Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Viking oval brooches
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This image shows a pair of Viking oval brooches. These brooches came in many shapes and sizes and were traditionally made out of worked metal and metal filigree. This specific pair of brooches dates to the late 9th or early 10th century CE, and was found accompanying a body in a grave in Suffolk, England. However, we know that the brooches likely originated in Scandinavia, and it is probable that they migrated with their owner to settle in England. These particular brooches are made primarily of gilt-bronze with silver fittings. Additionally, the brooches each are decorated with openwork bosses and zoomorphic adornments. These oval brooches represent perhaps the most common shape and class of brooches found among Viking groups.

    Brooches were, in part, so prevalent throughout Viking populations because of their role in female fashion. Viking men wore brooches too, however these were penannular (circular with a small break) in shape and were not nearly as common or diverse as women’s brooches. Traditionally, Viking women wore ankle length shifts fastened at the chest by a brooch. On top of these shifts, women wore woolen suspender dresses, also known as hangerocks, which were fastened over either breast by a set of additional brooches. In turn, these brooches were connected by an elaborate cluster of handcrafted and colorful beads strung as a necklace between the two pins. Because of their role in traditional female clothing, oval brooches were also a very common form of grave good. Luckily for archaeologists, these metal brooches survive well in the archaeological record, and, because of their ubiquitous role in women’s clothing, they are able to serve fairly definitively as markers of female sex. This is particularly helpful in sexing cremation burials, which outside of their grave goods, are unidentifiable. Some brooches in the archaeological record carry with them evidence of cloth stuck in the fastener on the back. Analysis of this cloth has allowed scholars to consider the social status of the dead. Good cloth was made from Chinese or Byzantine silk, and would have been available to women of high social status who could afford to buy it. Women associated with merchants may also have received it as gifts.

    In addition to oval brooches serving as markers of the female gender, they also functioned as markers, more broadly, of Viking culture. As grave goods, oval brooches were traditionally associated with pagan Viking burials. Christian women were not traditionally buried with grave goods. For Viking groups, brooches were ubiquitous across all classes of people – the differentiation of status came from varied levels of artistry and material – and thus were symbolic of all Scandinavian women. Scholars add to the brooches' significance by arguing that burial goods are symbolic of a person’s self-perceived identity, and thus, since oval brooches were so prevalent in Viking graves, they must have been markers of Scandinavian identity. Thus, we can see that, particularly given the status of Vikings as raiders, conquerors and migrants, brooches were an important symbol of their identity.

    One excellent place for a case study of Viking identity is the Danelaw in England. Danelaw was an area of England where the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants coexisted with Danish immigrants – hence the name – laws of living. The Danelaw developed out of Viking conquests in England. The first documented Viking raids in England date to 787 CE, and stemmed from the desire of the Scandinavians to plunder England and Scotland, preceding their actions as settlers. Because of the presence of Scandinavians, and the willingness of the Anglo-Saxons to abide by Danish laws, we see Scandinavian culture and its combination with English culture in that region. Interestingly, in the Danelaw we see the presence of Scandinavian-style oval brooches made by Anglo-Saxons. These brooches are not quite the same quality as their Scandinavian counterparts, and are able to be identified as knock-off versions of the latter. That the Anglo-Saxons copied these brooches also adds to their significance within Viking culture.

  • Source: British Museum
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Archaeology Brooches Gender Grave Goods Jewelry Vikings
  • Geographic Area: Scandinavia
  • Century: 9- 10
  • Date:
  • Related Work: Oval brooches, 9th century, Orkney, Scotland.
    Oval brooch, 9th century, Akershus, Norway. Formed from bosses with openwork decoration and animal designs.
    Recreation of a Viking woman's jewelry, with beads strung between the brooches. Photograph by Wolfgang Sauber.
  • Current Location: London, British Library, On display: G41/dc25/sB, Registration number 1888,0103.1
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Metalwork; Jewelry;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Silver; Iron; Gold; Copper Alloy;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 3.6/7.9/11.6
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Evison, Vera I. "A Viking Grave at Sonning, Berks." Antiquaries Journal 49, 2 (1969): 330-345;
    Kershaw, Jane F. "Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches." Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 5 (2009): 295-325;
    Kershaw, Jane F. Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellry in England. Oxford University Press, 2013;
    Wicker, Nancy L. "Christianization, Female Infanticide, and the Abundance of Female Burials at Viking Age Birka in Sweden.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 21, 2 (2012): 245-262.