Gender and Trade Relations in the Age of the Anglo-Vikings

Anyone who has watched the History Channel’s hit show Vikings might not be watching it as an anthropologist. Unfortunately for me, I find myself drawn to analysing the asymmetries between Vikings (Scandinavians) and Anglo-Saxons (Britons). What follows are some thoughts I want to share. A caveat: These are based solely on watching the series, not from extensive reading.

The key differences between the two cultures appear to be (as seen on screen).

Vikings:

  • Northern limits of European agriculture;
  • Pagan gods (multiple gods: polytheism);
  • Characterised by small population densities;
  • A society obsessed with violence and a violent death as the must-have;
  • Raiding and war as essential (as above);
  • Utilise manoeuvre warfare to their advantage (later Genghis Khan will do the same);
  • Few if anyone in society could read or write. History and traditions are passed down orally.

As the population sizes are smaller and the agricultural season is shorter, men and women rely more on each other. What we see therefore is substantial sexual cooperation. Not only in child-rearing but in decision making, making war, and institutionalising violence. At any one time, most eligible males can be killed in raiding leaving behind male adolescents and substantial numbers of newly single women. Thus, allowing women to contribute to decision- making and ruling, as well as fighting, mitigates the loss of sexually mature adult males.

What’s fascinating is women have a more active role in society – as Shield Maidens or Earls. The only differentiator here being there physical size. In most agricultural societies, women are highly prized, especially in the key monotheistic religions. Women produce new workers, soldiers and hopefully more women. Yet the Vikings allow them to participate in war-making.

Anglo-Saxons:

  • Men are decisions makers in a more agricultural intensive society;
  • England has a temperate maritime climate compared to Scandinavia’s alpine tundra climate;
  • Christianity is a monotheistic religion and has a woman as the mother of God, where purity is highly rated;
  • Geology and geography changes from highlands (northern England) to plains and flats (southern England);
  • Women can occupy positions of power but not on an equal footing as men. They can influence outcomes through seduction and child-rearing;
  • Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (of the former Roman Empire) had significant occupation specialisations (King, Earls, warriors, farmers, monks, priests) there were more calories available in their diets;
  • Agricultural productivity in England, especially of the South, South West (near the eastern edge of the North Atlantic drift) and East Anglia (similar in geology and soil composition to the Low Countries on the continent) provided significant calories and excess food and fodder;
  • Certain men (priests and monks) can read and write. Women can’t.

Looking at men and women from both cultures, it’s clear that in Anglo-Saxon kingdoms women are clearly chattel. They are their father’s or husband’s property. Their sole function is to provide legitimacy, boys, and provide both king and Pope with soldiers of Christ. In this world, as portrayed in the TV show, smart women keep their mouths shut but influence their husbands or lovers in the bedroom, where a woman has unquestionable sexual power over any man. Contrastingly, Viking couples are quite open to taking additional adults to bed. Therefore, even sex appears less political (though it still is, after all, it’s sex!) than in Anglo-Saxon Christendom.

Social Mobility

The most striking difference between both cultures is again in women’s fortunes. It’s fair to say, that until the 20th century, women’s social mobility was a function of who she was married off to. In this sense, women have “pre-destination” forced upon them. In other words, their fate was decided before they were born, they merely have to go through the motions (provide many children; hopefully, lots of boys!). Men, on the other hand, operate under the auspices of “free will”. Both are borrowed from Protestant and Catholic thinking. In free will, men can aspire to be anything, and history vindicates this. The difference is, men, achieve their free will through the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. Men, highly regarded as the more violent of the two sexes, will seize their social mobility by killing, declaring war, rising up against incumbents or invading. Women, historically, not so (though there are exceptions).

From watching Vikings, I see Viking women “free women” as holding both predestination and free will. They can choose the safer option for their social mobility or they can join their man folk raiding and exploring.

Today, in the 21st century, the Norwegian Army allows women to serve on the front lines in their Special Forces. This comes as little surprise. As a country which has historically been more egalitarian, cooperative and reliant on all of its adult population to work for the betterment of the country. Britain at the same time is decidedly cautious about allowing women to serve in similar units – often sighting physiological impediments as reasons for not allowing their participation – but is also slowly modernising. Even after 1,200 years has elapsed since the Vikings set afoot on Lindisfarne, Britain still clings to its gender-segregated occupations.

Anglo-Viking domination

Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king, successfully defeated Harald Hardrada but lost to William. William Duke of Normandy, the last Viking to invade England and transform it irrevocably. England was finally a country united and ruled by a Viking family. Looking back at history, we see the Vikings (or as the media and historians refer to their descendants as “Anglo-Saxons”) take control of the world. Why is it that England was so special to Scandinavian and Norman Vikings? Why did the inheritors of William emulate what earlier Vikings had done?

At the latter end of the first millennium AD, Britain had the largest trading empire which was predicated on a strong navy. Similar to the original Vikings who raided England. But most importantly, British Vikings set up America. Anglo-American financial dominance in the 21st century is a historical corollary to Viking raids! The reason Anglo-Americans dominate is because of this cultural tradition that the Vikings brought to Britain and which we subsequently exported to the world. Vikings have dominated the global trade system for nearly 600 years (since Sir Francis Drake returned to the Elizabethan court). They dominated western Europe in the Dark Ages and went into stasis during the Late Middle Ages. The question therefore is, will Anglo-Vikings continue to dominate?

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