On gendered landscape

Can landscape be gendered? Anthropologically speaking, women have long been linked with nature and men with culture. Moreover, this position affirms that culture (or men) presides over nature (women). But how does this premise extend onto the actual landscape?

As I explore the area near my current studio in Banff, Alberta, I have observed that many mountains are named after men (Mount Rundle, Mount Bourgeau, Mount Louis) and lakes after women (Lake Louise, Lake Annette, Helen Lake). While this is merely a trend and not a general rule, this trend may illustrate an imposed gender upon nature. However naming these landmarks is part of cultural construct. Nature becomes culture.

In Iceland, I found an example of culture’s power to shape or create gendered landscape, one that was defined by the limitations set upon women by law. At the ruins of a farm near Sandfell, I learned about a very peculiar statute that limited women’s ownership of land, and about a widow named Thorgerdur who was the first to claim this land as her own.

The site of Thorgerdur’s farm at Sandfell. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

“It was said that a woman was not to take a settlement larger than a two-year-old heifer could be led around between sunrise and sunset on a spring day, and so Thorgerdur led her heifer from Tóptafell, near Kvíá, southwards to Kidjaleit near Jökulfell in the west. Thorgerdur therefore took the land extending across the entire Ingólfshöfdi district between the rivers Kvíá and Jökulsá and built her house at Sandfell.”

– From Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) originally composed by historian Ari the Learned in the 12th Century.

The law that allowed Thorgerdur to take land, yet be limited by her and her heifer’s physical capabilities can be traced by a physical boundary on the land.

The absurdity of this law may have made you snicker, however it is sobering to think about how gender roles played out in the lives of Saga-age men and women. Not surprisingly, women were not supposed to take part in decision-making, an ultimately cultural practice. A woman’s father or brother would decide upon their marriage and they were not allowed to vote at the assemblies. Women’s roles were mostly linked to nature, childbearing and farming. But despite their lack of authority, Viking-age women were not passive individuals, illustrated by numerous dialogues from the Sagas and in this previous post.  And while the men were directly engaged in feuds and battles, most women outlived their male counterparts, often marrying three or four times.

The visible ruins at Sandfell are from more recent settlements, that were presumably built over the same site that Thorgerdur chose for her farmhouse. Scan from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Advertisements

On landscape and law

Many of the Icelandic Sagas begin with the same historical reference, the unification of Norway under one king, Harald “Fair-hair”. The Sagas describe how some Norwegians, threatened by this consolidation of power fled to Iceland, where during the Settlement Age a commonwealth government was established.

During the Settlement and Saga Age there were no towns or villages in Iceland and even today, some towns are comprised of a mere petrol station. Settlement was dispersed throughout the fertile valleys and some people would have to travel over a day to visit friends and neighbors.

Despite this geographic dispersion, the Icelanders developed a cohesive set of laws, which were presided over by “elected” Chieftains that formed the Law Council at the local and national assemblies called things. In Norway, the practice of local open-air assemblies already existed, but in Iceland, the lack of a formal hierarchy controlled by a king allowed Icelanders to create their own national identity.

Meaning the “meeting plains”, Thingvellir is the site of the ancient national Parliament of Iceland. Established in 930 in the west where many settlements were concentrated, farmers from the east, such as Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, had to travel as long as 17 days arrive by horseback, as described in his saga.

The Lögberg at Thingvellir. Digital snapshot by Jessica Auer.

It is no wonder that this site was chosen as it is a very distinctive landmark. Geologically, this is also the where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates diverge. A Large rock outcrop known as the Lögberg (lawrock), provided a platform for the Law Speaker to recite the laws from memory. The cliffs formed a natural amphitheater projecting the voices of speakers to a large audience. The plains below offered an ideal location to camp for the duration of the annual meeting.

The Almannagjá rift at Thingvellir. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Though law may seem like a lackluster topic to some, Viking Age farmers certainly knew how to make it interesting. This society lacked an efficient way of enforcing a verdict, so when legal action failed, the assembly could break into total violent chaos. Just imagine some sword, spear and axe wielding warriors bounding among these rocks.