Women, archaeology, history and literature

I am way behind at writing up seminars attended (and in posting at all), but given it’s taken us over a thousand years to learn about some of these topics, perhaps a delay of a few months is acceptable. Anyhow, on 9th February at the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar we had Jane Kershaw from the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford speaking on the topic of ‘New insights on the Viking settlement of England: the small finds evidence’. At some point Jon Jarrett has promised to blog this paper as well, so if you want details from someone who knows rather more about both archaeology and Anglo-Saxon history than me (not difficult), you should probably wait for his take, because he can give a more considered view as to whether Jane’s argument actually holds up. But for now, here’s my rough summary about what the paper was on, leading into some more general thoughts about studying early medieval women.

Jane’s thesis was on culture and gender in the Danelaw, and her main evidence basis was Scandinavian metalwork found in Britain, specifically female brooches. There have been many discussions of the impact of Scandinavian settlers on English society in the ninth and tenth centuries: was there large-scale settlement, or did only a military elite come? Were the settlers simply male, taking English wives or did women/families come across? Where was this settlement and how ‘Scandinavian’ did such settlers remain? What happens after the conquest of the Danelaw by English kings in the early tenth century?

Most of the archaeological evidence to analyse such questions is fairly limited. There are very few so-called ‘Viking’ burials or Viking rural settlements known. We do have stone sculpture, but this really only tells us about elites. What we also now have is new evidence from small metal finds, almost all by metal detectorists, recorded as part of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

There are various limitations to this evidence. It’s very hard to date these finds, since they are normally taken from plough soil, and they may not get recognised: they’re made from base metal alloys and can get very corroded. Reporting also varies between counties, depending on how enthusiastic the county liaison officers are on early medieval stuff (apparently Norfolk have traditionally been far more interested than York, for example). And on the Scandinavian side, metal detecting is popular in Denmark, but illegal in Sweden and Norway, so the evidence base is also skewed from that end. But the big advantage is that we have a lot of evidence: over 500 female dress items in Scandinavian style have been found in England.

There were actually two different types of brooch that Jane was talking about: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian, and she was using those to discuss different questions. Scandinavian female brooches can be distinguished from Anglo-Saxon ones in a number of ways. As well as different shapes and decorations, they also had distinctive fittings which correspond to different styles of dress. I didn’t catch all the details of this, but there are fundamental differences, such as whether they fasten left to right or right to left. (The fittings also mean that we know these are female rather than male brooches). Anglo-Scandinavian brooches, in contrast, have Anglo-Saxon style fittings, but Scandinavian designs. Both Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian brooches also sometimes have a different metal content from Anglo-Saxon ones (some are made of brass, whereas zinc isn’t used in Anglo-Saxon jewellery until C12). This suggests that they’re either made in Scandinavia or somewhere which has access to Scandinavian metal.


Copper alloy Borre style flat disc brooch (865-900), found in Lincolnshire

Jane was using the Scandinavian brooches (about 120 of them) and their distribution to look at the question of the number and type of Scandinavian settlers. What is noteworthy is how much variety there is in the types of Scandinavian brooches found. They’re not mass-produced, but instead we have a lot of different styles, which match up with finds in Scandinavia (both from metal-detecting and digs). The brooch types found in Scandinavia come from different regions (mostly Danish), and also date from the 870s through to the C10, sometimes even the later C10. So English jewellery is keeping up with Danish fashions. There’s no evidence for manufacture of them in England, while some share casting faults with Danish models. What is more, the distribution of these types is diffuse, rather than concentrated on urban centres. Jane argues that this suggests that these brooches aren’t coming in via trade (especially since there’s little evidence of any Anglo-Saxon trade to Scandinavia). Instead, she sees these brooches as coming with individual Scandinavian women, and that this suggests continued female migration over an extended period, which would explain the varied and changing styles.

For the Anglo-Scandinavian brooches, in contrast, of which we have around 350, we do have evidence of manufacture in this country and more concentrated patterns. These are brooches which are worn with Anglo-Saxon costume (judging by their fittings), but which Jane argued were intended to look ‘Scandinavian’. (There was discussion afterwards about what, if any ethnic identity they were intended to convey – could it have been a more regional or local identity, or simple a particular design becoming fashionable?)

