A little over a year ago I reviewed Dr. Wlliam Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat on this blog, finding it excellent on all levels. Now Dr. Short has given us a quasi-sequel, a sort of reader’s companion to Icelandic saga literature. While not quite as exciting as the earlier book, it is in many ways even more informative.
The stated aim of the book is to provide modern readers with the informational context required to read with the fullest possible understanding and appreciation the body of literature known as the Icelandic family sagas. These, written down in the later medieval period after 1200, preserve and elaborate on oral poetic material from the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth – roughly 870 to 1251. Major examples include the Saga of Burnt Njal, the Laxdaela Saga, the Saga of Egil Skallagrimmson, Grettir’s Saga, and the two Vinland sagas describing the ultimately failed Icelandic attempts to establish settlement in the New World. These remain by far the most important literary sources for our understanding of the Viking Age.
As an indicator of my competence to review this book, I note that I have read all those sagas mentioned and many more. I have extensive martial-arts experience with weapons designed to emulate those of the period. Also, I am able to check many of Dr. Short’s claims about clothing, food and domestic life through my wife Cathy’s independent knowledge of the scholarly literature on these topics; she experiments with reconstructed recipes, makes and wears museum-quality replicas of Viking women’s costume and is actually no slouch with period weapons herself. See her blogs Food Through Time and Loose Threads for more. Cathy and I have both visited Iceland and are more than casually familiar with the archeological evidence bearing on the period there and in Scandinavia. I have personally seen and touched more than one of the preserved artifacts to which Dr. Short refers (notably in the Viking Ship Museums at Oslo and Roskilde).
From this background, I can certify that Dr. Short has done an excellent job of assembling and interpreting the evidence as previously known to me. But it is where he goes beyond this, of course, that I found the book most interesting. I have a few minor arguments with his reconstruction which I will return to later in this review, but I unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone with even a shred of interest in the Viking era.
Let’s begin with the basics. Short’s account of what we know about the settlement of Iceland is faultless, weaving together archeological and literary evidence in a way that tells a coherent story while commendably not glossing over the inconsistencies in the record. His account of Viking-era shipbuilding and transport technology is clear and correct, if a bit pedestrian; readers even moderately familiar with the literature on this topic and the surviving archeological evidence will find no surprises here. The material on geography, climate, agriculture, and open-ocean navigation is all solid and well presented.
For a reader with anything like my interest in historical examples of stateless societies, Short’s explanation of the details of judicial procedure in the Commonwealth is worth the price of the book all by itself. The unique contract feudalism of the goðorð (chieftainship) system has previously been well-explored by David Friedman and other libertarians, but at a bit higher level of abstraction; in no account previous to Dr. Short’s have I seen such a nuts-and-bolts account of legal conflict resolution.
Where this book gives its greatest value is in integrating the literary evidence from the sagas with archeology and on-the-ground observation in Iceland – academic literature, with its narrow focus, often tends to miss out on the cross-disciplinary insights available in this way. For example, one of the sections I learned a good deal from is Short’s discussion of the architecture of Icelandic longhouses; he does an interesting and persuasive job of interpreting various physical features in light of saga descriptions of domestic scenes.
The few places where I might argue with Dr. Short are matters of emphasis and (perhaps inadvertent) omission. Most of these cluster round the status and social power of women in the saga age.
Dr. Short accurately and comprehensively describes what we know about the legal status of women in saga Iceland – but both I and my wife believe from our own reading that such a legalistic account somewhat (and perhaps greatly) understates the actual social power of women in that society. All the saga evidence is consistent that Viking women were not to be lightly crossed even by men to whom they were formally subordinate in law; Short reports some consequences of this (noting, for example, instances of women successfully prodding their men to restore family honor by violence, and describing the difficulties attendant on divorcing a wife) but never really explores the larger implications.
Another curious and related gap: Dr. Short reports that women were forbidden from bearing weapons under Icelandic law. Doubtless true, the law-books of the Commonwealth were not ambiguous in such matters – but what then are we to make of the fearsome Freydis of the Vinland sagas, who slaps her bare breast with a sword and is quite willing to battle the invading Skraelings herself if Viking men don’t step up to the job? More to the point, Dr. Short cannot be ignorant of that account; he falls short of the high standard of the rest of this book by failing to juxtapose it with his report of the law and at least suggest some possible reconciliations.
