31. Kirsten Wolf, “Female Scribes at Work? A Consideration of Kirkjubæjarbók (Codex AM 429 12mo),” Beatus Vir: Studies in Early English and Norse Manuscripts in Memory of Phillip Pulsiano, ed. A. N. Doane and Kirsten Wolf (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2006), pp. 265–95.Google Scholar
  32. Agnes S. Arnorsdottir, “Marriage in the Middle Ages: Canon Law and Nordic Family Relations,” in Norden og Europa i middelalderen. Rapporter til Det 24. Nordiske Historikermßde, Arhus 9.-13. august 2001, ed. Per Ingesman and Thomas Lindkvist (Ärhus: Jysk Selskab for Historie, 2001), p. 178 [174–202].Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jóhanna Katrin Friðriksdóttir 2013

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations