THE VIKING WAY OF LIFE
ADAM OF BREMEN’S ACCOUNT
Something can be said of the conditions of life and social organization of the Vikings in their homeland, though contemporary sources are particularly scanty and, moreover, not always reliable. We referred earlier to the description of the Scandinavian peoples and countries given by Adam of Bremen at the end of the Viking period, about 1075, in which he describes the three countries in detail, in the order Denmark, Sweden, Norway.
Of the Danes he tells us that they amass much gold by piracy, that their Vikings pay tax to the Danish King for the privilege of pillaging the barbarians living around the Norwegian Sea (i.e. the Kattegat and the Skagerrak), but they they often abuse this privilege and turn treacherously upon their own countrymen. ‘A soon as one has caught his neighbour, he sells him ruthlessly as a slave, to either friend or stranger.’ Danish laws and customs, adds Adam, contain much which conflicts with justice and reason; he gives as examples:
If women have been unchaste they are sold off at once, but if men are found guilty of treason or any other crime, they prefer to be beheaded rather than flogged. No form of punishment other than the axe or slavery, is known to them. Even when a man is condemned it is honourable for him to remain cheerful as the Danes detest tears and lamentations and all other expressions of grief, which we consider wholesome, to such a degree that no one weeps for his sins or for the death of his loved ones.
The Swedes are characterized by Adam of Bremen in terms which bring to mind the rather stereotyped praises lavished upon the Germanic peoples in classical literature from Tacitus onwards; the similarity is clear when he deals with their noble frugality and generous hospitality, though this should not be taken as implying that the latter quality was not in fact present. This is how Adam expresses himself in his rather tortuous prose:
The Swedes lack nothing except the arrogance which we love or, rather, adore. The empty vanity of this world – gold, silver, splendid chargers, beavers or marten pelts, all things which we admire to the extent of madness – means nothing to them. It is only for women that they show no moderation; every man, each according to his means, has two, three, or more wives at a time; the wealthy and the noble have numerous wives. The sons of all these unions are accepted as legitimate. The death penalty, however, is invoked if one has intercourse with a neighbour’s wife, or rape a virgin, or plunders a neighbour’s property, or does him an injury. All Northern people are noted for their hospitality, but the Swedes exceed all. They consider it shameful to refuse travellers shelter and food, and there is keen competition among them for the privilege of entertaining a stranger. They show him every courtesy, and, for as long as he wants to stay, he is introduced into the homes of all the host’s friends. These good traits there are in their customs.
The Swedes are made up from several tribes, distinguished by their strength and their weapons; they fight as well on horseback as they do at sea, and have the warlike skill to keep other Northern people in check. They are ruled by kings of ancient lineage, but the monarch’s power is limited by the will of the people; what they decide in unity, the king must ratify, unless he proposes a course of action better than theirs, when they sometimes accept it, though reluctantly. Their is their mode of political equality in peacetime – in war they are completely obedient to the king or to a leader appointed by him because of his skill. If they find themselves in dire trouble in battle they call upon one of their may gods, and if victory is secured they give him precedence in their thanksgiving.
We have already referred to Adam of Bremen’s observations about the piratical practices of the Norwegians. And he further comments on these people:
They manage to live off their livestock, using the milk for food and their wool for clothing. Consequently their country breeds many brave warriors who attack more often than they are themselves attacked, for they have not been softened by rich harvests. They live peacefully with the Swedes, but are sometimes raided by the Danes (not without retaliation) who are as poor as they are. . . . They (the Norwegians) are a most frugal people, they greatly appreciate simplicity and moderation in food as well as habits. . . . Their good habits are marred only, as I have heard tell, by the greed of their priests. In many parts of both Norway and Sweden, herdsmen are highly esteemed, living as patriarchs and by the work of their own hands.
Thanks to the archaeologists, we now know that, by Adam of Bremen’s time, the three Nordic peoples had been living in their present countries for more than 10,000 years – a long period of time during which they were reinforced by only one immigration of population of any size, an Indo-European one from the south and south-east soon after 2,000 B.C. A good deal is known of the development of their material culture and industry during the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age. Although it is only during the Viking period that the three Nordic peoples first come under the spotlight of history, and so appear to the historian as new phenomena, they are archaeological knowledge to correct even a contemporary source as, for instance, master Adam himself, when he declares that agriculture was unknown in Norway. Archaeological evidence proves, in fact, that Norwegians had practiced agriculture for many centuries, although it is equally true that their main activities, especially in the north, were cattle-breeding, hunting, and fishing.
Of the fertility and suitability for cultivation of the Scandinavian countries, Adam gives a number of different assessments. Norway, he says, is quite impossible (sterilissima omnium regionum). The soil of Jutland is barren (ager sterilis); but the islands of southern Denmark are fertile (frugibus apulentas), and so are Skane, Fyn, and the adjacent islands (opulentia frugibus, frugibus plenae), Sweden is extremely fertile (fertilissima), but even more so, apparently, is Zealand, which is widely acclaimed for its productivity (opulentia frugum celberrima). In speaking of Jutland’s barren soil, Adam says:
Apart from the areas of land near rivers, practically all the region looks a desert, a salt land, and a vast waste. Germany as a whole is covered with terrifying dense forests, but Jutland is even worse. People shun its land because of the poor crops it yields, and its waters because of the hordes of pirates. Hardly anywhere is it cultivated or even habitable – except along the fjords where there are considerable towns.
These comments are distinguished by Adam’s usual rhetorical exaggerations yet there is, no doubt, much truth in his picture of Jutland – whose ‘vast waste’ is, of course, its great heaths. Adam is in general very conscious of the great stretches of wild countryside scattered over Scandinavia; and he notes that sea-routes are to be preferred, in so far as they are safe from pirates. The difficulties of travel in the wilder regions during Viking times is graphically described in the Austrfaravisur, a poem which Sighvat Thordarson, the Icelandic skald of St Olaf, wrote after returning from a journey on the king’s behalf to the Swedish chieftain, Rognvald, somewhere in the Malar district. his route lay through the forest of Ed, on the borders of southern Norway and central Sweden: ‘Hard it was for men to penetrate the Ed forest’, and the poem continues, ‘it was not for pleasure that I, in sombre mood, struggled the thirteen miles (This equals eighty-five English miles/136.7km) through the forest from Ed; god knows we suffered. Of the king’s men all had blistered feet – I had sores on both mine.’
Apart from the Danevirke in south Slesvig there were no fixed man-made boundaries between the Scandinavian countries, and the natural frontiers were formed by the sea and wilderness. Towards the close of the Viking period, however, during Adam of Bremen’s time, the Swedish king, Emund, and the Danish king, Swein, agreed to define the boundaries between their two countries. The line of demarcation ran from the northern end of the province of Halland (not far from the present Gothenburg), north of Skane, along the southern border of Smaland, to the Baltic near Karlskrona. At that time Halland, Skane, and Blekinge belonged to Denmark, and Oland to Sweden. The frontier was defined by a commission of six Swedes and six Danes, who set up six demarcation stones. Gotland was an independent country at this time, and the province of Bohuslan was Norwegian. The river Gota was Sweden’s narrow link with the Kattegat; throughout the Middle Ages the three Nordic countries met at the mouth of the River Gota river, and it was here – we learn from Icelandic literary sources contemporary with or a little later than the end of the Viking Age – that the Scandinavian kings met on ceremonial occasions, either on the Brann islands, off the estuary’s southern branch, or on the Dana island (Danaholm) in the river itself. A whole series of such meetings is recorded. In the Older Lawbook of Vastergotland – a medieval Swedish source – a conference of three kings on Danaholm is mentioned. This island was divided into three: ‘One section is owned by the Uppsala king, one by the Danish king, and the third belongs to the king of Norway. When the meeting took place, the Danish king held the Uppsala king’s bridle and Norwegian king held his stirrup.’ Apparently the Swedish king held highest rank, though we must not overlook that this is Swedish.
The Scandinavians of Viking period had, as we have seen, many thousands of years; experience behind them. Their principal peaceful activities were partly the ancient ones of hunting and fishing, and partly the more recent ones of agriculture, cattle breeding, and, finally, trading. All five of these occupations were often simultaneously pursued in southern Scandinavia.
The most important agricultural implement was the plough, of which the Vikings knew several varieties. There were two old types of aror, the crook-aror and the bow-aror, and also the more effective plough fitted with mould-board, front wheel, and ploughshare made either from wood reinforced with iron. some of the fields were flat and wide, others narrow and steep. We do not know directly which particular regions of Scandinavia were cultivated during Viking times; but from the evidence which we have of agriculture during the Iron Age (i.e. before Viking times) it is possible at least to point out the districts the Viking peasants preferred to till. In Sweden this was a broad strip, running from modern Gothenburg towards the north-east between the two great lakes to the Malar district and the Uppsala plain. Towards the Baltic the region east of Lake Vatter was well-suited for ploughing, as well as extensive area of Gotland. In Norway, which in later Viking times stretched as far as the River Gota, the most fertile regions seem to have been in Bohuslan and Vik, farther north in the valleys of the Ostland, south-west in Rogaland, and still further north, in the Trondelalg. In Denmark the plough was widely used in Skane and Halland, west and north Zealand, on Fyn and its surrounding islands, and in north Jutland – mainly the regions of Himmerland and Vendsyssel. These areas, roughly defined with the help of Iron Age archaeology and medieval history, differ quite widely (especially in regard to Norway and Jutland) from Adam of Bremen’s Latin account.
