The Vikings

by Katarina Wikholm

The Norsemen before They Were Vikings: 500 – 700 AD
Trading, Raiding, & Travels
Law & Society
Longships & Battles
Women & the Household

An Introduction

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The scene is a village, somewhere in the British Isles. The time is early morning, some day in the early Middle Ages. Suddenly a band of longhaired pirates, complete with swelling muscles and horned helmets, jump off their secretly beached longship and attack the sleepy villagers. One of Viking pirates grabs an unwilling maiden, drags her back to his ship and off they go. Later the maiden discovers that a loving heart of gold beats beneath the rough exterior of her abductor turned husband.

Whoa! Let’s rewind this tape a bit. The paragraph above may be the outline of a romance novel that could make an author’s sales-figures look like a rocket launch, but from a historical viewpoint it is rather questionable.

While the Viking fashion was for longish hair on men, and rowing a longship did produce strong muscles, horned helmets were the vogue when Julius Caesar invaded Gaul. Celts, not Vikings wore those helmets and there was a time difference of about 800 years. Imagine a modern CEO in full plate armor, and you’ll see just how anacronistic this picture of a Viking really is.

As for marrying a captive, however attractive it may be in fiction, it did not happen that much in real life. The Vikings were slavers, and many of their captives from the British Isles ended up in Iceland. Their business along the Russian rivers was so extensive it brought the word slave, from Slav, into most Western languages. Examples of captives being made into concubines and their children legalized, exist but there is little support in the chronicles and laws of the time that a full marriage would have been acceptable.

The charge of piracy is a matter of opinion. To the coastal settlers of the British Isles, France and Russia, the Vikings were thugs and pirates. Archeological sources show that trading was a larger source of income than raiding, and that areas captured or colonized were turned to farming. However, it was the chroniclers in the West who got the last word, when their account of events made it into the history books.

So, who were the Vikings? In a quick summary: Viking is the term for the inhabitants of the Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden and Denmark who during the period 700-1100 A.D., journeyed from their homelands for the purpose of acquiring wealth, new land and, possibly, fame. Wealth could be amassed by trading, sometimes increased by robbery. New land was colonized, for instance Iceland, or invaded, such as Normandy. By 1100 AD the Vikings had been more or less Christianized and their countries had joined the family of kingdoms in Medieval Europe.

The Norsemen Before They Were Vikings: 500 – 700 AD

In the period 500-700 AD there are no records of Vikings either in the West or the East. The people we now call Norsemen who were the ancestors of the Vikings who would later make seismic shock waves across Europe were busy at home, fighting each other.

For the Norsemen, it was a time of civil unrest as evidenced by the construction of wood & earth forts and buried treasures of precious metals. There are tantalizing suggestion that men turned to the gods to achieve peace or victory, as there have been finds of offerings of bent swords in bogs and natural springs, and hints of human sacrifice. There are few if any written records of this period, and the conclusions must rest on the archeological evidence.

The archeological finds tell of a rich society, with skilled artisans in woodwork, metalwork and the textile arts. There have been graves excavated that yielded weapons, helmets and horse harnesses decorated with exquisite gold filigree. The quality of grave gifts varies greatly, which suggests a highly stratified society. This is especially true of grave fields close to rich and powerful settlements. Already, the burial mound was in practice. Some finds of early use of runic inscriptions have been made.

Whether the owner was rich or poor, the basic building was the longhouse. Of varying length, it had a steep roof covered with thatch or peat, with sleeping areas along its length. There were no windows, but there were openings for ventilation. These openings were covered with the translucent skin off a pig’s stomach to admit some sunlight. Warmth and additional light came from the open hearth in the middle of the house, from which the smoke rose through a hole in the roof. In poorer houses, small farm animals, such as goats and pigs, would be kept indoors during winter. At richer establishments, parts of the longhouse could be sectioned off with screens of wood or draperies, assuring some privacy.

The culture of these people was mainly a dairy one, with cows, goats and some sheep. Besides the ever-present pigs, meat was provided by fishing and hunting. A horse was a sign of wealth, as well as a symbol of the gods Odin and Frey. The cereals grown were mainly rye, barley and oats, commonly served cooked, not as bread. Turnips and rutabagas were vegetable staples along with cabbage and peas and the most common spices were homegrown mustard and horseradish. Garlic was grown for medicinal purposes, and herbs did not become common in cooking until after the late Middle Ages. The people drank mead and beer, but little or no wine, and strong liquor had not been invented yet.

