From the Archives: Nancy Marie Brown and the Real Valkyrie

If you’ve been hanging out here in the Margins for a while, you know that I am fascinated by the continuing archaeological discoveries of ancient women warriors. Sometimes they are genuinely new discoveries. Sometimes they are a result of someone taking a closer look or asking new questions about existing. remains. This trend started in 2017, when Swedish bioarcheaologists released their findings that an iconic Viking warrior known as the Birka man was in fact the Birka woman.  Their results raised a huge flap in the world of Viking studies.

In the intervening years, scholars have begun to ask more complicated, or at least different, questions about sex, gender and remains. These questions, and the Birka woman herself, are at the heart of Nancy Marie Brown’s  The Real Valkyrie.

Brown takes the reader on a deeply researched and richly imagined exploration of the possible life of the Birka woman, whom she names Hervor. She interweaves a narrative of what Hervor’s life might have been like with the research on which she bases that narrative. She looks closely at the assumptions at the root of many of those long-held beliefs.* She asks new questions of sagas, chronicles, and archeological sources—and leads the reader through what those sources can tell us. She introduces us to a broader version of the Viking world, and to many powerful Viking women who have been previously dismissed as fiction. In the process she upends much of what we have traditionally believed about Viking women. The end result is a complex and important addition to women's history.

It is also a fast-paced, delightful read, with lots of “wow!” moments along the way.

If you’re interested in Vikings, women warriors, women’s history, or how historians work with evidence, this one’s for you.

*Medieval Christianity, Victorian ideas about women and a historical novel written by a Swedish writer during World War II all helped shape our popular conceptions about Vikings.

 

 

 

From the Archives: The Crusades from Another Perspective

coronation of melisende Recently* I've been reading Sharan Newman's Defending The City of God: A Medieval Queen, The First Crusade And The Quest for Peace In Jerusalem. It was a perfect read for March, which was Women's History Month.*

Newman tells the story of a historical figure who was completely new to me. Melisende (1105-1161) was the first hereditary ruler of the Latin State of Jerusalem, one of four small kingdoms founded by members of the First Crusade. Her story is a fascinating one. The daughter of a Frankish Crusader and an Armenian princess, Melisende ruled her kingdom for twenty years despite attempts by first her husband and then her son to shove her aside. Even after her son finally gained the upper hand, Melisende continued to play a critical role in the government of Jerusalem. Those few historians who mention Melisende at all tend to describe her as usurping her son's throne.** Newman makes a compelling argument for Melisende as both a legitimate and a powerful ruler. (In all fairness, this is the kind of argument I am predisposed to believe.)

Fascinating as Melisende's story is, Newman really caught my attention with this paragraph:

Most Crusade histories tell of the battle between Muslims and Christians, the conquest of Jerusalem and its eventual loss. The wives of these men are mentioned primarily as chess pieces. The children born to them tend to be regarded as identical to their fathers, with the same outlook and desires. Yet many of the women and most of the children were not Westerners. They had been born in the East. The Crusaders states of Jerusalem, Edessa, Tripoli, and Antioch were the only homes they knew.

Talk about a smack up the side of the historical head!

If you're interested in medieval history in general, the Crusades in particular, or women rulers, Defending the City of God is worth your time.

*FYI This review originally ran in 2014.

**It was also nice to spend some time in a warm dry place, if only in my imagination. Here in Chicago, March came in like a lion and went out like a cold, wet, cranky lion.

*** To put this in historical context. Melisende's English contemporary, the Empress Matilda (1102-1167) was the legitimate heir to Henry I. After Henry's death, her cousin Stephen of Blois had himself crowned king and plunged England into a nine-year civil war to keep her off the throne. Apparently twelfth century Europeans had a problem with the idea of women rulers.

Anita Berber: Dance Hard, Die Young

A black-and-white head shot of Anita Berber: young and beautiful, with a curly bob. (I may ask the guy who cuts my hair to try and reproduce it.)

Unlike the “Blond Hans,” who made regular appearances in Sigrid Schultz’s letters and memoirs, Schultz mentioned Expressionist dancer, cabaret artist, and actress Anita Berber (1899-1928) only once. A year after Berber’s death, Schultz described Berber as “the wild woman of inflation days—who burned away her great dancing talent with dope and wild parties, portraying her feverish time in a mask of green and purple make-up.”*

Berber made her debut at the Blüthnersaal, one of Berlin’s major performance venues, on February 24, 1916, at the age of sixteen, as a part of a performance by Rita Sacchetto’s dancing school.** Sacchero’s pieces alluded to classical antiquity in their titles and relied on a modern movement vocabulary and scanted costumes.

Anita Berber in one of her more sedate costumes, with knickers about the knees and a draped top that suggests it will drop and expose her breasts if she moves.

She quickly made a name for herself in Berlin and was working in movies by 1918. Dancing on her own, or with her second husband and dance partner, Sebastian Droste, Berber’s work moved beyond the mild titillation of Sacchero’s choreography, creating works that were overtly sexual and often transgressive. She appeared as a dancer and actress in at least twenty-four silent films between 1918 and 1925, occasionally nude and always provocative.

Berber’s costumes ranged from cross-dressing tuxedos*** to complete nudity. She wore heavy dancer’s make-up, which appears as jet-black lipstick and charcoal-circled eyes in the black and white photographs of the period, though Schultz’s description suggests a more colorful palette.

Berber standing astride wearing a tuxedo and carrying a cane. She has dramatic make-up and wears a monocle in one eye.

She was as famous for being a wild child as she was for her art. According to her contemporary, actor and choreographer Joe Jencik, “The public never appreciated Anita’s artistic expression, only her public transgressions in which she trespassed the untouchable line between the stage and the audience.” Her bisexuality, heavy alcohol consumption, and drug use were the fodder for gossip columns, as was her generally scandalous behavior. In addition to taking cocaine, opium and morphine, she reportedly combined chloroform and ether in a bowl, stirred them with a white rose, and then ate the rose petals. It is hard to know which details are true, or what they meant. Berber was a proto-performance artist who often fused her life and art in dramatic gestures on and off stage.

Berber was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1928 at the age of 29 while performing abroad. After collapsing in Damascus, she returned to Germany, where she died.

She is best known today because expressionist Otto Dix painted her portrait as a sensuous lady in red.

Otto Dix portrait of Anita Berber, with a sensuous red dress and a matching bright red bob.

 

* Hyperinflation hit Germany in 1923, creating an economic frenzy that paralleled the social frenzy of Germany’s Jazz Age. In the summer of 1922, the exchange rate was 400 marks per dollar. By January 1, 1923, the mark’s value had dropped to 7,000 marks per dollar and sank at an increasing speed thereafter. By mid-November, the rate was 1.3 trillion marks to the dollar. It was 1925 before the economy settled into a brief golden age before the Great Depression.

**Rita Sacchetto (1880-1959), whose work was inspired by that of American dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, was a leader of the expressive dance style that [bloomed] in Germany during this period.

***Well before Marlene Dietrich did the same.

***

 

I don’t know whether Sigrid Schultz met Anita Berber, or even saw her perform.

And speaking of Sigrid Schultz, The Dragon From Chicago is available for pre-order wherever you buy your books.  You can get a signed copy for yourself or your favorite wild child from my neighborhood bookstore, the Seminary Coop: https://www.semcoop.com/dragon-chicago-untold-story-american-reporter-nazi-germany .  Use the special instructions box to tell me how you want it signed.