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Sworn Sisterhood?: On the (Near-) Absence of Female Friendship from the Íslendingasǫgur

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 86, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 52-71 | 10.1353/scd.2014.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The inevitable male bias of Old Norse sources has often led to a perpetuation of male bias in modern scholarship regarding the period—an unfortunate situation that various scholars have gone far to rectify in recent decades. However, the task of recovering medieval Icelandic women’s history from the extant literature is a complex one. References to the lives of women in Old Norse society are scant, and the available information can vary widely in focus and purpose, therefore offering diverse portraits of real or imagined women. What is more, much information has simply not survived the ages; this is the case, for example, with sources related to the convents at Kirkjubær and Reynistaður, from which very little survives except short records of the names of abbesses and nuns and inventories of convent property and belongings (see Anna Sigurðardóttir 1988). Despite these difficulties, scholars have been able to infer an extraordinary amount of information about the status and daily lives of women in medieval Iceland. As a result, there is now a remarkably good sense of how women in Old Norse society worked, spent their leisure time, raised families, and interacted with their male counterparts.

Nonetheless, scholarship on some topics remains male-dominated. To date, there are a number of studies on friendship in Old Norse society. However, only a few of these consider friendship between women, and their discussions are general and tend to be placed on the periphery of a much more detailed examination of friendship between or involving men. Given the scarcity of examples of female friendship in Old Norse sources (only two explicit references to friendship between women, both in the Íslendingasögur), this is not entirely surprising. Jón Viðar Sigurðsson briefly discusses female friendship in several of his works (1992, 1999), and most recently in his 2010 book on friendship in Norway and Iceland ca. 900–1300, which contains a small chapter on the subject of women and friendship. He looks primarily at male-female friendships; only a few sentences are dedicated to friendships between women. Jón Viðar Sigurðsson concludes that female friendship was allowed only for widows and women of high social standing, since “[v]ennskapsforholdene … var i all hovedsak knyttet til ledere av hushold, store eller små, og individer fra samfunnets toppsjikt. Vennskapsforholdene var knyttet til den politiske sfæren, og den var kvinner for det meste utelukket fra” (2010, 134) [Friendships were mainly associated with leaders of the household, large or small, and individuals from society’s upper class. Friendships were tied to the political sphere, from which women were for the most part excluded]. Auður Magnúsdóttir dedicates several pages to women and friendship in her 2001 dissertation on the roles of concubines and wives in medieval Icelandic politics, according to the family and contemporary sagas. However, her discussion concentrates primarily on friendships between men and women, particularly as they relate to concubinage, and she does not comment on or account for the scarcity of examples of same-sex female friendship (Auður Magnúsdóttir 2001, 72–5). E. Paul Durrenberger and Gísli Pálsson’s is the most detailed treatment of friendship between women, but theirs still totals no more than a page. They remark:

Out of a total of several hundred accounts of friendship, only a few relate to women. The term for ‘female friend’ (vinkona) occurs only a dozen times, and in most cases in the context of courtship between a man and a woman. Accounts of friendship between women are not totally absent (Laxdæla saga has one example 53:1618), but they are clearly exceptional. … Clearly, judging from saga accounts, friendship was mostly a male affair.

(1999, 69)

Durrenberger and Gísli Pálsson ultimately concede that “[p]erhaps, female friendship is taken for granted and therefore not related [in the sagas]” (1999, 73). Thus, accounts of friendship between women are as scarce in saga scholarship as they are in the sagas themselves, as Durrenberger and Gísli Pálsson themselves admit (1999, 73). However, absence does not mean non-existence, and much can be gained from asking not only why something...

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