The main trading products were furs and amber, possibly also copper and iron, which were exported by sea. The main imports were salt, essential for meat preservation, and luxury goods such as gold.

There are no archeological findings that suggest that the life of the average Norseman changed drastically around 700 AD, with the advent of the Viking age. The lords of the land and the trading princes grew powerful, taking the violence outside their home countries, but beyond that, life for the vast majority went on as always.

Trading, Raiding, and Travels

The home of the Norse was, and still is, the modern day nations of Denmark, Norway and the southern half of Sweden. The area was heavily forested with oak, beech and birch in the south, which was replaced by pine and spruce in the north. Another characteristic is the abundance of waterways: rivers, lakes and a multitude of islands. The easiest way to travel was by water, which was supported by a plentiful supply of raw material for boats: wood. An old adage goes: water unites, land divides. When looking at Viking routs of travel and expansion, this is good to keep in mind.

The expansion in the West went in two main directions. The Norwegians were looking for new farmland, since Norway is a country of mountains and steep valleys. They found new land in such unexpected places as Iceland and Greenland, where Norse settlements survived until the 15th century. They also visited the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and are said to have founded Dublin. The settlement at Vinland, on the North American coast, was short lived due to difficulties with the previous inhabitants. The Danes are most known for attacking England and France. Their modus operandi was more large-scale with fleets and armies, as they faced more organized resistance: the Carolinian empire and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. They extorted Paris, plundered their way up various rivers and captured the eastern third of England, known as the Danelaw. Eventually, Knut became king of both Denmark and England 1016-1035AD. His successors failed to uphold this dual monarchy, and the crown came back into English hands.

The Viking expansion in the East was initially a trading operation. When Mohammed’s revelations caused the rise of a new power in the Middle East, which cut off the southern trade route to Eastern Asia, the northern route over Russian became vital to customers used to amenities such as silk and spices. Traders went by boat down the river system of the Dniepr to the Black Sea and Byzans or into the Volga to the Caspian Sea and the trade city of Astrakhan. The traders brought slaves down river and oriental luxuries the other way. Russian and Scandinavian sources disagree to what extent the Vikings were involved in the founding of Kiev Russia. A reasonably fair account would be that the earliest princes of Kiev (the princes of Russia would not be czars until the fall of Byzans) have Norse names and their daughters marry Viking kings, an example is King Knut’s mother. However, they were assimilated within a few generations, with Slavic names and converted to the Orthodox faith. Adventurous Vikings in the East could aspire to join the Byzantine emperors Varangian guard, which only enrolled foreigners in order to stay loyal to the emperor in the competitive Byzantine politics.

These travels were helped by navigational instruments, such as the equivalent of a sextant and a primitive compass, and the development of rigging that allowed sailors to tack against the wind. It allowed Viking exploration to stretch from the Caspian Sea across the North Atlantic, with records of occasional forays into the Mediterranean.

Law and Society

There were three levels of society among the Vikings: the thralls, the free men and the lords.

The thralls were in practice – slaves. Either born into slavery or captured abroad, they did much of the menial work. A thrall could win his or her freedom by great acts of bravery and loyalty to the owner. In early Christian times, thralls were sometimes freed by the last request of their dying owner. In Sweden, thralldom was formally abolished in the 13th century.

The free farmers and artisans were the mainstay of society. Each man had the right to be heard at the thing (assembly) and was expected to take part in the defense of his district. Besides his ordinary life, a free farmer might be a rune carver, a skald (storyteller) or a priest. Only rich farmers could afford to own more than one thrall, and so they were expected to work the fields themselves.

The lords were merely free men from rich and powerful families. While they had no special legal rights, as the lords of feudal societies later had, they often ended up with special rights and privileges through their connections and influence. These were the men who could afford longships and distant trading ventures.

While kings existed, they were elected locally and had to be approved by the free citizens of their district. Approved is not a mere phrase. There are tales of newly elected kings who failed to charm the inhabitants of certain districts. They had him killed, and sent word back to the election assembly for a better king. During the Viking era, however, the kings consolidated their power, and while kingship was still not completely hereditary, the nuclei of the present-day monarchy in Denmark, Norway and Sweden emerged.