For the Nordic peoples as for many others, the practice of agriculture was closely connected with fertility beliefs and rites. The evidence of this is very old. For example, it is to be found in Bronze Age rock carvings in southern Sweden, dating from about 1000 B.C., in which the figures of the ploughman and his oxen are given a strong ‘phallic’ emphasis as they cut the first three farrows in the field, driving the ploughshare into the fertile womb of mother earth. Here is evidence from 2,000 years before the Viking period. In our own times, 1.000 years after the Vikings, there are old-fashioned Swedish peasants who participate in ancient ceremonies at the beginning of the spring ploughing, and practice rites devised long ago to bring fertility to their fields. At this time of the year, for instance, a Swedish farmer and his wife eat and drink in the company of their plough horses and the plough, out in the fields; for it is vitally important at this fateful period of seed-sowing that all concerned in the process should come together in comradeship, to make contact with last year’s bounty and stand together against evil forces. The lady of the house brings out into the field drink, cake, and pork carefully put by after the solstice feast at Christmas. The cake will very likely be fashioned in the shape of the sun-wheel. The ploughman and his beasts must all have a piece of it; the rest is crumbled into the seed trough, so that fragments of the cake, along with the new seed, will be ploughed into the freshly turned soil. The farmer brings three drinks: one for the ploughman, one to throw over the horses, and the third for the plough. Then the ploughing can begin. Thus, from long before the Viking Age to long after it, the association of agriculture and religious magic has persisted.
Other agricultural implements of the Vikings were the sickle for the corn harvest, the scythe of the haying, a sharp knife for cutting branches and leaves for cattle-fodder, the spade, and the hoe. All these tools have been found in Norwegian and Swedish graves. From settlement sites have come fragments of the corn itself, or impressions of it in clay. Investigations in Denmark suggest that, in comparison with Roman Age finds, rye was a more important crop during the Viking period, while the proportion of barley and oats remained more or less unchanged. The barley was of the usual Scandinavian type in olden days. In southern Scandinavia the breeding of cattle was no less important than agriculture, and in northern Scandinavia far more so. Adam of Bremen is indeed justified in saying that as we get into the far north agriculture ceases to exist.
The domestic animals of the Vikings were the horse, ox, sheep, goat, and pig, and also the dog and the cat. In the lower mountain regions of eastern Norway the peculiar method of cattle-raising still in use in modern times is the seter system. This entails driving cattle, sheep, and goats up into the higher pastures (seter) in the summer and letting them run wild until autumn. Was this the practice of Viking Age Norway? A comprehensive study of the Norwegian archaeological evidence has shown that from the beginning of the migration period (the fifth and sixth centuries) people began to take over the lower mountain regions of east Norway (the modern seter ranges as hunting grounds, and that the Merovingian times (the seventh and eighth centuries) farming and hunting areas were extended widely into the mountains. The oldest known burials in the seters date from this time. In Viking times this development continued and reached its peak. As far as Norway is concerned, therefore, the basic activities of the inhabited mountains regions were the breeding of cattle on the seters, hunting, and the production of Iron.
Finally, the fifth of the Viking methods of gaining a livelihood: commerce. The two principal commodities exported to southern Europe, furs and slaves, are frequently mentioned in literary sources. There is Ottar’s report to King Alfred on the fur trader there are many accounts of the slave trade. The life of Rimbert recounts how, on a visit to Hedeby, the saintly traveller gave away his horse to ransom a poor slave woman. Adam of Bremen makes frequent references to the slave trade; Arab accounts of the Rus make it plain that slaves were one of their most important (if not the most important) trading commodities. The late Laxdaela Saga (which, it is treu, mirrors conditions in the post-Viking period) makes direct references to the slave trade. Most of the slaves seem to have been women presumably members of the thrall class. The Rus acquired their stocks of this human commodity by raids on their Slav neighbours.
There was no single pattern of house in Viking Scandinavia. On the contrary, there are several types; some derived from old building traditions, some marking responses to climatic conditions and other circumstances such as the availability of building materials, and so on. Countries which are well-wooded naturally encourage the building of timber houses, the actual type varying according to the type of forest (deciduous or coniferous), while treeless regions enforce use of stone, clay, and turf. Where forests exist on a moderate scale the tendency is towards varied types of houses, and here external influences – through trade contacts, etc, – play an important part.
Remains of Viking houses exist in Sweden, though they are few and widely scattered. The site of a house some 58 feet/17.6m long and about 22-25 feet/6.7-7.6m wide has been excavated at Levide on Gotland. The roof was carried on free-standing inner posts, and the walls were made of logs with wattle-and-daub-in -filling. Viking houses of this kind have been found on the Aland islands also. Related to it is a site at the ‘Triangle’ in Sigtuna of a small square house with walls of close-set wands (set into a wooden-sill) through which wattlewood was woven horizontally to hold a rendering of clay daub. At Glia near Stockholm the remains of a small out-house without a fireplace has been excavated, but unfortunately it is not possible to say to which type the house belonged – its walls could have been wither of wattle-and-daub with or without a sill, or of some more robust form of timberwork. Another discovery – probably from the Viking period – this time near Onbacken in Halsingland shows a large rectangular house made from close-set tree trunks faced externally with turf; but here again there is uncertainty as to the type represented. In Lake Tingstade on Gotland there stands a peculiar wooden fort, possibly from the Viking era, named the ‘Bulwark’, with primitive timber structures partly recalled framed log-houses and partly those with corners formed by overlapping of the horizontal wall-timbers. Viking-Age corner-timbering has also been found at Sigtuna. these ad other discoveries have established the wide range of Swedish Viking buildings. As one would expect in the wattle-and-daub house, several methods of building in wood: walls of horizontal logs jointed at the overlapping corners; framed log-houses in which horizontal planking is emplaced between upright structural timbers; and finally ‘stave-houses’ with walls formed of vertically-set staves or planks. In the pre-Viking period the Swedes knew the Early Iron Age ‘long-houses’ of the Danes and Norwegians – a building, with tow rows of free-standing load-bearing posts and with thick earth walls which sheltered both human beings and animals. They existed on Oland and Gotland in the migration period. But during the Viking period the typical Swedish farm probably comprised several small buildings. this illustrates man’s dependence on the building materials at hand, for such small units lend themselves well to construction mainly in timber whereas stone, clay, turf, and posts are adaptable to the building of such forms as the long-house and the great hall. Variations of both types of houses were known in Sweden during Viking times. In towns, such as Sigtuna, closely-packed small timber houses were used.
Although archaeological discoveries tell us even less about Danish building construction than about Swedish, certain suppositions can reasonably be accepted. For instance, if the traditional Jutlandic long-house, mentioned above, of the Iron Age was common in Norway and its western colonies, it is unlikely to have gone out of use in Denmark. Remains of such houses must be found sooner or later. There are remains of wholly timber-built houses in Denmark too: the large buildings inside the military camp at Trelleborg. The houses at Fyrkat and Aggersborg, on the other hand, show wattle-and-daub on the long sides and horizontal planking on the gable ends. The very substantial houses in these fortresses were of course designed for garrison life, but there is also some evidence about ordinary dwellings. Under Aggersborg was found a village in which the houses resembled those in the camps – with long curved sides – but on a much smaller scale; and these houses also had small dug out out-buildings. On Lindholm hoje near Aalborg, rectangular long-houses and stables have been found. An example of rather crude and palisade-like construction is given by the grave chamber of the northern mound at Jelling, and remains of a stave building have been established under St Maria Minor in Lund, Skane. Finally, in Hedeby, excavations have disclosed several types of small town-houses: wattle-and-daub houses; stave buildings with vertical planks of triangular section, the broader edge of each upright being rabbeted to house the adjacent narrow edge of the next; and houses whose walls were double, that is to say, made of two layers of planking made fast to each side of the structural upright posts.
Apparently the Danish peasant’s dwelling developed, during the late Viking period, from a single long-house, shared by man and cattle, into several buildings – either two parallel ones or two or three forming an angle. In this way a barn and other storehouses were added to the long-houses as independent smaller units. Thus the farm gradually became a couple of buildings, so that even the square, four-element plan was known by the later Viking Age – as has been shown by the excavations at Lindholm Hoje in north Jutland.
