In our new Salon Series, the Women's Network is providing a window into the variety of academic research undertaken by members of our community. In this edition, we look at the research of Grace O'Duffy, a DPhil candidate looking at Old Norse sagas and references to violence towards women (or the conspicuous lack thereof). O'Duffy questions why the Viking's violent image doesn't translate into similar episodes in the sagas, and looks at the Depp-Heard trial to compare how we record violence against women in our own media.

T.W. - mentions of rape and suicide

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‘Vikings!’ scream a group of gleeful, sweating Norsemen after one of their party pounces on a bikini-clad woman, sending them both crashing to the ground. Delight scrawled across their faces, the Norsemen’s hungry eyes rove over the numerous other bikini-clad women in the room as they cower on silk beds. The men lunge towards the women, discordantly buoyant music plays loudly and the scene descends into chaos - a slapstick depiction of mass rape as women are pinned down, rolled up into rugs and tossed into pools. Some fight back comically with velvet pillows; whilst lustful rapture spreads across the faces of others.

So unfolds a scene from one of the most famous Viking films: The Longboats (1964). Though this scene may have aged badly, the popular perception of Vikings as rapists and pillagers remains; and seldom is a Viking film or television programme found without a rape scene, or at the very least a threat-of-rape scene.

But how accurate is this stereotype? The scholarly field of Old Norse literature suggests not. Whereas fields such as Classics, or Old and Middle English, fast in the wake of #MeToo, have abundant work on sexual violence and consent, Old Norse has lagged conspicuously behind. The comparatively little work that has been done on rape in Old Norse literature has largely suggested that there is such a paucity of sexual violence in the texts. Naturally, extensive scholarly research on the subject has not been forthcoming. Given the fact that there are contemporary lawcodes pertaining to rape and sexual aggression, it is evident that rape was an intrinsic societal problem in medieval Iceland; which asks the question why, then, is it so absent from the literature? My DPhil thesis — on sexual violence against women within the Old Norse Family, Legendary and Chivalric sagas — aims to address this question, and question this absence.

The Old Norse sagas may be famed for their violence, but it is rarely directed at women. In one of the most celebrated sagas, Gísla saga Súrssonar, a man is lambasted for even the mere suggestion of physical violence towards a woman who has just hit him full in the face with a purse. Violence towards women is relatively uncommon in the sagas, as it clearly carried a social stigma, in similar way that a man would be more severely criticised for hitting a woman rather than another man in more modern societies. When it comes to sexual violence, there are numerous obstacles in the way of detecting any episodes in the sagas: principally, the general resistance towards depictions of sex of any kind; compounding this problem is the alleged reticence in emotional expression. Pain, fear and sadness, which we might associate with consent and trauma are, in the context of this lack of expressed emotions, difficult to detect. But emotion studies is a nascent field within Old Norse, and there are emerging works which undermine the view that the sagas are lacking in emotion. These studies suggest rather that emotions are expressed within the subtext, and can be detected by paying closer attention to characters’ actions and reactions. A more nuanced examination of emotional expression within saga literature can help to identify sexually violent episodes, immediately obvious to the reader though they may not be.

I, although still in the relatively early days of my DPhil (being only in my first year), am identifying patterns in seduction episodes in which it is likely or at least plausible that sexual coercion or violence may occur. There are several episodes of rape or attempted rape which result in emotional trauma, with the victims becoming melancholic or despondent and retreating from or being shunned by society altogether. Grappling with more holistic views of possible sexual violence and coercion by examining their wider contexts is helping me to formulate a comprehensive study of rape within these saga genres, and debunk the idea that sexual violence is absent from them. It is my take, rather, that it is quite present within Old Norse literature, albeit harder to find than perhaps we might expect from the sexually predatory reputation of Vikings.

The kidnappings and war-prisoners that we might associate with Vikings, given the ‘rape and pillage’ cliché that at least partially defines them in popular culture, are present in the sagas. Some of these victims, I have found, are evident of sexual violence. Laxdœla saga’s Melkorka is mother to a child of a man who buys her, and this can hardly be seen as anything other than sexual coercion, although her voluntary muteness could be seen as an act of rebellion. One particularly violent saga is anomalous in its repeated depiction of violence towards women in escalating episodes of brutality; Svarfdæla saga sees the utter degradation and exploitation of the vilified Yngvildr, punished for vanity and for speaking out of turn in an environment reserved for male voices: the political assembly. Yngvildr, famed for her beauty, is eagerly purchased by a series of slave owners who proclaim their aggravation at her reluctance to ‘work’ for them, and her clothes increase in raggedness until she is reduced, naked and quivering, to a shell of her former self. Her sons’ blood is smeared by her tormentor’s sword, inescapably phallic in imagery, on her skirts in a crude imitation of violent sex, childbirth, and loss of innocence all at once. I am interested not only in the motivation behind these horrific acts of sexual torture, but the emotional reactions that stem from them, obscured though they may be by the sagas’ matter-of-fact narratives. Yngvildr’s torture propels the narrative of this section of the saga, and she is thought to take her own life by the end. Her tale is one of the most harrowing in Old Norse literature, and although she stands out for her outrageous treatment, she is far from the only victim of sexual assault and its resultant impact on psyche and expressions of self.

Sexual violence is still as present today as it was in medieval Iceland and has been, no doubt, since the earliest humans. Presentations of sexual violence are complicated, and difficult to talk about. This appears to have been a truism within medieval Iceland, and remains a truism today. All too recently, the world was riveted by the Depp-Heard defamation trial in which Amber Heard was demonised, with some spectators so carelessly disparaging of her accounts of alleged sexual assaults that her traumatic testimonies were reduced to little more than seconds-long videos on TikTok, set to irreverent music and scathing soundbites. Her allegations were condensed into depictions no more feminist than the bikini-clad ladies of The Longboats. On the opposite side of the scale, in the vacuum of nuance in which social media so obstinately resides, were Heard supporters who lambasted any critiques of the actress, reducing the trial simply to Man v. Woman. The trial, which broadcasted first-hand, graphic testimony of sexual abuse to the world, became a farcical colosseum as rabid fans on either side argued over how sexual violence ought to manifest in the trauma of its victims. Believe Depp or believe Heard, but the media circus that their trial became shows a continuing disregard for trauma, an oversimplification of how we ought to react to violence against a woman and by extension all women, and a wholly worrying outlook for sexual violence in the media.

With ever-shifting perceptions surrounding sexual violence, I am hoping that my study will, above all, show that oversimplifying sexual violence in Old Norse literature is no longer a tenable attitude. It is not absent, as some have argued, nor are women merely collateral damage, their bodies political ground for spiralling feud wars, as men weaponise women’s bodies in order to aggravate enemies. Nor, however, is the sexually violent Viking stereotype aligned with the vast, vast majority of Old Norse literary figures. We may have come a long way from The Longboats, but there is much work to be done, and addressing these difficult topics in academic fields, I believe, is vital.

Grace O'Duffy (2021, English)