They also help us better understand the politics, the lack of privacy, and the familial relations – of both living family members and the dead – of people living in Viking societies a millennium ago.
Big village life
Not every single person in Viking societies was a bloodthirsty and ravenous warrior with a lust for gold, silver, and loot. Somewhat contrary to popular thinking, the majority of people living in Viking societies were farmers and lived on small farms.
The majority of the Peninsula is dominated by rugged mountainous terrain with little arable farmland, preventing large population growth compared to other areas in central and western Europe.
Population and prosperity grew in areas where the land was less mountainous and more arable. In such areas, especially around Hedeby or Ribbe, Denmark, what would become Oslo in Norway or Uppårk in Sweden – farms tended to be clustered together into villages, which, as the Viking Age progressed, became small cities.
In more remote places, like the Norse settlements on Greenland or Iceland - small farms were sparse, and there were no condensed human settlements.
The farm itself was often a tiny cluster of buildings that provided each family with a great deal of self-sufficiency. Each farm consisted of a longhouse (see below) and several other smaller buildings – mostly for storing hay, livestock, or food products.
More often than not, these farms were built on top of a hill, a high location being perfect for visibility of others approaching the farm. Moreover, fire signals calling for assistance could be lit and seen for a great distance from this vantage point.
Due to Scandinavia's, to put it mildly, "temperate" climate and small amount of arable land, animal husbandry was the main farming activity. A few crops could withstand the harsh northern climate – mostly grains such as barley, rye, and oats – along with beans, onions, and other more studier vegetables.
Cattle and sheep were the two most important animals for many people in Viking societies, with the Old Norse word for cattle and money being the same and interchangeable: fé.
Until the full-scale Christianization of Scandinavia, which was not totally complete in some areas until the 13th century CE, horses were kept as an inexpensive source of meat and often sacrificed to the pagan gods.
The inside of a recreation of a furnished Viking longhouse at the Lofotr Viking Museum, Lofoten Islands, Norway. Photo: Matt Ledwinka / Shutterstock
Viking households - old and young, free and enslaved
A general lack of privacy was common throughout most Viking households during the Viking Age. Rather than the common "nuclear" family, which is common throughout many societies in the world today, a Viking household consisted of many people, related and hired, free and enslaved.
The "typical" household consisted of the owner of the farm, who was, generally, a man, but female ownership – especially if the woman was widowed – was not uncommon. The owner of the farm lived not only with his (or her) family but also with the extended family. There were often several generations of the same family living side-by-side, cheek-by-cheek.
Along with the family – especially if the farm was large – were servants or other hired help.
It should also be noted that slavery was a common practice throughout Norse societies right into the later medieval period. Defeated foes were often enslaved as well as people living in coastal communities who were captured during Viking raids.
Enslaved people were not only a valuable commodity but underpinned the rural economy of most Viking societies. They were often assigned less desirable or more backbreaking work than servants.
The Viking longhouse
The longhouse is almost as famous a symbol of Viking engineering ingenuity as the longship. The majority of people, especially in the northern climes of the Viking world, lived in a longhouse (langhús). These were houses built around wooden frames with a stone foundation, ranging in length from 5 meters / 16 feet up to 75 meters / 250 feet.
Generally, the longer the longhouse, the wealthier the inhabitants were. Walls were made of log planks and often insulated with wattle, straw, animal dung, or sand. In regions such as Iceland, which had minimal supplies of wood, the walls of these longhouses were often built of turf (see below).
A typical longhouse had several rooms, and it was often divided by two rows of posts that ran down the length of the house. These posts not only divided the interior into three long aisles but also were load-bearing.
The walls of the house were often bowed, mimicking that of a ship – which, given the number of sea voyages many in Viking societies took – was a fairly recognizable and reassuring structure.
A hearth was the focal point of each longhouse. Meals were prepared and eaten here, and, during those long and cold winter months, the household members would gather to listen to sagas, tell tales or talk with one another. There were no windows in longhouses, and ventilation was provided by a smoke hole. In the central corridor of most longhouses were raised wooden benches – these doubled as seats and when topped with sheepskin, beds.
Foodstuffs were prepared and stored in either an inside storage room (pantry, matbùr) or an outside storage room (utbúr) along with other valuables. Wealthier families could afford decorative wall hangings, whether these were carvings, paintings, tapestries, or even shields.
Most house sites had a number of smaller buildings that helped the self-sufficiency of the inhabitants, ranging from food storage to iron or textile working.
Turf houses in Iceland offered better superior insulation compared to housing made of stone or wood. Photo: Knut Paasche / NIKU
Viking turf houses
People in Viking societies often settled and colonized areas where wood was at a premium, especially in Iceland, Greenland, and what is now the island of Newfoundland in Canada. There, Norse settlers had to adapt, improvise and overcome this lack of timber, so they constructed turf houses.
These were similar in design to a longhouse – with a stone foundation – and wooden beams and posts to provide a structure for the houses. However, there was a main key difference – the use of turf for walls.
Strips of turf (20cm x 50cm / 8 x 20 inches thick) were cut from the ground and then dried. These "bricks" of turf were then laid over each other and filled in with gravel, dung, and dirt. The roof was first laid with branches and then topped with more "bricks" of turf. The branches would be placed over the wooden rafters allowing air to circulate, thus preventing rot.
The only other wooden element of a turf house, other than the framing, was the front door. These were often elaborately decorated and carved and sometimes even had a hole to be able to shoot arrows through when shut – at "unwanted" houseguests.
Some of the most spectacular examples today of turf houses are in Iceland. The tiny villages of Stöng and Sænautasel have a multitude of turf houses, which have literally put them on the tourist map. Though many were constructed in the 19th century, their builders utilized the same skills, methods, and construction that people from Viking societies used more than a millennium before.
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