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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #3 – Clover 1995 "Maiden Warriors and Other Sons"

Full citation: 

Clover, Carol J. 1995. "Maiden Warriors and Other Sons" in Robert R. Edwards & Vickie Ziegler (eds). Matrons and Marginal Women in Medieval Society. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

I confess that I'm starting off with some of my favorite articles -- ones that are particularly striking or memorable. I'll try to mix it up a bit more to keep things interesting. I had the pleasure of knowing Professor Clover when I was in grad school at U.C. Berkeley and I believe she provided me with the offprint of this article herself.

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In the context of the Germanic (and especially Old Norse) motif of the “shield maiden”, Clover studies a specific story-type that she terms the “maiden warrior”, as typified by Hervör in Hervarar saga ok Heidhreks, and identifies a characteristic context for this particular version of the warrior woman motif.

The outline of Hervör’s story (which is complex and part of a much longer “family saga”) identifies her as the only and posthumous child of the warrior Angantyr. Raised by her mother’s family, she gravitates toward weapons rather than “women’s work” and takes up a profession -- dressed and armed as a man -- as a common robber. On learning her father’s identity, she decides to seek out his grave to retrieve his sword. To do this, she takes on a masculine version of her name and demands that her mother outfit her as she would a son. In her travels she joins and becomes leader of a band of Vikings, eventually accomplishing her quest during which she debates her father’s ghost (in verse, no less) for the right to take his sword. After this she continues having masculine-style adventures until eventually settling down to marriage and motherhood. (It is a family saga after all -- there has to be a next generation.)

Clover situates this story as part of a tradition involving women who are the sole representative of a lineage (Hervör was an only child and her father’s brothers all perished with him) and who therefore are expected to play a son’s part, whether to avenge a father or simply to continue a key lineage, with that “son’s role” exemplified by characteristically masculine activities, especially martial ones.

Other examples of the motif are :
* Skadhi (in the Eddas) who takes up armor and weapons to go to Asgard to avenge her father
* Thornbjörg (in Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar) the only child of a king of Sweden who takes up martial activities in childhood (defending her choice as justified because her father has no other children) and when her father provides her with lands and followers she takes on a male name and dress to reign as a king
* Ladgerda (from the legendary histories of Saxo Grammaticus) the sole surviving child of the dead king of Norway who -- as part of a group of women -- takes on male dress and takes up weapons for protection.
* Alfhild (another story from Saxo Grammaticus) takes up male dress and weapons to escape an unwanted suitor. Breaking the pattern somewhat, she has living brothers at the time however the attrition of battles eventually leaves her daughter Gyrid as the sole survivor of her line. Gyrid later takes up arms in male clothing to do battle alongside her son.
* The valkyrie Brynhildr may fit the pattern to some degree as well, but the many versions of her story that have come down to us have muddled whatever may have been her thematic origins.

Note that although these “substitute son” characters not only take up martial activities but also often wear male clothing or even take on a male name, there is no indication that it was a disguise (i.e., that they passed as men) rather than being a visual symbol of their status. Their stories generally conclude with marriage to a man and the begetting of children. In fact, Clover asserts that it is precisely the provision of a genealogical link between generations that gives them the license to take on a “male” role.

Although these examples are all literary, Clover notes a passage in early Icelandic law that treats a brotherless woman (but only if she is unmarried) as if she were a son in the context of the paying and receiving of wergild (payment for a death). Similar clauses can be found in early Norwegian law.

Clover notes other “shield maiden” subtypes which different literary contexts, such as the avenging mother and the maiden king.

She also notes a relatively modern thematic parallel in the “sworn virgins” of Albania who might take up a male social role (including male dress) under certain specific circumstances, including the need to pursue a feud in the absence of male relatives.

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