Weaponizing Ordinary Objects: Women, Masculine Performance, and the Anxieties of Men in Medieval Iceland
Master of Arts (M.A.)
Degree Granting Department
Giovanna Benadusi, Ph.D.
Jennifer Dukes-Knight, Ph.D.
Michael Decker, Ph.D.
Clothing, Food, Gender, Material Culture, Sagas
This thesis unravels the deeper meanings attributed to ordinary objects, such as clothing and food, in thirteenth-century Icelandic literature and legal records. I argue that women weaponized these ordinary objects to circumvent their social and legal disadvantages by performing acts that medieval Icelandic society deemed masculine. By comparing various literary sources, however, I show that medieval Icelandic society gradually redefined and questioned the acceptability of that behavior, especially during the thirteenth-century. This is particularly evident in the late thirteenth-century Njal’s Saga, wherein a woman named Hallgerd has been villainized for stealing cheese from a troublesome neighbor. If Hallgerd were a man, this behavior would have been considered rán, which was a masculine act whereby men challenged one another to take things by force. As a woman, however, Hallgerd’s clever use of ordinary objects was unsettling to men; her act, although mirroring the masculine expectations of rán, has been condemned by the author. Thus, by emphasizing the anxieties of men regarding such behavior, it is evident that later male authors, particularly those writing from the late thirteenth century onwards, considered this behavior as preventing society’s progression away from extra-legal conflict resolution. In doing so, the author of Njal’s Saga demonstrated that both women and men were aware of the power that these ordinary objects had in the hands of ambitious women, as well as how potentially dangerous and harmful to society they could be.
Scholar Commons Citation
Dunn, Steven T., "Weaponizing Ordinary Objects: Women, Masculine Performance, and the Anxieties of Men in Medieval Iceland" (2019). USF Tampa Graduate Theses and Dissertations.