Relationships in family were very important for the Vikings. They were proud of their ancestors; also they remembered every member of their family and had a strong sense of moral duty to them. The family (including uncles, aunts and cousins) was a united group and everyone fought for each other in different situations. They had a strong sense of honor: the insult of one of them was the insult of all family. The shame, which was brought by a coward, a traitor who made a shameful crime, also touched the whole family.
Moreover, there was overall responsibility: if someone was unfairly murdered by another one, then murderer and whole his family had to pay the fine. The family should stroke aggressive kinsman down before he did something wrong.
The relationships between the wife and the husband
Women had a high social and political status. They were allowed to own the land and manage their property. They had a strong authority in household and they had to manage a farm, while their husbands were absent. Women were not allowed to judge, but some stories say that they were very vindictive at litigations.
The lawful wife was different from concubines: the husband paid a ransom for her, also he was to give the present to her the day after the wedding, after that the young wife were gifted by her father. The first and the third of these gifts were her property, and, if there was a divorce, then the husband had to pay the whole dowry. Moreover, there was a ceremonial drinking of the “wedding ale” on a formal wedding. But a young wife saved her name and patronymic, also she never severed the connection with her family. If there was a conflict between her family and her husband, she might take the side of any of them.
The main feature of inheritance law was “odal” – the law about inheritance of the land. The law said that the ownership of the whole land was due to all family. When father died, the ownership was given to the eldest son, but he had to pay the compensating to his brothers for their parts of heritage. As a result, the youngest sons had to find new lands by following the plow or going across the sea. But this system was not so hard as a primogeniture.
Primogeniture was heritage of family’s land (as a rule, by the eldest son or other first-degree relative) without a selling right.
Other parts of land, livestock and silver could be divided between first-degree relatives, and there were detailed rules in the lawbook, which decided the inheritance order and the way of division.
There were many illegal children because most men had female slaves and concubines. According to the Norwegian law, the son of concubine was the slave if he was not gifted freedom by laws.
Children were usually brought up at home, but the son often spent part of his childhood as the adopted son of a friend’s house, but not because of poverty: according to this way there was budding relationships between two families. In the case of blood feud or other difficult situations the boy might wait help from both of two families and was very close to his non native family.
There was not education in those times, even later there was a lack of Christian schools and they were small. The children learned to farm and others crafts just by helping the adults to household and trained by fighting to each others. The child, which was talented in something special craft, perhaps, was sent to another family, if his native family was not good at it enough.
The Vikings social classes
The ancient Vikings Social structure was relatively simple, and followed many of the common traits all societies exhibit. Of course in every society there are the high status members and the lower status members, Viking society was no different at all.
Being a member of upper echelon of Viking society obviously offered plenty of rewards and benefits, and was held by the Viking Kings. At the lower end of Viking society was the Thralls, the slaves of the Viking world. In the middle we had the Viking people, separated into two main classes the Karls and the Jarls.
As we learn more about the details and intricacies of the Viking social structure we will learn more about the main classes that existed here. One point to note before we go further is that it’s easy to simply define the Viking society order to these four classes of kings, jarls, karls and thralls. Of course it’s not that black and white, and as we will mention later it was common to have a variety of levels in each class.
The Viking kings
Being a king of any land or country was a prestige and to rule as a king in Viking times was exactly the same. The king like anywhere in the world was the top of the heap and in Viking times the lower classes, specifically the jarls, and the successful land and farm owning karls would report to him.
The king would earn money through his people, the noble folk also. The jarls would provide a decent portion of this, and land owners would of course provide the king too. Additionally if a Viking committed a crime that involved the revolution of his land and property, this would also become the kings property.
On the other side of the coin, being king also required that money be spent in various ways. Ruling was a costly business, and a Viking king if he didn’t know already would soon find out after obtaining the throne.