In Norway, the Danish ‘long-house’, built east-west on the lines already described, appeared in the south-west (Rogaland and Lista) in the migration period. Viking Age sites have been found at Langset and Nygard in Gudbrandsdal. We find here large rectangular buildings, some 55 feet/16.7m by 23 feet/7m, and some 80 feet/24,3m by 55 feet/17.7m, in which a stone sill was the basis for wooden walls packed with clay, and the roof was supported on free-standing inner posts. They were presumably the farm-houses of chieftains. A similar farm lay-out has been identified at Ovre Dal, but this cannot be definitely dated to the Viking period. all these houses in the well-forested country of eastern Norway were presumably either of stave-construction or of horizontal logs jointed and over-lapped at he corners. Incidentally, corner-timbering, although in a primitive form, is also illustrated in the burial chamber in the Gokstad ship (about 900).
Viking houses outside Scandinavia are much rarer in the east than the west. Some small corner-timbered buildings were found in Russia during the excavations at Old Ladoga (Aldeigjuborg); a farm-house at Novgorod hassigns of a related technique, as have some burial chambers in the Ukraine. In the west, Viking houses are known not from England, Normandy, or even Ireland, but from some on the Scottish islands, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. In these areas the climate is wet and windy and there are no forests. The builders therefore had to use materials other than wood. Of these, the first was stone. In the Orkneys and Shetlands they used natural flat stones or flags, admirably suited for dry-stone walls. In the Hebrides the choice was field-stones or blocks of lava, in Greenland, natural flags. Another material used in these regions was turf. The wide grazing lands of the Atlantic islands produce good building turf, some of it solid, durable, and well padded with earth, and some thin and tough, rather like a carpet. Timber appears to some extent, for, although the islands were treeless, the sea yielded a supply of drift-wood heavy enough for building. It is seldom possible to find sites datable to the Viking Age on the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faroes; one must usually draw inferences from the building practices of later times. The usual belief is that the Viking long-houses was brought from western Scandinavia to these islands, where it continued for centuries. The stone-built long-house of Jarlshof, Shetland, was continually added to throughout the Viking period.
We are better informed about Iceland, where large sites have been located and dated to the later Viking period. Examples are the ruins at Hofstadir, near Myvatn, in the north of the island (once believed to be those of a pagan temple), and the site at Skallakot in Thjorsardalur, not far from Hekla in the south. Hofstadir was an immense long-house, 117 feet/35.6m long, built north-south with thick and slightly curved turf walls, an a fireplace in the centre. At its northern end was a small separate room, divided from the hall, with a door to the open air. The hall itself had a door at the northern end of the eastward wall. At Skallakot, too, there was a large long-house, 84 feet/25.6m long, with walls built entirely of turf to a width of more than 7 feet/2.1m, and again so curved that the house was almost oval in shape. Here too there was a hearth for the langeldar in the middle of the door. The excavator, Aage Roussel, points out that cattle had not been kept in this long-house, so presumably here the Vikings had out-houses or cattle folds. He further says: ‘One long central room, the skali (hall), served as living-room, dining-room, and bedroom; the cooking was done at one end of it, perhaps behind a wooden partition.’ In this long room were found two rows of stone-set holes in which had been sunk the posts which carried the roof. The langpallar (side-aisles) had floors set at a higher level than that of the central part and were divided by short rows of stones into sleeping compartments. The skali could accommodate a large number of people for feasts, but it was low and dark and full of smoke. This one-room dwelling does not correspond with the descriptions given in the sagas (which clearly apply only to the Middle Ages), but it fits very well the conditions of the old-fashioned recent houses of the Orkneys, Hebrides, and the Shetlands. The truth must be, Roussell concludes (and rightly, I think), that in Iceland the notion soon developed of extending the plan of the long-house by adding rooms to the skali – lobby, eldhus (kitchen), sculllery, and bathroom, thus creating a new pattern altogether: the medieval long-house with annexes. It was not until later, in the fourteenth century, that the so-called’passage-house’ with rooms built on either side of a corridor, came into existence.
Poul Norlund’s excavations in Greenland have unearthed house sites of the late Viking period and Middle Ages; the farm of Eric the Red himself has been excavated – at brattahlid in the ‘Eastern Settlement’, and this shows that the earliest house-plan in Greenland was the long-house with a single room – the skali; later, various additions were built within the space available. Apart from Brattahlid there is the great hall at Hvalsey, also in the Eastern Settlement, Eric the Red’s skali was some 50 feet/15.2m long and 16 feet/4.8m wide, with solid turf walls over 10 feet/3m thick; a stone conduit carried water through from the back wall and out through the front. The Hvalsey skali was 46 feet/14m by 13 feet/3.9m. In Greenland, as in Iceland, various small outbuildings gradually came to be added, and finally, in the Middle Ages, this pattern was superseded by the ‘passage-house’ which afforded so much better protection against the cold. The ‘passage-house’ may well have originated in Greenland, but not until the Viking period had come to its close. From this house the latest type, the large ‘central house’ with all its rooms concentrated into one big block, developed in Greenland in the course of the Middle Ages. It is odd that most of out knowledge about Norse houses in late Viking times and the Middle Ages should be derived from distant Greenland.
One question which may well occur to anyone who tries to visualize the Viking at home is: did his house have any windows? We do not know for certain; neither archaeology nor literature provide any certain clues. It is generally assumed that windows did not appear in Scandinavia until the Middle Ages, and that until glass was invented pigs’ bladders and foetus membranes served as ‘panes’. The north-west Scanidinavian long-house with its thick walls built of stone, earth, and turf had no windows of any kind and even today there are completely windowless houses of the same sort in the Hebrides. Windows no doubt began in wooden houses, and to start with were probably narrow peep-holes protected by inside shutters. It is possible that the Vikings had something of this kind in their wooden houses, but of this we have no evidence.
Let us look next at the social organization of the Vikings; the division of their society into classes, the importance of the family, the status of women, the powers of the king, the code of law. We may set out from the famous Old Icelandic poem (influenced perhaps by Celtic ideas) called Rigspula (the Song of Rig). It recounts the origins of the social classes in a story with the threefold repetitions of the folk tale, the incidents divided by lists of names. According to the prose introduction to the poem, Rig is identical with the god Heimdal. He is wandering far and wide. First he comes to a cottage with a door ajar and a fire on the floor, where live a worn and ragged couple, Ai (great-grandfather) and Edda (great-grandmother), who give what food they can: ‘un-clean bread, lumpy and thick and full of husks’, but with a bowl of soup and boiled veal. He gives them advice and gets into bed with them, stays for three days and nights, and nine months later Edda bears a son, Thrael (thrall), of whom it is said ‘the skin on his hands was wrinkled, his knuckles were swollen, his nails short, his face ugly, his fingers coarse, his back bent, and his heels’, but he was a hard worker. Next there comes to the farm a girl called Thir (drudge): ‘her legs were crooked, her feet dirty, her arms sunburnt, her nose pendulous’. These two produced children, a whole flock of them, girls and boys, a family of slaves, all of whose names are given. They do the hardest chores, tend the pigs and goats, manure the fields, lay fences, dig peat.
Again Rig is wandering. He comes to a hall with its door closed, he enters; there is a fire on the floor where sits Afi (grandfather) and Amma (grandmother), both at work. He, with hair covering his forehead and a well-cared-for beard, in a tight jacket, is skilfully making a loom; she, with a smock on her shoulders, a kerchief about her neck, and a linen cloth on her hair, is turning the distaff and spinning the thread. Rig gives them advice and gets into bed with them and departs after three days. In nine months’ time Amma produces a child, a son called Karl (peasant), red and fresh and bright-eyed. He loves his work: breaking-in oxen, making ploughs and timber houses, raising barns, building carts, and following the plough. Along comes a bride for him ‘with the keys of the house, wearing a goat-skin jacket’. They have many children whose names are listed in the song, and these become the peasant stock.
And again Rig is wandering. He comes to the hall facing south; its door, decorated with rings, is open. He enters:
There sat a couple on the floor strewn with rushes, looking at each other, their fingers busy – Fadr (father) and Modir (mother). And the big farmer twisted a bowstring, bent an elmbow, made arrows; while the mistress looked at her arms, smoothed her clothes, tightened her sleeves. On her breast was a brooch, her shift was blue, her cap straight, her train long. Her breast was fair, her brow fairer, and her neck whiter than new-fallen snow.
Rig gives them advice.
Modir took a patterned cloth of bright linen and covered the table; then she took fine white wheaten bread and covered the cloth. She carried in full bowls embellished with silver, put on the table pork and game-birds. There was wine in the jug; the silver mug was heavy. They drank and talked, the day was waning.
Rig gets into bed with them, stays three days and nights, and in nine months’ time Modir produces a son Jarl (earl) and wraps him in silks. ‘Blond was his hair, his cheeks bright, his eyes piercing as a young serpent’s.’ Jarl grows up: makes bows, rides horses, hunts with the hounds, is a fine swordsman and swimmer. Rig meets him, teaches him runes, gives him his own name and bids him take possession of his ancient estates. Immediately Jarl goes to war; he spurs his horse, strikes with his sword, raises warfare, stains the land with blood, slays, his enemies. He then owns eighteen farms, and gives rich gifts of gold and horses to his friends. He marries Erna, the daughter of Hersi; beautiful, fair, and wise, her hands are slender. They have children (whose names are duly given), the sons as doughty as their father, especially the youngest, Kon (‘king’). He learns to read runes of fortune and life, and discusses the runic mysteries with his father. Soon he can blunt his enemies’ weapons, calm the waves, save men, quell flames, dispel grief. He has the strength and capacity of eight men. He knows the language of the birds, and one day in the forest as he stands over a bird he had shot, a crow perched in a tree urges him to attempt greater deeds of daring and valour. . . and at this the song of Rig breaks off. The rest is lost.
