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Thread: Daily Living in the Viking Age: Farms & Villages

  1. #1

    Daily Living in the Viking Age: Farms & Villages

    The following is a series of articles, with pictures, about daily living during the Viking age. (there are lots of images, so if you have a slow connection... this may take awhile )

    Our first area of study will be:

    Farms & Villages

    The vast majority of Norse people lived on small farms. However, the nature of these settlements varied widely from one region to another. In prosperous regions, farms tended to cluster into small villages or hamlets. In less prosperous areas, such as Iceland, individual farms were well separated.

    Typical farm settlements took the form of a central cluster of buildings enclosed by fences. Outside the fenced areas were the fields used for cultivation or grazing. Each homestead typically consisted of a longhouse and multiple out buildings. In the earlier part of the Norse period, it appears that everything was contained in the longhouse: animals, people, tools, food storage, work shop. Later, all but the people were moved to out buildings.

    The main farming activity throughout the Norse region was animal husbandry. Cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats were raised. Sheep were allowed to roam free in the summer. In the fall, all the farmers in a region worked together to round up the sheep and sort them by owner. This practice is still followed in Iceland; the sorting pen, shown below, differs little from those used in medieval times.

    In Iceland, the lack of any natural predators meant that livestock could be allowed to roam free, especially in the highlands away from the farm. Cows and ewes were kept in the lower uplands during the summer, where their milk could be collected and turned into butter, cheese, and skyr. (Skyr is usually translated as curds, which for most English speakers, fails to convey the pleasures of this yummy dairy treat.) The raw milk was brought down to the farms in skin sacks, and the resulting dairy products were stored in partially buried vats (below), which kept the skyr cool, helping to preserve it. During the winter months, when cows stopped producing milk, the skyr in storage became the main source of dairy food.

    Typical crops included grains such as barley (a staple crop throughout the Norse lands), rye, and oats. In the most southerly regions, wheat could be grown, a luxury crop. Depending on the local climate and soil conditions, vegetables such as beans, peas, cabbage, and onions could be grown. Thus, it was possible for a Norse farm family to have a varied diet. In addition, utility crops (such as flax for linen) were grown.

    Continuous cropping was the cultivation practice most widely followed, where fields were continuously used year after year without any fallow periods. This practice required heavy fertilization in the form of manure. Only later in the medieval period, after the end of the Viking age, did crop rotation techniques come to be used in Norse lands.

    During the Norse era, ards (shown below) were used to till the soil. These were typically drawn by oxen. The iron cutting piece of the ard lacked flaring sides, so it merely cut grooves into the soil, rather than turning the soil like a modern plow. Plows were used in other parts of Europe during the Norse era, but there is scant evidence of their use in Norse lands during this time. Literary evidence (such as Landnámabók) supports only the use of ards. While iron cutting blades of ards have been found (such as the one from the farm at Stöng in Iceland), no complete ards or plows are known to have survived from the Norse era, so their appearance is open to speculation.

    Sometime in the 11th century, a drift of sand covered a farmer's field in northern Jutland. When the sand was removed in the 1950s, the Norse era field was still intact from its last plowing (below). The slightly curving furrows can be seen, along with the tracks of a wheeled vehicle, and footprints, possibly those of the Norseman who plowed the field.

    Other tools were widely used for cultivating, harvesting, and processing the crops. Iron-shod spades (below left) with a wooden blade and handle, and only a thin iron edge were used to dig ditches. Iron picks and iron-shod hoes were used to work the soil. Iron scythes, sickles, and leaf-knives were used for harvesting. Wooden pitchforks and rakes (below center) were used for haymaking. Flails were used to thresh the grain. Stone querns (below right) were used to mill the flour (although archaeological evidence suggests that water powered mills might have been used in towns during the Norse era).

    In many regions of the Norse lands, winters were harsh enough that cattle sheds were needed to shelter the livestock over the winter. As a result, it was necessary to harvest sufficient hay to maintain the livestock until spring. The hayfield (tún) was an enclosed field in which the best hay was cultivated. It was completely fenced in to keep livestock out. Digging and fertilizing (with manure) the hayfield in order to obtain the largest quantity of high quality hay was one of the more important chores on the Icelandic farm. At the beginning of the winter, the number of livestock was compared to the amount of hay in storage. If the farmer thought that insufficient hay was available, the weakest animals were slaughtered before the winter started, so that the available fodder would last the winter. Over two tonnes (2 tons) of hay was needed for each cow to last the Icelandic winter. A large farm in Iceland had around 20 to 40 milk cows, so harvesting and storing sufficient hay to last the winter was an arduous but important task. Sheep and goats, being hardier, could survive the winter, but might be brought under cover at the height of a storm.

    In general, farm families needed to be self-sufficient. With the exception of some luxury items, and some raw materials, everything needed for farm life was typically grown or manufactured on the farm. Wooden tools were made as needed. Most large farms had forges for working iron. Farmers were expected to be competent carpenters and blacksmiths. The tools shown below are reproductions of carpenter tools (top) and blacksmith tools (center). Sketches of period blacksmith tools (bottom).

    Farms throughout the Norse lands were isolated. Farm life in the Viking age was a constant struggle against starvation, cold, and disease. Most people expected to and did work their entire waking hours.

    In Iceland, each local district participated in a mutual insurance pact, called a hreppar. Regular annual payments from area farmers were used to help farms that suffered catastrophic losses to buildings from fire or to livestock from disease. The hreppar also saw to the welfare of orphans or others who could not provide for themselves.

    Entertainment was at a premium at the farm, and included games, feasts, and story telling. Any opportunity to travel to markets, to feasts, or to gatherings such as þing meetings were always welcome.

    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

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    Throughout the Norse lands, people lived in longhouses (langhús), which were typically 5 to 7 meters wide (16 to 23 feet) and anywhere from 15 to 75 meters long (50 to 250 feet), depending on the wealth and social position of the owner. In much of the Norse region, the longhouses were built around wooden frames on simple stone footings. Walls were constructed of planks, of logs, or of wattle and daub.

    In Norse regions that had a limited supply of wood, such as in Iceland, longhouse walls were built of turf. A modern reconstruction of a 12th century Icelandic turf house at Stöng is shown below:

    Inside, the longhouse was divided into several rooms. Two rows of posts ran down the length of the longhouse supporting the roof beams. These columns divided each interior room into three long aisles. The columns supported the roof, and, as a result, the walls supported little weight. Typically, the walls bowed out at the center of the longhouse, making it wider in the center than the ends.

    The central corridor of each room, between the row of roof support columns, had a packed dirt floor (below). This area was the passageway between sections of the house. In addition, fires were built in this region, either in a fire pit running the length of the longhouse, or in individual fire circles in the rooms. The fire provided light and heat and was also used for cooking.

    Smoke holes in the roof (or, in rare cases, chimneys) provided ventilation and illumination, letting in light and letting out smoke.

    On either side of the central corridor (between the roof support columns and the walls), raised wooden benches topped with wooden planks ran the length of the longhouse. They provided a surface for sitting, eating, working, and sleeping.

    Typically, no windows were used in the house. All light came from smoke holes overhead, and open exterior doors.

    Additional light was provided by simple lamps, made from readily available materials. The photo (below right) shows a Norse era lamp made from a dished stone, which was filled with fish liver oil for fuel, or, when available, seal or whale oil. Fífa (cottongrass, or Eriophorum), a common weed (below left), was used as a wick.

    A modern reproduction of a lamp using cod liver oil and cottongrass provided much better light than anticipated. The light was steady and surprisingly bright, with little smoke or odor (below).

    Candles were not unknown, but were expensive and thus infrequently used. Candle holders of various types have been found from this era.

    With their limited ventilation, one might think that these houses would have been smoky, dim, and murky, as is usually depicted in modern illustrations of longhouses. But, I've been amazed by how bright the interiors were of the longhouse reconstructions I've visited. The longhouse photos on this page were shot using only the natural light filtering in from the smoke holes and doors.

    When I visited the Stöng farmhouse for the first time, I was just as amazed at how dim and dismal the interior was. Only during a later visit to Stöng did I discover the reason for the difference: the smokeholes at Stöng were closed when I first visited. When the smokeholes were opened, Stöng was just as bright as any of the other longhouses.

    However, the saga literature suggests a dim interior. For example, in chapter 28 of Grettis saga, Auđun, entering the dim longhouse from outdoors, was unable to see Grettir, who intentionally tripped him. That episode is quite believable in a house as dim as Stöng was on my first visit.

    Since no longhouses from the period survive, it's unclear what their ventilation scheme might have been. The longhouse re-creation at L'Anse aux Meadows apparently had the smoke holes placed incorrectly in the roof of the longhouse. (The smoke holes have subsequently been moved, since when I visited.) Said one of the re-enactors, "Some days you can't see from one end of the house to the other through the smoke."

    Instead, the longhouse was surprisingly cozy and pleasant. The wooden bench topped with a sheepskin made a comfortable seat for lounging. The fire kept things warm, dry, and toasty, and was conveniently near at hand from the bench. At L'Anse aux Meadows, sunlight pouring in through the smoke holes brightened up the interior in a cheery way. One easily can imagine people comfortably sitting, cooking, eating, drinking, and working on chores in the longhouse.

    It is unlikely that the longhouses had much furniture. Only the master and mistress of the house would have had a box-bed in which to sleep, usually located in a enclosed bed-closet. The remainder of the household slept on the benches.

    Most re-enactments show people sleeping lying down on the benches between layers of sheepskin. However, surviving beds and reconstructed bed-closets and benches are extremely confining, suggesting that Norse people may have slept sitting up on the benches, with their backs against the wall. The re-enactors at L'Anse aux Meadows said that it was not uncomfortable, especially if one used a shield as a backrest.

    Beds were probably lined with straw. An interpretation of an open bed at Eiríksstađir is shown below. It's lined with straw and covered with an animal skin. Weapons hang from the wall behind the bed.