Elsewhere, Short’s account of domestic life illuminates by collecting the sorts of facts that tend not to be foregrounded in more academic studies. I was much interested to learn, for example, of the high status that board and table games of skill held in period. There is primary evidence that the Vikings considered this sort of skill as important and praiseworthy an attribute as physical strength!
In this and other ways, the Commonwealth Icelanders of Dr. Short’s account can seem curiously modern. Consider the dry, laconic style of the sagas; the pragmatism revealed in their architecture, shipbuilding, and tactics of warfare; religious attachments so loose that they could be and were largely severed by a single decree of the Law-Speaker in the year 1000; the egalitarianism of their society; and contemporary Adam of Bremen’s report that “they have no kings, only law”. Other than their combativeness and easily-offended sense of honor, the virtues Dr. Short points out the saga Icelanders most esteemed are a less alien list than most societies would compile for another half a millennium – self-control, moderation, truthfulness, intelligence, generosity, and fair reciprocal dealing. Pretty bourgeois for people often dismissed as barbarians!
I would have enjoyed a bit more generative theory, a bit more inquiry into why they were like that and some comparison with other cultures at similar technological levels. My own conjecture is that the key similarity with the modern West is that the saga-age Icelanders – even more than the continental Norse – were a society of small freeholders, and thus found it adaptive to cultivate egalitarian freeholder virtues along with their crops and cattle.
On this level, however, Dr. Short’s book is silent. As with the sagas themselves, it does not introspect; we learn much about how the saga Icelanders lived, fought, married, built, farmed, sailed, and sued, but are left to ourself to find the interior meaning in that narrative. Perhaps that is as well.
I think the most interesting single new thing I learned from this book may be how late Icelandic contact with the New World actually persisted. While early colonization attempts failed, Dr. Short reports that Icelanders made occasional voyages to Vinland and Markland to gather timber and other resources not readily available in Iceland. The last such voyage was recorded in 1347, only 145 years before Columbus planted his flag. And there might have been later ones unrecorded; post-Saga-age Icelanders never lost the open-ocean sailing technology that supported the original voyages.
Possibly the connection is causal; Dr. Short quotes a letter of 1477 in which Columbus actually claims to have visited Iceland himself! Did he hear of the Vinland sagas while there? Nobody knows – but since we know they survived to our own time, Icelanders must have been re-telling them in his.
To sum up, this is a book stuffed full of interesting material for anyone interested in the sagas, the Viking age, the Icelandic Commonwealth, and early contact with the New World. Highly recommended.
Do not ever doubt for a fraction of a second what a lucky bastard you are.
ESR says: Markup fixed as you directed.
>Do not ever doubt for a fraction of a second what a lucky bastard you are.
And you probably don’t know the half of it. Cathy is also, in no particular order: a redhead, a capable singer and guitarist, a good shot with her Glock .40, a practising attorney, sufficiently skilled at several different strategy games to have competed near the world-championship level, and attractive enough to routinely get hit on by men half her age.
What? Did you think I’d have married an uninteresting woman?
“…but what then are we to make of the fearsome Freydis of the Vinland sagas, who slaps her bare breast with a sword and is quite willing to battle the invading Skraelings herself if Viking men don’t step up to the job?”
Hey! It was the Icelanders that were the invading Skraelings. They came here to America, murdered our people and cheated them in trade. We Americans can all be proud of our brave warriors that beat off their invasion and repelled them from our shores. Thorfinn Karlsefni got what he deserved.
Speaking of markup, the correct HTML entity for ð is ð ,not &edh; ,
I’m halfway through Jesse Byock’s ‘Viking Age Iceland’ (Penguin) having purchased it years ago after reading Friedman on the subject of the Icelandic Free State. Truly a fascinating history.
He, too, goes into the nuts and bolts of being a chief and of being an advocate and the role of women in perpetuating or ending feud.
He has not yet written,if he does at all, about the laws against women being armed. I think that was probably a matter of making clear that females were non-combatants and that if a one was found to be killed there is no easy way the killer could claim the victim was a threat. Which would make for a rough time for the killer. And in their society in which you had to sue to get justice someone would have to bring a suit and claim damages if they saw a woman going about armed and it might not have been worth it. Of course such a woman could be excluded from the social life of the island if she persisted meaning that other factors, as they often did, could mitigate behavior. In the Skraeling episode they were outside the bounds of Icelandic law and culture and thus were not likely to observe the women-as-non-combatants law. So there would be no issue with her being armed in a confrontation with them. Plus, it WAS clobberin’ time and matters were critical.