It was the kings duty to ensure that the national security of his realm was safe, this meant having close and trusted men to hand ready to fight for him at a moments notice. To ensure the loyalty and performance of this men, he would need to ensure they were suitably equipped and also shared in some of his spoils. The king would provide clothing, weaponry, food and drink and women if the men desired. It was of the utmost important to any Viking king that he had trusted and close men to ensure his safety.
A Viking Jarl
The king would also have to ensure his image was satisfactory, his clothes and jewellery needed to be the best, and his home and grounds needed to give the right aura to match his status. Achieving the required look and presence of a king could be a costly but necessary pursuit.
The jarls were the upper echelon of the freeman in ancient Norse society, either noblemen or wealthy landowners, merchants or traders. Jarls would likely have many men under their employ, whether they were farm hands, craftsmen or sailors. It was up the Jarl to keep them men in their employ, and often they would reward them with food and drink. Extremely noble or prestigious jarls would often liaise with the king, keeping him abreast of news and knowledge and of course contributing some of their earnings to the king.
What is interesting in Viking society is that progression was allowed, a karl could in fact become a jarl should the Gods favour him.
The Viking Karls
The karls were the main population in ancient Norse times, the every man of the Vikings. The karls were considered what is known as ‘freemen’, meaning they were free to own land, build property and start a family or business. Most Vikings were farmers, and the karls definitely were, even if they had another occupation like being a blacksmith or a craftsman a karl would know how to work the land.
Karls were free to own slaves, known as thralls to help out with daily chores and tasks. They would use the slaves to help with their farming, cleaning or cooking.
Its important to note that not all Karls had exactly the same life. Karls for example ranged from farmers who owned their own homes, to hired help that would help the land owners perform their daily chores. In return the land owner would provide board and accommodation for the helpers. Both were still freemen in Viking society, and under the class of the karl.
The Viking Thralls
Slaves in ancient Norse times were known as thralls, and they were the lowest rung on the Viking social ladder. Thralls had little to no rights in Norse times, they were not able to own land and they would perform jobs and chores for their owners. With all this considered however its important to note that the bad treatment of a slave was looked down on. Many thralls were treated well by their owners.
Thralls were acquired in a number of ways, captured in war or on a raid, through trade or barter, or through a crime and punishment. In addition someone could even be born a slave should a thrall woman give birth.
Life wasn’t all bad though, a thrall was able to own some money, although there was a limit on how much they could spend. They were allowed some free time, and could visit the market if they desired in this time. Its also known that thralls were free to marry, although as we previously mentioned children bore of this would become slaves themselves.
Weapons and warfare
Our knowledge about the arms and armour of the Viking age is based on archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the 13th century. According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons and were permitted to carry them all the time. These arms were indicative of a Viking's social status: a wealthy Viking had a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, mail shirt, and sword. A typical bóndi (freeman) was more likely to fight with a spear and shield, and most also carried aseax as a utility knife and side-arm. Bows were used in the opening stages of land battles and at sea, but they tended to be considered less "honourable" than a melee weapon. Vikings were relatively unusual for the time in their use of axes as a main battle weapon. The Húscarls, the elite guard of King Cnut (and later of King Harold II) were armed with two-handed axes that could split shields or metal helmets with ease.
The warfare and violence of the Vikings were often motivated and fuelled by their beliefs in Norse religion, focusing on Thor and Odin, the gods of war and death.
In combat it is believed, that the Vikings sometimes engaged in a disordered style of frenetic, furious fighting known as berserker gang, leading them to be termed berserkers. Such tactics may have been deployed intentionally by shock troops and the berserk-state may have been induced through ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, such as the hallucinogenic mushrooms, Amanita muscaria, or large amounts of alcohol.
The spear was the most common weapon of the peasant class of Scandinavia and also throwing spears may have been used by the warrior class. They consisted of metal heads with a blade and a hollow shaft, mounted on wooden shafts of two to three metres in length, and were typically made from ash wood. The spear heads could measure between twenty and sixty centimetres with a tendency towards longer heads in the later Viking age. Spear heads with wings are called krókspjót (hooked spear) in the sagas. Some larger-headed spears were called höggspjót (hewing spear) and could also be used for cutting. The barbed throwing spears were often less decorated than the ostentatious thrusting spears, as the throwing spears were often lost in battle.