    An interpretation of the bed in the bedcloset at Stöng is shown below. The bed cover is sheepskin. It's possible that some people used wool blankets as bed covers, or even wool blankets stuffed with down. In chapter 27 of Gísla saga Súrssonar, Gísli hid from his pursuers between the straw and covers of the bed of Refur and Álfdís. Álfdís got into bed on top of Gísli. When Gísli's pursuers entered the house to make a search, Álfdís showered them with abuse, which kept them from examining the bed very closely.

    Very wealthy people may have had much finer bedding. In chapter 51 of Eyrbyggja saga, Ţórgunna's bedding included fine English sheets, a silken quilt, and pillows.

    Some of the stories refer to sleeping quarters in the loft of the longhouse. (For instance, in chapter 77 of Brennu-Njáls saga, it is said that Gunnar slept in a loft above the hall, together with his wife and his mother.) However, the upper levels of a longhouse, besides being dark and cold, must also have been foul with smoke from the open fires, making it unlikely that anyone would want to sleep there. At Eiríksstađir, a ladder (below top) leads up to the very dark and smoky sleep loft (below bottom).

    Foodstuffs were probably stored and prepared in a pantry (matbúr), then brought out to the fire in the main room for cooking. An outside storage room (útibúr) stored food, as well as other valuables

    Stories refer to tables being set up for meals, then taken down for other activities. It's not clear what form those tables might have taken. The other likely pieces of furniture in a longhouse were wooden chests for storage and a vertical loom for weaving cloth. The loom and one of the tables at Stöng is shown below.

    It's unlikely that chairs as elaborate as the reconstruction shown (below top) were ever common. (The original is from 12th century Norway.) Simple three-legged stools, such as the reproduction shown (below center), were more common. People also used their wooden storage chests (below bottom) as seats.

    Houses of wealthy families probably had decorative wall hangings, or carvings, or possibly paintings. The sagas tell of elaborately decorated shields hung on the walls (Egils saga, ch. 78) and tapestries hung to decorate the hall for feasts (Gísla saga Súrssonar, ch. 12). In chapter 29 of Laxdćla saga, it is said that in Ólaf's hall at Hjarđarholt, the wainscoting was decorated with scenes from the Norse myths.

    Despite the cozy picture I've painted above, the longhouse was scarcely the place for privacy. The entire extended family did everything here: eating, cooking, dressing, sleeping, work, and play, both day and night. Everyone must surely have known what everyone else was doing. Privacy did not exist; modesty must have been unknown.

    In chapter 75 of Grettis saga, there is an episode that illustrates the lack of privacy. Late in the day, Grettir swam from his island hide-away to Reykir, Ţorvald's farm on the mainland (shown to the right as it looks today). It was after dark, and the people of the farm were asleep. Grettir bathed in the hot pool, then went into the house and fell asleep. In the night, his bed clothes fell off of him.

    The first to arise the next morning were Ţorvald's daughter and a servant-woman. They saw Grettir lying naked, asleep. The servant said, "Grettir the Strong is lying here, naked. He's big-framed, all right, but I'm astonished at how poorly endowed he is between his legs. It's not in proportion." The two of them took turns peeking at Grettir and laughing at what they saw. Grettir awoke and returned their insults with some bawdy poetry.

    Buildings smaller than a longhouse were also used. There were sunken-floor huts, which were half buried in the ground. These buildings would have been well insulated, due to their construction technique, and may have been used for storing items that needed to be kept cold. They also would have been easier to build, needing less building materials, and may have been used for housing ţrćlar (the slaves and bondsmen).

    It's been suggested that these buildings might have been the first to be constructed by settlers at a new home site. Such buildings would have gone up quickly, allowing families to have at least minimal shelter while the more comfortable longhouse was under construction. After moving into the longhouse, the hut might have been used for some of these other purposes, or simply allowed to collapse. For example, the sunken-floor hut at Hofstađir in north Iceland probably dates from the first few years of settlement. After it was abandoned in favor of the longhouse, the hut was used as a refuse pit until it became full.

    It's been suggested that pit-houses were also used as bath houses. I came upon the hut shown to the right on a beach in Iceland (below).

    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

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    All the Germanic peoples in northern Europe wore similar clothing. While variations did exist, throughout the Norse era and across the Norse lands, clothing styles were remarkably consistent. The photo (below left) shows clothing similar to that worn throughout the Norse regions, while the photo (below right) shows a distinctly eastern Norse style.

    Up top, men wore a tunic that was tight fitting across the chest with a broad skirt that fell somewhere between the thighs and the knees. Down below were trousers which could be either loose fitting or tight. A long cloak provided warmth and protection in inclement weather.

    Most of our knowledge of Norse era clothing and textiles comes from archaeological finds, while some comes from literary sources and written law. Most finds of Norse era fabric are from grave goods. As one might expect, fabric doesn't survive very well buried underground. The survival of large quantities of fabric is quite rare and requires unusual soil conditions. Sometimes the traces of textiles are found on the underside of jewelry, as the corrosion products of the fabric in contact with the jewelry in the grave etch the jewelry. From these ghost images, the weave and thread count may be determined.

    Clothing is also found in other places. Norse people used worn out clothing for many purposes. Sometimes, it was coated with pitch and used to seal cracks in the shipbuilding process. These pitch coated fabrics have survived very well. At least one entire garment (a pair of men's trousers) has survived from the Norse era because someone used it in the process of building a ship.

    Wool was the most commonly used fabric. Virtually all outer garments were made from wool. A variety of twills were used (below), including plain twill, lozenge twill, and chevron twill. The production of cloth for everyday use was a home craft. Professional clothmaking probably did not occur in Norse lands, although professionally made cloth was imported from other lands during the Norse era.

    All of the steps of making a set of clothing, from processing the fibers, to spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing, were done by the women of the family. Since the process was so labor intensive, a set of clothing was highly prized and carefully maintained.

    Fabric was woven on a vertical loom (below). A vertical loom is little more than a wooden framework that leans against the wall. It stands about head-high, which puts the working area at a convenient height for someone standing in front of the loom. The modern reproduction shown to the left is a bit more narrow than would have been typical. Typical looms from the period were about 2m (80in) wide, capable of weaving material as wide as 165cm (65in).

    The warp threads were tensioned by means of the stones tied to the threads at the bottom (below). The warp threads were moved relative to one another using the heddle rods (the horizontal rods located halfway down the loom).

    Each warp thread had a loop of thread around it tied to one of several heddle rods. Thus, by moving the heddle rods forwards and backwards relative to the warp, a shed was created through which the weft thread was passed on a shuttle.

    After each pass of the weft thread, a wooden beater (shown at the top of the photo to the below, along with thread and shuttles) was used to push the new weft against the fabric above. Finished material was wound up on the top beam, using the handle on the right side of the beam.

    Weaving using a vertical loom is described as being both tedious and physically demanding, requiring that the weaver walk back and forth from one end of the loom to the other with each pass of the shuttle. However, vertical looms allowed a woman to weave cloth of any required width, from wide to narrow. Thus little cloth was wasted by cutting.

    Thread was created by spinning wool (or linen) fiber by hand. Wool that had been shorn from sheep was cleaned and combed with iron toothed combs (below right). Linen fiber was mechanically separated from flax stems by beating the stems, and then was combed to separate any woody particles from the recovered fibers. The bundle of wool (or linen) fibers was attached to a simple distaff, which the spinner could secure to her belt or under her arm. Fibers were teased out of the mass of raw material and spun together between the fingers to create thread. The finished thread was wound onto a spindle (at the extreme left of the photo - below left) weighted by a spindle whorl, a small stone with a hole cut in the center. Spindle whorls are common archaeological finds; the examples in the photo on the left are from the collection of the Icelandic National Museum. The finding of a spindle whorl and a bone needle at the L'Anse aux Meadows site is convincing evidence that women (and thus, entire families) were present at the site during the Norse era.

    For those wealthy enough to afford it, undergarments were typically linen, which would have been a lot more comfortable to wear than wool next to the skin. There are also samples of fine silk, which must have been imported from the Orient, although only the very wealthiest people could have afforded it. Leather was used where appropriate, for shoes and boots. Furs and animal skins were used for warmth on winter garments. Chapter 22 of Fóstbrćđra saga states that the Greenlander Lođinn wore a sealskin coat and trousers. Cat fur was used for winter mittens. Some furs were worn as status symbols. A bear skin might be worn by someone courageous enough to have attacked and killed a bear.

    The dyes available to Norse weavers were limited, but many of them were bright. A variety of vegetable dyes were commonly used, resulting in a range of colors: browns, from off-white to beige through russet to dark brown; reds, from a pale red to a deep red; yellows, from pale to a brilliant gold; and blue. Frequently, linen undergarments were left undyed, in part because linen is difficult to dye.

    The Icelandic saga literature mentions clothing color. Brightly colored clothing was a symbol of wealth and power, no doubt due to the additional expense of the dye stuffs and the multiple dyeing operations required to make bright colors. The wearing of black (blár) clothing is a frequent literary convention in the sagas, indicating that the wearer is about to kill someone. In modern Icelandic, blár means blue. Presumably, a true black could not be obtained with dyes of the time, and a dark blue-black was as close as could be obtained. The deep black of the tunic of the eastern Norseman in the photo at the top of this page would have been very difficult to obtain during the Norse era.

    Norse era garments were probably finer, better proportioned, better designed, more brightly colored, and better suited to their purpose than one might ordinarily imagine. The materials that have survived (both the fabric itself, and the stitching) are much finer than one might expect given their time in history. Samples of fabric with over 125 threads per inch have been found. And hand stitching finer than modern machine stitching seems to have been the norm. Norse people probably expected their clothing to last for years without much attention. Unlike moderns who have a different set of clothes for every day, Norse people probably had a single set that was expected to last for years.

