Saturday, October 23, 2010

Female Smiths in the Viking Age?

From a recent topic on Norsefolk
" A lady being a blacksmith, or a metal caster ... anything is possible,
however it isn't documented in the written or pictorial record."
Something that came up sideways a good while back (Tell us a story, Uncle Ketil...)

I got a chance to work a good bit beyond my depth as part of the original concept/design team on 'Vikings - North Atlantic Saga' in 1999. The initial week long session was held in Washington, split into theme workshops during the day. Evenings the group got wined and dined by various Embasies. For a guy living in rural Ontario with coal dust under his finger nails it was all a bit surreal!
Anyway, at those evening cocktail parties, I found myself in the room with a good number of the heavy weights on the Viking Age. Eventually I worked up the nerve to ask a couple of selected questions - things that had been troubling me.
One of these questions was about blacksmithing work in the VA. I have always been troubled by the depictions of smiths working from ground pit forges, with anvils set on extremely short stumps. Without getting into all the technical details, my question was simply this:
Graves of blacksmiths are known from collections of tools in the burials. Have the bones been analysed to determine the working stances of those smiths?

The long and short is - NO.
This likely even extends to clear sexing of the skeletons. (Admittedly not always the easiest task). There is a good chance for anything but the most recent finds, the 'Victorian' model would have been used : Blacksmiths are male, grave has tools, therefore body is male.

So I have to agree 100 % with the original comment. There is no specific information known. There *is* possibly some information available, but it has not been studied.

(I will NOT be drawn into some pissing match with feminists reading this.)
The historical truth is that blacksmithing is almost universally a MALE occupation in all human cultures. Until the most modern times (read post 1970), the documented exceptions are just that - *exceptions*, not *proofs*.
I would fully expect that in Norse culture, blacksmithing would be considered primarily a male occupation.
It is of course perfectly possible that there would be rare females either with some level of skill, even perhaps with smith as occupation. Consider however the very clear enforcement of gender roles in other aspects of Norse culture. (Example : One of the recorded reasons for divorce is 'A woman wearing man's clothes', which can be taken to mean 'assuming a male role'.) My *opinion* is that this might be one of those places where the lines were fairly clearly drawn. A woman might get away with assisting male family members, or even primary work within the confines of an isolated farmstead. As a proclaimed blacksmith setting up shop in a public setting, I'd think this very unlikely. A father with no sons might teach his daughter, but I doubt anyone would actually pay for the services of a female in a man's occupation.

Having said that, this should NEVER preclude a modern re-enactor acquiring skills, even working in public demonstration. I would however highly recommend that this be presented as an example of the *difference* between the past and the modern day. "I can do any damn thing a mere man can do!" is an attitude from the 1900's at least, the post 1960's more definately. The fact that popular films still (and endlessly) use this situation as a plot element suggests this STILL is seen as role reversal!

PS - in case you don't know, I remain a HUGE supporter of women as modern artisan blacksmiths.

1 comment:

Liutgard of Luxeuil said...

It isn't Viking age, but there _is_ a 14th c illumination of a woman at the forge- and we know it is a woman because men did not wear the goofy frilled fillet with barbette and net on their hair. I don't think that it equates to anything akin to modern attitudes about what women can or cannot do- there is a man in the picture also, and it is entirely possible that it is simply a woman helping her husband out on a busy day. Fun to ponder though.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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