The spear was used both as a throwing weapon and as a thrusting weapon, although there was some specialization in design. Lighter, narrower spearheads were made for throwing; heavier broader ones, for stabbing. Most evidence indicates that they were used in one hand. Limited evidence from a saga] indicates that they may have been used with two hands, but not in battle. The head was held in place with a pin, which saga characters occasionally pull out to prevent a foe from re-using the weapon.
Compared to a sword, the spear can be made with inferior steel and far less metal overall. This made the weapon cheaper and probably within the capability of a common blacksmith to produce. Despite this, the spear held great cultural significance to the Viking warrior, as the primary weapon of Odin, the king of the Norse gods and the god of warfare, was the spear Gungnir. The Eyrbyggja Saga alludes that a customary start to a battle included throwing a spear right over the enemy army to claim it for Odin. Possibly due to its cultural significance, pattern-welded blades are common in spear heads, and the sockets were often decorated with silver inlaid patterns.
Swords were very costly to make, and a sign of high status. Like Roman spathae, they were worn in leather-bound wooden scabbards suspended from a strap across the right shoulder. Early blades were pattern-welded, a technique in which strips of wrought iron and mild steel were twisted and forged together, with the addition of a hardened edge.
Local craftsmen often added their own elaborately decorated hilts,
and many swords were given names, such as Leg-biter and Gold-hilt. The sword grip was usually made of an organic material such as wood, horn, or antler (which does not often survive for archeological uncovering) and may well have been wound around with textile.
Owning a sword was a matter of high honour. Persons of status might own ornately decorated swords with silver accents and inlays. Most Viking warriors would own a sword as one raid was usually enough to afford a good blade. Most freemen would own a sword with goðar, jarls and sometimes richer freemen owning much more ornately decorated swords. The poor farmers would use an axe or spear instead but after a couple of raids they would then have enough to buy a sword. One sword mentioned in the Laxdæla saga was valued at half a crown, which would correspond to the value of 16 milk-cows. Constructing such weapons was a highly specialized endeavour and many sword-blades were imported from foreign lands such as the Rhineland. Swords could take up to a month to forge and were of such high value that they were passed on from generation to generation. Often, the older the sword, the more valuable it became.
Shields and helmets
The shield was the most common means of defence.
The sagas specifically mention linden wood for shield construction, although finds from graves shows mostly other timbers, such as fir, alder and poplar. These timbers are not very dense and are light in the hand. They are also not inclined to split, unlike oak.
A typical Viking shield
Also, the fibres of the timber bind around blades preventing the blade from cutting any deeper unless a lot more pressure is applied. In conjunction with stronger wood, Vikings often reinforced their shields with leather or, occasionally, iron around the rim. Round shields seem to have varied in size from around 45 – 120 cm in diameter, but 75 – 90 cm is by far the most common.
The smaller shield sizes came from the pagan period for the Saxons and the larger sizes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Most shields are shown in illuminations as being painted a single colour although some have a design painted onto them; the commonest designs are simple crosses or derivations of sun wheels or segments. The few round shields that survived have much more complicated designs painted on them and sometimes very ornate silver and gold work applied around the boss and the strap anchors.
Today there is only one known example of a complete Viking helmet in existence. This Viking helmet was excavated on a farm called Gjermundbu in Ringerike in central Norway. The helmet dates to the 10th century. This helmet was made of iron and was in the shape of a rounded or peaked cap made from four plates after the spangenhelm pattern. This helmet has a rounded cap and has a "spectacle" guard around the eyes and nose which formed a sort of mask, in addition to a possible mail aventail.
Helmet. The 10th century, Norway.
The eye guard in particular suggests a close affinity with the earlier Vendelperiod helmets. From runestones and other illustrations, it is known that the Vikings also wore simpler helmets, often peaked caps with a simple noseguard.
