Who were the Vikings? Mad horn-helmeted maniacs pillaging and burning everything in sight? Not hardly, though that is a common picture of these strange, mysterious warriors from the north.
The Viking age is generally thought to have begun around the year 793, the year of the infamous raid on the Lindisfarne monastery in England. For the next 250 years these seafaring warriors, explorers, and entrepreneurs left an historic trail across Europe into Asia and across the Atlantic to the New World.
The term “Viking” is thought to have originated from a place in southern Norway called Vik which became an early center of early Viking raiding fleets. The name soon came to refer to Norse-speakers or “Northmen” that went off raiding (a-viking) called Vikings. Most Norse lived as farmers on small plots of land or retainers to chiefs or kings and their supporters. Despite their reputation as shipbuilders, sailors, and warriors, the Norse called themselves farmers, not fishermen, hunters, or traders despite pursuit of these trades. The majority of a Norse family’s time was spent taking care of their animals and nurturing their crops.
Viking society consisted of three classes: slaves, freemen, and nobles. Most of the hard labor was done by slaves also known as thralls. Many were foreigners captured in battle. Wealthy Vikings sometimes had their slaves killed and buried with them. Slaves could be freed or even earn their freedom. Freemen consisted of farmers, traders, craftsmen, warriors and large landowners. Nobles (chieftains) ruled over small areas and were subject to the rule of the local council called a Thing. At the Thing all freemen could voice their opinions and complain about others. Gradually by 1050 the Things had been reduced in significance due to the consolidation of power by chieftains and kings through raiding and conquering foreign lands.
Viking women were independent. They ran households and farms. They could choose their own husbands or sue for divorce if he beat her or was unfaithful. Wealthy women paid for bridges to be built, helped fund town construction and rune-stones. Women were praised for their good housekeeping or skill in handiwork such as embroidery, spinning, and weaving. Children worked in the fields and workshops and helped with the cooking, cleaning, weaving, and spinning.
Viking home life revolved around a central hall or living room. The layout of Viking construction was much the same throughout the Viking world. It consisted of a long open hearth that burned constantly in the winter with a smoke hole in the ceiling above. The floor consisted of stamped earth. Raised platforms along the walls covered with duck down stuffed pillows and cushions made sitting and sleeping more comfortable. Wealthier homes likely had a few pieces of wooden furniture such as tables, chairs, beds and chests. Houses often had smaller rooms for cooking or spinning on either side of the main hall. Smaller buildings with dug floors and lows roofs were used as workshops, weaving sheds, animal barns or houses for the poor or slaves. A chieftain’s hall might be lined with carvings and wall hangings.
to be continued…