Byock does mention a particular board game called Tafl that while no one is sure what the rules were is played by enthusiasts today and has descendant games including Thud! based on a game mentioned in several Terry Pratchett novels. Given how complicated the personal politics of Iceland one had to be an excellent abstract thinker in order to do well as a chief or advocate or to be involved in important issues and that would be reflected in skill-at-games. Since the tendency was to use non-violent, sometimes politically complicated means to resolve disputes it is not surprising that being skilled at thinking would bring the same or more fame and repute than skill-at-arms.
For those that want to read some sagas but don’t want to buy any just yet this site http://www.sagadb.org/ has many translated into English. But beware that once you start it is hard to stop. The sagas are simply magnificent works of art. I’ve just started to really get into to them, I read Grettir’s a long time ago and it was a powerful experience. Now I’m happy to start again and had to drag myself away to make this post.
I’ve got a brand new combine harvester, and I’ll give her the key
>In the Skraeling episode they were outside the bounds of Icelandic law and culture and thus were not likely to observe the women-as-non-combatants law.
The incident demands explanation not because Freydis violated a law only in force within Icelandic jurisdiction, but because her behavior is inconsistent with the social norms implied by that law.
There could be several explanations for this. One is that Freydis was atypical and in violation of Icelandic norms. Another is that Icelandic women were taught use of weapons for last-ditch home defense situations in a practice so unremarked that saga writers never thought they had to mention it, even though strictly forbidden to bear weapons in the normal course of life (I favor this one). A third is that the law did not in fact reflect social norms, but was either a holdover from earlier times or an attempt to impose reform on a population which had not yet accepted it.
Something to always keep in mind, especially in situations like this that is both historical and linguistic translation, is the possibility that information may be lost in the process. In this case, it is possible that women may have been forbidden to “bear arms” as in carrying them in public while simultaneously be expected to “bear arms” as in using them to defend themselves when necessary. Always remember that linguistic and historical and cultural contexts are not simply, or easily, translated.
>women may have been forbidden to “bear arms” as in carrying them in public while simultaneously be expected to “bear arms” as in using them to defend themselves when necessary.
Yes, I have already noted that I think this the most likely explanation.
I realized after I posted that it was similar to what you had written, but I am pretty autistic and often don’t notice implications of what I have read (or even worse what I have heard) until later. And often, when I do comment, write things that many people consider obvious interpretations of what was written.
Freydis was probably a sibyl. They carried them with them so as to always be able to divine the will of Odin. She might have had the sword as part of her priestly outfit, or just grabbed one when she needed it to rally the men.
In normal life in Iceland, while I’ve seen nothing specific in the sagas, I did notice that:
1. There are a number of incidents where the husband is attacked and killed, but the woman remains unarmed and goes away unmolested. (An example is the killing of Gunnar of Hlidarend.)
2. Wearing of a female-style garment (a shirt with a wide neck opening) was grounds for divorce. (The man was presumed to be gay.) I would guess that a woman carrying weapons would be looked at in a similar manner.
>I would guess that a woman carrying weapons would be looked at in a similar manner.
I consider this less than certain, given that the continental Norse had a literary tradition of shieldmaidens (in, for example, Hervarar’s saga) and there is no indication this role was associated with homosexuality.
You mean she was a völva; sibyls are a different culture. If Freydis were a völva, she’d be carrying a wand, rather than a sword. Furthermore, völvas were very much feared and repsected; the description esr offers doesn’t seem to jive with that, but I haven’t read the book, so I couldn’t say for sure.
Exactly. Shieldmaidens appear in the sagas, but there is little evidence in the historical record regarding them.
I’ve not yet read the sagas that she is in so I turned to Wikipedia to find out more about her…
>In Vinland, Freydís betrays her partners, has them and their men attacked when sleeping and killed. She personally executes the five women in their group since no-one else would do the deed.<
So I would say that she, being a murderer who personally killed five helpless, innocent women when she could have left them alive but marooned, is so far out of the cultural norms that she cannot be used as an example for any larger trend.
Though I can see a goading tactic that a woman could use to impel their men to seek blood-vengeance wherein she picks up a weapon and makes to go out with it to do the deed herself. If any one else sees her at this the men in her group would be shamed. Thus to prevent that they would do what she wanted.