This colourful poem distinguishes the three social groups of the Viking period – the thrall, the peasant, the earl. The names given in the song are entertaining: the serf boys for instance, are: Cattle-man, Foolish, Clumsy, Grumpy, Howler, Ugly, Clot, Fat, Sluggard, Grey, Lout, Longshanks. The serf girls are Clot, Clumsy, Fat-legs, Talkative, Cinder-nose, Quarreller, Torn-skirt, Crane-legs. The peasant’s sons have more dignified names: Freeman, Warrior, Brave, Broad, Smith, Settler; and the girls: Quick, Bride, Wife, Woman, Weaver, Ornament, Modest, And of Earl’s sons we are told that Bur (‘son’) was the eldest, and that the others were Child, Young, Noble, Heir, Lineage, Offspring, Son, Lad, Kin, and Kon, the youngest; they all practiced sports. And the Song finishes, forgetting to give the names of the Earl’s daughters.
In this vivid language the three classes of the Viking community are described. In the highest class, the king, chosen by the chiefs, is primus inter pares, the first among his equals. We know this situation from Tacitus’s description of the Germanic peoples about A.D. 100. There we learn that the power of the king was limited by the assembly of the people, that is to say, of the free men. It was difficult, virtually impossible, for the king to take a decision in opposition to the assembly of chieftains, who were his equals in all but name. In early Viking times, when the North was divided into many loosely associated clans, a chief became king simply by the nomination of a group of others chiefs. In later Viking times, when the monarchy had become a more powerful instrument, inheritance rather than nomination became the rule. Significant of the way of thought of the early Viking period is the answer given by Danish Vikings in the late tenth century to a messenger from the Franks. The messenger, standing on the bank of the River Eure in France, hailed the Viking ships and demanded, ‘What is the name of your master?’ ‘None,’ was the reply, ‘we are all equals.’
After the king, but close to him in rank, were the jarlar (earls), owners sufficiently wealthy in land and goods to have a company of housecarls, to own ships and to assert their importance. Of their aristocratic way of life we have heard in the Rigspula. For them, the family and the hereditary estates, which passed to the eldest son, were the centre of this existence, as the significant names of Earl’s sons in Rigspula show.
The solid backbone of the Viking people was the peasant class – smallholders but free men. In Rigspula the first of the peasant’s sons is called ‘Freemen’, the next ‘Warrior’, and only farther down the list come such names as ‘Smith’ or ‘Settler’. In the two superior social classes, earls and peasants, women enjoyed high esteem and full freedom, as Norse literature abundantly testifies.
Lastly the thralls, the bondmen, necessary to the community but little heeded by it. Of the thrall’s condition of life, degree of dependence, rights, or rather lack of them, we know little, but it is clear that he was little more than a slave. Killing a thrall was not a major crime.
Our knowledge of the legal systems of Viking society is scanty: for the contemporary primary sources are almost entirely missing. Something may be inferred from the legal texts and literature of the early (post-Viking) Middle Ages, but such inferences must be regarded with caution. We have extensive knowledge only of the position in Iceland. What can be positively asserted about all the Nordic countries, however, is that Viking law was based upon the proceedings of the institution called the Thing – the assembly of freemen.
In Viking times Denmark was divided into a couple of hundred districts (Old Norse herud( each with its own Thing. The Thing was a gathering of free men of age and quality to bear arms who met to put the law into effect, pronounce judgements, and discuss matters of interest within the community. The law was a customary one, handed down orally from one generation to the next; and it was therefore the responsibility of the older members of the Thing to remember and uphold it, their memory supported by the alliterative formulae in which it was couched. The punishments for murder or acts of violence were based on a scale of compensatory payments (mannbaetr); the full penalty was exacted for killing a man or for chopping off his nose; half for poking out an eye; a quarter for an ear; etc. Judgement was delivered by the members of the Thing, but the enforcement of the penalty was sometimes a difficult matter. In a feud between a strong family and a weaker one, for example, the injured member of the weaker side, although adjudged the victim of aggression, must himself secure payment of compensation and this he might find difficult to do. This was an essential weakness in the legal system.
The first element of the word herad is perhaps Old Norse herr (‘army’), and the word may originate in a military obligation to furnish a quota of warriors or ships in wartime. In the later Viking period the major decisions of the country – choice of king, declaration of war, or fundamental problems of justice – were reached at the great regional assemblies called the Landping, held at Viborg in Jutland, Ringsted in Zealand, and Lund in Skane.
Complicated disputes were often decided by duels (holmganga) fought under elaborate traditional rules, or by jarnburor (ordeal by fire): an admission that the case was to be decided by the law of superior force or by the judgement of the gods. Stealing was a dangerous crime to indulge in, for the penalty was hanging – not from any moral point of view but rather because of the assumption that the culprit, evidently being (by the nature of his offence) a poor man, could pay the penalty only with his life. The most dreaded punishment was banishment ,and those who refused to accept the decision of the local Thing and whose case therefore came before the higher court of the Landping risked this dire fate. It was impossible to exist for long as an outlaw from the community, isolate of legal rights, rejected by one’s fellows; there were only two ways out, fleeing the country, and death.
The man who respected ans obeyed the unwritten Viking traditions, and the laws laid down from time immemorial, had nothing to fear. If he enjoyed ‘good luck’ he could expect to enjoy a prosperous and varied life. In the summer an earl or chieftain could organize and lead a Viking raid, or join with others in a similar and profitable enterprise, returning in the winter laden with loot. Or he might become a trader on hos own account. When he was home he had his estate to look after, might serve as a judge at the Thing, and, as a priest, make himself responsible for seeing that the forms of public worship were properly observed.
Conditions similar to those in Denmark prevailed also in Sweden: a closely integrated community based on hereditary possession of land, governed by traditional laws and observances as laid down at the Things; joint responsibility for the provision of men and ships in war-time; and a monarchical power subject always to the consent of the people. Of the latter principle Angar’s biography tells us, indeed, that major issues were decided, in council at Birka, by the will of the people rather than by royal decree. We shall deal later with two fundamental concepts of Viking behaviour: luck snd honour.
It is from Sweden that we have some interesting information about duels as a method of resolving disputes of honour between individuals or families. The oldest extant fragment of Swedish law reveals the pride and touchiness of the Vikings, and the brutality of their beliefs in the sight of the strongest. This fragment declares that if anyone abuses his neighbour saying ‘You are not a man’s equal nor have you a man’s heart’, or ‘I’m as good a man as you’, then the disputants must be summoned together at a place where three roads meet. If the man who has suffered the insult turns up, but the other man does not, then the latter must be considered to deserve the epithets applied to him; his honour is tarnished, he is no longer allowed to take an oath or to bear witness. If, however, the aggrieved man turns up but not his accuser, then the former cries out three times, ‘Coward!’ and makes a mark on the ground. The accuser loses face for not substantiating his claims. If the two men meet and fight it out and the aggressor meets his doom, all is well: crime in words possible offence, and a loose tongue brought about his death. It is apparent that the duel was misused, as it was to be much later in France and Germany.
In Norway, again, the same pattern of social life existed: local Things for each bygd or district, and regional ones of higher status for copying with major problems under the guidance of chiefs and experienced old men; here, as in Denmark, the individual, with the support of his family, tried to get compensation for injury (mannbaetr). In Norway, too, primary sources of information on legal organization in the Viking Age are missing, and we have to rely on inferences drawn from later medieval law-codes, those of the Frostuping and the Gulaping which, according to the sagas, were drawn up by Hakon the Good for Trondelag and Vestland respectively. From these we may conclude that in Norway, as in Denmark, it was the duty of each district to raise a leidangr, a levy of men and ships for the common defence in national emergency. As in Denmark and Sweden the power of the monarch was limited by the sovereign will of the people as expressed at the Things. It would be wrong, however, to underestimate the royal status among the Vikings. The King’s corps of housecarls, the hird, which had originally been little more than a private bodyguard, became in the course of time a powerful armed force capable of serving as the elite nucleus of a greater army.
Iceland had no king. Its legal organization was naturally based on west Norwegian practice, on the rules and principles reflected in the later Gulaping law. A constitution based on Things was accepted over the entire island from 930. Every summer the common Thing, the Althing, was held, the law-speaker announcing the law, but the real power exercised by the priest-chieftains, the gobar. Subsequently the island was divided into quarters (fjoroungar), three with three local Things, the other with four. As the gobar were both priests and temporal chiefs it would be proper to describe the Icelandic free state as an oligarchy, a kingless union of chieftains.
