Fishing has been carried out in the "Viking homelands" since time immemorial. Still, during the early medieval period, people from Viking societies took this love to the next level.

A little changed technology since ancient times

During the early medieval period, fishing in the "Viking homelands" (the Baltic and Nordic regions) evolved to encompass economic, social, and cultural aspects. Prior to this era, people living in these regions primarily viewed fishing as a key opportunity to obtain dietary protein.

Looking at a world map, one can see that these regions are surrounded by oceans and seas, shaped by fjords, and dotted with rivers, streams, and lakes. The people and societies living here, by the early medieval period, were indeed spoilt for choice when it came to finding a source of fish. 

They could draw on thousands of years' worth of fishing, nautical, and maritime experience to reel in a cod or two.

For the majority of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100 CE), fishing techniques remained the same as they had been since the advent of the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1750 BCE to 500 BCE). Fishing weirs, traps, nets, and even wheels were used to catch fish in coastal areas and rivers. 

Whilst many took to the seas to employ net fishing, perhaps the most common way was line fishing, using a simple bait, hook, and line to drag the unluckily fish in. 

Fishing tools saw even less technological advancement since the Bronze Age. Most tools were fashioned from animal bones (especially elk antlers), while nets were often constructed from plant fibers or animal sinews.

Inland and offshore

One of the blessings of the Baltic and Nordic geography is that, during the early medieval period, people in Viking societies did not necessarily have to fish in the open sea, unlike nearby neighbors. 

For those fishing inland, it was very much a seasonal affair. Given that vast swathes of these regions are knee-deep in snow for half the year, most of the fishing had to be done in the warmer months when the ice and snow melted and when frozen rivers had thawed. 

A small amount of fishing was still done in the colder months when holes were cut in ice-covered lakes to catch the fish lying below. The most famous fish caught inland in this way was the salmon, often swimming upstream during the warmer months.

When the fish were not plentiful inland, there were always the vast open seas and oceans. 

People from Viking societies were some of the most skilled seafarers of the early medieval age and, it could be argued, out-navigated every European culture and civilization until the beginning of the early modern period in the 15th century CE. 

Using their advanced technological boatbuilding skills, these people were able to fish further afield than mere coastal regions. This offshore fishing involved trying to catch lucrative (and delicious) shoals of halibut and cod, still mainstays of many Scandinavian cuisines to this day.

The enduring tradition of naturally drying stockfish cod, captured in the Arctic fishing village of Lofoten Island, Norway. Photo: ckchiu / Shutterstock 

Fish-based economy and diet

By the end of the Viking Age, the burgeoning economies of the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were soon becoming reliant on fishing as a significant income. 

Whilst many a modern-day traveler has raised an eyebrow (or blocked a nostril) at the Nordic love of dried and salt fish, this was a serious money maker more than a millennium ago. 

Vast areas of Northern Norway, especially around the Lofoten peninsula, were dedicated to catching, drying, and preserving (through salting) fish. In fact, these dried stockfish were carted off to far-away market towns throughout what is now England, France, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. 

Aside from the economic importance of fish, it featured heavily in Viking diets.

Moreover, fish was abundant throughout the year and served as a vital source of protein, nutrients, and fats. Fish could also be consumed raw, dried, smoked, and cooked, making it a versatile cooking ingredient. 

Salting a fish, thus preserving it, was a vital way to ensure that people in Viking societies, especially in the northern latitudes of Scandinavia, had access to some food during the cold, dark, and snowy winter months.

Swimming through Viking art and literature

Fishing was such an essential and everyday part of many people in Viking societies' daily life that it should be no surprise that it features heavily throughout the rich tapestry of the Norse sagas

Whilst Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Eirik the Red) provides modern-day readers valuable insight into the beginnings of Norse settlement on Greenland, it also has some great descriptions of fishing expeditions that Eirik and his crew undertook. 

Similar descriptions are found in the Ygnlings saga (Saga of the Ynglings - where even a king, Audlis, takes part), and the Grænlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders) mention fishing for cod, halibut, and some of the other fish off the coast of Greenland.

Depictions of fish and fishing can be found throughout all six styles of Viking artwork and adorn a wealth of artwork, metalwork, and jewelry uncovered throughout regions where the Vikings roamed. 

Fish were associated with fertility, abundance, and, of course, sea deities, including Njord, God of the Sea.

Fishing was not only a means of sustenance but helped underpin the economic and cultural spread of people in Viking societies throughout the Viking Age.

Nature Magazine has more information on fishing in the "Viking Age," available to read here.

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