And I could see women having at least rudimentary weapon skills. There is a lot of time to kill during the winter months and they cannot keep at craftswork or housekeeping the whole time. They might well be taught the spear and knife but probably not sword and shield. It would be a difficult thing for a man to explain why the women of his stead know such manly fighting arts. Are not his men man enough for defense? What kind of support could such a man be relied upon to bring to one who needs it if he has to rely on womenfolk? It would be shameful to give the impression that women have to do any part of his fighting. Which ties into what I said above.
Having said all that is it possible a person could pick up some skill through observation? Outside of a college fencing class I have no experience with the weapon fighting arts so I'm in no way knowledgeable in this area and am curious about just what a person can do who gets a lot of observation but no reps at a fighting skill.
Though my experience with teaching absolute beginners how to bowl is that its the footwork that is the hardest part to learn. And they'll never get a proper stroke or release if they cannot master their feet. And that people with athletic backgrounds understand that and thus "get it" so much quicker than non-athletes.
Therefore a woman who is already agile and has spent her childhood walking fences, outrunning the boys, being a whiz at catching chickens and so forth will be much more able to make good use of her observations than other women and so you might have on the island a few dozen or hundred women who could use the sword and shield to good effect even though no one had purposefully taught them. And they might not realize it themselves.
So a large percentage of the women on the island being able to use sword and shield is unlikely but a large percentage of them being versed in the basic stabby skills is likely. And would be of no note for a chronicler, unless something happened. A lot of the sagas have been lost so we can never know for sure.
>So I would say that she, being a murderer who personally killed five helpless, innocent women when she could have left them alive but marooned, is so far out of the cultural norms that she cannot be used as an example for any larger trend.
That could certainly be. I lean towards the women-trained-for-home-defense explanation because, while Freydis’s murders are condemned in the source, her combativeness is not.
>Having said all that is it possible a person could pick up some skill through observation [alone]?
Unlikely. Proficiency with contact weapons (including empty hands) requires muscle memory of the efficient motions. You only get that with practice.
Oh, yeah, I remember reading in Samuel Eliot Morison’s book about how Freydis slapped her titties with her sword, and then charged the Injuns and made them run away!
P.s. That was excellent psyops.
Having just re-watched the LoTR movies, I am still stunned at the degree of Norse culture and tone the prop masters and set dressers did on the Rohirrim and on Rohan.
Theoden’s portrayal in these movies is one of the most subtly nuanced portrayals of wyrd I’ve ever seen on the screen. He’s very clearly a man who realizes he’s been brought to the fullness of his remaining faculties just in time to likely see everything he’s cherished torn asunder, save for a thin thread of hope in his niece.
And he knows that he will not live to see that hope borne, that his days are numbered, and all the reckoning he can give is the number of enemies who precede him into the afterlife.
Men of Rohan! We ride to wrack! We ride to ruin! We ride to the world’s end! CHAAAAAARGE!
And if this be the end of us, let us make it an end worth remembering!
It would’ve been so easy to ham that up to the point of near self parody; the fact that it’s done with such gravitas and subtlety is what I love of it.
Ken Burnside: They were working from Tolkien’s material. Since he was one of the world’s great scholars of medieval Norse literature, why should it be surprising that the authentic Norse flavor comes through?
>Since [Tolkien] was one of the world’s great scholars of medieval Norse literature,
That accolade may be slightly mis-aimed. Although Tolkien was certainly acquainted with the collateral Norse and earlier Germanic sources, the area in which he could unhesitatingly be called a “world’s great” was specifically Anglo-Saxon literature.
Rich, what astonishes me is that for a part of the Lord of the Rings saga that is generally considered tertiary to the two main plots, that the production team (and the person coaching the actor who played Theoden) did such a loving and thorough job.
Not that most of that prop department didn’t regard the chance to work on those films as a “I get to work on this? Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” moment.
Put another way – this is the level of detail that would, in a hacker centric movie, make sure that all the computer screens shown on the film were not only showing EMACS, but making sure that all the shots of hands typing at the keyboard were typing the right key combinations….
>the level of detail that would, in a hacker centric movie, make sure that all the computer screens shown on the film were not only showing EMACS, but making sure that all the shots of hands typing at the keyboard were typing the right key combinations….
In Tron Legacy, the early scenes with characters typing commands into terminal windows were typing recognizable and (with one minor and forgivable exception) correct Unix commands, and getting plausible responses. Impressive, compared to Hollywood’s usual (complete lack of) standards about such things.