Although anthropology has provided us with some indications as to the human type the Viking belonged to, the skeletons from settlement sites and graves which have been examined and measured do not provide satisfactory data, partly because the remains are so scanty, and partly because they are difficult to date accurately. In this respect Denmark is better off than Norway or Sweden, though only about fifty of the Danish skeletons subjected to anthropological tests come from graves certainly dated in the Viking period. In Norway, about sixty remains have been tested, but scarcely mare than half these can be quite safely dated as Viking. In Sweden the material is both scarce and widely scattered. Some of the skeletons measured from the churchyard on Skeljastaoid in Iceland are without a doubt from the Middle Ages.
The Danish skeletons, for the most part, have long (dolichocephalic) crania of the kind usually called Nordic: a slender, gracefully shaped cranium, the face low and slightly slanting, low eye sockets. The height of the men seems to have been around 5ft 8ins/1.7m.). An examination of material from Trelleborg disclosed much wear on the crown of the teeth, but very small incidence of caries (less than 1 per cent). The Swedish material is too insignificant to permit any general conclusions, but it appears that the Swedish Vikings were taller than the west Norse ones – a difference which can still be seen in Scandinavians today, and which confirms Arabic statements abit the exceptional height of the Rus. Of the Norwegian male skulls, more than three-quarters were long, about one-sixth medium, and very few (about one-fourteenth) were short ones. Of the female, about a half were long, one-third medium, and one-tenth short. On these figures it seems that Norwegian Viking women showed less tendency to long (dolichocephalic) skulls and a greater tendency to shorter (mesocephalic) skulls than their men. Bold scholars might try and explain this difference by the supposition that the Norwegians obtained many of their women from raids upon the Celtic countries such as Ireland; but in my opinion the Norwegian material (the dating of which, in any case, is dubious) is far too scanty to afford statistically significance results.
All one can say for certain of these fifty-five male and thirty-five female Norwegian crania is that they belonged to the Nordic type. The Icelandic material reveals a shorter cranium than the Dutch and Norwegian, which the Icelandic scholar Jon Steffensen attributes to the influence of the Irish (The part played by Celts in the first colonization of Iceland seems to be estimated more highly by Icelandic than by Norwegian historians). According to the Landnamabok, 84 per cent of the Icelandic colonizers came from Norway, 3 per cent from Sweden, and about 12 per cent from the British Isles. From these proportions one would expect a greater conformity between the Norwegian and Icelendic cranium material than there is, and Steffensen therefore is disposed to believe that the Irish element among Iceland’s earliest inhabitants was much larger than the figures given by the Landnamobok. The Icelandic material, however, cannot wholly be assigned to the Viking period, and it is surely too small to allow any substantial use. On the basis of the available evidence, the average height of the Icelanders appears to have been 5 ft 8 inches/ 1.7m. One curious deduction from the examination of the female shin-bones was that the Icelandic women must have sat a great deal in squatting position. There are signs of tuberculosis, but the teeth again are sound and healthy, although the crowns are worn down – probably, according to Steffensen, by the grit in their dried fish and dried meat.
What did the vikings look like? What would we not give for a contemporary portrait of Olaf Tryggvason or Harald Bluetooth or Eric the Victorious? All we have are occasional wood and bone carvings of heads, represented in such a way as to suggest that they are portraits. There are three heads in the round on the Norwegian Oseberg cart and a little bone man’s head from Sigtuna in Sweden. Of course, many other Viking carvings of human heads exist, but these are either magic masks to ward off evil spirits, or are used as themes in pieces of decoration, and can therefore scarcely be regarded as attempts at portraiture. Two of the Oseberg heads (the bearded ones) seem to me conscious expressions of an artistic purpose. They impress me as being more than naturalistic representations, and although the artist used models for his work – old chieftains in a benign mood – he seems to have wished to give something more than a mere likeness. I do not hesitate to use the word ‘expressionism’ to describe these two carvings. The third head on the Oseberg carriage is of a greedy, savage, and ruthless man. The fourth head – that form Sigtuna – is equally realistic; but whereas the Oseberg Viking looks a rough plebeian, the Sigtuna portrait is that of a man of high birth, an earl, with a fine shaped head, a short beard on his strong jutting chin, his hair well groomed, and his profile continued in his conical helmet. Thus might Styrbjorn or Thorkell the Tall have looked. These four heads seem to reveal the presence of notable artistic talent among the Vikings; we can only regret that no more samples have survived.
BEHAVIOUR AND THE HAVAMAL
Of Viking manners, behaviour, habits of thought, and experiences we know very little from contemporary sources, but some of the later literature, such as the Eddic poems and the sagas, throws an oblique light upon their mentality. It is always a problem, of course, to determine how far this sort of testimony can safely be applied to a period tow or three hundred years before the literature was actually written down; but where the sagas and poems are permeated with pagan beliefs and attitudes they are surely admissible in this sense. It is a commonly accepted view that the celebrated poem Havamal, ‘The sayings of the High One’ (that is, Odin), embodies the wisdom and experience of the later Vikings of Norway and Iceland. The Havamal contains aphorisms, advice, and admonitions – sometimes cynical, sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes ironical or sarcastic, sometimes earnest and sincere – which, combined, reveal a daily life which we may believe reflects the reality of the Viking Age. Here are some samples of it:
Let the man who opens a door be on the lookout for an enemy behind it.
when a guest arrives chilled to the very knees from his journey through the mountains, he needs fire, food, and dry clothes.
A man must be reticent, thoughtful, and bold in battle; cheerful and active until death.
A coward thinks he will live for ever if he avoids his enemies, but old age no man escapes even if he survives the spears.
A visitor must leave in time, not outstay his welcome; even a friend becomes odious if he abides too long in the house of his host.
A man should never move an inch from his weapons when out in the fields, for he never knows when he will need his spear.
To one’s friend one must be a friend and to his friend; but to one’s enemy’s friend no man should be a friend.
Young I was long ago; I wandered alone and lost my way, but I found wealth in a companion. In man is man’s delight.
A man must be moderately wise, never too wise. The man whose mind is most free of care does not know his fate in advance.A man who wishes to take another’s life and goods must get up early. A wolf that lies in its lair never gets meat, nor a sleeping man victory.
Beer is not so good for men and yet as it is said to be; the more a man drinks the less control he has of his thoughts.
If you do not trust a man and yet want him to do you good, speak him fair; but think him false and give him treachery in return for his lies.
A lame man can ride a horse; a man without hands can be a shepherd; a deaf man can kill; it is better to be blind than to be burned on the funeral pyre. A dead man is of no use to anyone.
Cattle die, kinsman die, I myself shall die, but there is one thing which I know never dies: the reputation we leave behind at our death.
In other words take life as it comes; learn from your experiences; it is better to be alive than dead; do not be naive; look out for treachery; cherish a friendship and do not practice deceit;
do not bore or irritate a friend by trading upon his hospitality; outwit your enemy. if you can, with false words.
The word seems to have meant much to the Vikings; they were influenced by its potency and feared its permanence. The last quotation above from the Havamal is really a reminder that a man should do his best to deserve a good obituary notice. Some modern people attach too much importance to this last sentence and give it an ethical importance, whereas it is quite simply a reminder that the spoken word can be either a tribute to a man’s memory or a condemnation of it. The Vikings were susceptible to satirical verses (niovisur), and there was a carefully worked out system whereby the insults of such verses could be wiped out or rendered ineffective by duels.
The foregoing quotations from the Havamal are all taken from the first and most unified part of the poem. The later part is more a collection of fragments, some of them mirroring personal experience. The misogynist speaks;
No one should trust the words of a girl or a married woman, for their hearts have been shaped on a turning wheel and they are inconstant by nature.
There are abundant injunctions against excess, in drink or in love, and pleas for the cultivation of friendship, reason, and moderation.
Be cautious but not over-cautious; be most cautious with beer and with another man’s wife. Beware too, that thieves do not fool you.
No man is so good as to be free from all evil; not so bad as to be worth nothing.
Never confide your troubles to a bad man; he will never repay with good your open-heartedness.
Never quarrel with a fool. A wise man will often refrain from fighting, whereas a fool will fight without cause or reason.
Do not break an alliance with a friend; your heart will grieve if you lose the friend in whom you can confide.
The Havamal even goes into homely detain, such as advising men to get up in the night to relieve nature, or to make a good meal in the morning if they are setting out on a long journey across mountains and fjords. However, to connect Odin with the matter-of-fact advice given in the Havamal can only be regarded as a stroke of genius on the part of a later editor. Odin was the least matter-of-fact of gods.
