Nancy Marie Brown combines history and imagination in her upcoming book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women. If you follow me, you know that I love books about Vikings and Norse people. And this is the best I’ve ever read. It covers a wide range of topics, instead of just focusing on who fought who for what pieces of land. Once it publishes in late August, I’ll add a hard copy to my shelf.
Brown centers her narrative around one specific ancient grave in a Swedish town named Birka. Here lies a Viking warrior. Archaeologists originally assumed the warrior was a man, but their methods improved over time. Now we know the warrior is a woman.
We also know her approximate dates of life. By examining her bones, scientists determine where she lived as a child. So, Brown takes the hard science, combines it with all the surviving goods in the grave, and imagines a life for this warrior. She names her Hervor.
By telling Hervor’s story, or more accurately, her imagining of the story, Brown explains multiple aspects of Viking culture. When she explains the weapons found in the grave, we learn how they were made and used. While we think of Vikings using broadswords, they also were master archers. They also used axes for many purposes beyond just the battlefield.
And because weapons were different in various cultures of the time, we can determine where Hervor traveled. This is the gateway into information about what cultures the Vikings influenced. The coins in this grave and many others also have distinct origins. So again, Brown delves into various monetary systems from Scandinavian countries to those of Asian locales further East.
In addition to all these battle related items, Brown also talks in detail about the kinds of craftsman in Viking culture. For example, Hervor’s grave had a distinctive silver piece consistent with a type of hat worn along the famous Silk Road in Asia. Some scraps of fabric show a particular type of work known to be common in that same area.
Brown doesn’t just say, “this came from there.” Instead, she describes how women learned the art of weaving, embroidery, and sewing. In the context of Hervor’s youth, we see how some girls moved into typical home arts and others leaned towards the life of trading and marauding.
As she describes these craftspeople, Brown also makes clear that they were highly respected. In some cases, the Queen of a given region would be in charge of the craftsmen. This was particularly true of fabric-related tasks, but not limited to them. Providing fabric meant planning an entire manufacturing process, so it was no small responsibility. The best quality fabrics were made to trade. And the least quality went to the household slaves.
Viking Traders and Slavers
Yes, Vikings had slaves. And they traded slaves along with all the other goods they sold throughout their part of the world. Usually, slaves were people captured as one tribe conquered another. They were often from two regions of the same country, or from two adjacent countries. So, it’s quite different from how we think of slaves as being stolen from an entirely separate continent. Brown devastatingly lays out the values of various types of slaves. She explains how archaeologists know where the markets were. This section was the hardest part of the book to read. But it’s a hard, cold truth. Slavery didn’t begin in 1619 but has been a tragic fact of life for centuries.
Mythology and Religious Beliefs
Rather than separate the Norse mythology, stories, and poetry into a separate section, Brown weaves them throughout her narrative. In fact, many of her explanations are rooted in these stories. This means that the line between fact and fiction is blurred, but Brown makes it as clear as possible.
History happens alongside the writings in some cases. And in others, the writing happens hundreds of years after the events it purports to describe. In that case it’s heavily influenced by the Christian Church. It’s here that we see the role of Viking warrior women erased. Because the Church wasn’t served by the idea of strong women. They preferred forcing women into a specific kind of life. And that’s why Hervor’s grave was originally assumed to hold the remains of a man. But Brown proves the patriarchy wrong by combining scholarship and imagination.
This book is everything I hoped Arthur Herman’s recent book would be but wasn’t. It’s full of heart, chutzpah, and reveals the fullness of a Viking woman’s life. Brown is both teacher and storyteller. Her deft combination of all aspects of this story paints an inspiring picture. Most of what Hervor and her companions achieve makes me proud to have Norwegian DNA. Except the slavery, which is heartbreaking no matter how common.
After watching all seasons of The Vikings on the History Channel, my favorite character is Lagertha. She a fierce shield maid, mother, farmer, and battle worn woman. I loved Brown’s shout out to her.
But even more, I want a show about my new heroine, Hervor. In the meantime, I’ll just keep revisiting this book and delving into Brown’s other work about the Viking culture. I’m also glad for her extensive bibliography, since it offers considerable opportunity for continued learning.
Anyone curious about the fiercely feminist aspects of Norse culture should read this book. I highly recommend it.
Pair with Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, which is fictional, based in Norway and about the details of a woman’s life.
Many thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.