The thing was the assembly of the freeborn of the district. Here legal matters were settled, marriages negotiated, and crews for expeditions were gathered. The thing was presided over by the lawman, whose distinction from his peers lay in the fact that he could recite the entire law at need. There were no written laws as yet; the oral traditions began to be codified only in the 12th century. The use of weapons at the thing was banned, and an offender would be branded an outlaw.

The thing would also accept someone’s oath of innocence if supported by the oath of twelve good men. An institution similar to the jury system existed to advise the lawman in these cases. The most common punishment for a crime was fines. Manslaughter carried a graded fine depending on whether the victim was a local man, from a neighboring area or a foreigner. Killing an outsider was far cheaper. The families of the parties involved were charged with enforcing the thing’s decision. Murder, that is killing in secret without accepting the ensuing fine, was viewed harshly. In some districts, the inability or avoidance to pay a fine would automatically cause the culprit to be regarded as an outlaw. Outlaws were stripped of their possessions, often of their membership in their family, but no prices were put on their head. However an outlaw was not safe, as you were allowed to kill one without being fined. Killing a thrall ranked with the killing of a cow or horse, unless done by the owner.

Given the legal practices, it is quite clear that a grand lord, with a large brood of brothers and cousins and well-connected by marriage, was an important figure at the thing. It is not inconceivable that a poor man would have chosen to hold his tongue, rather than provoke a feud which he had no chance whatsoever of winning.

Longships and Battles

The crew of a longship can be regarded as shareholders in the venture, with the majority share going to the owner of the ship. Viking longships often operated in fleets, especially when coming up against an organized enemy. The ships themselves came in a variety of shapes: from small fishing boats to large trading ships to sleek warships, they were all still classical longships. What they had in common was a shallow draft and the use of overlapping boards in the hull. This overlapping technique can still be found in smaller crafts today. Most of the larger ships could be powered by sail or by oars. The exception is the harbor defense ships found at the cities of Birka and Hedeby that appear to have been designed for speed rowing by a crew.

The shallow draft of a longship allowed traders to portage their ships between rivers, but it also permitted extensive forays upriver to inland areas, where the population was less prepared for attacks than those who lived near the water. Viking logships needed no harbor to dock, since the longship could be run aground on a shallow beach which allowed the crew to easily wade ashore.

Use of cavalry has been documented. On some large-scale expeditions horses were brought along, which allowed even further and faster exploration inland. When grounded, a ship could be tilted to allow the horses to jump off into a few feet of water. Given the value of horses and the risk of braving the North Sea or the English Channel with skittish horses on board, it is likely that cavalry was used in connection with the full-scale attacks against England and France, and not on the ship of a lone raider.

The best-known Viking weapon was the battleaxe. Viking warriors also used swords, spears and bows & arrows. Helmets, often with noseguards (not horns), were in use. The weapons and helmets were not elaborately decorated. The exception is ceremonial equipment, which could be decorated to the point of garishness. The helmet found in the ship burial in Sutton Hoo is very elaborately decorated and had guards to protect the nose and cheeks. Cured leather was used, to provide some protection from weapons, but not chain mail – it had not been invented yet.

Part of the Vikings fearsome reputation as fighters is founded on the fact that a good warrior did not fear death. To avoid battle was deeply shameful, and brave warriors were given their heavenly reward for dying in the field. They were taken by the warrior maids – the Valkyries – to Asgard, the Viking heaven. Cowards, and those who died in bed were consigned to the goddess Hel, whose gloomy and frozen domain is the Norse equivalent of Hell. Besides being brave and able, a Viking was also expected to be a wily and able negotiator, as shown by stories told by the skalds. Several heroes are renowned for using their brains rather than their brawn.

Women and the Household

Life for a Viking wasn’t just hard work, trading and raiding. They knew how to have fun, too. Games for summertime included footraces, wrestling, and playing a game that was like bowling. Betting on fighting dogs and stallions was popular, too. During winter there were board games similar to chess and checkers, skating on bone skates, skiing and storytelling. Dice and gambling was popular around the year.