The sagas say a good deal about food and drink; but their evidence belongs to the time of the saga-writers, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, rather than the Viking period. It is fair to surmise that the Viking’s daily diet included wholemeal bread made of rye; oat and barley porridge; fish (especially herrings); the meat of sheep, lamb, goat, horse, ox, calf, and pig; cheese, butter, and cream; and, for drink, beer, mead, and (among the wealthy) wine. Whale meat, seal meat, and the meat of the polar bear were important foods particularly in Norway and Iceland. Boiled meat seems to have been preferred to roasted: the Rigspula recounts that even in the wretched hut of a serf, Heimdal was offered boiled veal; and in Valhalla the boiled flesh of the hog Saehrimni was served to the chosen warriors. Broths made from the various meats must have been families dish; and the Vikings were also practiced in methods of drying meat and fish. Game-birds, too, were an extra item in the Viking diet. The most common vegetable were cabbage and onions; and apples, berries, and hazel-nuts were abundant. Honey was much in use, largely as the basis for the manufacture of sweet fermented mead. The preservation of food was an important consideration for the Vikings, and for this purpose they learned to make use of ice, salt (from the sea or from burnt seaweed), and whey. In those countries remote from the sea but well forested, much of the Vikings, sustenance came from hunting elk, deer, wild boar, and bear. Hares, geese, and chickens were other popular items on the menu, and, in the far north, reindeer and bison. In spite of all these natural resources, however, many areas of Scandinavia suffered such shortages of food, and when crops failed, such conditions of famine, that it was necessary for the people to make up the daily meal with seaweed, bark, and lichen.
Viking houses were furnished with tables and chairs, table-cloths and plates; and for eating utensils there were spoons and knives – but not forks. It seems to have been the Viking custom to eat twice a day, one meal called dagveror in the morning, and one called nattveror in the evening. King Harald Hardrada’s habit of eating only once a day attracted attention because it was so unusual. Of this somewhat tyrannical monarch it is related, in the Flateyjarbok, that he was served first, as was only right and proper, but by the time the rest of the company had been served he had just about eaten his fill and thereupon rapped sharply upon the table with his knife, as the signal for the food to be cleared away. ‘There were many,’ is the rueful comment, ‘who were by no means satisfied.’
It has been much debated whether or not the Vikings were a clean people. The sagas give the Icelanders and Norwegians a clean bill in this respect. One of the earliest sentences in the Havamal relates of a guest being met at the table by his host ‘with water, a towel, and a hearty welcome’. Later on it says: ‘Freshly washed and well-filled with food should every men set off to the Thing, even if he is not too well dressed.’ One of the days of the week, Saturday (Old Norse laugardagr), was named as the day for washing (laug ‘bath’); the Icelandic scholar Skuli Guojonsson notes as reference in the Landnamabok to Thorolf Mostrarskegg, who believed that a certain mountain was holy, so that ‘no one should turn an unwashed face towards it’. A very different account is given of the Swedish Rus, who are described by the Arab, Ibn Fadlan, as extremely dirty. On a visit to the Volga region about 920, he found them (he declares), the most unclean of god’s creatures. They did not clean themselves after discharging their natural functions, nor did they wash after a meal. ‘They are as stray donkeys,’ he adds. Other Arab sources, however, are less critical. The Danes in England appear to have been more careful of their toilet, according to a literary source which says that they combed their hair, had a bath on Saturdays, and changed their linen frequently ‘in order the more easily to overcome the chastity of women and procure the daughters of noble-men as their mistresses’. All this evidence, such as it is, makes a poor basis for generalization about the Vikings of Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark. The probable truth is that cleanliness was not an uncommon habit among the Vikings, but that they practiced it in moderation, and for special purposes. Whether that had real soap is not known; but for washing their coarser clothes probably (as people continued to do quite late in Iceland) stored up cow urine, which contains the valuable cleansing element ammonia.
The science of medicine must have been at a very crude stage, yet there is every reason to believe that these warlike people had developed some skill in the treatment of severe injuries. Skuli Guojonsson, the Icelandic scholar already mentioned, has called attention to Snorri’s famous tale of the death of Thormod Kolbrunarskald after the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, a tale which reveals some medical knowledge. (Thormod, it will be remembered, mortally wounded, pulls the arrow out of his chest and, observing the bits of flesh sticking to the barb, says: ‘I still have fat round the roots of my heart!’) Snorri’s tale gives a description of the ways in which the wounded were treated in a barn after this battle. The women heated water (to sterilize it?) and dressed the wounds; then they prepared a porridge made of onions and other herbs, which the wounded man was induced to eat. If a smell of onions subsequently came from the wound in a man’s belly it proved that his intestines had been pierced, which would inevitably mean death from peritonitis; in other words, a test meal was used to make a diagnosis, which is exactly what we do nowadays. This fact explains Thormod’s cryptic remark when he is offered this porridge ‘Take it away. I am not suffering from the porridge illness’: i.e. his wound is not in his belly but in his heart.
Board games were very popular among the Vikings (the story of the game of chess between Cnut the Great and Earl Ulf is well known). As early as c. A.D. 100 Tacitus had remarked upon the Germanic people’s passion for gambling. Chess reached Europe, via the Arabs, from India, and became widely popular in the north duringb the late Viking times. Other board games were also favoured, such as draughts and fox-and-geese, and the Old Norse name for a gaming board, taflbord, was borrowed into Welsh. There have been archaeological finds of both boards and pieces. In the Gokstad ship (c. 900) a board was found marked out for a different game on each side; and during the American excavations at Ballinderry in Ireland in 1932, there came to light a well-preserved board, presumably for the fox-and-geese game, which is now in the National Museum at Dublin. It is decorated in a Norwego-Celtic style and is thought to have been several finds of chessmen and draughtsmen from the Viking period and early Middle Ages.
The Viking in peacetime seems to have had a strong liking for family life. Marriages were arranged by agreement between the families, conflict only arising if the young people wishes differed from those of their kinsmen. The family was a powerful unit of protection within the larger, less clearly defined, community. A man stuck to his family in all circumstances, from them he got assistance and support in time of strife and trouble; in return it was his duty to help and support his kind. If he failed he could incur the worst possible consequences; ostracism, outlawry. But in this power of the family there was a danger, too, An individual was not allowed to keep himself to himself, and duties might arise which would bring even a peace-loving man into grave difficulty. This is the reason why the Havamal urges men to be prudent, vigilant, and well balanced, and to cultivate friendships – otherwise they will find themselves alone and without help when unforeseen dangers crop up. A man without a friend is like a naked for tree, without bark or foliage, lonely on a barren hill. Therefore, always be on your guard, avoid arrogance towards men less important than yourself, do not try to foresee your fate, for it is best not to know it. Be guided by your own experience. ‘Praise not the day until evening has come; a women until she is burnt; a sword until it is tried; a maiden until she is married; ice until it has been crossed; beer until it has been drunk.’ This pervasive prudence may indeed sometimes seem a stolid and negative virtue, but it clearly sprang from the hazardous conditions of Viking life.
The Vikings possessed a lively appreciation of satire, and were also very susceptible when it was applied to their own behaviour. The Havamal uses it frequently; e.g. when it comments on the thrifty hospitality which ‘welcomes me as a guest only if I need nothing to eat or if two hams still hang from my host’s roof after I have eaten one’. The Vikings had a keen eye for the oddities and frailties of their neighbours, a characteristic illustrated by their extreme fondness for descriptive nicknames, not least for kings and nobles: Harald Bluetooth, Swein Forkbeard, Harald Finehair, Harald Hardrada (‘the tyrant’), Eric the Victorious, Magnua the Good, Thorkel the Tall, Ragnar Lodbrok (‘with hairy trousers’). Many of these appellations refer to some physical deformity: Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye, Ivar the Boneless; as well as other nicknames such as ‘cat-back’, ‘crooked foot’. One of the oddest of these is ‘juice head’. Whether this referred to eczema on the face and head, or to a man who liked sucking the juices of vegetables (i.e. a vegetarian), is a speculation which cannot be settled. Nicknames, again, often developed from a memorable situation in which a man had been involved. There was also frequently an element of satirical paradox in the nickname, as Finnur Jonsson has pointed out: thus Thord the Short is known to have been exceptionally tall, and another Viking who was worried about his very dark complexion, was known as ‘the Fair’.
THE VIKINGS ABROAD
Thus equipped materially and spiritually, did the Vikings set out on their campaigns, taking with them their culture, skills, laws, and beliefs to their newly-founded foreign communities in the west and east, among the Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Franks, and Slavs, and upon the remote Atlantic islands. On the Atlantic islands, of course, they had no rivalry or competition to meet, and could transplant their culture straight form their homeland to virgin soil. However it was a very different matter to assert their culture in well established foreign communities which already had their own way of life and, indeed, in most cases an equal or superior culture. In these circumstances, did the Viking make any notable impression on the foreign communities. Did they make a permanent contribution, or an ephemeral one?
In Ireland the Norwegians encountered a community divided into numerous small kingdoms, politically independent units which were unable to organize a consolidated military resistance. They encountered, too, a Christian Church many centuries old, independent of Rome, fortified by its own separate traditions and practices, and concentrated in numerous monasteries. And finally, they came up against a people of fanatical and uncompromising temperament who had no inclination for peaceful coexistence with strangers. The Norwegians, on the other hand, were a tough people who preferred brute force to diplomacy, and thus there was no prospect of any fusion of cultures between them and the Irish. It was not, indeed, until the Viking period was over, at the end of the twelfth century, that there seemed to occur any such integration of cultures; but then came the English – the Anglo-Saxon-French-Norman fusion – called in by the Irish themselves. to begin their command which was to last more than seven centuries. (The Pope gave Ireland to the ‘King of England’ who himself was an imposter who was given England by the Pope for fighting for him so to impose the new Roman Catholic Church upon the English).