    The value of a set of clothing can be put into perspective by considering the number of hours of labor required to raise the sheep, shear the sheep, card the wool, spin the thread, weave the fabric, cut the fabric, and sew the garments, all of which was done by hand labor. Clothing was desirable booty in a Viking raid (along with precious metals and weapons), further emphasizing the value of clothing in the Norse era.

    Men's Clothing

    The outer garment for the man's upper body was the overtunic, sometimes called a kirtle. It was constructed from wool and was constructed using surprisingly complicated patterns, with many pieces that needed to be cut out of the fabric and sewn back together. However, when it was all laid out, very little fabric went to waste.

    The complexity results in a garment that doesn't bind or restrict movement. The upper part of the garment is relatively tight-fitting, but the sleeves are fitted to provide freedom of motion. The skirt ranged from thigh length to knee length. As with most articles of clothing, the length was determined by the wealth of the owner. A poorer man would not waste material that wasn't needed, while a more wealthy man would show off his wealth by using more material than was needed. On hot days, the skirt was lifted up and tucked into the belt for better cooling.

    The tunic was pulled on over the head. There were usually no fasteners, although some tunics had a simple button (below) to fasten the neck opening. A keyhole neckline was the most common. The neckline was high, since a garment that revealed the chest was considered effeminate.

    Tunics of all but the poorest people were decorated with braid, at least on the neckline and cuffs. The tunics of the more wealthy were also decorated with braid on the hem of the skirt. The braid was woven from brightly colored wool using the tablet weaving technique.

    In tablet weaving, a large number of various colored warp threads are threaded between tablets made of bone or heavy leather (see digital drawing below). As the tablets were rotated relative to one another, different colored threads were brought to the top of the shed through which the weft thread was passed. By rotating the tablets in a systematic way, a decorative colored pattern was created in the material.

    The photo, below, shows how typical tablet woven braid used dozens of tablets to create very elaborate patterns. The warp threads were tensioned between the weaver's belt and some heavy, immovable object such as a wall or pillar.

    Another method of weaving braid is inkle weaving. A modern re-creation of an inkle loom is shown below. While the use of inkle looms is known over a broad period in history, their use in the Norse era is debatable. Archaeological evidence is very sparse.

    On an inkle loom, alternate warp threads are tied to a post, while the others are not restricted. By raising and lowering the free warp threads, the shed is opened and closed. The inkle loom can not produce as many pattern variations as tablet weaving, but it is much faster.

    Silk was also used to trim a tunic, although the cost of imported silk must have limited this kind of trim to only the wealthiest people.

    Under the tunic, it's likely that most men also wore an undertunic (below). This was made from wool, or where available, undyed or bleached linen. (Linen was more expensive, but more comfortable against the skin.) The construction was similar to that of the overtunic, except that the sleeves and skirt were made longer. Ideally, the undertunic was visible under the overtunic, so that people could see that you were wealthy enough to be able to afford an undertunic.

    It appears that a wide range of styles of trousers were used in the Norse lands. Some were tight. Some were baggy. Some trousers were of simple construction. Some were complicated, using elaborate gores around the crotch area for freedom of motion, and built-in socks (like modern sleepwear for toddlers). In chapter 16 of Fljótsdćla saga, the trousers of Ketill Ţriđrandason are described as having no feet, but straps under the heels, like stirrups. Trousers had no pockets and no fly. They were held up with a drawstring in the waist or a belt (below).

    Some of the Germanic people (such as the Saxons and the Franks) are known to have worn puttee-like leg wrappings from knee to ankle (shown below) to gather the excess fabric of their baggy trousers. The evidence for their use in western Norse lands is scant, but better evidence exists from eastern regions. (The photo below also shows linen tunic and trousers, which were used in the warmer Norse lands.)

    Several different styles of underpants have been found from the Norse era. In general, they follow the same patterns as trousers, but they are typically knee length. Like trousers, some were simple. And some were incredibly complicated in the crotch area, again for freedom of motion. Like trousers, they had no fly. A drawstring at the waist or belt held the underpants up, and some had drawstrings at the knees. When available, they were made of linen for comfort, but wool was used as well. One pair found in Greenland was made from polar bear skins.

    In chapter 16 of Fljótsdćla saga, the saga author mentions that at the time of the events in the saga (10th century), men did not wear underpants. Yet, just two chapters later, Gunnar Ţiđrandabani is described leaving his tent at night to relieve himself wearing nothing but tunic and underpants. (At that moment, his pursuers spotted him, and Gunnar spent the rest of the night and the following day dressed so while eluding his pursuers across the cold Icelandic landscape.)

    The cloak was simply a large rectangular piece of wool, sometimes lined with contrasting color wool. Cloaks provided protection from the cold, from the wind, and to a limited degree, from the rain. Some cloaks were made with very dense, very thick wool, which would have provided extra protection. Cloaks were typically worn offset, with the right arm (the weapon arm) unencumbered by the cloak. Cloaks could be embroidered, or trimmed with tablet woven braid. Typically they hung to somewhere between the knee and the ankle depending on the wealth of the owner.

    During the Norse era, Iceland exported wool in the form of homespun cloth (vađmál) or ready-made cloaks (vararfeldur), also called a shaggy cloak (röggvarafeldur). There were strict regulations on homespun, and it was used as a standard exchange product, in the same manner as silver.

    Homespun cloaks had a shaggy exterior, like sheepskin. One explanation is that the shaggy appearance was created by tying additional threads to the warp threads while the fabric was being woven (below).

    An explanation that better fits the descriptions of the fabric in the stories is that tufts from the fleece of the sheep were looped around warp threads but not pulled tight, leaving a large loop. The resulting garment resembled a patchy lamb fleece. A modern reconstruction of a shaggy coat displayed on a mannequin is shown below.

    Cloaks were held in place by a pin at the right shoulder. The pins ranged from simple bone pins to elaborate gold jewelry. A common style was the penannular broach (below top). The pin is held captive on a ring that has a break in it to allow the pin to pass through the ring after it has been passed through the fabric. Like all Norse jewelry, the brooch typically would have been highly decorated. A simple pin fastener is also shown (below bottom).

    Caps were made of wool, or sheepskin, or leather and fur. Some had ear flaps for warmth. Typically, they were made in the Phrygian style, with four or five triangular pieces sewn together.

    Grágás, the medieval Icelandic lawbook, has further evidence on the nature of caps worn. The law [St 362] prohibited a person from pulling the hat off of someone else's head. If there was no chinstrap, the penalty was a fine. If there was a chinstrap and the hat was pulled forward, the penalty was lesser outlawry (banishment). But if there was a chinstrap and the hat was pulled backwards, the hat wearer had the right to kill in retaliation, since it was considered throttling.

    Socks apparently were optional, depending on the wealth of the individual (although more on that in a moment). Those without the means for socks probably used moss or grasses or even hay to line their shoes. When socks were available, they were made of undyed wool. A sock found in York has a band of red trim at the top, which is how the reproduction shown below is constructed.

    However, Norse socks were not knitted (which apparently was unknown to the Norse). Instead, they were made using the nálbinding technique. This uniquely Norse method was not knitting, but rather an insanely complicated method of knotting the yarn. Although time consuming, this approach resulted in a nearly indestructible garment. If the thread were to break or wear out, the garment would still be intact, since the thread was everywhere knotted to neighboring threads. Mittens were also made using this technique. The sketch (below) shows the steps involved in making an article of clothing using the nálbinding technique. Note that the fabric grows in a spiral pattern. Once the spiral is large enough, it is knotted back on itself to create the shape of the finished article.

    Shoes typically were simple affairs but were always made using the turnsole technique. The uppers were sewn to the sole (top sketch, below) with the finished side in (blue), and the rough side out (red). Then the shoes were turned inside out. This put the seam inside the shoe (bottom sketch), where it was less susceptible to wear. It also put the holes that resulted from the stitching inside the shoe, so the shoe was less likely to leak on wet ground. One might think that having the seam on the inside would be uncomfortable, but it's not. The seam is out of the way, and it doesn't touch the foot.

    Norse shoes probably didn't last long - perhaps a few months to half a year before they wore out and were replaced. As a result, worn-out shoes are common finds in Norse era trash pits. In some regions, leather survives well, and complete examples of a number of different shoe styles have been found.

    The shoes shown (below left) are a copy of a pair found in York in England. They are a bit more elaborate than some, and use toggles, rather than laces, for closing the shoe. The toggles are easily adjustable, so that one can adjust the snugness of the shoe as the leather stretches. The top of the shoe is "whipped" with a contrasting color thread, both as decoration and to reinforce the edge (below right). The sole extends well up the back of the heel, perhaps to provide some additional life to the shoes by keeping the heel seam up off the ground where it can't be scuffed.

    The shoe shown (below) is a copy of one found in Hedeby. The seam that joins the upper is in the center, rather than on the side, as with the York shoe, above. This pattern is much simpler to construct.

    Most shoes were ankle height, although there are a few examples of higher boots. A pair of calf-high reproduction boots are shown (below), which use the same kind of toggle closure as the shoe shown above.

    In addition, the saga literature mentions high shoes. In chapter 9 of Hávarđar saga Ísfirđing, Valbrand's sons took off their high shoes while they raked hay.

    Norse era belts were leather, and considerably narrower than belts later came to be; 2cm (3/4 inch) was about the widest used. There were typically no belt loops in garments, so any excess length was knotted around the belt and allowed to fall freely (below left). The free end was weighted with a decorative strap end (below right). Not only was the strap end decorated, so were the buckle and the belt itself.

    Two essential items worn on the belt were a utility knife and a pouch of soft leather or fabric. Since garments had no pockets, people needed someplace to store the items they routinely carried with them, such as coins, a scrap of clean cloth (to wipe one's hands and face), a fire starting kit, etc. Keys, however, were routinely carried around the neck. Smaller weapons, such as a sax, might also be worn on the belt.