It is possible that many of the Viking helmets were made from hardened leather and iron strips, since many Icelandic stories and Scandinavian picture stones tell and show warriors with helmets. It is also possible that helmets were inherited, instead of buried with the deceased owner, and went from father to son, and therefore stayed in a family for generations before eventually being turned into scrap metal or something else, like an axe. The Bayeux tapestry and its depiction of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 also depicts people scavenging armor and weapons from the dead. It is therefore likely that the chieftain or king that went into war, supplied his house carls and warriors with war gear (unless already being a land owning free man that could supply his own war gear), and when they died, their war gear was retrieved.
The Viking axe
When people think of Viking age weapons, they usually think first of the battle axe, and the image that forms in their mind is a massive weapon that only a troll could wield. In reality, battle axes in the Viking age were light, fast, and well balanced, and were good for speedy, deadly attacks, as well as for a variety of nasty, clever moves.
The axe was often the choice of the poorest man in the Viking age. Even the lowliest farm had to have a wood axe for cutting and splitting wood. In desperation, a poor man could pick up the farm axe and use it in a fight.
Axes meant for battle were designed a bit differently than farm axes.
A wide variety of axe head shapes were used in the Viking age. In the early part of the Viking era, the cutting edge was generally 7 to 15cm (3-6in) long, while later in the Viking age, axes became much larger. Breið-øx (broad axes) had crescent shaped edges 22 to 45cm (9-18in) long.
Some axe heads were elaborately decorated with inlays of precious metals, notably the Mammen axe head. The head is decorated on every flat surface with inlays of silver and gold and was found in a rich grave that dates from the year 971.
Decorated axe head
Typically, axe heads had a wedge-shaped cross section. The cross section of the head near the edge was sometimes diamond shape, which provided for greater strength for a given weight of iron.
Virtually all Viking-age axe heads are iron (or steel), although a bronze axe head was found in Iceland in a Viking age context, which raises a number of interesting questions about why bronze would have been used in this application. The head has an iron cutting bit, now heavily eroded.
One wonders whether men used sheaths on their axes in the Viking age to protect against accidental cuts. There is no archaeological evidence to suggest their use, and the little available literary evidence suggests they were not used.
Axes (as well as other weapons) were sometimes used to strike a blow that was not intended to be lethal. The öxarhamar (axe hammer), the backside of the axe head, was used for that purpose. Sometimes, the blow was made to humiliate an opponent, or in other cases, was made against an opponent so inferior that he didn't seem worthy of a proper blow.
Swedish Viking axe
Axes of Swedish design have been discovered in finds from the Viking Age (800-1100) in several locations around Sweden, indicating that the model was quite common at the time. As well as the shape of the axe head, a key feature of the axe is the curved handle. Its basic structure is reminiscent of the Franziska, a common axe design in the late Iron Age in parts of Central Europe.
Viking double axe
The light and well-balanced Swedish Viking Axe was most probably used as a hand weapon for the most part, but also as a tool.
Vikings’ preferred weapon was a massive double axe: Vikings did use axes in battle, however, they were of a very different type than suggested in the modern popular culture. It should be remembered that no double-headed axe has ever been found from early medieval Europe. Viking axes were light and used single-handed. The most common weapons found on Viking sites are spears.
Viking ships were marine vessels of particular designs used and built by the Vikings during the Viking Age. The boat-types were quite varied, depending on what the ship was intended for, but they were generally characterized as being slender and flexible boats, with symmetrical ends with true keel. They were clinker built, which is the overlapping of planks riveted together. Some might have had a dragon's head or other circular object protruding from the bow and stern, for design, although this is only inferred from historical sources.
They ranged in the Baltic Sea and far from the Scandinavian homelands, to Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Newfoundland, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and Africa.