Although the Norwegians achieved no real colonization in Ireland, and did not succeed in the protracted occupation of substantial areas of the Irish interior, there is no doubt that their centuries of settlement along the coastal areas left a marked influence upon the country. They established a series of fortified harbours in the east, south, and west, at such places as Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick, and round these prosperous trading centres the country was occupied by Norwegian settlers. The reason why no such coastal towns were founded in northern Ireland – the direction from which the Norwegian came – must be that Ireland was not the main goal of their ambitions, and that they wanted to press onto the coastal countries of western Europe. For these further trading ventures the southern tip of Ireland was, of course, a better spring-board than the northern end, which faced the grey and desolate Atlantic Ocean, These coastal towns prospered as centres of trade; Dublin became wealthy; and when in 968 the Irish captured the Norwegian town of Limerick, they took a richer plunder of gold, sliver, satins, and silks. The Norwegians taught the Irish a great deal about ship-building and navigation, and they managed to a certain extent to establish contacts between their coastal settlements and the Irish interior.
A different situation developed in England, especially within the Danelaw where permanent colonization left distinct traces. For one thing there was the administrative division of the country into ‘hundreds’ and ‘wapentakes’. A ‘hundred’ must have been a district which represented a hundred of something or other: (a hundred represented 100 hides which was administrative, a hide represents a land needed to sustain a family right down to the slaves, the area was about 120 acres/48.5ha it would vary depending on the soil fertility and the environment so it could be much more, the guiding fact was could it sustain the family) warriors, perhaps, or ploughs; ‘wapentake’ refers to the Thing itself, the assembly where decisions were confirmed by the brandishing of arms (vapnatak). From this ‘wapentake’ came to mean the area covered by the members of the Thing, the district whence they came. The word ‘hundred’ is perhaps an Old English (common Germanic) term, but ‘wapentake’ is Danish, although the two terms seem to have become synonymous. The great English historian, Sir Frank Stenton, notes that as late as the eleventh century Anglo-Saxon sources could use either word for a single district. Danish influence can also be traced in legal codes and institutions. In the Danelaw, for example, the size of the fine imposed for murder varied according to the status of the victim, while elsewhere in England it was assessed according to the status of the victim’s master, a difference which illustrates the Nordic conception of free men’s equality. The swearing-in of juries unknown in Anglo-Saxon rules of law, possibly originates with the Danes in the Danelaw, where twelve thegns (thanes) in each wapantake were called to take their solemn oath not to accuse an innocent man or to protect a guilty one. Furthermore, these enactments in the Danelaw, preserved in the so-called code of Athelred II, affirmed that the verdict of eight of the twelve thanes would be accepted – the first example in England, says Stenton, of the principle of a majority verdict by juries.
The backbone of these Danelaw communities was of free but poor men. These sokemen, as they were called, owed certain obligations to the large estate owners, both on service and in dues, but the soil they occupied was their own property. This fundamental condition of the Danelaw society has been described as peasant aristocracy, and it is clearly reflected in the Domesday Book of Duke William where many Danish place-names (ending in -by and -thorp, etc.) are to be found. The Danish place-names of the Danelaw peasant population which settled there, just as the Norwegian place-names which survive in the north and north-west England provide a similar testimony to the Norwegian settlement in those regions. The Danish Viking came to England sword in hand, but he came to stay and to wield the plough and till the ground. He doubtless dispossessed some of the native population, but there is no evidence that he sought to exterminate it. He brought his language with him, his laws, and ways of life, and their effect was felt far into the Middle Ages; it was a long time before the Viking laws and customs became assimilated into the feudal system. The one part of their inheritance which the Vikings abroad quickly abandoned was their pagan religion, despite such instances of the opposite as the behaviour in Ireland, around 840, of the pagan fanatic, Turgies. The pagan faith must have been weak, or the religion it found abroad too strong, for in Ireland, England, France, and Russia the Vikings were not long in adopting Christianity, sometimes no doubt for political reasons, as when Rollo in Normandy accepted the new faith in 912.
French-Normandy, granted in 911 to Rollo at the head of a Nordic army by the Frankish king, was for the next two to three hundred years a mixed Nordic-Frankish duchy. Its further development was very different from that of the Danelaw in England. Its close proximity to the Frankish and German Empires exposed it to the influence of their feudalism, a principle fundamentally different from the Scandinavian pattern of government; and the colonizers of French-Normandy had to accept the inevitable. (feudalism was developed because of Viking incursions which led to the breakdown of the structure of government and so the people came under the local leader, like the the Duke of Normandy, who was a vassal of the Frankish king who granted them the land of Normandy, which also had the estuary of the River Seine which led to the Paris, by granting them the land they would protect Paris from further Viking raids, this is what Lady of Mercia had done to protect Chester, but they the French-Normans had more power because of this breakdown of government caused by the Vikings and they took full advantage of this situation as they rode across Europe conquering lands ans imposing the new Roman Catholic Church which many in time rejected). Rollo seems to have discerned this necessity of compounding with an unfamiliar feudalism – and by his opportunism established himself as sole ruler, and future dukes of Normandy as absolute overlords. (even though they were vassals of the King of France and why Normandy is still a part of France). During the time of Rollo and his successors nothing is heard of Things or similar assemblies of free and equal men, and very little of any of the standard Scandinavian practices of government. ‘Hundreds’ did not exist in Normandy. The duke and his notables retained full power in a centralized and militarized administration. There is a story characteristic of this state of affairs, which recounts how, about the year 1000, the peasants of Normandy summoned an assembly to demand their rights to use the country’s woods, lakes, and rivers. Duke Rollo sent his uncle, Count Rudolph, to round up these peasant delegates, mutilate them all by chopping off a hand or foot, and send them back to their villages to prove who actually held sway over the woods and waters. It is not reported that these unfortunates were the original inhabitants. Very likely the Scandinavian peasants, too, were among the victims of this savage lesson to prove who held the final powers in French-Normandy (a foretaste for the people of England, after the Conquest/Crusade of England in 1066). The only assemblies permitted in the dukedom were gatherings of the civil and ecclesiastical members of the duke’s court. Even if feudalism was not yet fully developed during the tenth and eleventh centuries it was well on its way. If the warriors in the familiar story who cried ‘We are all equals’ were Rollo’s men, they were soon to learn a different motto.
In Normandy, as in the Danelaw, the Vikings left tokens of their presence in many place-names: such suffixes as -bec, -bu, -digue, -tot, are pure Norse (bekkr, bu, dik, topt), and so are -torp, and -twed; and first elements of names ending in -ville and -tot. Most of these Scandinavian place-names in Normandy seem to be of Danish origin, but several are Norwegian. It is not certain whether Rollo himself was Danish or Norwegian. later Norse sources assert he was from Norway, but earlier sources (such as the Frankish Dudo, who was born around 960) say he was Danish. All things considered, the strong development of feudalism in Normandy does not quite obscure the impression made on the country by the Vikings.
In considering the impact made by the Swedish Vikings in the east, we must bear in mind that their predominant motive was the expansion of trading interests. The Swedes did not penetrate Russia with the intention of conquest and settlement, as the Danes did England and France; they set out to establish and maintain extensive trade-routes. These ventures somewhat resemble the Norwegian settlements in Ireland, which, as we have seen, were trading-posts surrounded by narrow areas of colonization. Whereas the Norwegians in Ireland established their trading centres on the coasts, Swedes in the east did this in the interior and on rivers. Thus, at certain periods, Novgorod, Smolensk, and Kiev were no doubt Slav towns commanded by Swedish garrisons; the large burial ground at Gnezdovo, near Smolensk (to which I shall return later), seems to indicate the presence of Swedish warriors and merchants at this flourishing and active military base. But there were not created in Russia – at least not on any significant scale – those permanent agrarian colonies which were developed in the Danelaw and Normandy. The trade-routes were too extensive, the countries which would have had to be pacified were too vast. There was, too, the same difficulty as in Ireland concerning assimilation with a native population of different stock and language – there Celtic, here Slav – whereas in England the Anglo-Saxons were at least a Germanic stock related to the Viking invaders. By the end of the Viking period, it is fair to say, the extensive Swedish trade-routes from the motherland to the Byzantine world were abandoned, the kingdom of Kiev and the west Russian towns resumed their Slav nature, and before long the Swedish infiltration of these distant lands became simply a chapter of history. In northern Russia (the Ladoga region), however, in Finland, and in the northern Baltic countries, Swedish colonization was maintained throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
There seems slightly more evidence of the degree of assimiliation which occurred between the Vikings and the people with whom they came into contact in Russia than there is of the same thing in western Europe. There is archaeological testimony provided by the Norse graves discovered in Russia, which reveal a mixture of Nordic, Slav, and oriental; and there is literary testimony provided by two Arab writers of the tenth century, Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Rustah – the former telling us of the Swedish Rus of the Volga, and the latter of those in what was presumably western Russia. Ibn Fadlan says:
I saw the Rus when they arrived on their trading mission and anchored at the River Atul [Volga]. Never had I seen people of more perfect physique; they are tall as date-palms, and reddish in colour. They wear neither coat nor mantle, but each man carries a cape which covers one half of his body, leaving one hand free. Their swords are Frankish in pattern, broad, flat, and fluted. Each man has [tattooed upon him] trees, figures, and the like from the finger-nails to the neck. Each woman carries on her bosom a container made of iron, silver, copper, or gold – its size and substance depending on her man’s wealth. Attached to the container is a ring carrying her knife which is also tied to her bosom. Round her neck she wears gold or silver rings; when a man amasses 10,000 dirhems he makes his wife one gold ring; when he has 20,000 he makes two; and so the woman gets a new ring for every 100.000 dirhems her husband acquires, and often a woman has many of these rings. Their finest ornaments are green beads made from clay. They will go to any length to get hold of these; for one dirhem they procure one such bead and they string these into necklaces for their women.