    Women's Clothing

    In general, women's clothing was made from the same materials as men's clothing. Typically, a woman wore an ankle length linen under-dress, with an shorter length woolen hangerock (apron-skirt) on top (below left). (The woman shown below right is not wearing an hangerock.)

    The straps connecting the front and rear panels of the hangerock were fastened at the shoulders by two oval brooches (below). Between the brooches were strings of glass and amber beads, or jewelry. Women carried needed items (e.g., keys, scissors, a knife, and a whetstone) suspended by thongs or chains from their belts, or from their brooches.

    The woman shown above is wearing an ankle length outer garment over her hangerock, but cloaks or shawls (below) were probably more common. Head coverings were typically worn, and women's shoes were similar to men's shoes.

    Besides its obvious utilitarian functions, clothing played other roles in Norse society. Clothing could be a love token, either premarital or extramarital. In chapter 17 of Kormáks saga, Ţorvaldur asked for and received the hand of Steingerđur, who had been romantically involved with Kormákur. When Kormákur later asked Steingerđur to make him a shirt, she refused.

    Then, there is the curious episodes in the sagas in which women sew up men's sleeves. In chapter 17 of Grettis saga, it is said that the ship captain's wife made a habit of sewing up Grettir's sleeves for him. It's been suggested that this was done everyday, so that the wide, buttonless sleeves of the tunic could be made tight at the wrists for maximum warmth and freedom to work. I remain unconvinced of this interpretation.

    Clothing was a sign of hospitality. Any family which could afford spare clothing would certainly keep warm, dry clothing on hand for travelers. In the wet, cold Northern climates, few things would be more welcome to an arriving traveler than a set of dry clothing.

    Clothing from the Norse era appears to have been utilitarian, comfortable, and practical. It's surprisingly warm, but adjusts for varying temperature ranges. Actual clothing from the period was, like other Norse craft items, both finely made and highly decorated.
    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

  4. #4

    Food & Diet


    Food & Diet

    There is insufficient evidence to determine what Norsemen ate and how their food was prepared. While the raw materials and the cooking utensils are found in archaeological studies, the ways in which foodstuffs were combined, prepared, and presented are largely unknown. In addition, diet probably varied quite a bit across the Norse lands, depending on climate and available resources.

    The best available guess is that Norse people primarily ate agricultural products raised on their own farms: meat from cattle, pigs, sheep, horses, and poultry; cereals, such as barley, rye, oats, and (rarely) wheat; dairy produce, such as milk from cows, sheep, or goats, as well as cheese and butter; vegetables, such as peas, beans, cabbage, onions, and an assortment of herbs; and wild fruits, such as apples, pears, cherries, and berries. Sugar was unknown; the only available sweetener was wild honey.

    To these foods would be added whatever could be hunted, captured, or gathered. Along coastal regions, and near rivers and lakes, fish were a staple part of the diet. It's likely that fish was the most important food wherever there was a concentration of people, such as in trading towns, or at the annual Alþing assembly. (Two 10th century fish hooks are shown below) Some sources suggest that whales were driven ashore by Norsemen in their ships, where they were killed, providing a bounteous harvest for an entire settlement. More probably, Norsemen simply took advantage of dead or weakened whales that washed ashore.

    Wild animals were hunted for food, using either spears, or bow and arrow. These include deer, bear, boar, and elk, as well as smaller game such as rabbits. In the far north, seals and walruses were hunted, not only for the meat, but also for the skins which were especially valuable.

    Sea birds (below right) and their eggs (below left) were also a part of the Norse diet. Norsemen harvested both the eggs from the cliffs on which the birds nested by swinging down from the top of the cliff on ropes.

    Some wild plants were probably consumed because of the medicinal qualities they were known to possess. For instance, the leaves of scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis, shown below) were known to help prevent one's teeth from falling out, one of the symptoms of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency). The plant is mentioned in the stories (for instance, chapter 73 of Grettis saga), but its medicinal properties are not, making me wonder if it wasn't until later in the medieval period that the beneficial properties became known. The stories do suggest that scurvy (skyrbjúgr) was known to sailors (chapter 4 of Þorsteins saga hvíta).

    Meat and fish were preserved by smoking (the smoky upper reaches of the longhouse helped to keep meat hung there from spoiling), pickling in brine or whey (in which the lactic acid prevented food spoilage), salting, or drying. Smoked lamb hanging from the kitchen beams in the longhouse at Eiríksstaðir is shown below left. Despite its thoroughly unappetizing appearance, the meat is delicious. Below right, fish is shown drying outdoors in an open shed in modern Iceland. The dry, cold wind removes the moisture and preserves the fish.

    The most common method for cooking food was by boiling it. Meat was sometimes prepared by boiling it in a wood-lined pit. A pit was dug and lined with wood. Meat and water were placed in the pit, and hot stones were dropped in to bring the temperature up to boiling. More hot stones could be added as needed to keep the liquid hot. The liquid was seasoned with whatever spices and herbs might be available. Meat could also be roasted on a spit.

    More commonly, food was boiled in soapstone or iron cauldrons. A reproduction Norse era cauldron is shown below. Cauldrons were constructed from a number of thin iron plates riveted together to form the pot.

    The photo (below) shows a modern replica in use, suspended from a tripod over an outdoor camp fire. The cauldron holds a stew made of pork, cabbage, leeks, and spices.

    The medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás (K 246) states the standard dimensions of an iron cauldron: a weight of half a load (40 pounds, or 18kg) with a capacity of eight bucketfuls (7.5 gallons, or 30l). The thickness of the iron required would have been nearly 1/4 inch (about 6mm). That much iron would have represented a small treasure in the Norse era, so cauldrons this large couldn't have been common. Typical cauldrons found from the Norse era are smaller than this standard. However, in chapter 145 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Sölvi was boiling meat in a culdron at Alþingi. The cauldron was big enough that when Hallbjörn picked him up and plunged him head first into the boiling cauldron, Sölvi was killed instantly.

    Food was also prepared by roasting in soapstone pots. While clay pottery (below) was known in Norse lands, almost no broken potshards have been found, as in other parts of Europe. Pottery was probably a poorly developed craft in Norse lands, and soapstone or wood containers must have been used almost exclusively.

    Liquids that needed to be warmed were poured into a suspended animal skin, and then hot stones were dropped in.

    Reproductions of two different utensils for frying food are shown in the photo below. The gridiron (on the right in the photo) was used for cooking meat or fish over an open fire. The pan of the griddle (on the left) rotates on a pivot at the end of the handle, so that food on the pan can be rotated in the fire, allowing it to be cooked more evenly. In the photo above to the right, the griddle is in use cooking two loaves of flatbread.

    Bread was typically made from unleavened barley flour ground in stone querns (below). The handle of the quern was used to rotate the top stone over the bottom stone, grinding the grain between the stones. In Iceland, lava querns were used, which produced finer flour. However, in Iceland, grain was more scarce, so bread-making was less common than in other Norse lands.

    Stone chips from querns have been found in recovered flour, so the bread must have made for a gritty repast. Cooked on a flat pan over the coals of an open fire, it would have been eaten warm, since such loaves turn rock hard when cooled. The bread shown in the photo above was made from stone ground wheat, barley, oat, and rye flours, mixed with whey, honey, and nuts.

    Ale, made from malted barley, was the staple drink of all classes and all ages, although milk, beer, mead, and fruit wines were also known. Norse feasts and parties must have been alcoholic to excess, if the stories are to be believed. Because of the impurities in the drink, there must have been some head splitting hangovers the following morning. The proper way to drink was "without restraint", according to some sources, and the stories suggest that was the rule. Yet Hávamál (Sayings of the High One) suggests in several verses (e.g., 19) that one should drink with moderation.

    Norse families ate two meals per day: dagverðr at mid-morning, and náttverðr in the evening. Most families had a table of some sort, and wealthy families used a linen tablecloth. Meats were served on wooden trenchers and eaten with one's personal knife. Stews, porridge, and similar items were served in wooden bowls and eaten with wooden or horn spoons (below bottom). A reproduction of a wooden serving bowl is shown (below top).

    Cold beverages were consumed from horn cups or (especially for feasts) from drinking horns. Modern replicas are shown below.

    Autumn was the season when the greatest variety of foodstuffs were available. It was when freshly slaughtered meat was most available, when fresh vegetables and grains were available, and when imported foodstuffs were most abundant. Feasts and celebrations were planned for the fall to take advantage of this abundance and variety. The image (below) depicts the variety of food available in York during the Norse era and includes fish, small game, vegetables, nuts, and fruit.

    There is nothing to indicate that poor quality food or cookery was accepted in the Norse era. Spices were available and were used, not to disguise the taste of food gone bad, as is commonly thought, but to enhance the flavor of food. Based on current knowledge, it is quite possible that a varied and nourishing diet was available. But there is insufficient data to say how much of the population was able to take advantage of such a diet.

    Norse Era Nutrition: After writing this summary of dietary practices in the Norse era, I was curious how Norsemen avoided deficiency diseases, such as scurvy (vitamin C deficiency). To find out, I did a nutritional analysis of hypothetical Norse era diets made up from the foods described in this article, using diet analysis research software created at Syracuse University. I created hypothetical meals, using the foods that probably were available, creating different diets for each of the four seasons of the year. I assumed that a variety of foods were readily available, so this study is not applicable to times of famine, or to Norse era town dwellers.

    For the first analysis, I assumed the kind of serving sizes that we consume during Hurstwic feasts. That analysis showed that it would be possible for people living in the Norse era to have a well balanced diet, even on a winter diet. Although some of the nutrients would have been a bit low by modern standards (for instance, less than 40mg of Vitamin C on the winter diet), no essential nutrient was so low as to suggest ill health, with one exception: energy.

    I was surprised by the low caloric content of the diet: only 1200 Kcal (5MJ) for the winter diet. A Norseman could not have survived for very long with such a low energy intake.