Bathhouses existed at the more affluent farms, and offered steam or hot water. Sauna is a Finnish word, by the way, not Norse. Hair combs were a necessary and very personal possession, and chewing gums made of spruce resin have been recorded. There are sources that talk of make-up, in use by both men and women, and one Anglo-Saxon source heaps scorn upon the Danes in England for being fops and ridiculously fastidious about their personal hygiene.

The men dressed in shirt and trousers. The shirt could be covered with a wool tunic and a cloak. The footwear consisted of shoes or low boots, and hats or caps were common. The garments lacked pockets, and personal belongings were worn in a pouch or purse on the belt.

The women dressed in a full-length dresses with long sleeves. In richer households the dress would likely be made of accordion pleated linen. Over this a shorter, wrap-around dress in contrasting color was worn, with shoulder straps that were held in place by metal buckles. A warm shawl closed by a large brooch was the outermost garment in cold weather. Women’s fashion called for advanced hair-dos, with braids and knots held in place by ornaments.

Men and women alike preferred bright colors and decorated their clothes with ribbons, furs and elaborate embroidery. Both sexes used jewelry; the men mainly bracelets, the women added multiple necklaces and sometimes ear rings, too.

Women remained members of the family into which they were born, regardless of who they married. Their children became part of their husband’s family. Polygamy was not uncommon, but women who were concubines had less protection under the law. Their children had to be publicly acknowledged as their husband’s issue to be allowed to share in the inheritance, for example. A woman had the right to initiate divorce and retained ownership of her own possessions when she married. She had the right to bring matters to the thing, but her word was regarded as half the worth of a man’s there. When the husband was away, trading or raiding, the wife ruled the household and her authority was undisputed. There were powerful ladies who had enough money and influence to erect memorial stones over family members who died abroad. While the myths mention warrior women, Valkyries, there has been little material support for the suggestion that women were trained in the use of weapons and actually fought alongside the men.

A woman was under the protection of her family and of her husband’s family. An interesting law mentions a scale of fines for grabbing a woman by the ankle, with the fine rising the higher the man moves his hand. Touching above the knee carries no fine, as it was called “a fool’s grip.” Quite likely, anyone who groped a lady’s thigh or somewhere higher would have had to answer to her father and brothers, and the resulting court case would have been one of assault, but not assault to the lady – the offender would have been lucky to escape with a beating.

The Norse religion put strong stress on fertility and some festivals of the year had an orgiastic component. Fertility and sexuality came under the auspices of the divine twins Frey and Freya. Frey was in charge of the agricultural side of fertility, while human reproduction and sexual pleasure belonged to his sister, Freya. Not only do the myths say she had a succession of divine husbands and lovers, they insisted that her door could be magically locked against anyone she did not fancy. Her symbol was the cat, especially female cats.

The written stories and myths of gods and heroes that have survived are quite bawdy and earthy. It is clear that in a society in which such stories were told and enjoyed, there was no such thing as prim attitude towards the physical side of life. Vikings were certainly not troubled by any Christian concept of sinfulness, sexual or otherwise.

The Aftermath

Viking raids in the West fizzled out by the 11th century. A partial explanation is the increased feudalism of their victim countries, which allowed for greater military ability. A Viking fleet of longships could land troops and light cavalry, but Viking foot soldiers had difficulty standing up against heavy cavalry. Harold’s defeat at Hastings by the armored knights of William of Normandy bears witness to this. It is ironic to note that Normandy was named from its first Duke, Rolf or Rollo, who settled the duchy with his Norse followers.

The Viking’s eastern trade slowly lost its pivotal role in their economic life. With peace developing in the Middle East, the southern long-distance trade routes began to reopen to Middle Eastern traders. While trading around the North Sea and the Baltic remained lively for many centuries, the transit trade was gone, and thus the great wealth that had been a monopoly of the Vikings for so long.

The role of the Church in the lives of the Vikings should not be discounted. While the Viking expansion was mainly driven by economic reasons, the Norse religion and culture strengthened its military traits. When Scandinavia was Christianized, their world-view gradually changed. It was not acceptable to enslave fellow Christians, and the belief in the rewards of courage in battle, was replaced by the Christian belief in the rewards of heaven for correct living.

The long-term impact the Vikings had on Europe is mainly the hastening of feudalization of the Western countries. Also, they permanently settled Iceland, helped found Russia and conquered England twice, if you count their descendants the Normans. After that? They went back home to their own countries and settled down.