The traces of the women of the past

Despite a strong domination of men, many women worked and lived at Bryggen (“The German Wharf”) in Bergen during the Middle Ages. Sigrid Samset Mygland wanted to find out who these women were.

Sigrid Samset Mygland
FEMALE LIFE: Sigrid Samset Mygland have examined the role and presence of women on The German Wharf in the Middle Ages.
Eivind Senneset

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You have written both your major thesis and now your doctoral thesis about the Middle Ages. Why did you want to do your research on this period of time?

“I have always been interested in history, and especially in Norway’s younger prehistory. In this intersecting point between archaeology and history, both written sources but not least a large amount of archaeological artefacts bring us close to everyday life. I have always enjoyed working with artefacts and people. In my major thesis I wrote about children in Bergen in the Middle Ages, so when I decided to begin working on the lives of women, it was a natural transition. This is another group of people within medieval archaeological research that has not been the subject of much examination. I love “the small stories”. There is something special about standing with a miniature shoe sole in your hand, knowing that it has been used by a child 800 years ago. You get extremely close to the past, using your senses."


In your thesis, you have looked for traces of women in the archaeological artefact material from excavations at Bryggen (“the German Wharf”) in Bergen, which is dated from 1170 to 1476. What was the idea behind this?

“I wanted to investigate the role of women and their presence in Bergen in the Middle Ages. From historical sources we know both high-standing business women, as well as single women working as servants, bakers and prostitutes existed, but little about to what extent the women came to the town as workers, or as wives and mothers. I was hoping that the archaeological material could provide a more elaborate image of the women at Bryggen in the Middle Ages.”


How did you approach this work?

“I worked on the basis of six of the many fires that raged in Bergen during the Middle Ages. The first one took place in 1170 and the last one in 1476. The fire layers that the fires have left behind contain artefacts that were in use at the time of the fires. All the artefacts were then mapped out in relation to where they were found on Bryggen – for instance in the houses, passageways and blocks of flats. I tried to look at the distribution of women's, men's and children’s artefacts in time and space. Asking questions: What artefacts existed at different times? Where were they found? How can we interpret these considering women's roles and presence?”


What did you discover?

"My material indicates that women were present at Bryggen continuously during the entire period between 1170 and 1476, but less and less after about 1200. My impression is also that the population at Bryggen was more of a local character in this early period, even if people of different nationalities lived here throughout the whole time. This population may also have included families with children. After 1200, traces of women, in particular textile-production equipment and cooking tools, are fewer. After the Hanseatic League established their kontor, a trading post, at Bryggen in the 1360s and gradually took over all the tenements here, traces of women decrease dramatically. In the same period the foreign impulses in the material increases. Traces of male workers and  young children are, however, continuously underrepresented. The material is also increasingly dominated by remains of ceramic drinking equipment, which is related to a male drinking culture and higher social classes. The women that still are present are now probably single servants, rather than wives and mothers.”


What problems did you experience during the writing?

"My research is very context-sensitive. All items had to be interpreted in relation to the physical, historical and social context in which they were found. Initially my plan was to only examine the objects that could be related to women. Immediately an important question was raised: how can we relate artefacts to gender in prehistory? The fact that an artefact is related to a specific gender today does not necessarily mean that they were related to the same gender in the Middle Ages as well. Particularly not in Norwegian medieval towns, which were heavily male-dominated. A lot of my time was thus spent examining gender roles in the Middle Ages. Given the traditional gender stereotypes in the countryside, I tried to find out to which extent this could be expected to be similar in Bergen. Probably there was a high degree of continuity."


What, in your own opinion, is most important in your research?

"There has generally been little research on women and gender within medieval archaeology. Before my thesis there was also no overriding archaeological studies focusing solely on women in Bergen, even though women occasionally have been addressed. The field of my study, gender-archaeology, is very theoretical, so my study is a specific and material effort to approach women and gender in a society that is unavailable for us in time and space."


What was it like to finish the PhD?

"It was an intense finishing stage, which was very demanding. I was pregnant with my third child and I had decided that I was going to make it before the birth. There were some intensive weeks; I worked 16 hour days, and I barely saw my family. I finished just before giving birth, and my water broke only two days after I had handed in my thesis.”