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20Jul

Femina by Janina Ramirez review – a revelatory study of medieval women’s lives

From a ferocious Norse warrior to an outrageously original autobiographer, the female characters changing our understanding of the past

In 1878 a pile of ancient bones was pulled from the ground at Birka, near Stockholm, and confidently identified as the remains of a 10th-century Norse warrior. After all, the skeleton, known as “Bj 581”, was going into the next life surrounded by every kind of death-dealing instrument: spears, axes, arrows and swords, and a couple of strapping war horses. You might have assumed Bj 581 would have one of those helmets with curly horns too, were it not for the fact that the “classic” Norse headgear was actually a stage prop invented for a production of Wagner’s Ring cycle just two years earlier, in 1876. Still, it seemed plausible to imagine that Bj 581 had once sported a wild red beard.

Then, over the last 10 years, murmurs of doubt started to surface. The skeleton’s pelvis was suspiciously wide, the bones of his forearm remarkably slender. In 2017, DNA was extracted from a tooth and the truth was finally out: not a Y chromosome in sight. The Birka warrior was female. At a stroke ideas about Norse women, and about women in medieval culture generally, were turned upside down. Out went the wimples and the prayer books, the mute looks and downcast eyes, and in came something altogether fiercer and more interesting. Indeed, no sooner had the news of Bj 581’s misgendering flashed around the world than its effects started to register in popular culture. Suddenly Norse wonder-women were everywhere, from film franchises to lunch boxes.

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