Times have changed since director Dominic Sena threatened to fire his technical consultant when the latter balked at the silliness of the “Hollywood hacking” visuals he was supposed to design for Swordfish (2001). I think the tipping point was the authentic use of Unix pen-testing tools like nmap(1) in The Matrix Reloaded. The Wachowski brothers knew their target audience and knew that they were going to get called out for throwing random bullshit on the screen rather than something that at least smacked of verisimilitude. Other filmmakers (including, mercifully, those of Tron: Legacy) followed suit. Hell, Metal Gear Solid 2, a video game, sees Solid Snake booting up a plausibly Unix-like workstation, replete with kernel messages (and hostname “policenauts”, an in-joke for Hideo Kojima fans).
The same is almost certainly true of the LotR film trilogy. Peter Jackson wasn’t going to chance pissing off the hardcore Tolkien nerd base. He was going to make damn sure his films were authentic to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original works (and the cultural background which inspired them). And it would have been so easy for a studio exec to intervene and say “Can we have Merry and Pippin talk jive? Maybe give one of them a gold tooth? It would really help us capture that youth dollar…”
Um, I’m not exactly sure that you can still call them the Wachowski brothers. Other than that, when I saw the scene with nmap and the ssh vuln I went “OMFG! She really did crack that!” Out loud. In the movie theatre. With the accompanying sssshhhhhhh! I was that surprised. (I agree that this is a turning point of sorts, but I’ve since seen stuff in movies since then that’s made me do a faceplant. )
Anyway I think Peter Jackson knew his target audience would be demanding because Tolkien’s books aren’t exactly the sort you can read with your brain turned off.
eric, i think you’ll appreciate for a few reasons close to your heart the quite-different approach taken by this chap’s article. very different depiction than the usual stereotype (viking marauder) but one that gibed very well with my visit there,* and the concept of a secondary market in murder convictions was a novelty for me.
‘PRIVATE CREATION AND ENFORCEMENT OF LAW: A HISTORICAL CASE’
‘The purpose of this paper is to examine the legal and political institutions of Iceland from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. They are of interest for two reasons. First, they are relatively well documented; the sagas were written by people who had lived under that set of institutions and provide a detailed inside view of their workings. Legal conflicts were of great interest to the medieval Icelanders: Njal, the eponymous hero of the most famous of the sagas, is not a warrior but a lawyer–“so skilled in law that no one was considered his equal.” In the action of the sagas, law cases play as central a role as battles.
Second, medieval Icelandic institutions have several peculiar and interesting characteristics; they might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions.‘
Oh yeah. I know about this. David D. Friedman and I are good friends; I’ve stayed at his house.
* (i was there ~2,000. Geyser had not spouted in something like 2 decades; everyone mourned him. then i turned up. and he blew. much excitement from all the locals.
call me surtr.)
From LotR movie I liked best the first one with hobbit houses; I liked least the last film with “helipad” in Gondor and what was IMVHO very screwed up sense of scale in depictiong battle of Gondor.
Indeed. Most of the world reads these with their brain turned ON.
>Oh yeah. I know about this. David D. Friedman and I are good friends; I’ve stayed at his house.
bwahahah ha haaaaa! twice in a row in wildly disparate domains!
only ran across it a couple of years ago. if you remember next time you see/e him, please pass on my thanks and esteem for an excellent article — was news to me in all its specifics yet cleared up some long-term deep questions i had.
*ponders how to slip in a ref to something by Kylie Minogue. so that when you say “oh yeah, she taught me how to sing, i saw her just last month”, i can pounce and ask for her phone number*
>*ponders how to slip in a ref to something by Kylie Minogue. so that when you say “oh yeah, she taught me how to sing, i saw her just last month”, i can pounce and ask for her phone number*
No, I taught her how to sing. Er…no, just kidding.
Sorry, man, I don’t know Kylie Minogue. Not that her phone number would necessarily do you a lot of good, anyway; rumor has it she’s as gay as a treeful of parrots.
If she is, that’s a recent development. She’s historically had a thing for Frenchmen; make of that what you will.
