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The Vikings are more popular than ever. TV shows such as Last Kingdom and Vikings have added dramatic license to particular historical accounts, while new archaeological finds are guaranteed to make headlines. Recent coverage includes the discovery of a new Viking ship burial, and the possibility of Viking women participating in warfare. But when we talk about the Vikings we often repeat familiar narratives of warriors, ships and battles. Certain activities and spaces – often those traditionally associated with men — are seen as shaping the course of history. The home – traditionally associated with women – is seen as mundane and politically insignificant.
But the Viking house was not an apolitical, neutral space. It was a primary stage for legitimising hierarchies in which some people were enslaved and left to dwell with cattle in the byre, while others presided in a high seat. It was a foreign world – we have rare, but repeated evidence for infants being buried by hearths, magical artefacts placed by doorways, and women lifted over thresholds so they could speak with the dead.
I want to radically shift our approach to this pivotal period of European history. What happens if we see the Viking Age from the point of view of the house?
Houses as political spaces
For all their visibility in pop culture, everyday life for the Vikings is rarely seen, and settlements are often approached as familiar, harmonious — and perhaps a bit trivial. Now a wave of research is raising new questions about the everyday social and ritual lives of the Vikings.
Gathering together the archaeological remains of longhouses from Norway in research for my book, Architecture, Society and Ritual in the Viking Age. Doors, Dwellings, and Domestic Space, revealed something stranger and more powerful than traditional narratives may suggest.
The Viking household, while varied, did not conform to the idealised nuclear family of Western modernity. The largest households could be composed of a couple, concubines, subordinates, farmhands and warriors, animals, itinerant workers, guests, and a range of “mine, yours, and our” children. Although they lived under one roof, everyday tasks and the architecture itself created thresholds between groups and made people different from each other.
“Slavery” is a complex institution, and a universal definition is difficult. But there was an unfree population among the Viking household (“thralls”) who had no legal rights, whose children were owned by the household leaders, who it was not a crime to kill, and who could be sexually exploited by their owners.
Scholars have argued that the thralls dwelled in an extra room with a hearth in the byre (cowshed) end of the longhouse, spatially and socially belonging with the animals. Indeed, one of the known thrall names is Fjosnir, “of the byre”.
In these ways and more, Viking houses generated contrasts between owners, free people and thralls – and such differences formed Viking society.
Dwelling with the dead
The Viking house was not exclusively the domain of the living. In the sagas of the Icelanders, we encounter the malicious man Hrapp. On his deathbed, Hrapp demands to be buried in the doorway to the fire hall: “Have me placed in the ground upright, so I’ll be able to keep a watchful eye over my home.” The agency of the dead did not necessarily dissipate at death and the sagas are full of tales of people receiving prophecy from the dead, the dead singing in burial mounds, or haunting their old houses.
Archaeological material supports the idea that the dead had a presence in Iron and Viking Age houses. Throughout the first millennium, human bones were sometimes embedded within the house, including infants buried in hearths and postholes. It must have been meaningful for people to place body parts of their dead under the threshold or in the postholes of the longhouse, or to inter the dead in the house when they abandoned the settlement.
There is a clear ambiguity to dwelling with the dead. On the one hand, people sometimes kept the dead close, embedding them in the living space. Infants and ancestors may have helped protect the house, anchor it in local histories or empower its residents. On the other hand, Hrapp’s story and other sources suggest that the dead could be objects of anxiety. If they became malevolent, they could threaten the household – and so the threshold to their world needed to be controlled.
Portals to the otherworld
Different parts of the house likely served as points of contact between living and dead, perhaps also among the past, present and future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the foremost was the actual threshold to the house.
Two written sources tell the narrative of a woman being lifted over a door to see into a different realm. One is an eyewitness account of a ship burial on the Volga River, where a slave woman is lifted above a freestanding portal (much like a doorframe). This allows her to speak with the dead chieftain. The other is an obscure text about a ritual gone wrong, where the lady of the house asks to be lifted “over hinges and door-beams, to see if she can save the sacrifice” — perhaps to see into another realm or into the future. The door could thus be a portal to other powers and beings. Perhaps for this reason, freestanding portals were sometimes erected at Viking burial grounds.
Archaeologists also find things – such as pots, knives, and iron rings – buried in or near doorways. Perhaps these objects guarded the house from powers and beings from outside. And the depositing of artefacts simultaneously forged and embedded a link between people’s daily lives and their houses. It is even possible that artefacts would come with new inhabitants from older houses, for example when they were married. These would be placed in doorways or postholes to empower the house and tie people and houses together across time and space.
Viewing the Viking Age from the house
Taking everyday life seriously opens up new possibilities to understand how and where history happens: it is not only on the battlefield. Architecture and the house mirror, as well as shape, social and spatial order. In Viking Age Norway, people were made to be different – owners and thralls, men and women, with different kinds of power and different things to fear or hope – through byres and high seats, feasts and rituals, doorways and deposited items.