The 9th century ship
The ship functioned as the centerpiece of Scandinavian culture for centuries. In fact, the importance of the Viking ship is deeply rooted in Scandinavian culture, as the vessel served both pragmatic and religious purposes. Scandinavia is a region with relatively high inland mountain ranges and easy access to coastal ports. Consequently, trade routes primarily operated via shipping, as inland trading was both hazardous and cumbersome.
Viking kingdoms thus developed into coastal cities, all of which were deeply dependent on the North Sea for survival and development. Control of the waterways was then of critical importance, and consequently the most advanced war ships were in high demand. In fact, because of their overwhelming importance, ships became a mainstay of the Viking pagan religion, as they evolved into symbols of power and prowess.
Throughout the first millennia, respectable Viking chieftains and noblemen were commonly buried with an intact, luxurious ship to transport them to the afterlife. Furthermore, the Hedeby coins, among the earliest known Danish currency, have ships as emblems, showing the importance of naval vessels in the area. Through such cultural and practical significance, the Viking ship progressed into the most powerful, advanced naval vessel in Viking Age Europe.
Longships were naval vessels made and used by the Vikings from Scandinavia and Iceland for trade, commerce, exploration, and warfare during the Viking Age. The longship's design evolved over many years, beginning in the Stone Age with the invention of the umiak and continuing up to the 9th century with the Nydam and Kvalsund ships. The longship appeared in its complete form between the 9th and 13th centuries. The character and appearance of these ships have been reflected in Scandinavian boat-building traditions until today. The average speed of Viking ships varied from ship to ship but lay in the range of 5–10 knots and the maximal speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 knots.
The long-ship is characterized as a graceful, long, narrow, light, wooden boat with a shallow draft hull designed for speed. The ship's shallow draft allowed navigation in waters only one metre deep and permitted beach landings, while its light weight enabled it to be carried over portages. Longships were also double-ended, the symmetrical bow and stern allowing the ship to reverse direction quickly without having to turn around; this trait proved particularly useful in northern latitudes where icebergs and sea ice posed hazards to navigation.
One Viking custom was to bury dead lords in their ships. The dead man’s body would be carefully prepared and dressed in his best clothes. After this preparation, the body would be transported to the burial-place in a wagon drawn by horses. The lord’s favorite horses and often, a faithful hunting-dog, were killed to be buried with the deceased man. The man would be placed on his ship, along with many of his most prized possessions. The Vikings firmly believed that the dead man would sail to the after-life. An example of a Viking ship burial was excavated near the Danish village of Ladby and can be found on display here.
Burial of ships is an ancient tradition in Scandinavia, as evidenced by the Nydam boats from 200-450 AD, for example.
The Viking culture
A variety of sources illuminate the culture, activities, and beliefs of the Vikings. Although they were generally a non-literate culture that produced no literary legacy, they had an alphabet and described themselves and their world on runestones. Most contemporary literary and written sources on the Vikings come from other cultures that were in contact with them.
Since the mid-20th century, archaeological findings have built a more complete and balanced picture of the lives of the Vikings. The archaeological record is particularly rich and varied, providing knowledge of their rural and urban settlement, crafts and production, ships and military equipment, trading networks, as well as their pagan and Christian religious artefacts and practices.
Literature and language
The most important primary sources on the Vikings are contemporary texts from Scandinavia and regions where the Vikings were active. Writing in Latin letters was introduced to Scandinavia with Christianity, so there are few native documentary sources from Scandinavia before the late 11th and early 12th centuries. The Scandinavians did write inscriptions in runes, but these are usually very short and formulaic. Most contemporary documentary sources consist of texts written in Christian and Islamic communities outside Scandinavia, often by authors who had been negatively affected by Viking activity.
Later writings on the Vikings and the Viking Age can also be important for understanding them and their culture, although they need to be treated cautiously. After the consolidation of the church and the assimilation of Scandinavia and its colonies into the mainstream of medieval Christian culture in the 11th and 12th centuries, native written sources begin to appear, in Latin and Old Norse.