    I reanalyzed the diets, using much, much larger portion sizes. It required enormous quantities of Norse era foodstuffs to get the diet up to the 3000 Kcal (12.5 MJ) level, probably the minimum required for good health given the active lifestyle of that era. Serving sizes several times larger than would be considered normal today were needed: hundreds of grams (nearly one pound) of meat and fish; hundreds of grams of diary products; hundreds of grams of nuts and vegetables and grains.

    With this much food intake, the analysis showed that all the key nutrients were consumed in adequate quantities. However, even a 3000 Kcal diet was probably insufficient to cover daily energy expenditures during much of the year. I analyzed required caloric levels for a hypothetical day of Norse era farm chores and hand labor. A energy expenditure of over 10000 Kcal (42MJ) was predicted.

    This number is quite believable. Modern athletes routinely require these levels of energy intake, and a fascinating observational survey of college athletes' eating habits in 1983 showed that some athletes averaged over 11000 Kcal (46MJ) daily intake.

    The details of the diets and the analyses are provided on a separate page for those interested.

    These analyses suggest that people living in the Norse era probably didn't routinely suffer from diseases due to nutritional deficiencies. Assuming they had access to a variety of foods known to be eaten during this era, they would have been able to get their required nutrients, even during winter.

    Archaeological evidence confirms this conclusion. A recent study of 11th and 12th century skeletal remains from Skeljastaðir in Iceland showed little evidence of nutritional deficiencies.

    However, people in this era must have eaten surprisingly large quantities of these foods in order to fulfill their energy needs, with serving sizes several times larger than would be considered normal today.
    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

  5. #5

    Health, Medicine & Hygiene


    Health, Medicine & Hygiene

    Studies of burial remains from the Viking age suggest that good health and long life was possible for at least some of the population. But that is not to say that life was free of disease and pestilence.

    Good health was seen as an extension of good luck. So preventative medicine consisted primarily of chants and charms that would maintain one’s good fortune. The eddaic poetry is full of charms for the maintenance of health in daily life, such as those in Hávamál.

    Runic inscriptions were used as magic to maintain health. Chapters 73 and 77 of Egils saga Skalla-grímssonar tell how a young woman's health was first ruined through the use of improper runes, and then restored by correct runes. The runes were carved on a whalebone placed under the woman's bed.

    Magic was used to heal the injuries received in a duel, as described in chapter 22 of Kormáks saga. Þórdís advised Þorvarðr to speed his recovery by reddening a nearby hill with the blood of the sacrificial bull killed by Kormákr after the duel, and by making a feast out of the meat from the bull for the elves living in the hill.

    Magic was used to prevent a wound from healing, as well. In chapter 57 of Laxdæla saga, Eiður says that a wound inflicted by his sword Sköfnung will not heal unless rubbed with the sword's healing stone (lyfsteinn).

    In addition to magical arts, the medical arts were also practiced in the Norse era. Classical herbal remedies appear to have been known, along with local herbs specific to the Norse region. Medical treatments consisted of: lancing; cleaning wounds; anointing; bandaging; setting broken bones; the preparation of herbal remedies; and midwifery. The 13th century Icelandic law book Grágás says that one must hold harmless a person who bleeds or cauterizes someone for the good of their health [St364], suggesting those techniques were known and used.

    In chapter 10 of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, Gunnlaug's ankle was twisted out of joint in a wrestling match. Later, his foot was bandaged and the joint re-set. (Þá var vafiður fóturinn og í liðinn færður.)

    Archaeological evidence from grave sites shows that surgery was performed from time to time, some of which was successful (i.e., the patient lived for a time after the procedure). In addition, some of the late literature (e.g., Biskupa sogur) suggests that surgery was occasionally performed.

    Both the saga literature and forensic studies of skeletal remains show that people survived serious battle injuries and lived to fight again after their wounds healed.

    In the Norse era, various emotions were believed to reside in the body's organs. Chapter 21 of Fóstbræðra saga lists them: "A man's anger resides in his gall, his life-blood in his heart, his memory in his brains, his ambition in his lungs, his laughter in his spleen and his desire in his liver."

    In the early part of the Norse era, most of the population had to rely on themselves or on local people with special abilities. Educated medical specialists were rare. Chapter 6 of Eiríks saga rauða tells of an protracted period of disease at Lysufjorður in Greenland. The sick lay in bed in the hall, while the healthy helped them prepare for death.

    Later in the Norse era, it appears that certain men chose the practice of medicine as their livelihood. In chapter 29 of Magnúss saga góða, King Magnús the Good chose twelve men to bandage men’s wounds after the battle on Lyrskov Moor in 1043. These men subsequently acquired reputations as medical men. From these men, several notable families of physicians descended, including the Icelander Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson (whose grave is shown below), who was regarded as a famous surgeon.

    An inured person sought a healer (læknir) for medical assistance. In chapter 6 of Þórðar saga hreðu, Indriði suffered gaping wounds during a battle. When asked if he might pull through, he said, "I think there is some hope of it, if a healer sees me."

    In more densely settled areas, such as trading towns, epidemics must have been occasional occurrences. Smallpox, dysentery, and leprosy are recorded in the literature. The Norse must have faced these with resignation, since little could be done to control them.

    A mass grave at the winter camp of the Viking Great Army in Repton (England) suggests that the people buried there succumbed to an epidemic of some sort. Of the several hundred individuals buried there, most were adult males with no indications that they died of battle injuries. The Viking invaders wintered over in this camp during the winter of 873-874.

    An example of battlefield medicine is described in chapter 234 of Óláfs saga helga. Þormóðr was wounded by an arrow in his side. He broke off the shaft and supported his companions as best he could. After the battle had been lost, he left the field and entered the building where the healer women were tending the wounded. One of the women inspected the wound and could see the iron arrow head, but could not determine its path to determine what internal organs it had struck. She gave Þormóðr a hot broth, containing leeks and onions and other herbs. If, after eating it, she could smell the broth from his wound, she would know that vital parts had been injured, and that the wound was fatal.

    Þormóðr refused the broth. Instead, he directed the woman to cut into the wound to expose the iron arrow head. He grabbed hold of the arrow head with pincers and pulled it out. Seeing fatty fibers on the arrow head, Þormóðr said, "See how well the king keeps his men. There is fat by my heart," and he died.

    Evidence from both literary sources and archaeological sources shows that cleanliness, good hygiene, and regular grooming were a part of Norse life. The Norse poetic literature emphasizes the need for cleanliness and regular grooming. Here are two examples:

    From Reginsmál (25):

    Kemðr ok þveginn ----- skal kœnna hverr
    ok at morni mettr;
    þvíat ósýnt er, ----- hvarat apni kømr;
    illt er fyr heill at hrapa.


    Combed and washed ---- every thoughtful man should be
    and fed in the morning;
    for one cannot foresee ----- where one will be by evening;
    it is bad to rush headlong before one's fate.

    From Hávamál (61):

    Þveginn ok mettr ----- ríði maðr þingi at,
    þótt hann séð væddr til vel;
    skúa ok bróka ----- skammiz engi maðr,
    né hestz in heldr, ----- þótt hann hafit góðan.


    Washed and fed, ----- a man should ride to the Assembly
    though he may not be very well dressed;
    of his shoes and breeches ----- no man should be ashamed
    nor of his horse, ----- though he doesn't have a good one.

    In chapter 21 of Heiðarvíga saga, Barði stopped to collect Odd to ride to the heath where the revenge killings were to take place. Barði found that Odd's wife was washing his hair. Odd's horse was saddled, and his weapons were prepared. But the final preparation for the trip was a cleansing. Barði asked Odd's wife to finish the job properly before their departure.

    At Alþing, people bathed in the Öxará river. In chapter 8 of Hrafnkels saga, Sámr and Þorbjörn bathed below the bridge early one morning

    Hair washing was a function performed by women for men and seems to have usually been performed outdoors. In chapter 18 of Víglundar saga, Víglundur asked Ketilríður to cut and wash his hair before he left for Norway. After the job was done, he promised her to permit no one else to cut and wash his hair as long as she was alive.

    The medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás (St 361) calls for the most severe penalties for a man who makes someone dirty in order to disgrace him. Similarly, pushing a man into water or urine or food or dirt resulted in the same penalties, whatever the reason.

    Besides the comments in the stories, there is other evidence that the Norse were regular bathers. Hot spring baths built in the Norse era still exist in modern Iceland. The photo (below) shows the bath built by Snorri Sturluson at his farm at Reykholt, probably around the year 1210. It's fed by water piped from separate hot and cold water springs, so the temperature can be adjusted to suit. The door in the hillside behind the bath leads to a tunnel which probably led back to Snorri's farmhouse. Snorri apparently spent many hours in the bath daily. It's about 4 meters in diameter (13 feet), with stone steps leading down into the bath and bench seats around the periphery below the water for comfortable lounging.

    Not surprisingly, hot springs baths drew bathers from a wide area. Shelters built at the bath served not only bathers, but also women who were washing clothes in the hot water. Bathing in the hot springs was also a social activity. While Kjartan was wooing Guðrún, he timed his visits to the hot springs bath to coincide with hers, as described in chapter 39 of Laxdæla saga.

    (Kjartan and Guðrún wouldn't recognize the bath at Laugar today; the hot water is collected and piped to the nearby school and community center.)

    The reconstructed hot bath Grettislaug is shown (below). After Grettir swam from his island hideaway Drangey across the cold waters of Skagafjörður, his first stop was at the hot bath to warm up, as described in chapter 75 of Grettis saga.

    The bath is regularly used by Icelanders and visitors, even if they didn't just swim from Drangey. I can attest that it's a wonderful place to spend a blissful hour soaking in the hot water.

    Another form of Icelandic bathhouse is described in chapter 28 of Eyrbyggja saga. It was an outbuilding, dug into the ground. It had a window set above a stone oven so that water could be thrown onto the oven from the outside, making the bathhouse very hot.

    Some longhouses had rooms which are thought to have been used as sweatrooms, an early precursor to the modern Swedish sauna.