Viking houses were spaces of politics, and also social worlds that were very different from our own. When the Vikings engaged with the wider world through raids, trade, and settlement, their understanding of the world was anchored in their everyday experience in the home from childhood onwards. The time is ripe to broaden the topics we associate with the Viking Age, and to discuss the unfamiliarity and strangeness, as well as the role of inequality, in this pivotal period of European history.
In 1997, my students and I traveled to Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo, as part of a study abroad program course on Irish literature I was teaching for the University of Dayton. I wanted my students to visit the place where, each July, thousands of pilgrims pay homage to St. Patrick, who, according to lore, fasted and prayed on the summit for 40 days.
While there, our tour guide relayed the story of how St. Patrick, as he lay on his death bed on March 17 in A.D. 461, supposedly asked those gathered around him to toast his heavenly journey with a “wee drop of whiskey” to ease their pain.
The mention of whiskey left me wondering if St. Patrick may have unintentionally influenced the way most of the world celebrates the holiday today: by drinking.
It wasn’t always this way. The Festival of St. Patrick began in the 17th century as a religious and cultural commemoration of the bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland. In Ireland, there’s still an important religious and cultural component to the holiday, even as it has simply become an excuse to wear green and heavily drink in the rest of the world.
The legend of St. Patrick
Because historical details about St. Patrick’s life remain shrouded in speculation, scholars are often stymied in their attempts to separate fact from legend.
In his spiritual memoir, “Confessio,” St. Patrick describes how he was brought to Ireland as a slave. He eventually escaped, rejoining his family in Britain, probably Scotland. But while there, he had a recurring dream, in which the “Voice of the Irish” called to him to return to Ireland in order to baptize and minister to them. So he did.
The Irish revere the account of this dream described in the “Confessio”; they accept the simplicity and fervor of his words and feel a debt of gratitude for his unselfish commitment to their spiritual well-being.
St. Patrick’s efforts to convert the Irish to Catholicism were never easy. Viewing him as a challenge to their power and authority, the high kings of Ireland and the pagan high priests, called Druids, resisted his efforts to make inroads with the population.
But through his missionary zeal, he was able to fuse Irish culture into Christianity, whether it was through the introduction of the Celtic Cross or the use of bonfires to celebrate feasts like Easter.
Again, many of these stories could amount to no more than myth. Nonetheless, centuries after his death, the Irish continue to show their gratitude for their patron saint by wearing a spray of shamrocks on March 17. They start the day with mass, followed by a daylong feast, and prayer and reflection at night.
St. Paddy’s Day goes global
From 1820 to 1860, almost 2 million people left Ireland, many due to the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s. More followed in the 20th century to reunite with relatives and escape poverty and joblessness back home.
Once settled, they found new ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and their Irish identity in their new homes.
Irish-Americans, especially, were quick to transform March 17 into a commercial enterprise. The mandatory “wearin’ of the green” in all its garishness is a far cry from the original tradition of wearing a spray of shamrocks to honor St. Patrick’s death and celebrate Irish solidarity. Parades famously sprung up – especially in New York and Boston – revelry ensued and, sure enough, even the beer became green.
Children of Irish-Americans in the United States have absorbed Irish culture at a distance. Many probably know that St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint. But they might not fully appreciate his mythic stature for kids growing up on the emerald isle.
Ask children of any age in Ireland what they know about St. Patrick, and they will regale you with stories of his magical abilities, from his power to drive the snakes out of Ireland to his use of the three leaves and one stem of the shamrock to demystify the Trinity doctrine of the Catholic Church.
They see St. Patrick as a miracle worker, and as adults, they keep the legends alive in their own ways. Some follow St. Patrick’s footsteps all around Ireland – from well to hill to alter to chapel – seeking his blessing and bounty wherever their journeys take them.
Raising a glass
Of course, in America, the holy day is really a party, above all else.
This year, Americans are expected to spend US$5.61 billion celebrating, with 13 million pints of Guinness consumed. Some parts of the country plan a pre-celebration on Sept. 17 – or, as they call it, “Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day.”
Where all of this leads is anyone’s guess. But beginning in the 1990s, Ireland seemed to grasp the earning potential of the Americanized version. Today, March 17 remains a holy day for the natives and a holiday for tourists from around the world, with pubs raking in the euros on St. Patrick’s Day.
But I’ve always wondered: What if St. Patrick had requested a silent prayer instead of “a wee drop of whiskey” to toast his passing? Would his celebration have stayed more sacred than profane?
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
On 22 January 1856, an extraordinary event in Australia’s history occurred. It is not part of our collective national identity, nor has it been mythologised over the decades through song, dance, or poetry. It doesn’t even have a hashtag. But on this day in the thriving gold rush town of Castlemaine, two women took to the polls and cast their votes in a democratic election.
Two days later, Melbourne newspaper The Argus unwittingly granted one of them posterity, writing “two women voted – one, the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch”. Fanny Finch was a London-born businesswoman of African heritage, a single mother of four and is the first known woman to cast a vote in an Australian election.
Victorian women over the age of 21 (excluding Indigenous women) would not receive full unconditional suffrage until 1908. (Victorian Indigenous women were not enfranchised until 1965.) But Fanny Finch, as a local business owner who paid rates, was able to exploit a loophole in suffrage law that was yet to discriminate against gender or race.