These Anglo-Scandinavian brooches are found widespread in Danish-influenced areas of England (but not other neighbouring areas, such as Kent, which suggests at least some ‘ethnic’ component). There is a particular concentration in Norfolk and evidence for manufacture of them in Norwich, whereas some other areas in the Midlands and the north have far fewer examples, such as Yorkshire or the area around the Five Boroughs. This may be partly due to differences in recording finds between counties, but a real difference is likely.

This provides an interesting contrast to traditional place name evidence for Scandinavian influence, which is concentrated in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the Midlands, with very few such names in Norfolk. But Jane was pointing out that more recent studies of minor place names (rather than simply settlement names) showed more Scandinavian place names in Norfolk, including quite a number influenced by female Scandinavian names. The brooch distribution also seemed to fit with what’s been called the ‘Gipping divide’ in East Anglia, with two distinct cultures, seen in terms of late medieval farming practices, but which may go back earlier. Furthermore, some of the Anglo-Scandinavian brooches are of relatively high status and late (with comparisons made to pendants found in Saffron Waldron in the mid to late C10, and a die found in Lincolnshire). Although the Danelaw had theoretically been conquered in the first quarter of the tenth century, this continued identification with Scandinavian culture leads to questions about how effective the conquest or control was, and fits with other negative evidence – that there was no regular coinage in East Anglia until the 930s, and that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the submission of Lincoln. These areas may still have had a Scandinavian-identified elite and Danish control for longer than has been realised.

Jane’s arguments sound plausible to me, as a non-specialist in the area. But in some ways, what is even more interesting is a reminder of how much we can learn about women, including relatively non-elite women from archaeological evidence. It got me wondering again about the limits of history and other disciplines in studying early medieval women. In particular, it connected up with the intense irritation I’d recently had when starting to read Clare Lees and Gillian Overing Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England.

In the Introduction, Lees and Overing claim: ‘we work firmly within the perspective of cultural materialism of critics such as Raymond Williams’ (p 2), and part of their avowed aim is to examine questions such as ‘where were the women in the early Germanic invasions, whom did they marry, how were they educated and what role did they play in the education of others’ (p 5). And yet though a number of these questions might be most effectively approached via archaeological data, there’s not a squeak about that. Instead Double Agents moves ‘between the two reified poles of history and literature’ (xi), because cultural materialism and material culture apparently have absolutely nothing to do with one another. In fact I was so put off that I haven’t so far been able to get beyond my irritation with the authors to see if there’s something useful in the substance of the papers, or if it’s just pirouetting on the surface of a few selected texts to prove that Anglo-Saxonists can do theory too.

This all brings back the comments of a paper by Guy Halsall at the IMC in 2009 which was scathing about interdisciplinarity, and about the idea that literature and history were actually two different disciplines after the literary turn and the new historicism. But it also got me thinking about whether being a historian and studying early medieval women is like using a rock to bang in nails: possible, but not the most effective use of energy. If it comes down to it, I must admit that my commitment is to being a historian rather than the study of women per se, if only because I want a research life that involves ‘an indoor job with no heavy lifting’. And I think that for the Carolingian period, there is enough textual evidence that I can bring something to the party. (There’s also less archaeological evidence, owing to the lack of grave goods in the period and the prohibition of metal detecting on the Continent). But it’s always good to be reminded that the historian’s approach isn’t the only one possible to look at the meaning of early medieval lives.

5 thoughts on “Women, archaeology, history and literature

  1. Interesting article – thanks.

    Still trying to come to terms with the link between history and literature. Both are relevant in their own ways but I suspect the language of one is not entirely compatible with the other!


  2. Jane’s paper is now the next to write up in my pile, I’ll try and get to it this week. I think my write-up will sit more heavily down with the idea that East Anglia is an area apart, however, than Jane necessarily did. Thankyou for the prompt, anyway, I might have skipped it otherwise, since you covered it. Meanwhile, what about Rosemary Morris? You’re being unchronological you know…


    • I’d picked that up from Jon’s blog, but thanks for reminding me. I want to pick up some more points about cultural history from that paper at some point, but I’m getting distracted by some of Guy’s other posts.


  3. Seminar XLV: Viking metal for womenI realise this title may be misleading but I can’t resist it… I have been reminded that I promised to write up Jane Kershaw‘s paper given to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar on 9th February, and that ti…


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