Women and War – The Female Inciter

The Female Inciter

Cornelius Tacitus may be the first to describe what is recognizable as the “female inciter” which dominates the female character roles in Old Norse sagas and poetry:

7 “….It is a principal incentive to their courage, that their squadrons and battalions are not formed by men fortuitously collected, but by the assemblage of families and clans. Their pledges also are near at hand; they have within hearing the yells of their women, and the cries of their children.

These, too, are the most revered witnesses of each man’s conduct, these his most liberal applauders. To their mothers and their wives they bring their wounds for relief, nor do these dread to count or to search out the gashes. The women also administer food and encouragement to those who are fighting.

8. Tradition relates, that armies beginning to give way have been rallied by the females, through the earnestness of their supplications, the interposition of their bodies, and the pictures they have drawn of impending slavery,  a calamity which these people bear with more impatience for their women than themselves; so that those states who have been obliged to give among their hostages the daughters of noble families, are the most effectually bound to fidelity.”
[1]

The role of the inciter may be one of the reasons why the status of women remained high in Germanic and Norse cultures despite patriarchy, political male dominance and the central cultural focus on the warrior´s virtues. From the Iron Age tribes in Central Europe to the late Viking sources, we see continuous references showing that a man´s courage and prowess as a warrior was little worth without the appraisal of women, so that Tacitus´ mention of women as the most revered witnesses to a man´s conduct and their “cheerleading” role, as well as their skills with medicine and surgery, is completely within the framework of the general cultural picture.

Michael Enright has shown that several ancient texts show that it was the warlord´s wife who was expected to ritually name and praise the king and to ritually confirm both unity and hierarchy within a Germanic war band.[2] The ritual of the queen included the offering of drink from a communal cup, which she served first to the lord of the hall, and thereafter to each warrior on the hall, one after the other according to rank. To each man, she would offer words of praise, comfort, or direct provocations designed to spur a man into courageous action.

Such provocations could not be spoken by other men lest there be a fight, but when spoken by a woman, the man who had been provoked had no other option than to accept the challenge and show his bravery. A literary example of this is found in the seventh century Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, where Queen Wealtheow challenges the newcomer, Beowulf, to show his courage by slaying Grendel. According to Enright, it was in fact this “female exhortation, status assignment, provocation and prophecy” which played a pivotal role in the growth of war band institutions.[3]

The motif of the female inciter or provoker is the absolute dominant female type in Norse-Germanic literature and even shows up in early texts about Germans. Women would make little hints and draw attention to slights that needed to be redressed. The men, who are the ones who actually have to risk life and limbs, are often rather reluctant, so that the women begin to taunt, harass and offend the man by symbolically or verbally doubting his manliness and courage. Such insults have only one solution – the man has to prove himself and ends up doing what the woman wants. Many skaldic verses refer to the cruel taunts of women and the hope that their bloodlust may be satisfied by manly deeds and blood sacrifice.[4] The women of these stories appear oblivious to or careless about the risk of losing their loved ones, caring only for their valor and honor, which was more important than continued life. In the case of Theodoric the Great, king of the Goths, his own mother acted as his inciter:

“At one time, Theodoric and the Goths were making war against king Odoacer and the Heruli and, fleeing with his men, Theodoric entered Ravenna. His mother Lilia was there and came out to meet him, insulting him and saying: “There is no place for you to flee, my son, unless I raise my dress and you return to the womb from which you were born.”[5]

In the Historia Francorum – “History of the Franks”, we hear of the queen Amalaberg, wife to king Hermanfrid, who disapproved of her husband´s decision to share his power with his broder Baderic, and “sowed the seed of civil war” between the brothers in the following, symbolic manner:

“One day when her husband came in to have a meal, he found only half the table laid. When he asked what she meant by this, she answered: “A king who is deprived of half his kingdom deserves to find half his table bare.” Hermanfrid was roused by this and by other similar things which Amalaberg did. He decided to attack his brother…”[6]

The Historia Francorum is a good example of how early medieval writers emphasized the greatness of a lord or warrior by showing how he was praised by women. One famous case regards king Childeric of the Franks, who was approached by queen Basina of Thuringia. She had left her own husband and journeyed to Francia, where she declared before the king:

“I know that you are a strong man and I recognize ability when I see it. I have therefore come to live with you. You can be sure that if I knew anyone else…who was more capable than you, I should have sought him out and gone to live with him instead.”[7]

In this story we see well how different early Iron Age attitudes towards women´s virtues were, compared to later medieval concepts of female chastity, obedience and timidity as a primary virtue, for the fact that a queen left her royal husband in order to live with another king, on account of wanting only the strongest and most capable man, is celebrated, and it goes to show that Childeric was pleased with Basinia´s deeds and words, subsequently marrying her. The story was meant to illustrate the fame and valor of Childeric.

In the medieval Icelandic Njáls saga, a woman called Hildigunn incited a long term blood-feud by cohering the chief of the clan to take action. She used a similar way of manipulating him as we saw in the story of Amalaberg and her half-laid table above. Hildigunn had lost her husband to her clan´s enemies, and the men of the clan (who had become Christians) decided to take legal action and avoid violence.

Hildigunn appealed to her uncle Flosi, head of the clan, and when he remained reluctant to avenge her husband, she invited him for a banquet where she used one symbolic action after the other in order to remind him of his duty. She set out the high seat for him, so that he would remember his position as leader of the clan. Then she gave him a towel full of holes to wash with, a symbol of unfinished business. Then she came into the hall weeping, thus letting him remember her grief. The two had an argument where her wish to avenge her husband was stated. When he still rejected her claim, she tossed the blood-stained cloak that had belonged to her husband and which had been a gift from Flosi, a fact she points out, before giving the cloak back to him. She declares:

“I charge you in the name of all the powers of your Christ and in the name of you courage and your manhood, to avenge every one of the wounds that marked his body – or be an object of contempt to all men.”

Although Flosi had rejected all her approaches, this final action was the last straw. No other option now available, Flosi gathered his men and prepared for battle.

The idea that war is men´s sphere was not present among the Germans or Vikings, although men were, for the most part, the ones who fought. Women were, it seems, constantly watching, judging and making comparisons of the men. Women would appeal to the concepts of manliness, and by so doing they became the most feared critics within the communities, where reputation “was a matter of life and death.”

It would appear that women were the guardians of the family honor, and that they were in fact taught to feel, and that many actually felt, a powerful urge to support the masculine ethos by evaluating men´s affairs, judging them, and letting their judgment be known to the public. If women found slights among their own menfolk, they would seek to restore the honor of the clan by appealing to men´s sense of honor and heroism. The functioning of the heroic code was closely linked to women´s evaluations of men´s affairs.

All the sources show that female criticism wielded enormous political power and were often the cause of feuds and wars. As such, even though women were not allowed to partake in political councils, they wielded powerful political influence as the guardians of masculine virtue, and also with their right to question a man´s courage in public and to point out and ridicule masculine cowardice.[8]



[1] Tacitus, Germania 7,8

[2] Enright, 1996, P.40

[3] Ibid, P. 42

[4] Ibid, p.40-47

[5] Ibid, p. 21 (Chronicarum quae dicuntur Fredegarii scholastici libri, IV, II, 57)

[6] Gregor von Tours I:III, 4 Translated by Thorpe.

[7] Ibid, I:II, 12

[8] Ibid, p.48 and Frank, Roberta (1990): Why Skalds Address Women, p.76,87

2 Responses to Women and War – The Female Inciter

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  2. Pingback: La incitadora: el papel de la mujer en la guerra y las deudas de sangre (I) | ¿Quién se beneficia de tu hombría?

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