It has been nearly one thousand years since the last Vikings ventured abroad raiding and pillaging peasant towns and Christian monasteries. Yet the enduring imagery of monks being slaughtered and churches being looted is ever present in our minds. Every time someone utters the word ‘’Viking’’ we tend only to think of violent, barbaric warriors in bloodstained tunics who went off raiding, killing, and plundering. Although Vikings did indeed raid, kill, and plunder many people fail to realize that most Vikings were primarily farmers, fishermen, merchants, carpenters, and craftsmen. Just like every other society during the Middle Ages, Vikings needed to provide food for their families which usually meant working the land and maintaining the family farmstead.
The farmstead was the center of daily life during the Viking Age and healthy crops with a bountiful harvest were critical to surviving the brutal Scandinavian winters. It was important that everyone do their part to help maintain the family farm and the many tasks of doing so were divided between men and women. In Viking Age Scandinavia, men were generally responsible for tasks occurring “outside the threshold’’ (outside of the house) while women were generally responsible for tasks occurring “within the threshold’’ (inside of the house). Men were responsible for managing the fields (fertilizing, plowing, sowing harvesting, and threshing the crops) as well as hunting for wild game. They were also responsible for representing the family in society at large. Men were the only ones who could voice their opinions at the assemblies, and witness and prosecute in law. Women were responsible for providing their husbands with offspring and the care of infants and small children would have occupied much of their time. Women were also responsible for preparing food for the family. Women managed dairy production, baking bread, storing food rations, and preparing mead and other drinks. Dairy production included milk, butter, and cheese, often done through the milking of cows and sheep. One of the most important tasks that women were responsible for was the production of cloth. Making clothes out of sheep’s wool and plant fibers, such as flax and hemp, was an extremely long process. First, a Viking woman needed to shear the sheep, and tearing the wool off of the sheep with one’s hands was still practiced widely during the Viking Age. Next, the wool needed to be spun into thread and woven together on a loom. Women were responsible for the weaving of the sails of Viking longships and dying the cloth if necessary.
The Viking farmstead was made up of the fertile farmland on which the Vikings grew their crops. The farmstead also included longhouses in which the Viking family lived as well as a series of outbuildings where food was stored for the winter and slaves and servants lived. Perhaps the most important assets to the farmstead were the animals which were used for almost every part of daily living. Animals were primarily used to produce milk and wool. However, oxen would have been used to plow the fields while horses were essential in transportation. Farm animals were very important to the Vikings and were rarely killed and eaten. Wild game was the meat of choice at the time. Only during famines, when all of the food was gone, would Vikings kill and eat their livestock. The Viking longhouse was of a simple wooden design where a number of posts placed in the ground would support a roof. Occasionally, longhouses were built with walls instead of posts and tended to vary in design depending on the location or terrain they were built upon. Smaller buildings, such as workshops and storage houses, were built close to the longhouse while the barn and stables were situated further away.
Like most societies during the Medieval Era, the Vikings’ survival depended upon a successful harvest and plenty of food to eat. One famine could wipe out an entire year’s worth of difficult labor so multiple sources of food were critically important. Hunting and fishing were both excellent sources of food as the wildlife of Scandinavia provided a vast array of options. Many bodies of water throughout Scandinavia allowed fish to be caught relatively close to the farmstead with very basic equipment (spear, net, and line) and small boats. Lakes and rivers contained many kinds of fish, although salmon was the most important. Sea animals were also caught and hunted, including whales, seals, and walruses. Although whale and seal meat was eaten, the most valuable product of these animals was their blubber. Seal blubber was eaten as an alternative to butter, used in fueling oil lamps, and to create the tar needed to cover the boats. Walruses were hunted for their valuable ivory which was used in decorative art. Their thick hides could be made into ropes. Hunting gave farmers an excellent supply of meat and furs which could be sold for money. Squirrel, marten, fox, and bear were mostly hunted for their fur, while deer, elk, and reindeer were hunted for their meat. Wild birds were also hunted with the bow and arrow being the weapon of choice. With such as vast array of wildlife available, it was important that the Vikings diversify their food sources. Famine and disease were very common during the Viking Age, so plenty of food was needed to survive.
Life as a Viking was both difficult and dangerous. Famine and disease were widespread, children died in devastatingly large numbers, and farm work was unpleasant and extremely labor intensive. The tools used by farmers would be considered massively inadequate today and quickly wore out and broke. The production of a single dress or piece of clothing would have taken weeks to make. Both men and women worked with animal dung regularly. Life on a Viking farmstead was not a safe as one might think, but going off to raid and pillage, wasn’t any safer It’s important to realize the amount of strength and tolerance required of every man, woman, and child during this time. It was crucial that everyone do their part to ensure the survival of the family. Daily life during the Viking Age was a team effort, and if we can understand the strength required to endure life at home, perhaps we can know why the Vikings were so successful on their expeditions abroad.
Noah Tetzner is the host of The History of Vikings Podcast, a weekly podcast dedicated to retelling the history of the Vikings and the gods they worshiped. Noah is a lifelong history buff, and Viking history is his absolute passion. Every week, Noah is joined by a Viking Age/Norse Mythology related expert to discuss the endlessly fascinating history of the Vikings.
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Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Print.
Wolf, Kirsten. Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen. New York: Sterling, 2013. Print.
Brink, Stefan, and Neil S. Price. The Viking world. London New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
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