The majority of those who lived in Viking societies were employed in agricultural or farm labor. There was a strict gender-based division of labor. From sunrise to sunset, a day in the life of a Viking was perhaps more mundane (and definitely less violent) than you might imagine…
The Vikings at home and abroad
When we talk about "The Vikings," we are often talking about those fierce Nordic warriors who traded and terrorized all over Europe from the early 8th to 12th centuries CE. However, a "Viking" is more a job description than an ethnic label. Viking essentially means "pirate" in old Norse; however, only a small percentage of those living in Viking societies were employed in raiding, trading, or settling.
Viking societies stretched from their Nordic homeland (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland) through large chunks and swathes of what is now Northern France and Germany, the British Isles, the Baltic region, Eastern Europe, and Russia. They even made it as far away as what is now Istanbul in Turkey and Newfoundland in Canada.
Only a small fraction were true "Vikings;" most were farmers
Throughout all these societies scatted throughout the Western Hemisphere, one thing is common: the majority of people that lived in those societies were not fierce and bloodthirsty warriors but sustenance farmers. Only a small fraction of the young men took to the seas to trade, raid, or settle. Nevertheless, Viking societies were heavily male-dominated, and the most important political, religious, and economic opportunities were only afforded to men.
Viking societies lacked, for the most part, huge cities and metropolises that dominated many other pre-modern societies and cultures. As the "Viking Age" progressed, many smaller trading towns did increase in size, but for the majority of people living in Viking societies, the village (or a small town) was the focal point of life.
The majority of people that lived in Viking societies were sustenance farmers. Photo: paologhedini / Pixabay
Very specific and structured gender roles
The division of labor was strictly structured by gender. Men did the majority of the hunting, fighting, trading, settling, and farming whilst women were "responsible" for the home: i.e., cooking and childcare. However, there are accounts of women warriors and explorers recounted in Norse sagas, with the most famous being Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir – who was said to have stepped foot on the North American continent half a millennium before Christopher Columbus!
One interesting feature of the role of women in Viking societies is that they possessed a greater amount of freedom than women in other contemporary cultures and societies. They could own property, request a divorce, and reclaim dowries. Though families often negotiated marriage, women did have a voice in any future spouse.
Farming and natural sunlight
The Nordic region is not known for its vast tracts of arable land other than in southern Sweden. As such, small plots of land where root vegetables and crops that could survive the cold conditions (barley, oats, and rye) were grown. Cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, and sheep were also kept.
The daily cycle was dominated by natural sunlight – meaning that most people would rise with the sun, do their work throughout the day, and then rest after sunset. This meant that at sunrise, men would have to rise and tend to any animals and start agricultural labor. For most men in Viking societies, the day consisted of long, arduous, backbreaking labor in the fields or agricultural plots.
For the women, sunrise also meant the preparation of food for the men before their day's work, as well as the start of their day-care of children. Whilst the men were away in the fields, women were involved in arts and craftwork ranging from sewing, dying cloth, or mending clothes.
Candles and other artificial light were not commonplace; thus, any work at night would be extremely hard.
Vikings kept cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, and sheep. Photo: FOYN / Unsplash
Winter and festivals
Throughout the long winter months, when the land was not arable, both men and women buried themselves in labor and storytelling. Food played a central part in these long and cold days, with pickling, drying, and the salting of food taking up many hours. Long and cold nights were also the perfect time to regale each other with stories, sagas, or other tall tales.
Festivals were also an important part of village life. Originally many had a pagan origin – with seasonal overtones - but as the "Viking Age" progressed, more and more were associated with Christianity.
These festivals were times of social gatherings and celebrations for everyone that lived in the town or village. Feasts were consumed as well as copious amounts of beer and sometimes even wine.
For the small majority of young men that took part in Viking raids, coming back to their village or town was a period of rest and relaxation before the next voyage or battle. This was also a time to rekindle familial or romantic relationships.
In conclusion - though many Hollywood movies and Netflix series would have us believe that the majority of Viking societies' daily lives were an orgy of rape, pillage, and plunder, this was simply not the case. A strict division of labor, based upon gender roles, saw people living in small villages tend to their farms and houses with rather monotonous regularity. Only a small fraction of the young men were warriors who raided, traded, and settled all over the Western Hemisphere. A day in the life of a "Viking" was fairly typical of what we would imagine a medieval peasant would involve.
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