Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

The recent discovery that half of Viking warriors were women has shaken a lot of people’s world view. Of course, it has also already led to a backlash of why “that’s not what the study really said.” As someone who read The Prehistory of Sex when it first came out in 1997 and who has followed this debate for some time, it’s another in a long string of studies that shows the same two things. Trying to determine the sex of remains by the type of grave goods found with them reinforces gender stereotypes and is highly inaccurate. Secondly, whether the ratio ever hit fifty percent or not, women warriors were not as uncommon as many would like to think.

The assumption of our sexist society is that our view of gender is rooted in ancient history and in practical concerns of those times. In the rugged kill or be killed world of ancient times, men were hunters and warriors and women mothers and gatherers. This is not, we have been taught, because of sexism. Men are simply stronger than women and that makes them better warriors. And yet the Vikings seem to fly in the face of all that.

Are men stronger than women?

The best answer is yes, but…

1. The Bell Curve

Statistics don’t lie, but they are a great way to mislead. Nowhere is there a better example than the relative strength of men and women.

For starters it depends a lot on how your measure strength. Men have broader shoulders and that gives them better leverage. On measures of upper body strength men tend to outperform women by a wide margin in many studies. Measures of lower body strength tend to be much closer to equal.

Men tend to be larger than women, so the average man has more muscle mass. Again this leads to men being stronger in many fitness test. But pound for pound, muscle is muscle. There is no male muscle or female muscle. If you test two people who are equally fit and have the same lean body weight, the difference evaporates.

Back in 1994 Charles Murray and Richard Hernestein raised a lot of controversy by using the statistical method known as the Bell Curve to prove their sexist and racist assumptions about America. I have always found the title somewhat ironic, since the bell curve also shows the real problem with their assumptions.

If we plot a bell curve showing the average strength of men and women, we find the two curves overlap significantly. What that means is that while the average score for men might be higher, a significant percentage of the female population is stronger than the average man.

This is pretty much true of all gender based distinctions. They are true in general but the exceptions make up such a significant minority that it throws the result into question.

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

When people say things like men are x% stronger than women, many of us have this image of lining all the men and women up side by side. And the men will all lift x% more than the woman next to them. But that’s not how it works. Some of the men will be stronger than the woman next to them and some of the woman will be stronger. Once you’ve tested everyone and regrouped them according to strength, you will find more men in the stronger category, but a fair number of women as well. Do you tell this minority of women they must stay home from the war because their sex is, on average, weaker? If you are a smart Viking captain the answer will be no. Take the strong, leave the weak, regardless of gender.

2. Practical differences

The second problem with the notion that men are stronger than women is that no one questions to what extent this statistical difference translates into a practical one. According to this post on the average joe, the average man can bench press 145 pounds and the average woman 60 pounds. That’s modern Americans and that’s a pretty big difference. They can squat 165 pounds for men and 105 for women. There are a number of reasons why ancient Viking men and women were probably much closer in strength.

How important is this strength difference in combat? That’s a fair question.

Here is a list of medieval weapons with their size and weight listed. Looking at the list we see that a scandinavian sword from the ninth century was 30 inches long and weighed just under three pounds. The largest two handed sword on the list runs about 14 pounds. The common fantasy trope of a woman picking up a man’s weapon and staggering under the weight is an exaggeration at best. None of these weapons are too heavy for the average modern female to lift or swing, let alone a shield maiden.

Swing: I am transgender. I am also a hippy. I used to live in the country. We chopped wood and heated our trailer with a woodstove. I got good with an axe. I still own that land and we still go out there on the weekends. Now that I have transitioned and I don’t have the testosterone I once had, I don’t have nearly the same upper body strength. My sixteen year old son is probably stronger than me, but I can out chop him with the axe because I have more experience. The secret is to use the momentum of the axe, rather than brute force.I have no idea how I would fare on a Viking battlefield, but the same dynamic applies with swords and battle axes. It’s not always the one who can throw the most brute force behind an attack that’s going to win. A weaker warrior, with better skill and timing can bring down a stronger one readily.

People who really want to make the argument that stronger (male) is better than the weaker (female) can always look to the late medieval period, when plate armor and heavy sword and shield combinations were common. But to argue that a relative small difference in strength made women unfit to wield a Viking axe or sword is difficult at best.

