Women in Old Norse Society

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Jenny Jochens captures in fascinating detail the lives of women in pagan and early Christian Iceland and Norway: their work, sexual behavior, marriage customs, reproductive practices, familial relations, leisure activities, religious practices, and legal constraints and protections. Much of this information also applies to everyday life in the entire Germanic world. Conveying the experiences not only of aristocrats but also of ordinary farmers, the author draws from her extensive knowledge of the oldest and fullest record of the Germanic tribes.

Women in Old Norse Society places particular emphasis on changing sexual mores and the impact of the imposition of Christianity by the clergy and the Norwegian kings. It also demonstrates the vital role women played in economic production: homespun was used for every conceivable domestic purpose; the lengths of cloth became the standard of measurement for local commercial exchange and were used to obtain commodities abroad.

Jochens's masterly command of the Old Norse narratives and legal texts enables her to provide a rich social history that includes the fullest analysis to date of pagan and Christian marriage and the first comprehensive study of infanticide in the North.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Jochens's study is a model of interdisciplinary techniques and research; she carefully describes her sources—largely laws and sagas of various types—and their limitations, and then draws from them information, such as the etymology of key words ('wife,' 'husband'), possible only for a linguistic scholar of her caliber."—Choice

"Although a number of scholars have begun in recent years to approach Old Norse literature from a feminist perspective, Jenny Jochens has been the only historian in the United States to use gender analysis to study the society represented in that literature. . . . Jochens brings to bear on the Icelandic material a very broad range of knowledge: not only the Old Norse sources in all their complexity but also the body of scholarship in women's history and feminist theory. . . . This book can be read with profit by all medievalists and is essential reading for anyone interested in Old Norse society."—Speculum

"A thoroughly rewarding book. . . . The section on economics and production of wadmal and shaggy overcoats deserves close attention as the best treatment in English of an important topic hitherto neglected."—English Historical Review

"Jenny Jochens has been one of the most prolific scholars working on the perennially interesting theme of the role played by women and scholars in Old Icelandic history and literature. Jochens presents a wealth of fascinating detail, never before collected to this extent . . . offering a full picture of the lives of medieval Icelandic women."—Saga-Book

"Well documented and well presented, Women in Old Norse Society covers much material that has not been dealt with in English. It serves the dual purpose of establishing a focus on women and of providing an enormous amount of good cultural history."—Theodore M. Andersson, author of The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)

A detailed study of the lives of Christian and Pagan Norse women, teasing out from predominantly male narratives, oral histories, and legal tracts, the vital role women played in the society and the changes imposed on them by Christianity. Jochens (history, Towson State U.) outlines pagan and Christian marriages, divorce and widowhood, sexuality and reproductive issues such as infanticide and royal succession, leisure activities, work, and the economics of cloth making. The appendices discuss the legends from which this history is taken, and the scholarly controversies around the interpretation of "fiction." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801485206
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2014
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 1,512,688
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Jenny Jochens is Professor of History Emerita at Towson University.

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Table of Contents



Chapter One. Gudny Bodvarsdottir and Gudrun Gjukadottir: Nordic-Germanic Continuity

Chapter Two. Marriage
The Pagan-Christian Conflict
Pagan Marriage
Christian Marriage
Two Marriages
Divorce and Widowhood

Chapter Three. Reproduction
Conception: Theory and Knowledge
Heterosexual Lovemaking
Sexual Initiative
Pregnancy and Birth
Reproduction and Royal Succession

Chapter Four. Leisure
Work before Leisure
Idleness and Sleep
Sports and Games
Drinking and Word Games
Emotional Distress

Chapter Five. Work
Gender Division of Labor
Outdoor Work
Indoor Work

Chapter Six. The Economics of Homespun
General Use
Cloth as Medium of Exchange
Export of Cloth and Coats
Foreign Cloth


Appendix: Sources
Sagas of Icelanders
Contemporary Sagas
Christianity, Historicity, Oral Tradition, and Poststructural Doubt


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