Your friendship with David Friedman is about the least surprising thing in the world. I found some of his writings while googling for background info about the Icelandic Commonwealth; my first thought was “this guy and Eric have been talking.” :)
>Your friendship with David Friedman is about the least surprising thing in the world. I found some of his writings while googling for background info about the Icelandic Commonwealth; my first thought was “this guy and Eric have been talking.” :)
David’s thinking has been influencing mine since the early ’70s, but we’ve only actually been personally acquainted for about ten years. Funny how it happened: I was doing my open-source road show at USC, and I’m stepping off stage, and this guy steps up to me and says “Hi, I’m David Friedman. Let’s have dinner.” He subsequently gave me a copy of his book “Price Theory” inscribed thus: “This book will teach you all the things you need to know to write the papers you already wrote.”
I believe maybe I’ve influenced David’s thinking a little, recently. Well, it would be fair return! It might be more correct to say that we have both demonstrated an exceptional ability to generate insights from the same theoretical base in neoclassical and Austrian economics (where else did you think my papers came from?), so we end up sounding a lot alike even when we’re not actually influencing each other. I don’t think either David or I could easily separate that kind of parallel reasoning from the extent to which we’ve affected each other.
I want the contract model gone as well, hopefully it will end with slow-motion explosions and bounteous cleavage.
You’re anticipating an implosion of the contract model within the next year or two? And then totally gone? Or will it dwindle away, it’s share getting smaller and smaller as the years go on ending up as a low single-digit of share curiosity of how things used to be. I could see reading an article 10 years from now about how some carrier(s) still have people under contract. Probably the same people who buy the Jitterbug.
Once smart-phones go from luxury to commodity with millions of new users will carriers be able to add capacity fast enough? And will someone in the industry or the government mange to fuck the add process up?
And why can’t this process happen with guns?
>Or will it dwindle away, it’s share getting smaller and smaller as the years go on ending up as a low single-digit of share curiosity of how things used to be.
Probably like that. :-) Again, looking at consumption patterns in markets outside the U.S. is instructive.
>And why can’t this process happen with guns?
Huh. I never realized that I’ve known DDF longer than Eric has. :)
What David’s paean to the Icelandic Commonwealth lacks is a fundamental realization of A) Iceland was largely on lifeboat economics, B) had a general distribution of wealth that is an historic anomaly and C) it blew up when that historic anomaly was overturned when the Sturlinga’s showed up with 4 small ships with trade goods representing a significant fraction of the entire Commonwealth GDP — all gifts to the Sturlingas from the King of Norway in return for swearing fealty.
Most of the laws of the Icelandic Commonwealth are very carefully meted out rules for grazing privileges on commonly owned land, largely negotiated from the perspective of “Anyone who gets greedy probably triggers a famine.” With several piquant memories of famines.
Because when someone comes out with a cheap gun, Dianne Feinstein, Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer will get a law passed to ban it.
Good grief, I meant to post that in the Broadcom string.
And by guns, I was saying wouldn’t it be great if prices for them dropped in the same way as prices for electronics. C’mon a $50-$100 quality 1911 or N-frame? With factory ammo at 2-5 cents per? That would be most beautiful. That statement had nothing to do with the question about how will the carriers and the gov react to the need for so much more capacity. It was poorly placed. Sorry about that.
Now back to Iceland…
>Sorry, man, I don’t know Kylie Minogue. Not that her phone number would necessarily do you a lot of good, anyway; rumor has it she’s as gay as a treeful of parrots.
wait. my previous girlfriend was, before she met me, one of britain’s inner circle of top lesbian bloggers.
i can DO this!!
*buys parrot as introduction gambit and joins eric’s singing school*
>That could certainly be. I lean towards the women-trained-for-home-defense explanation because, while Freydis’s murders are condemned in the source, her combativeness is not.
Reading the sagas I get the impression that these were a mouthy, direct, in your face sort of folk. Reading Byock he explains that since women had no political rights they made their views known within the kin group and to get anything done had to be pushy and relentless. Much more so than the men. That added with the confidence that comes with being lethally capable would mean a whole bunch of anti-wallflowers and thus Freydis’ personality would not stand out.
ESR, I’m surprised you missed the most obvious explanation of all for Freydis: it was BECAUSE such a thing was so unusual for a woman, and she was trying to shame the men: “You call yourself men and warriors, and yet you’re running away! If you won’t fight, then I, a weak and helpless woman who isn’t even supposed to pick up a sword will instead.”
There’s another very similar episode in the Sicilian Norman chronicles when Bohemond of Taranto (I think) was besieging the Byzantine fortress of Dyrrachium. The Normans were in retreat after a successful Byzantine attack when Bohemond’s wife, Sichelgaita, rallied them in the same way (except in full armor instead of bared breasts).