Women in the Viking Age. Judith Jesch, 1996.

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The Swedish runestones are public memorials. Prominent in the landscape, the standing stones rise out of fields and by the roadside, the earthbound ones are large, natural features. Most of them are in public places, beside roads and bridges, or at parish or farm boundaries. Thus they present the public face of the family members who appear on them. The ones that have been discussed here suggest reasons for these public statements about family life: to confirm relationships and inheritance, or to proclaim the heroic deeds of a family member. It is possible that some

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of the vast majority of inscriptions which merely contain the formula 'A(B,C...) had this stone raised/these runes carved in memory of X(Y,Z ...), his/her/their...' also had some such public purpose. In the small, isolated communities of central Sweden, it could be expected that passersby would know the persons involved and the facts of their lives, and that the runestone would merely be there to jog their memory.

Thus a couple of stones, both erected by widowers, praise their dead wives. The stone at Saleby (Vg 67) merely says that Thora was Isest among people'. The inscription on the stone from Hassmyra (Vs 24), however, contains a verse in praise of Odindis (the only verse on a

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Swedish stone commemorating a woman). The whole inscription may be translated as follows:

The good farmer Holmgaut had this raised in memory of his wife Odindis.

A better housewife
will never come
to Hassmyra
to run the farm.
Red Balli carved
these runes.
She was a good sister
to Sigmund.

A Viking Age 'housewife' had of course a wider range of responsibilities than her modern counterpart, for she was in charge of all the work that went on indoors (and certain types of outdoor work near the main buildings as well), which included the production of food and textiles from raw materials. But women's as well as men's work was presumably so taken for granted that it was not thought necessary to mention it in memorial inscriptions. We rarely catch a glimpse of Viking Age men's work in the runic inscriptions either. The expression boandi goğr ('a good farmer') used of many a commemorated man is no more than a conventional formula of introduction and not necessarily a judgement on his farming practices. When we do meet men engaged in activities, it is in activities which are out of the ordinary, they are steering ships, feeding eagles and amassing gold abroad.

Women's role in producing the next generation is of course implicit in all the inscriptions. Not all inscriptions are necessarily commissioned by one family member in memory of another, there are for example some commissioned by men in memory of their 'fellows', i.e. trading partners or companions on viking expeditions. But where women are concerned, runic inscriptions are strictly a family affair. It is not surprising to find more mothers and wives in runic inscriptions than sisters and daughters, for a woman's reproductive role could only be fulfilled in her husband's family and not in her own. But beyond this basic fact, only a very few runic inscriptions give us clues as to how childbirth and child-rearing impinged on the lives of women.

Source: Judith Jesch, Women's Lives in Runic Texts in Women in the Viking Age, (Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester New York: The Boydell Press, 1986), 63-65.

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