They are the filthiest of god’s creatures. They do not wash after discharging their natural functions, neither do they wash their hands after meals. They are as stray donkeys. They arrive from their distant lands and lay their ships alongside the banks of the Atul, which is a great river, and there they build big wooden houses on its shores. Ten or twenty of them may live together in one house, and each of them has a couch of his own where he sits and diverts himself with the pretty slave-girls whom he has bought along to offer for sale. He will make love with one of them n the presence of his comrades, sometimes this develops into a communal orgy, and, if a customer should turn up to buy a girl, the Rus will not let her go till he has finished with her.
Every day they wash their faces and heads, all using the same water which is as filthy as can be imagined. This is how it is done. Every morning a girl brings her master a large bowl of water in which he washes his face and hands and hair, combing it also over the bowl, then blows hos nose and spits into the water. No dirt is left on him which doesn’t go into the water. When he has finished the girl takes the same bowl to his neighbour – who repeats the performance – until the bowl has gone round to the entire household. All have blown their noses, spat, and washed their faces and hair in the water.
On anchoring their vessels, each man goes ashore carrying bread, meat, onions, milk, and nabid [beer?], and these he takes to a large wooden stake with a face like that of a human being, surrounded by smaller figures, and behind them tall poles in the ground. Each man prostates himself before the large post and recites: O Lord, I have come from distant parts with so many girls, so many sable furs (and whatever other commodities he is carrying). I now bring you this offering.’ He then presents his gift and continues ‘Please send me a merchant who has many dinars and dirhems, and who will trade favourably with me without too much battering.’ Then he retires. If, after this, business does not pick up quickly and go well, he returns to the statue to present further gifts to the minor figures and begs their intercession, saying, ‘These are our Lord’s wives, daughters, and sons.’ Then he pleads before each figure in turn, begging them to intercede for him and humbling himself before them. Often trade picks up, and he says ‘My Lord has required my needs, and now it is my duty to repay him.’ Whereupon he sacrifices goats or cattle, some of which he distributes as alms. The rest he lays before the statues, large and small, and the heads of the beasts he plants upon the poles. After dark, of course, the dogs come and devour the lot – and the successful trader says, ‘My Lord is pleased with me, and has eaten my offerings.’
If one of the Rus falls sick they put him in a tent by himself and leave bread and water with him. They do not visit him, however, or speak to him, especially if he is a serf. Should he recover he rejoins the others; if he dies they burn him. If he happens to be a serf, however, they leave him for the dogs and vultures to devour. If they catch a robber they hang him in a tree until he is torn to shreds by wind and weather.
There follows a description of a chieftain’s funeral, and then Ibn Fadlan continues.
It is customary for the king of the Rus to have a bodyguard in his castle of 400 reliable men willing to die for him. Each of these has a slave-girl to wait on him, wash him, and serve him, and another to sleep with. These 400 sit below the royal throne; a large and bejeweled platform which also accommodation the forty slave girls of his harem. The King frequently has public intercourse with one of these. He does not bother to leave his throne when he wants to make water, he has a basin brought to him for the purpose; and when he wants to go riding his horse is led up to him, and on his return the horse is brought right up to the throne. He has a deputy to lead his armies in battle, fight his enemies, and hold audiences with his subjects.
This Ibn Fadlan was a member of a diplomatic delegation sent in 921-2 from the Bagbad Caliphate to Bulgar on the Volga. His account of his personal experiences creates the impression that the Rus of the Volga region were an organization of dealers in furs and slaves, a pretty rough lot in both sexual and hygienic matters. Whether their women were Scandinavian or not we do not know; but what emerges from Ibn Fadlan’s commentary is later, in general these Rus retained their Swedish manners and observances in such matters as weapons, punishments, ship-burials, and religious sacrifices. They seem, on the other hand, to have come under foreign influence in matters exemplified by the overloading of their women with jewellery and the dead chief’s costume. Whether in other ways, such as their treatment of the sick and their tattoing (if it is tattoing), they followed Swedish or Slav practice, we do not know. What seems, however, to indicate the beginning of assimilation (to a foreign [Turk] custom) is the description of the Rus King’s household, a crude mixture of hird and harem.
Ibn Fadlan, astronomer and geographer, seems to have been writing twenty or thirty years later than Ibn Fadlan. About the Rus folk he says:
They stay on an island (or peninsula) in a lake, an island covered with forest and brush, which it takes three days to walk round and which is marshy and unhealthy. They have a prince called Haqan-Rus. They sail their ships to ravage as-Saqaliba [the surrounding Slavs], and bring back captives whom they sell at Hazaran and Bulgar [both towns on the Volga]. They have no cultivated fields but depend for their supplies on what they can obtain from as-Saqaliba’s land. When a son is born the father will go up to the newborn baby, sword in hand; throwing it down, he says; ‘I shall not leave you any property: you have only what you can provide with this weapon!’ They have no estates, villages, or fields; their only business is to trade in sable, squirrel, and other furs, and the money they take in these transactions they stow in their belts. Their clothes are clean and the men decorate themselves with gold armlets. They treat slaves well, and they wear exquisite clothes since they pursue trade with great energy. They have many towns. They deal firmly with one another; they respect their guests and are hospitable and friendly to strangers who take refuge with them and to all those who usually visit them. They do not allow anybody to molest their guests or do them any harm, and if somebody dares insult them or do them any injustice they help and defend them. They use Sulaiman swords. If a group of them is challenged to battle, they stick together as one man until victory has been achieved. If two men quarrel, their case is considered by the prince, in whose presence they both plead their cause, and if they agree about his ruling his decisions stands, but if they do not agree he tells them to settle their dispute with their swords – and may the sharpest sword win! The fight takes place in the presence of the contestants’ kin who stand with swords drawn; and the man who gets the better of the duel also gets the decision about the matter in dispute.
There are atibba (medicine men) who wield great power; they act as if they own everything. They tell the people exactly what offerings of women, men, and cattle to make to their creator. When the medicine man has given his orders there is no way of evading them. The attiba then takes the offerings, human or animal, and hangs it from a pole till all life has expired, saying ‘This is a sacrifice to god.’ – They are courageous in battle and when they attack another tribe’s territory they persist until they have destroyed it completely. They take the women prisoners and make the men serfs. They are well built and good looking and daring, but their daring is not apparent on land; they always launch their raids and campaigns from ships. They wear full trousers (about 100 ells of fabric a pair) , and when they put them on, they roll them up to the knees and fasten them there. When they want to relieve themselves they go out in groups of four, taking their swords along, so as to protect each other. There is little security among them, and much deceit, and even a man’s brother or comrade is not above killing and plundering him if he can.
Ibn rustah’s account of the Rus concludes with the short remark on the funerals of their notables. There is nothing which suggests that Ibn Rustah was an eyewitness of what he relates, but, although his stories are doubtless based on other sources, they bear a stamp of reality and reliability. The island on which he says the Rus established themselves is thought by many scholars to have been Novgorod which is likely enough but not susceptible of proof. There is special significance in his assertion that the Rus were not an agrarian people, that they had no fields nor villages but many towns, that is to say they were concentrated in fortified garrison towns of which the remains have been found in great numbers, for instance, in the provinces of Smolensk. He mentions specifically the principal commodities they dealt with slaves – taken from the neighbouring Slav tribes and brought to the markets of the Volga – and furs. He does not suggest any pronounced non-Nordic characteristics among them, except the oriental swords and baggy-trousers. Everything else described is Nordic enough; hospitality, courage, settling disputes by single combat, human and animal sacrifices, handling of ships, and burial customs. We get no impression of solidly established governments; they came later. In the middle of the tenth century the organization was essentially that of a trading company. Their position and activities were compared, indeed, to those of the Jews, by Ibn Horradabeh who wrote, in the 840s, the earliest Arab account of the Swedes. It must have taken these Swedish Viking merchants a century or more to lay even the foundation of a solid political state.