Who Were The Vikings?
The Vikings came from their homes in Scandinavia, from the countries we now call Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The name Viking comes from the language which is called ‘old Norse'. In Norse Vikings means ‘piracy'. They are also called ‘North men' or ‘Norsemen'. The Vikings weren't just horned helmeted raiders but were mostly farmers and some worked as craftsmen or traders. When a Viking farmer died the farm was passed to the oldest son in the family. They had so many children and there were a lot of people who had to choose between working on their brother's farms or going over the seas in search of fame and fortune in a new land.
Many Vikings were great travellers and sailed all over Europe and the North Atlantic oceans in their long ships. Some went as fierce pirate raiders, they stole treasures and attacked local people, but most Vikings who sailed overseas were simply searching for better land for their farm. They preferred conquests and adventures to a life of quiet safety. They were strong and sturdy often with blue eyes and fair hair. The Norsemen had a civilization of their own. Viking ships, carriages, household dishes and ornaments have been discovered in their graves. They accepted Christianity, adopted French law and speech and continued in history under the name of Norsemen.
Viking travel and exploration
Viking were great sailors and adventurers about a 1,000 years ago, Viking mariners set out from their fledging colony and became the first Europeans to discover and explore North America which they called ‘vinland the good'. A colony was attempted at a place known today as L'anse Aux Meadows and the settlers remained on the continent for three years.
To understand the Vikings as a people, historians turned to the written evidence of sagas and chronicles. The Vikings have left many traces of their settlements which are still visible today
Archaeology provides physical evidence of their conquests, settlements and daily life. The study of place names and language shows the lasting effects which the Viking settlements had on the British Isles. But the only reason that we have an idea of the Vikings as a people is their appearance in the written sources. Unfortunately, the value of the written evidence is limited, not a lot of evidence of survivors is available and much of what researchers have is unreliable. Many popular ideas about Vikings are nineteenth century inventions.
In Scandinavia, the Viking age is regarded as part of prehistory because there are particularly no contemporary written sources. Even in Western Europe the Viking age is often seen as part of the ‘dark age' from which comparatively few historical records have survived.
Most people lived on farms. Their houses were built of wood, stone or blocks of turf, with thatched or turf roofs. They were long lived structures and would last at least 150 years with normal maintenance. Jorvik (modern York) was an important town in Viking Britain. Its houses were built of wood or wattle, crowded close together along narrow streets.
The traditional longhouse would have been a dark, smoky place in which to live and work, but there is emerging evidence that the Vikings often used two storey buildings with balconies on the upper floor, much as might be seen in rural Scandinavia to this day.
However, rich people's farmhouses often have a small entrance hall, a large main room, a kitchen, a bedroom and a storage room.
Eating and drinking
The Vikings ate a wide range of foodstuffs, but there are no real surprises. Beef, mutton, pork and venison were common meats and communities close to the coast could expect to widen their diets with fish and shellfish. Heavy bread made from barley flour was common, but there is evidence that at least some people had wheat bread available to them. It was often the custom to eat gruel - a porridge augmented by scraps of meat as a morning meal. Boiled meat was much more common than roasted, something which was normally only eaten during ceremonies. Boiled sausages known as ‘cauldron snakes' were a special delicacy. Other sought after foodstuffs were sun-dried cod and pork that had been preserved in whey, and then boiled to rags in its juice. It is reasonable to assume that rich folk ate better than poor, but their range of foodstuffs would not have been very different.
Could women be Vikings? Strictly speaking, they could not. The Old Norse word Vikingar is exclusively applied to men, usually those who sailed from Scandinavia in groups to engage in the activities of raiding and trading in Britain, Europe and the east. The mythological poem Rígsþula, written down in Medieval Iceland, accounts for the divine origin of the three main social classes. But it also gives us a snapshot of daily life in the Viking age.
The women of the slave-class wore ‘old-fashioned clothes' and served bread that was ‘heavy, thick, and packed with bran... in the middle of a trencher', with ‘broth in a basin'. The women of the yeoman class wore a cap and a blouse, had a kerchief around her neck and ‘brooches at her shoulders', and would busy herself with her spindle, ‘ready for weaving'.
The aristocratic woman wore a blouse of smooth linen, a spreading skirt with a blue bodice, a tall headdress and appropriate jewellery, and has very white skin. She would serve silver dishes of pork and poultry on a white linen cloth, washed down with wine. The archaeological evidence shows that women were often buried in their best outfits, women spent much of their time indoors in such houses, cooking, making clothing and caring for children and the elderly, but they would also have had responsibility for the dairy.
The Norse myths
The Vikings were originally pagans; when the Vikings first came to Britain, they had their own religion and worshipped many different gods. The stories they told about themselves are known as ‘the Norse myths'. They are mostly about contests between the gods and the giants.
L’anse Aux Meadows
The archaeologists unearthed the foundations of eight buildings and uncovered hundreds of artefacts at L'anse Aux Meadows. Three of these clearly indicated that Norsemen had indeed once lived there. One was a foundation that outlined a smithy, a building used by a Viking blacksmith to fashion iron tools and nails. Another discovery was a bronze pin used by the Vikings to fasten their clothing. A third artefact of importance was an Icelandic stone lamp. The most important discovery at L'anse Aux Meadows was made by a Canadian named Tony Beardsley. On august 4, 1964, he dug down to a layer of turf blackened with charcoal. Here, he found a tiny stone wheel. At the time, it was considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in North America.
Only three centimetres wide, the wheel, called a spindle whorl, was carved from soapstone and belonged to a spindle, a simple machine for spinning wool. Many similar whorls had been found at Norse sites in Greenland, Iceland and Norway. Beside it, they also found a small whetstone, a tool to sharpen needles and knives, and nearby the remains of a small pair of scissors and bone needles. This was further proof that the settlers at L'anse aux meadows were Viking.
Since Viking women used such tools, it was also proof that women had also been in Vinland, just as the sagas stated.
As excavations continued, other artefacts Norse in origin were unearthed. Smooth planks similar to those used in Viking shipbuilding were uncovered from a nearby bog. These bogs are believed to have been the source of the iron the Vikings used to make tools and nails. More buildings, including a Longhouse for lodgings and a carpenter shop for making planks were unearthed. Old nails buried at another site lead archaeologists to believe that yet another building was used to repair boats. It appeared that like modern carpenters, the Viking shipbuilders simply discarded the old rusted and broken nails as new ones were hammered in place.
Throughout the Viking age, there were many conflicts and battles between the Vikings and the English. In the 9th century, the English king, Alfred the great, forced the Vikings to leave the whole of western England. During the 10th century the English conquered many Viking areas again. But in the early 11th century the whole of England was ruled by the Viking king Knut.
In 1066 England was conquered by William, the duke of Normandy. This was the end of the Viking age in England. In Scotland, powerful Viking earls continued to rule the islands and some of the mainland for hundreds of years. They were driven from the mainland in the mid-12th century, but remained in the northern islands for another 300 years.
The Vikings were a proud, honourable, law-abiding people who valued warfare and personal reputation (they called it ‘word fame') above almost anything else. In the latter years of the Viking age, they became involved in their own myth, starting such organizations as the jomsvikings.
They brought the seafaring ship to Europe and, by their constant depredations, spread its use far and wide. In only 250 years, they made their mark on the law and language of many countries and made many European communities see themselves in the light of a nation state for the first time. In terms of human history, if we blinked, we have missed them! But the image the Vikings as the brave, hardy individual, unafraid of the world in all its forms, remains with us as an example of how a man should conduct himself in adversity.