    The Anglo-Saxon defenders of England realized that the Norse invaders took regular baths, and were known to delay their attack until Norse bath time, when the Norseman had shed their clothes (and their weapons).

    A treaty negotiated in the year 907 between the Byzantine Empire and the Rus (the Norse people from Sweden and the east Baltic area who traded with Byzantium) contained most of the usual provisions one might expect: the Byzantium empire was obliged to give the Rus traders food, drink, and supplies for their ships. However, an unusual condition in the treaty was that Byzantium was required to provide baths for the Rus "as often as they want them".

    A variety of grooming aids are common archaeological finds in virtually every occupied site. They're so common that one has to conclude that they were in wide use, and they are found in both male and female graves.

    Shown (below) are modern reproductions of a comb (top), and from left to right below, an ear wax scraper, a toothpick, and a pair of tweezers. These reproduction items are made from bone or antler, although some luxury items from the Norse era were made from ivory. In addition, a variety of wash basins have been found at archaeological sites.

    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

  6. #6

    Games & Sports


    Games & Sports

    The Norse people delighted in games and sports. Both indoor board games and outdoor sporting competitions appear to have been regular leisure time activities, based on both saga literature.

    Game boards and playing pieces are common finds in grave goods. The game boards that have been found have playing surfaces ranging from 7x7 squares (below top) up to 19x19 squares. Playing pieces have been found made from a wide variety of material: glass; bone (below bottom); antler; amber; bronze; and wood. It's unclear whether dice (at right, in bottom picture), which are also found, are a part of this board game, or, more likely, a different game.

    The dice themselves are marked with pips from 3 through 6 on the four long faces, and 1 on the two short faces. Because of the geometry of the dice, it seems unlikely that the short faces would come up when thrown. The medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás (K 233) prohibited gambling on dice games or board games.

    In the stories, some of the playing pieces are described as having long pins which fit into the board. In chapter 70 of Grettis saga, Ţorbjörn's step-mother threw a playing piece at him, which gouged out his eye.

    One board game was called hnefatafl. Carvings on memorial stones (below left) show people playing board games. We don't know the rules, but it appears to have been a strategy game in which a king and his retainers opposed an army. The player holding the king had only a small number of playing pieces (below right) to protect the king from the larger number of playing pieces controlled by his opponent.

    Skill at playing board games apparently was held in some esteem. In Morkinskinna (chapter 71), King Eysteinn and King Sigurđr compared their accomplishments. Sigurđr claimed he was stronger and a better swimmer. Eysteinn countered, "That is true, but I am more skilled and better at board games, and that is worth as much as your strength."

    The mythological poem Völuspá says that the gods, too, once played board games in the meadow, during the golden age of the gods. The poem predicts that after Ragnorök, good fortune will return, beginning with finding the golden playing pieces once again in the meadow.

    Other indoor games included drinking games. Drinking to excess appears to have been routine at feasts and other celebrations. Typically, people drank in pairs, with each important man having a woman as his exclusive drinking partner for the evening. (In chapter 48 of Egils saga, the women were assigned to men by lot, with the remaining men pairing up on their own.)

    The game consisted of pairs of men trading drinks and verbally sparring. With each drink, the participants were expected to compose and recite a verse of poetry, boosting their own reputation (with boasts of courageous and manly behavior) while disparaging their opponents (with taunts of cowardly or womanly behavior). As the drinking progressed, the intensity of the ridicule, boasts, and taunts increased as the drinkers became less and less inhibited. The goal was to maintain (or even enhance) verbal skill throughout the competition without showing the effects of alcohol.

    An example occurs in chapter 27 of Örvar-Odds saga. Sigurd and Sjolf made a bet that together, they could outdrink Arrow-Odd. After each drink, each participant composed and spoke a verse of insulting poetry. Odd matched them two drinks for one each for Sigurd and Sjolf, all the while creating better and more scurrilous poetry.

    The saga literature is full of references to sporting games (leikar). Some of the games mentioned include ball games, skin throwing games, scraper games, wrestling, swimming, and horse fights. The games were important social events for the community and might last for days. Games took place whenever people came together for feasts, assemblies, or religious festivals. Sometimes prominent men called people together for a leikmót (games meeting) specifically to take part in games.

    However, the competition was a bit more rugged than might be acceptable today. The stories suggest that serious injury or death was not uncommon. Grágás (K 92) states that a man may leave a game at any time he pleases, thus he himself is responsible for any unintentional injuries he may suffer.

    The swimming competitions might be more accurately called drowning competitions; the goal was to see who could hold his opponent underwater the longest. Chapter 40 of Laxdćla saga tells of a match between Kjartan Ólafsson and King Ólafur Tryggvason.

    Knattleikr (ball game) was played with a hard ball and a bat. Again, we don't know the rules. We don't know the object of the game. We don't know the nature of the equipment or the playing field. However, the stories provide a few clues.

    Chapter 15 of Gísla saga Súrssonar has a brief description of the game. It appears to have been a full contact sport, in which people were physically held back and tackled while the ball was in play. Chapter 15 of Grettis saga says that ball games were played every autumn at Miđfjarđarvatn (shown below as it looks today). The saga describes opposing players lined up facing one another. Individual players on opposing sides were matched based on strength. Chapter 40 of Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar says that players were divided into teams, but opposing players were paired up. At one point, a player caught the ball and ran with it while opposing players chased him.

    The playing equipment is never described, although we learn in chapter 18 of Gísla saga that when Börkur broke Ţorstein's bat in two in anger, Gísli was able to mend it on the spot. In chapter 15, Gísli threw the ball so hard that it struck Ţorgrímur between the shoulder blades and knocked him over.

    In this, as in all the games, disputes between players could turn bloody. As the game progressed in chapter 15 of Grettis saga, Auđun hit the ball over Grettir's head so that he couldn't catch it. Grettir lost his temper, thinking that Auđun had done this to make fun of him. Grettir fetched the ball over the ice, and when he returned, he hurled the ball at Auđun's forehead, making him bleed. Auđun struck at Grettir with his bat, but Grettir dodged the blow. They grappled and started wrestling. Grettir lost his balance and went down, and Auđun kneed him in the groin. At this point, many stepped forward to stop the fight. The incident was not permitted to develop into a quarrel, but nonetheless, a bloody feud ultimately developed.

    And, as one of the players in chapter 40 of Egils saga ran with the ball, Egill ran up to him and drove an axe into his head, in payment for some rough treatment earlier in the game. Egill was six years old at the time.

    Wrestling (glíma) was a contest of strength. A win was recorded if the opponent was thrown off his feet, or lifted clear and then dropped onto any body part except the feet.

    The stories suggest that some wrestling matches took place indoors. In chapter 37 of Finnboga saga ramma and in chapter 1 of Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls, the games took place in the house. Gunnar lifted his opponent up and threw him onto the raised bench in the main room of the house, breaking his spine. (modern re-enactment of glíma, below)

    Weight lifting competitions used stones. The man who could lift the heaviest boulder was the winner.

    Our knowledge of scraper games (sköfuleikr) is extremely limited. It appears to have involved the use of pot scrapers made of horn. In chapter 23 of Harđar saga og Hólmverja, it is mentioned that during one game, which lasted all day, six people received fatal injuries.

    In chapter 13 of Bárđar saga Snćfellsáss, there is a description of a four corner skin throwing game (hornaskinnleikr or skinnleikr). The game was played indoors, in the hall, using a rolled up bearskin. Four players threw the bearskin back and forth among themselves while a fifth player tried to get the skin. People stood on the benches while the game was played, and it appeared to involve shoving, tripping, and no small amount of commotion. In chapter 22 of Fóstbrćđra saga, Lođinn grabbed the feet of Ţormóđur and dragged him off the bench and along the floor of the house. Ţormóđur said that he was used to such things in skin throwing games.

    In horse fights, two stallions were goaded to fight against each other until one of them was killed or ran away. To further incite the stallions, mares were tethered at the edge of the grounds, within sight and smell of the stallions. Chapter 23 of Reykdćla saga og Viga-Skútu describes how the horses were goaded. Eyjólf's stallion got a grip on the upper jaw of Bjarni's stallion and held on until Bjarni came up and knocked the stallion loose with his staff. Chapter 29 of Grettis saga tells of a horse fight at Langafit, shown to the right as it looks today. The story describes Grettir holding his stallion back by the tail during a fight while goading him with a stick. His opponent, Oddur, jabbed at Grettir with his stick during the horse fight. Later, Grettir jabbed Oddur so hard that Oddur and his horse fell into the river. Chapter 59 of Brennu-Njáls saga says that Ţorgeir and Kolur threw their weight against their horse's rump when he charged, hoping to knock down Gunnar, who was goading the other horse. But Gunnar pushed back on his horse, and Ţorgeir and Kolur ended up on the ground with their horse on top of them.

    Apparently, young boys had their own games, called sveinaleikur. In chapter 10 of Flóamanna saga, Ţorgils, who was five years old, marked off a playing field and said he wanted to play. The other boys said he could not play unless he had killed some living creature. Ţorgils left the field, displeased to have been excluded. In chapter 40 of Egils saga, the boys were playing in a sveinaleikur when Egill used an axe to kill the boy who had been rough earlier in the game.

    The playing of games appears to have been limited to men. Women are described as watching knattleikar, but never playing it. In chapter 2 of Hallfređar saga vandrćskálds, Valgerđur and other women sat on the slopes near the ball field, watching the game. Ingólfur threw a ball which flew up towards the woman. Valgerđur caught the ball and allowed it to slip under her cloak, saying that whoever threw the ball should come fetch it.

    Women were unlikely to attend, for instance, a horse fight, where trouble and violence seems to have always ensued. Board games were apparently played by both sexes. In chapter 4 of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, Helga and Gunnlaugur played board games together while Gunnlaugur was staying with the family and studying law with Helga's father.