The Municipal Institutions Act of 1854 granted suffrage to ratepaying “persons”. The loophole was eventually closed in 1865 when “persons” became “men”.
Who was Fanny?
Frances Finch was born Frances Combe in London in 1815. At eight-weeks-old she was orphaned by her mother after a tryst with a footman ended in a pregnancy but no marriage proposal.
A cross-stitch sampler attributed to Frances Coombe (sic) in 1830 at the age of 15 suggests she understood both her parents to be free people of African racial heritage (although the UK did not free slaves unconditionally until 1838.) The London Foundling Hospital, where Fanny was accepted as an orphan, provided her with some protection against slavery as well as an otherwise inaccessible education and access to an apprenticeship scheme in “household duties”.
By 1837, a 22-year-old Fanny was a free, literate, educated, and experienced domestic servant. In that year she was approved a labourer’s free passage to the new colony of South Australia.
In Adelaide, Fanny was a valued employee of Julia Wyatt, an author, artist, and wife of the surgeon and first Protector of Aborigines, Dr. William Wyatt. Over the course of the next decade Fanny left their employment, married a sailor, Joseph Finch, and started a family.
By 1850, for reasons unknown, Fanny had left her husband. With her four children in tow, she made her way to Victoria. She arrived in the colony 12 months before the start of the Victorian gold rush. By early 1852 she was operating a restaurant and lodging house on the Forest Creek goldfields, alongside approximately 25,000 gold digging men and a handful of women.
There, in the fledgling township of Forest Creek, Mrs Finch’s Board and Lodging House became “the only one in which any person could get respectable accommodation”. By 1854, she had moved to nearby Castlemaine where she ran a restaurant. She quickly became one of its most recognisable faces.
A successful businesswoman
Fanny was a successful businesswoman, known to dress in bright blue silk with her black hair adorned in artificial flowers. Strong and robust, with an even larger personality she was not one to shy away from attempting to remedy injustice when she saw it – be it with her words, her cooking or her fists. Evidently, she possessed visibility and power.
Her business acumen and conspicuity make it probable that her male contemporaries were unsurprised when they witnessed Fanny cast her vote at the Hall of Castlemaine (now the Theatre Royal). Did the men taunt her? Encourage her? Or were they complacent? We cannot know. We do know that no one stopped her. She selected her preference and signed her name.
That afternoon, however, the two assessors of the day disallowed both Fanny and the other unknown woman’s votes. Their reasons were cited as: “they (the women) had no right to vote”. Further details were not divulged.
Still, Walter Smith, the man for whom Fanny voted, was elected to council. Smith was an agent and brewer who arrived at Forest Creek at around the same time as Fanny. Little is known about what motivated her to vote for him but no one else, despite being allowed to vote in seven councillors. She was clearly determined to elect him to council.
A rare glimpse
During colonial times women were rarely identified by name in the press – particularly women of the working class. The 1856 Argus report now offers historians an unprecedented opportunity to identify an otherwise invisible minority – the 19th century Australian woman of colour – as an active participant in our political history.
Fanny was a woman, who, through relative privilege – wielded with her own blood, sweat and tears – refused to founder beneath the weight of a white, Anglo-male world of commerce. However, this came at a price. As a woman of colour occupying space in a white man’s world, assaults on her success were not uncommon. Yet she refused to disappear.
One of those assaults occurred in December 1855. Fanny Finch was fined £50 for the illicit sale of alcohol, known as “sly-grogging”. After a month-long trial, which involved scandalous cross-examinations of miners, policemen, and even her two young sons, she was charged and fined.
Despite the exorbitant fine and the public slandering of her character and commercial integrity, Fanny Finch was not defeated. Like many business people on the goldfields, she both owed money and was owed it by others, but over the following four months, she began an unprecedented campaign of self-representation.
The day following her conviction she published a letter in the local paper accusing the local authorities of injustice (a copy of this has not survived).
A month on, she cast that vote. Then a few months later in April, she published the following advertisement.
Mrs. Finch begs to inform the inhabitants of Castlemaine that henceforth she will carry on business for her children and would be happy to receive any outstanding debts … finding that the more she herself strives the more she is oppressed, although she can firmly state that if those who are in her debt would come forward each with one third, she will be relieved of all debt, have a good home for her family and about two thousand pounds in her pocket.
Fanny Finch also begs to state that as in her affluence she was so kindly trusted, they may be sure that she, from her own free will, may some day liquidate all, but she must have her time … and in spite of what enemies she may have, she intends to keep throughout the winter ready cooked Ham, Beef Soups (a la mode) from seven in the morning to seven in the night.
The vote of the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch adds a woman of colour’s voice to what Clare Wright has described as an unorganised movement for women’s rights during the 1850s.
Fanny died on the 15th October 1863, aged 48. She was remembered as “a strong minded woman” with “a genuine tenderness of heart, ever ready to serve another in distress … without the slightest ostentation”.
She was given a public burial in an unmarked grave at Castlemaine Cemetery.