5 minutes reading time
When we hear about the vikings we often hear the stories about their travels far from home. Barbaric vikings with their ships, raiding and plundering villages with axes and swords in hand. I wouldn’t say these stories are very representative of the everyday life of the majority of the people during the viking era. In this article we will take a look at how everyday life was. How was everyday life on a viking farm? What did they do and with whom did they live?
The term viking
I will use the term “viking” in this text to keep it simple. The word “viking” means something that we today would describe as a pirate. In this article when I am using the word viking I am referring to the majority of the people living in Scandinavia around the year 900 AD. These people were actually not vikings, they should be called farmers as you can read in the text.
The Viking longhouse
If we would travel back in time to visit a viking village it would look a bit different from today's villages. Maybe the term “viking farm” should be used instead. The first thing we might notice is the houses, and we would notice one house in particular that looks different from the others. A long, narrow house that is called a longhouse. A longhouse would vary in size based on the importance of the owner. They were around 5-7 meters (15-25 feet) wide and 15-75 meters (50-250 feet) long. The longhouse was the central house on the farm. Inside the viking longhouse was a fireplace and the fireplace was the gathering point for the people in the village and their guests. But we don't find traces of a chimney. Instead of a chimney the longhouse had holes on each end of the house under the roof ridge, where the smoke could go out by self draft. These holes are called vindauga in Old Norse and mean literally “wind eye” which later on developed to the english word “window”. These “windows” were usually the only openings (besides the door) in the house. These types of buildings have also been used before the viking era.
In order to have a good and practical life at home the placement of the buildings is important. The surrounding environment needs to be taken into consideration when building the house. In order for the “windows” to work properly the longhouse needed to be placed so the wind could do it´s job, houses that were kept warm shouldnt be placed in a slope next to water etc. A house could also be built under the ground. These are called pithouse and were often work-huts for various crafts.
The answers are buried
How can we know all this? That is because of the way how the longhouses were built. The Longhouse was often built out of timber and the walls often consisted of poles that were buried deep into the ground. The timber might be long gone but it is the holes from these poles we can find, so called postholes. With the help of these postholes we can determine the length and width of the house. And also the rooms inside. The postholes show us the actual place and size but another source we got that can help us recreate a longhouse is based on a historical finding, a Völva staff. In Sweden, Öland the Völva staff were found and on top of that staff there is a miniature of what is believed to be a longhouse. This staff is called “klintastaven” or “staff from klinta”.
Inside the longhouse
How we determine how the rooms were used are based on, as it often is in archeology, qualified guesses. One example, we can take samples of the soil and if there are traces of seeds concentrated in an area, a qualified guess is that the room has been a storage. We can find traces of fireplaces and depending on its placement we might see how and for what the room was used. With samples of the soil we can also see where the animals lived.
Common animals were:
- Cows and Oxen
Who lived there?
The size of the settlement varies of course, but one example could be that there is a couple that owns a longhouse, let us call them Torsten and Sigrid. Torsten and Sigrid have three children. Torstens parents could live there and help them with their children when the children were young. On the farm we would also meet several workers. These could be relatives and friends, hired workers or thralls. Farms could be self-sustaining or a mix of farming and trading. Even if a farm relied more on trading they needed to be somewhat self-sustaining and at least have some basic knowledge in farming, hunting, blacksmithing, woodworking, making fabric and working with textiles.
Women are natural leaders on the farm
In order to get everything running smoothly someone needs to be in charge and here Sigrid, the housewife in our example, plays a big role. In graves where a woman of higher rank is buried we can find keys. With a key you can open and lock doors which gives you power. In the sagas we can read that keys are used as a symbol of housewife and their power. In the Edda poem “Thrymskvida”, when Thor dresses up like Freja, the key was an important detail of his dress. There is a runestone called “Odendisa Runestone” that is raised for a housewife. So the housewife seems to have played a central role when it comes to the everyday life for a viking.
Schools and learning during Viking era
Knowledge and skills were passed down from generation to generation and once the children grew older they probably spent their days by helping the other adults on the farm. Since there weren't schools as today, they learned from the adults by working with them during the days and when the evening came people sat together around the fire sharing stories and knowledge. It was also here the sagas and myths were told and some of these were written down later on and we can read them in the Eddas. If a family had specific knowledge or skill such as forging, these families could act as foster families and have another family's children as apprentices and teach them how to forge.
Was vikings dirty?
When reading about viking houses or even visiting a viking home one might think that life was dirty and smelly during that time but the sources tell us differently. For instance, a common find from the viking age is combs. There are so many combs found that one can think that every person walked around with a comb during that time. This can indicate that hygiene was important. We can also read it in the old text written by “non viking persons”. They often noticed and commented that vikings took good care of themselves. Such as “they use the comb every day”, “they wash themselves often (at least once a week) - Fun fact: The word for Saturday in Scandinavia, in Swedish called Lördag, comes from the Old Norse word Laugardagur which means “washing day”. Other notes and comments we can read about vikings that they changed their clothes often.
Money doesn't talk, material does
When vikings did business they traded and exchanged products. Coins were used, silver coins were common but in those cases the actual material value was more important rather than the monetary value. When finding silver coins from the viking era they can be cut into pieces. That is because they weighted the silver rather than thinking of the monetary value of the coin.
Days filled with hard work
Farming and everything that has to do with food and clothes were important tasks and took up a lot of a viking’s time. However,let's say a person on the farm was very skilled. Then they could trade their skill and turn it into an income. Such farms could rely more on trading. Common skills or products that were used in trading:
- Iron making
- Metal craft
- Jewelry making
- Leather and hides
- Shipbuilding and house building
- Making runestones
We can find traces of almost factory-like areas where a specific craft of skill took place. We can find traces of this when doing excavations but also when looking at a place name. For instance, in today’s Sweden “smedsby” is a quite common name for a village. This translates to “smith’s village” This could originate from a time when this place was specialized in iron making or some kind of smithing. One can imagine that on such settlements the tasks were more assigned than on a more self-sustaining farm. Although everyone has a task and does chores, there is often a hierarchy on the farm. On richer farms this hierarchy was probably more evident while on the "regular" farm, where fewer people lived, the chores were probably shared more evenly.
Does your image of Vikings match what you just read? If not, what was different and did it leave you with any questions? Let me know in the comments!
Fascinating and very well written!!! Thank you for educating us. It makes sense that these people had hard lives and needed to work together to survive.