Women in power in the Middle Ages had a problem. Women weren’t supposed to rule (remember Eve? and St. Paul?). If they did take the throne, they were expected to marry, and their husband would then exercise power. So the choice was simple: marry and lose power, or stay single and keep it, but rule alone and die childless.
The meykongr, or maiden king, romance was born out of this dilemma. This Scandinavian subgenre of knightly romances had three main elements:
- the maiden-king is completely opposed to marriage.
- she rejects and humiliates all her suitors.
- she in her turn is humiliated by the man she finally marries.
(Kalinke: 68) In these stories, the narrative tension comes from the woman’s refusal to marry. When we think of romances and knightly tales, we think of a knight overcoming obstacles to win the hand of a maiden, who hardly features in the story at all.
The maiden-king gets to play a much larger part in the story, and the knight/hero has to prove himself as clever and resourceful as her. (I should note that the tricks the maiden-king and her suitor play on each other are pretty cruel. Medieval humour was like that.)
In each story, the maiden-king has somehow managed to carve out a kingdom for herself. Often her father gives her part of his kingdom to rule, thus giving her space and freedom for autonomy. Sometimes, as in Partalopa saga, he dies, which amounts to the same thing – she’s sole ruler.
Feminist scholars have objected that the meykongr’s freedom is compromised, because it comes from an absence of male authority in an artificial situation. Still, even compromised authority is better than none, and these women certainly make the most of their freedom.
The stories may also have been inspired by myth; writing about Skirnirsmal, Carolyne Larrington suggests that “Gerðr is a kind of Mengloð who has been reading “maiden-king romances.” The comparison is apt – Menglod has a bit part in the story of Svipdag, who fought through numerous obstacles to get to her, upon which she immediately married him.
Gerd, by contrast, is not pleased when Skirnir turns up to convince her to marry his master, Freyr. She has been left in charge of the place while her father is absent (or dead?) and has no desire to give up her autonomy. Skirnir has to bully her into submission, and even then she makes a final protest.
In the early 1960s, pop music abounded with “answer songs” – songs that commented on or responded to other songs. At least one maiden-king saga was an “answer saga”, responding to Klári saga, which humiliated its heroine, Serena, in harsh ways after she rejected Klárus as her suitor. (To be fair, she wasn’t very nice to him either.)
Nítíða is no more enlightened than Klárus, but this time she’s the one dispensing the tricks and humiliations. the back-story is that she’s the “maiden-king” of France, who took the throne after her father died. Suitors from all over Europe sought her hand; even the king of the Saracens put in a bid. (The Saracens come off particularly badly – all of them were killed off in the course of the story.) She tricked and humiliated her many suitors, until finally one, Lifornus, proved himself clever enough to be her spouse.
While many of the maiden-king sagas are critical of their heroines, this one goes so far as to name it after its heroine, rather than her suitor. The author was probably a man, but like Chaucer, he could see the humour in a man being humiliated, and could enter into a woman’s POV.
Thorbjorg in Hrolfs saga Gautrekssonar is probably the perfect meykongr. She was beautiful but preferred men’s sports, and became very good at them. When her father objected, she demanded part of the country to govern, and that her suitors should be sent directly to her (bypassing her father and other male relatives). She was given one-third of Sweden to rule, and becomes a king “both in name (Thorbegr) and deed, since she forbids people to refer to her as maiden or woman.” (Jochens: 101)
By the time King Hrolfr arrives, she has already maimed or killed several suitors, but despite her rebuffs with both words and weapons, he persists, and only after a prolonged siege and tunnelling under the wall does he managed to defeat her and make her his wife. (Note that when he subdues her, she becomes meek and accepts him; you wonder if Moulton had this in mind when he decreed that Wonder Woman would be powerless if bound.)
Of course, the meykongr is heir in default of a male, but in Thornbjorg’s case she also stands in for her husband when he is taken prisoner and her castle attacked. She puts on armour again and rallys an army to fight them off. (Their son was twelve, so he’s disqualified as well.) It does not lack the revelation scene, where King Hrolf returns, and meets a warrior, who, when Hrolf pushes up their visor, turns out to be his wife.
I could list many other examples, and they are certainly interesting, but one in particular stands out. In the story of Marmoria, as told in Partalopa saga, the maiden-king seems to have realized the catch inherent in her position; she can maintain her power for as long as she remains unmarried. So she decides to take a secret lover, and settles on the dauphin of France. (Partalopa saga is based on a French romance, Partalopas de Blois.)
She goes off to France in disguise to check him out, and, satisfied with what she sees, conjures him to her bed. (She is also very learned, and knows magic.) From her it turns into an Eros and Psyche in reverse, as Partalopi breaks his promise not find out who she is at the behest of concerned relations, learns her identity, and must find Marmoria again, this time the hard way.
The disguise, and assumption of male prerogatives, including the reverse bridal-quest, are reminiscent of the goddess Skadi’s story, only this version isn’t being played for laughs. It does point up one important point about maiden-kings, and that is the meaning of their maiden status. Some of them defend their actual physical virginity with all the might they can muster, but some, like Marmoria here, see their maiden status as more to do with the concept of “proud, unmarried woman, full of potential”. (Prestgaard Andersen: 297)
Other stories took a more literal view. In a later version of the Brynhild story, Thridreks saga, she hangs Gunnar up on the wall for the three nights of their honeymoon, which Sigurd explains was necessary because Brynhild can only keep her strength as long as she is a virgin. (Once again, you wonder if that was why the Aesir were so ready to offer Skadi a husband.)
Jochens offers an insight into the nature of the meykongr character’s function in the narrative:
Clearly, a meykongr was a perfect foil to the hero in a bridal-quest narrative. By insisting on remaining unmarried, she added dramatic tension that the author could intensify and prolong according to the heroine’s cleverness…The overriding theme is the man’s quest as suitor, to which the woman eventually succumbs, but the narrative interest is centered on the woman’s stratagems to obstruct the marriage and the men’s initial failures, rather than on the final outcome. (103)
Although the stories are the work of men, they may very well reflect women’s fantasies of being involved in great matters: “And as though they wanted not only to give birth to the next generation but to also be able to dream of personal fame and immortality. (Prestgard Andersen: 315)
Bagerius, Henric 2013: “Romance and Violence: Aristocratic Sexuality in Late Medieval Iceland”, Mirator 14/1: 79 – 96. (Can be found here.)
Jochens, Jenny Old 1996: Norse Images of Women, University of Pennsylvania. (available at Questia)
Jóhanna Katrín Fríðriksdóttir “From Heroic Legend to ‘Medieval Screwball Comedy’? The Origins, Development and Interpretation of the Maiden-King Narrative”, in The Legendary Sagas, Origins and Developments, eds. Annette Lassen et. al., University of Iceland Press. (also available from academica.edu)
Kalinke, Marianne 1990: Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland, Cornell University Press.
McDonald, Sheryl (2010) “Nítiða saga: A Normalised Icelandic Text and Translation”, Leeds Studies in English 40: 119 – 145. (Can be found here.)
Prestergard Andersen, Lise 2002: “On Valkyries, shield-maidens, and other armed women in Old Norse sources and Saxo Grammaticus” in Mythological Women : Studies in Memory of Lotte Motz (1922-1997), eds. Rudolf Simek and Wilhelm Heizmann, Studia Medievalia Septentronalia 7, Vienna: 290 – 318.