    A variety of carved wooden children's toys from the period have been found, including dolls, horses (below top), ships, and other figures. Child sized wooden weapons have also been found. The photo (below bottom) shows a two-year-old playing with a modern replica.

    Other toys are mentioned in the sagas. In chapter 12 of Víga-Glúms saga, a six year old boy gave his bronze toy horse to a four year old, saying it suited the younger child better.

    Children played with soft felt balls (below top). The balls were made (below bottom) by taking a handful of wool fibers, wetting them, and then squeezing them into a round ball by rolling between the hands. Repeatedly, loose fibers were pulled out and around the ball, and the rolling and squeezing process continued. Eventually, one ended up with a tightly matted wool felt, which was tied with yarn to prevent it from falling apart during play.

    I'm surprised at how satisfactory a ball one can make using this technique. The ball rolls well, bounces well, and has enough of a heft for a good game of catch.

    The sagas say that children played "make-believe" games. In chapter 1 of Bolla ţáttr Bollasonar, it says that Óláfr, who was seven or eight years old, went away from the farm house "to play and build himself a house, as children often do". In chapter 8 of Njáls saga, two boys and a girl played a game on the floor in the house, acting out a law case from the recently concluded session of the Alţing.

    Ice skates made from bone are common finds and were probably used not only as toys, but also as a useful means to travel across the ice. The bones, usually the metatarsal bones of horses or cattle, were tied to the bottom of the feet using leather thongs (below). Skaters used wooden poles tipped with iron spikes to help propel themselves across the ice. The bottoms of the skates were made flat and smooth to permit the skater to glide across the ice. Since the skates lacked any kind of edge to cut the ice, skating techniques must have been very different than with modern skates.

    In the stories, the Icelandic family sagas do not seem to mention ice skating anywhere. That's surprising, since bone ice skates were known and used in Iceland from medieval times into the 20th century. A pair of skates used in rural Iceland in the 20th century is shown (below).

    Other literary sources show that skill at skating was prized. In chapter 21 of Magnússona saga, King Eysteinn and King Sigurđr compared their accomplishments. Eysteinn said, "I was so good at skating that I did not know anyone who could beat me; but you could no more skate than a cow."
    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

  7. #7

    Families and Demographics


    Families & Demographics

    During the Norse era, multiple "families" lived in the same longhouse, working the same farm holding. This "grand family" played an important role in shaping Norse society and its laws and customs, and was the standard unit of society.

    A household might consist not only several husband-and-wife couples (with one member of each couple typically related by blood to one member of every other couple) and their children, but also the families of servants and bondsmen. During this time, the typical household size was probably ten to twenty people. This household size suggests that at the end of the settlement era, Iceland had a population of about 60,000 people.

    Information about Norse families in this era is sparse. Much of it comes from the Icelandic family sagas. And some of it comes from osteoarchaeology, the science of studying the skeletal remains of the people of an era. However, for the Norse era, skeletal studies are flawed. Mortuary practices varied by region. In some places and times, it was customary to cremate bodies, rather than bury them. Of the bodies that were buried, the distribution is skewed by the lack of infants (who may not have been buried in normal burial plots), and by the lack of adult males (a significant percentage of whom died violently abroad).

    Nonetheless, by taking the data that do exist (and applying what appears to be a lot of speculation, as far as I can tell), scholars have drawn conclusions about the demographics of the Norse population.

    The life expectancy at birth was about 20 years. Half of those who survived birth lived only to their seventh year. Children under the age of 15 made up nearly half of the population. Of those that reached the age of 20, about half reached the age of 50. Perhaps 15 percent of the total population was 50 years or older. And only 1 to 3 percent of population was over 60 years old.

    The population distribution by age is shown in the plot below on the right (blue bars), clearly showing the skew towards the young. For comparison, the distribution for modern day Iceland is shown on the left (red bars).

    A typical woman probably bore 7 infants during her lifetime, 29 months apart on average. During pregnancy, women were expected to continue working. After the child's birth, the mother typically returned to work with little delay. Evidence suggests that mothers nursed their children until the age of 2 years, which may have dictated the interval between the births of a couple's children. A typical couple probably had 2 or 3 living children at any one time. Few parents lived to see their children marry. And fewer lived to see their first grandchild. Three generation families were rare.

    When one member of a couple died, the other remarried quickly. It was probably difficult for a single person to run a household alone.

    Marriage was a business arrangement between the family of the bride and the family of the groom. It was initiated by the male suitor and approved by the woman's father. In many cases, marriages were arranged to build an alliance between families. The marriage was the means by which the families' wealth was distributed amongst the next generation. But that is not to say that the emotions of the man and woman did not play a role.

    Courting the woman was only natural, but frowned upon by the woman's family as unseemly. Courting might take the form of visits by the man to the woman's house, conversation with the woman, or poems of praise to the woman. While such poems of praise were prohibited by law (Grágás K 238), there are plenty of examples of them, so the law must have been routinely ignored.

    A man looking for a bride might seek the advice of family members before taking the first steps towards marriage, for a misstep could be costly. If a marriage proposal did not immediately follow courting, the woman's family was embarrassed and insulted. If a marriage proposal was rejected, the man's family was similarly injured. In either case, blood vengeance might be sought.

    Marriages had two parts: the betrothal and the wedding.

    The betrothal was a commercial contract between the woman's guardian (usually her father) and the suitor or his representative (usually his father). The proposal was made to the woman's guardian, usually by a representative of the suitor. Whether the woman's consent was sought or not is not clear. The law books suggest that consent was not required except in some specific circumstances (e.g., Grágás K 144, St 119). Yet examples from the sagas suggest that it was and that the woman's wishes were normally observed (e.g., Laxdæla saga chapter 23). However, coercion was not unknown in order to force an especially attractive political or economic bond between two families.

    The groom's family promised to pay a sum called mundr (bride price) to obtain the woman. The bride's father declared his right to give his daughter away and promised to pay a heimangerð (dowry) at the wedding. The two parties shook hands in front of witnesses to fix the bargain, and arranged a date, usually within a year.

    Thus, the betrothal differed little from any other commercial transaction: there was an agreed upon price, a handshake, and witnesses.

    The wedding was an elaborate festivity, with feasting (and drinking) going on for several days. It usually took place at the house of the bride's parents. The marriage was considered binding when at least six witnesses saw the couple openly go to bed together (Grágás St 58).

    If the marriage didn't work out, divorce could be easily obtained by either party for a wide variety of reasons. For example if no children resulted from the marriage, the union could simply be dissolved. It was not unusual for a woman to marry several times. In the earlier part of the Norse era, divorce was accomplished simply by either party declaring the divorce in front of witnesses. However, the sagas show that straightening out the finances resulting from a divorce could result in blood feuds between the families that lasted for generations. After the divorce, the woman was entitled to one-half of the estate. In addition, if the man were at fault, both the bride price and the dowry reverted to the woman. Thus, after a divorce, a woman could retain substantial economic independence and could easily remarry.

    A male was considered to be an adult after he had passed 15 winters. Women married early: perhaps as early as 12 years old. Virtually all women were married by the age of 20.

    When a child was born, the child was accepted into the family by means of a set of rituals. The mother accepted the child by nursing it at her breast. The father showed acceptance by taking the infant onto his knee, giving the child a name, and sprinkling water on the child (vatni ausinn). Once the infant was named, sprinkled, and suckled, then the Norse inheritance laws came into play, and the baby had inheritance and other rights within the family.

    An infant that was not accepted for one reason or another was put to death by "exposure". The unwanted baby was put outside, exposed to the elements, until death ensued. This was usually done only in the case of birth deformity, or because of economic hardship. An archaeological study of one Norse era farming village turned up an abandoned well in which many dozens of infant skeletal remains were found.

    During the Norse era, it was common for a family to give one of their children to another family to foster. It was a bond that could link a man to his social superior. Typically, a child from a superior family was raised by an inferior family. The foster parents received either payment or support from the birth parents. Fostering was not the same as adoption. It was a legal agreement, and an alliance. However, ties between foster-relations could be as strong or stronger than those between blood-relations.

    The rituals for the dead in Norse society varied from between different regions, different times, and different social classes. The Norse pagan religion taught that, with few exceptions, the dead didn't "go" anywhere; they stayed in their graves. Yet at least some of the dead were buried in rich graves furnished with all sorts of objects for daily life. And some of the dead were buried in ships, or in ship replicas, as if they were going on a journey. It's hard to relate the grave finds with the religious ideas found in the old Norse literature. And at least some of the rich grave goods must have been placed simply to impress the neighbors.

    The poorest people were buried in a simple hole in the ground with a few belongings. Warriors were sometimes cremated, with their swords bent and shields broken, although this practice is more common in the times before the Viking era. A prosperous man might be buried along with his horses, slaves, weapons, and a variety of household goods.

    The sketch above shows an interpretation of the burial of a prominent man. The body was placed on its side in a shallow grave, with tools and weapons placed nearby, along with his horse. The grave was covered with a mound. The grave mound of Skallagrímr Kveldúlfsson is shown (below) as it appears today. Skallagrímr was one of the early settlers in Iceland and father of Egill, a prominent chieftain and poet. Egil's son, Böðvarr, is also buried in this mound.

    Wealthy and powerful men were sometimes buried in a ship. A structure was built on the deck in which the body was laid. It was not unknown for his wife to voluntarily join him. Horses, slaves, farm animals, and all the trappings of wealth were placed on board the ship before it was buried.

    In general, graves were not marked. Only the mounds remain. However, some graves were marked with stones, or formations of stones, such as the boat shaped grave markers at the Norse era cemetery in Lindholm Høje in Denmark (below top) and the stone outline of a ship (below bottom) from a cemetery on the island of Öland, off the coast of Sweden.