In the Viking colony of Iceland, an extraordinary vernacular literature blossomed in the 12th through 14th centuries, and many traditions connected with the Viking Age were written down for the first time in the Icelandic sagas. A literal interpretation of these medieval prose narratives about the Vikings and the Scandinavian past is of course doubtful, but many specific elements remain worthy of consideration, such as the great quantity of skaldic poetry attributed to court poets of the 10th and 11th centuries, the exposed family trees, the self images, the ethical values, all included in these literary writings.
Indirectly the Vikings have also left a window open to their language, culture and activities, through many Old Norse place names and words, found in their former sphere of influence. Some of these place names and words are still in direct use today, almost unchanged, and sheds light on where they settled and what specific places meant to them, as seen in place names like Egilsay (from Eigils Ø meaning Eigil's Island), Ormskirk (from Ormr kirkja meaning Orms Church or Church of the Worm), Meols (from merl meaning Sand Dunes), Snaefell (Snow Fell), Ravenscar (Ravens Rock), Vinland (Land of Wine or Land of Winberry), Kaupanger (Market Harbour) and Tórshavn (Thor's Harbour) or the religious centre of Odense, meaning a place where Odin was worshipped. It is also evident in concepts like the present day Tynwaldon the Isle of Man.
Common words in everyday English language, like some of the weekdays (Thursday means Thor’s day), axle, crook, heat, hen, Hell, Norman and ransack stem from the Old Norse of the Vikings, and give us an opportunity to understand their interactions with the people and cultures of the British Isles.
The Viking peoples could read and write and used a non-standardized alphabet, called runor, built upon sound values. While there are few remains of runic writing on paper from the Viking era, thousands of stones with runic inscriptions have been found where Vikings lived. They are usually in memory of the dead, though not necessarily placed at graves. The use of runor survived into the 15th century, used in parallel with the Latin alphabet.
The majority of runic inscriptions from the Viking period are found in Sweden and date from the 11th century. The oldest stone with runic inscriptions was found in Norway and dates to the 4th century, suggesting that runic inscriptions pre-date the Viking period.
Many runestones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions, such as the Kjula runestone that tells of extensive warfare in Western Europe and the Turinge Runestone, which tells of a war band in Eastern Europe. Other runestones mention men who died on Viking expeditions. Among them are around 25 Ingvar runestones in the Mälardalen district of Sweden, erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition into present-day Russia in the early 11th century.
Runestones are important sources in the study of Norse society and early medieval Scandinavia.
The Lingsberg Runestone, Sweden
The Jelling stones date from between 960 and 985. The older, smaller stone was raised by King Gorm the Old, the last pagan king of Denmark, as a memorial honouring Queen Thyre. The larger stone was raised by his son, Harald Bluetooth, to celebrate the conquest of Denmark and Norway and the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. It has three sides: one with an animal image, one with an image of the crucified Jesus Christ, and a third bearing the following inscription:
“King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian”.
Runestones attest to voyages to locations such as Bath, Greece, Khwaresm, Jerusalem, Italy (as Langobardland), Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world), England (including London), and various places in Eastern Europe. Viking Age inscriptions have also been discovered on the Manx runestones on the Isle of Man.
There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings throughout Europe and their sphere of influence – in Scandinavia, the British Isles, Greenland, Iceland, Faeroe Islands, Germany, The Baltic, Russia, etc. The burial practices of the Vikings were quite varied, from dug graves in the ground, to tumuli, sometimes including so-called ship burials.
According to written sources, most of the funerals took place at sea. The funerals involved either burial or cremation, depending on local customs.
Some of the funerary stones settings,
In the area that is now Sweden, cremations were predominant, in Denmark burial was more common, and in Norway both were common. Viking barrows are one of the primary source of evidence for circumstances in the Viking Age. The items buried with the dead give some indication as to what was considered important to possess in the afterlife. We do not have any idea what mortuary services were given to dead children by the Vikings. Some of the burial sites that are most important to our understanding of the Vikings include:
ü Norway: Oseberg; Gokstad; Borrehaugene.