Stab: So what if women’s upper body strength does translate to a disadvantage on the battlefield? The idea of two Viking men dueling mono a mono with swords is largely a myth, one they themselves perpetuate in their saga literature. Those duels were major events of the sagas, but a minor portion of their battlefield tactics. Many Vikings fought with spears. Spears are a thrusting weapon. It relies much more on lower body strength, especially in a charge. Even if you don’t have them wielding axes and swords in combat, a group of shield maidens charging with spears is just as effective as a group of men.

Shoot:  The Viking bow had a draw strength of up to 90 pounds. The average modern American woman might struggle with that, but a conditioned woman wouldn’t. And shooting a bow is a matter of skill, not brute strength. Here is another place where men and women have a practical equality even if men are statistically stronger.

Think: There is a lot more to fighting and war than charging blindly into battle. A crafty warrior often defeats a bigger, stronger one. Strength is but one factor on the battlefield. If you think women can’t be as crafty or devious as men, you don’t know many women.

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Survive: History buffs will know this already, but in ancient times it was not uncommon for armies to lose more men from starvation and disease on the way to the war then in battle. Life was difficult in the best of times. For soldiers in the field it was brutal. They marched for weeks on near starvation rations. Poor hygiene led to epidemics of disease. Poor sanitation and no knowledge of infection meant that many of those injured in battle died of infections between battles.While statistics almost invariably show men to have greater brute strength, they just as consistently show women to have greater constitutional strength. In natural disasters women tend to have a higher survival rate than men. (A lot of this can be chalked up to simple estrogen and body fat. Higher body fat gives women a bigger cushion against malnutrition.) If you are considering who to take on a long campaign with you, this might figure into your thinking. The point of all this comes to this: being able to lift more weight over your head doesn’t necessarily translate into being a better warrior, or having a better chance at survival. There are many factors and brute strength is just one of them.

3. Outliers and Modern Athletics

If the difference between men and women are insignificant, why do men outperform women in almost every athletic field today? Doesn’t that prove that the difference is significant?

Not really. The problem is the highly competitive nature of most sports and outliers. Outliers are people that fall outside the statistical norms. Because of the competitive nature of most sports, professional athletes are all outliers, people who score well outside the normal range on any number of physical measurements.

The practical issue is that even a small difference of mean scores can translate into large differences at the end. For example a bench press weight that puts you in the top 5% of men might be the top 1% of women. For a real life example, Becca Swanson, the strongest woman in America can bench press 600 pounds. The number of men who have achieved that extraordinary feat numbers about 58. Becca proves that some women can compete with men even in the arena of brute strength, but she also shows just how outnumbered the women are at that level of competition.

When you are dealing with professional athletes you get a statistical double whammy because the events and results are also at the very edge of the statistical norm. Tiny differences in conditioning and training can equal much larger differences in the end result. The fastest marathon time by a man is twelve minutes faster than the fastest time by a woman. A marathon is over 26 miles, so that man ran about 46 seconds faster each mile. Meanwhile if you compare Usain Bolt’s men’s world record 100 meter dash to Florence Joyner’s time for women, the difference is just a hair shy of one second.

And, yes, at that level of performance biologically driven difference between men and women probably plays a role. Men are larger, on average, and have bigger ribcages and that means more capacity to move oxygen (critical to running). Men have more testosterone and other androgens, which play a critical role in conditioning. However the more research I do, the less conclusive the results seem. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that pound for pound, a conditioned female athlete is equal to a male athlete, there’s just fewer of them around.


What does that have to do with shield maidens?

Nothing, and that’s my whole point.

If King Haakon is picking the biggest, strongest warriors in all of Norway to be in his bodyguard, there is a good chance that it will stacked with more men, because men tend to be bigger. But if the average chieftain is deciding who gets to carry a spear and defend the village at need, there is likely to be a more even mix. A one second difference in rushing speed isn’t going to make a big practical difference when both runners are carrying spears and trying to spill your blood.


While this new finding may have shocked many, those familiar with Norse history expected as much. A generation of archaeologists and palaeontologists have been questioning the age old practice of sexing remains based on burial goods. It has created self reinforcing gender stereotypes. We assume that only men are warriors and only warriors would be buried with weapons. Then we assume any grave that contains weapons must be a male grave. As forensic science and DNA testing becomes more important tools, we are discovering these assumptions wrong.

Those of who have read some of Iceland’s great saga literature will know that it was a far more egalitarian society than later medieval Europe. Shield maidens, women warriors  and strong independent women in general abound. Those who doubt that Viking women were as tough as their men, might find an axe buried in their chest.


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