The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women
by Nancy Marie Brown
Expected publication date: August 31, 2021 by St. Martin’s Press
In 1889 in Birka, Sweden, archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe documented the grave of a highly-ranked warrior of tenth-century Norse society who had been buried with weapons, silk garments, and two horses among other things. For more than a century, it was assumed that the person in the grave (designated Bj 581) was male. A 2017 report refuted this assumption, stating that a DNA test confirmed that the person in grave Bj 581 was female. This had the potential to turn the modern understanding of Viking Age culture upside down and led to significant controversy. Some historians refused to believe that a woman could be a warrior and declared that the grave goods were merely symbols of honor, and had not been used by the woman during her lifetime. Others stated that if male skeletons buried with weapons were called warriors, then the same logic applied to female skeletons, too. The woman in Bj 581 was tall for the time, and analysis showed that she had been healthy up to her death. The weapons showed signs of use, and so were likely not merely ceremonial objects.
What does this mean for our understanding of the Vikings? It’s hard to say for sure. There are many ways to read the information we have about the woman in this grave. In her new book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, Nancy Marie Brown imagines a possible life for this woman, who she names Hervor after the heroine of the twelfth-century saga, The Saga of Hervor and Heidrik. As she follows her imagined Hervor through her life, Brown discusses a wide range of people and topics: Gunnhild mother of kings, weaving, blacksmithing, the economic impact of slavery on the Norse culture, certain fashions, and weaponry. Among others.
The effect that this collection of topics has on a relatively slim history book (nearly twenty percent of its 336 pages is given over to notes and bibliographies) is to give The Real Valkyrie the feeling that it is a very glancing overview. There isn’t enough room to give any one topic a significant page count. To do so would make the narrative feel as though it had gotten stuck dealing with a pet topic that refused to let the book continue at its quick pace. And while a quick pace may work well for a mystery novel, it’s perhaps not the most desirable trait for a nonfiction book about history. There are almost too many topics addressed, and while it is important to remember the value of so-called “women’s work” such as spinning or weaving to all eras of history, a long discussion of weaving methods– that Brown suggests would have been outside of her Hervor’s interests and experience– feels a little out of place, though if the whole book had been longer with more pages devoted to each topic, the examination of the topics historically regarded as “feminine” would have flowed more naturally into examinations of the more “masculine” topics.
Still, there is a lot to both learn and enjoy in The Real Valkyrie. As historical narratives widen to include a broader scope of human experience, it’s important to look back and consider that our understanding of history– especially the historical narratives we in the West have inherited from the Victorians– may be entirely wrong. Human beings are complicated now, and they always have been, so a view of history that tries to put every person into a tidy little box neglects the messy and complicated natures of humans. And if we refuse to acknowledge our messy history, it makes it easier to disregard the complexities of the present and future.
Is Brown’s imaginary life of Hervor an unlikely one, given that she meets a series of legendary tenth century-women? Perhaps. But Brown makes sure to point out that Hervor’s story is mere conjecture based on limited information. It’s an intriguing story, though, and it takes the reader across a wide swath of the tenth century Viking world, from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east while introducing us to real historical figures such as Eirik Bloodaxe and his notorious wife Gunnhild, called Mother of Kings.
With its discussion of women’s places in the Viking era, The Real Valkyrie helps to expand upon an ongoing conversation (or fiery debate, in some circles) about current preconceptions of the roles of men and women in Medieval Europe. As more graves are analyzed and with more skeletal remains being sexed with the aid of DNA scans, we’re going to find that the people of the Viking age were more complicated than we give them credit for today. Our views of these men and women will have to grow more nuanced, and books like The Real Valkyrie will help readers begin to navigate the new research– and the new views– about people who have fascinated us for a millennium.
Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.