    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

  8. #8

    Towns and Traders


    Towns & Traders

    Norse traders (and raiders) traveled extensively throughout the known world, bringing back to the Norse lands a wide variety of trade goods. The capacity of Norse era cargo ships made it possible to trade not only in high value luxury items (such as silks and spices from the Far East), but also in more bulky, prosaic, every-day items.

    Most of the trading was over short distances, to and from dozens of ports around the Scandinavian coasts. But a smaller number of international trading centers grew, attracting merchants from throughout Europe, the Arab states, and even Asia. The map (below) shows some of the major Norse trade routes, as well as a few of the important Norse trading centers, settlements, and navigational points.

    Most Norse merchants were not professionals. Their main income came from agriculture and property rentals and taxes. Most merchants were probably peasant merchants or craftsman merchants.

    Some of the exports from various regions during the Norse era include:

    Vínland: timber
    Greenland: walrus ivory, furs, skins, wool
    Iceland: fish, animal fat, wool cloth and clothing, sulfur, falcons
    England: tin, wheat, honey, woolens, silver
    Russia: slaves, furs, wax, honey
    Byzantium: silks, fruits, spices, wines, gems, silver, jewelry, brocade
    Frankish kingdoms: weapons, jewelry, wine, glass, salt, woolen cloth
    Shetland Islands: soapstone
    Norway: timber, iron, soapstone, whetstones
    Sweden: iron, furs
    East Baltic regions: amber, slaves, furs

    The extent of the eastern trade routes is remarkable. Norsemen traveled to Byzantium to connect with traders from Arabia, Africa, and the Far East. There were two main trade routes through Russia, both of which required that the ships be dragged up rapids and portaged overland. In addition, there were two trade routes through central Europe to the Baltic.

    Towns typically appeared along the main trading routes early in the Norse era. They were centers of transshipment, exchange, and redistribution. Professional craftsmen and smiths were naturally drawn to these locations to practice their crafts. Towns were distinguished from villages by the presence of these traders and craftsmen. Agriculture was of secondary importance to town residents. They made their living by making and selling their goods, rather than consuming them themselves.

    It has been difficult to determine whether these settlements were seasonal, or permanent. Excavations at Kaupang from 1956-1967 indicated only seasonal occupancy, since no evidence of hearths in the excavated houses was found. However, excavations in the summer of 2000 found ample evidence of houses with hearths, which suggests year-round occupancy. The depth of the refuse pits and the number of graves on the site also suggest that the site was a permanent settlement.

    Towns sprung up in places that were easy for traders to reach by both land and sea. Since the concentration of valuable articles would be tempting to any raider, towns tended to be located in strategic points, where they could be defended. Royal protection and support was important in the development of towns. A guarantee of peace and order was necessary for the marketplaces, otherwise merchants would stay away. Regional kings or chieftains provided the traders with protection from pirates, while the traders filled the royal coffers with tolls and taxes. The chieftain also provided the authority needed to organize and set up the town, allocating permanent plots of land to families. The chieftain's hall at Kaupang was partially excavated in the summer of 2000. The site of the hall is on a hill outside the town, with a commanding view of the town and the roads approaching it.

    The map (below) shows the location of four of the main trading centers in the Norse era.

    Hedeby was founded by the Danish King Godfred in the year 808, when he forced merchants to move from the older trading center, Reric, to the new town of Hedeby. This move was forced to ensure that the lucrative trade routes were brought within Godfred's borders.

    Hedeby was situated on Jutland, on a well protected site in the inner part of the Schlei fjord. Here, it controlled both the north/south trade routes (between Europe and Scandinavia) and the east/west routes (between the Baltic and the North Seas). It was directly on the Schlei fjörd which communicates with the Baltic sea, and only a few kilometers from rivers which communicate with the North Sea. Less than 1km away was Hćrvej (the Army Road), the main north-south land route in Jutland. Hedeby was known from Iceland to Baghdad. It was called Sliesthorp, Ćt Hćthum, Haithabu, and Hedeby.

    Although earlier settlements had existed at the site, the Norse town was clearly planned (sketch below). Wood-paved streets were laid out on a regular perpendicular grid. The creek which ran through the site was channeled. A semicircular earth and timber wall surrounded and protected the town. The wall was 1.3km (0.6 miles) around, and 5.1m (16 feet) high. The only entrances to the town were through the two gates to the north and south, and from the harbor on the fjord. The harbor had several causeways and a semi-circular palisade for defense. The wall enclosed an area of approximately 24 hectare (60 acres).

    Soil conditions at Hedeby favor the preservation of some types of objects, so archaeological excavations have yielded a fairly clear picture of the town and its inhabitants. Roofs of houses nearly met across the narrow, wood paved roads. Within the town, in addition to trade facilities, were manufacturing facilities. Iron, precious metals, leather, wood, textiles, and bones were worked inside the walls of Hedeby. There was even a mint for striking coins.

    Residents of Hedeby included traders, sailors, and smiths of all sorts. People lived in houses on small, fenced plots. Most houses had a well and an outhouse, and many had other outbuildings. A sketch of the floor plan of a house built in Hedeby in the year 870 is shown (below). The house measured 5 by 12 meters (16 by 40 feet). The central room was the main living quarters, for cooking, living, and sleeping, having the typical central fire pit and raised benches along the walls. The room to the left contained a domed cook oven and storage space. Food for the town was imported from nearby farms. The room to the right was a workshop, with a window in the gable for light.

    Trading was usually accomplished by barter. In addition, silver was used as a medium of exchange, in the form of coins, unworked silver rods, and in the form of jewelry. The value of silver was based solely by weight, so if the weight of a piece of jewelry was more than needed to complete a purchase, it was cut into bits to make up the correct weight for the transaction. Thus, many of the silver hoards (below) that have been found contain pieces of "hack silver": silver jewelry that had been cut up in order to complete a purchase.

    Some Norse lands were very wealthy during the height of the Norse era. This wealth was due not only to the profits from trading, but also due to the treasures brought back from raids, and from the payments made by rulers in other parts of Europe simply to prevent future Norse raids. In Anglo-Saxon England, these payments were called Danegeld. It is estimated that in the 25 years at the end of the 10th century and beginning of the 11th century, more than 150,000 pounds (68,000 kg) of silver was paid by the English to the Danes

    Some Norse lands were very wealthy during the height of the Norse era. This wealth was due not only to the profits from trading, but also due to the treasures brought back from raids, and from the payments made by rulers in other parts of Europe simply to prevent future Norse raids. In Anglo-Saxon England, these payments were called Danegeld. It is estimated that in the 25 years at the end of the 10th century and beginning of the 11th century, more than 150,000 pounds (68,000 kg) of silver was paid by the English to the Danes

    The equivalent value of silver obviously varied from place to place and time to time. At the beginning of the 11th century in Iceland, the approximate exchange rates were:

    8 ounces of silver = 1 ounce of gold

    8 ounces of silver = 4 milk cows

    8 ounces of silver = 24 sheep

    8 ounces of silver = 144 ells (about 72 meters) of homespun woolen cloth 2 ells wide (about 1 meter)

    In the Norse era, an ounce (eyrir, plural aurar) weighed 27g, nearly identical to the modern avoirdupois ounce. Eight ounces made up one mark.

    In Iceland, standard homespun woolen cloth was adopted and used as a medium of exchange. In the medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás, many of the payments are listed in ounce-units (aurar) of homespun, the amount of homespun woolen cloth that could be purchased with an ounce of silver. The laws specified the quality and dimensions and measurement techniques of standard cloth in several grades (e.g., Grágás St 261), as well as the penalties for false measures.

    Coins typically took the form of silver pennies, minted in many locations throughout the Norse region. (The coin shown below was minted in York, England, around the year 940. The dies for this coin survived as well.) Although about the same diameter as a modern U.S. or British penny, Norse era coins were much thinner, weighing a bit more than one gram (0.04 ounces).

    As with other silver, a coin's value was determined by weight. Minting the silver by impressing the king's mark into the coin only served to guarantee its purity, not its weight. The actual purity varied from one king to the next. When this coin was minted, the silver was relatively pure. Later, in order to reduce the impact of the Danegeld payments on England's purse, the coinage was debased, and the silver content was considerably reduced. Relatively pure silver was called brannt silfr (burned silver), while debased silver was called bleikt silfr (pale silver). During the rule of the Norwegian king, Haraldr harđráđi, the silver content of his coins was reduced from roughly 90% (the norm in other lands) to about 33%. In chapter 30 of Morkinskinna, when Halldórr Snorrason received his pay from the king in debased coins, he contemptuously swept the coins into the straw on the floor. Later, he said, "Why should I serve him any longer when I don't even get my pay in genuine currency?" Eventually, King Haraldr paid him in pure silver.

    Because of the rise in water level since the Norse era, many of Hedeby's wooden structures are well preserved. Archaeological digs in Hedeby's six cemeteries, within the walled city, and in the harbor have greatly increased our knowledge of the Norse era. Dendrochronology (counting tree rings in the lumber) has permitted dating of many of the wooden structures to within an accuracy of one year.

    One puzzling: archaeological evidence suggests that Norse era towns had piers in the harbor. Yet archaeological evidence also shows that at least some Norse era ships had features making it unlikely that they ever would be tied up at a quay. Tholes, cleats, and shield rails all would be vulnerable to damage when alongside a jetty. It's been suggested that ships were moored to posts in shallow water and then unloaded by men wading through the water, or by carts driven into the water, similar to the cart shown (below) found in the Oseberg burial site. Alternatively, ships may have been pulled up onto the beach and unloaded.

    Hedeby was probably the largest town in the Norse lands. Yet, at its peak, Hedeby's population was probably fewer than 1000 people. Today, Hedeby is farmland within the borders of Germany.
    "Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her:
    powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.

    Without asking, or warning, she snatches us up into her circling dance, and whirls us on until we are tired, and drop from her arms." - Goethe

  9. #9
    Senior Member

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    This is an excellent thead -smil

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Louhi
    This is an excellent thead -smil
    Ja! Good job Eyđimörk.

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