ü Sweden: Gettlinge gravfält; the cemeteries of Birka, a World Heritage Site; Valsgärde; Gamla Uppsala; Hulterstad gravfält, near Alby.
ü Denmark: Jelling, a World Heritage Site; Lindholm Høje; Ladby ship; Mammen chamber tomb and hoard.
ü Scotland: Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial; Scar boat burial, Orkney.
ü Faroe Islands: Hov.
Farming and cuisine
The Sagas tell us about the diet and cuisine of the Vikings, but first hand evidence, like cesspits, kitchen middens and garbage dumps have proved to be of great value and importance. Undigested remains of plants from cesspits at Coppergate in York have provided a lot of information in this respect. Overall, archaeo-botanical investigations have been undertaken increasingly in recent decades, as a collaboration between archaeologists and palaeoethno-botanists. This new approach sheds new light on the agricultural and horticultural practices of the Vikings and therefore also on their cuisine.
When the information from various sources are put together, a picture of a diverse cuisine, with lots of different ingredients emerges.
Vikings-Housing, food and drink
Meat products of all kinds, such as cured, smoked and whey-preserved meat, sausages and boiled or fried fresh meat cuts, were prepared and consumed. There were plenty of seafood, bread, porridges, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, berries and nuts. Alcoholic drinks like beer, mead, bjórr (a strong fruit wine) and, for the rich, imported wine were served.
The Vikings in York mostly ate beef, mutton, and pork with small amounts of horse meat. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to get out the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as the black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found.
Seafood was an important part of the diet, in some places even more so than meat. Whales and walrus were hunted for food in Norway and the north-western parts of the North Atlantic region, and seals were hunted nearly everywhere. Oysters, mussels and shrimps were eaten in large quantities and cod and salmon were popular fish. In the southern regions, herring was also important.
Milk and buttermilk were popular, both as cooking ingredients and drinks, but were not always available, even at farms. The milk came from cows, goats and sheep, with priorities varying from location to location, and fermented milk products like skyr or surmjölk were produced as well as butter and cheese.
Food was often salted and enhanced with spices, some of which were imported like black pepper. Home grown spices that were used include caraway, mustard and horseradish as evidenced from the Oseberg ship burial or dill, coriander, and wild celery, as found during the archaeological examinations of cesspits at Coppergate in York. Thyme, juniper berry, sweet gale, yarrow, rue and peppercress were also used.
Vikings collected and ate fruits, berries and nuts. Apple (wild crab apples) plums and cherries were part of the diet, as were rose hips and raspberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, elderberry, rowan, hawthorn and various wild berries, specific to the locations. Hazelnuts were an important part of the diet in general and large amounts of walnut shells have been found in cities like Hedeby. The shells were used for dyeing and it is assumed the nuts were enjoyed as well.
The invention and introduction of the mould board plough revolutionized agriculture in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and made it possible to farm even the poor soils. In Ribe, grains of rye, barley, oat and wheat dated to the 8th century have been found and examined, and these are believed to have been cultivated locally. Grains and flour were used for making porridges, some cooked with milk, some cooked with fruit and sweetened with honey, and also various forms of bread. Remains of bread from primarily Birka in Sweden were made of barley and wheat. It is unclear if the Norse leavened their breads, but their ovens and baking utensils suggest that they did.
The quality of food for common people was not always particularly high. The research at Coppergate shows that the Vikings in York made bread from whole meal flour – probably both wheat and rye – but with the seeds of cornfield weeds included. Corn cockle (Agrostemma), would have made the bread dark-coloured, but the seeds are poisonous, and people who ate the bread might have become ill. Seeds of carrots, parsnip, and brassicas were also discovered, but they were poor specimens and tend to come from white carrots and bitter tasting cabbages. The rotary querns often used in the Viking Age inevitably left tiny stone fragments (often from basalt rock) in the flour and when eaten later on, these small stones wore down the teeth. The effects of this can be seen on skeletal remains of that period.