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Selective female infanticide as partial explanation for the dearth of women in Viking Age Scandinavia
By Nancy L. Wicker
Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West, edited by Guy Halsall (Boydell, 1998)
Introduction: ‘So you are with child. If you should bear a girl, it shall be exposed, but if a boy, then it shall be raised.’ – Thorsteinn to Jofridr in Gunnlaugs saga
This thirteenth-century Icelandic saga gives an example of ‘exposure’, or the abandonment of an unwanted child. Though the saga was written well within the christian period, Porsteinn’s directive to his wife J6frf6r contradicts christian medieval teachings that dictate raising all children and perhaps recalls ninth-century norrns. From his declaration we may infer that men in this society had the right to make such decisions and that women were compelled to accept their judgement. His apparently cavalier attitude also suggests that female offspring may have routinely been disposed of in this manner. The action advised by Forsteinn, exposure, represents a category of violence rarely documented in Viking culture. Public violence in warfare and plunder was exalted and mentioned frequently in the sagas and in history tending to form our views of violence in this society, while other forms of more private violence at home are little known.
The Viking world has been considered one of powerful men, and we may question whether there even is such a concept as ‘Viking women’. Though the etymology is unclear, the word ‘Viking’ apparently refers specifically to the seafaring men who pillaged and established colonies throughout much of Europe and beyond 800 to 1150. We know much less about women and children of the Viking period than about men because they were not similarly commemorated in life or in death in the extant histories and sagas that we read or in the burial remains that we find.