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Scandinavian Americans have been loud and proud about their Viking ancestors for a long time, and why shouldn’t they be? Sure, these forebearers could sometimes be loudmouthed barbarians, puffed up with flash and swagger, who loved knocking heads (and knocking boots), but they also wrote epic poetry, brewed excellent beer, were skilled craftspeople and accomplished merchants, and mastered the lore of the sea. Vikings stayed loyal to the death, bonding over good food (well, good by premedieval standards) and good mead. The Vikings were a curious, resourceful group of global explorers, men and women alike, who approached new lands as raiders, yes, but also as traders and immigrants.
My own ancestors came to the United States as immigrants from Norway and Sweden, most of them several generations back. But my strongest Scandinavian influence comes from my grandfather Ottar Egerdahl, who came through Ellis Island as a child in the 1920s, lived briefly in South Dakota, and settled in Seattle, Washington.
Growing up, my grandfather and his siblings weren’t allowed to speak Norwegian at home, only English, to help them assimilate. With a sense that something precious had been lost, my father, Ed, studied Norwegian as a young man, taking several trips to Norway and eventually founding the Scandinavian Language Institute, an organization that teaches language lessons through the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. I took all the kids’ classes and a few adult sessions, but today my language skills hover somewhere between tourist quality and singing “Jeg er så glad” at Christmas.
One of the highlights of our family vacations was visiting the tiny northern valley of Egerdal in Nordland, where Ottar’s family originated (the H in our last name was tacked on at Ellis Island). My dad was pretty excited when I married a man who knows how to make better krumkake than I do. But my main claim to fame is being a Sons of Norway parade princess as a senior in high school, waving to the crowd from the back of a convertible in the Norwegian Constitution Day parade. Kjersti the Viking Princess: carve that in runes on my tombstone.
I’ve always been inspired by the fierce, imaginative, adventurous legacy of the Vikings as it’s come down to me in stories and through pop culture. We know the Vikings wove the perfect beard braid and built unstoppable warships, but who were these mysterious seafarers, really, and what were their everyday lives like? There’s got to be more to it than the Marvel Comics superhero Thor lets on.
In the following pages, I’ve pulled together archaeological evidence, Norse writings, and foreign perspectives from the Viking Age to help answer these questions and to provide an informative, full, and—I hope—fun view of life as a Viking. After all, each of us could use a little more adventure in our lives. Here’s hoping Odin, god of inspiration, spreads some of his magic to you.
—Kjersti-Marie Ragnhild Egerdahl
BITTER IS THE WIND TONIGHT IT TOSSES THE OCEAN’S WHITE HAIR. TONIGHT I FEAR NOT THE FIERCE WARRIORS OF NORWAY COURSING THE IRISH SEA.
—UNKNOWN IRISH POET
A VIKING HOME
Down on the Farm
During the Viking Age, most Scandinavians lived in small villages made up of six to eight farms—towns were relatively rare. Each farm had a longhouse as the main dwelling, surrounded by outbuildings like stables and storehouses and enclosed with a fence. Blacksmith shops, a fire hazard, usually stood at the edge of the property.
A typical longhouse had curved walls and an arched roofline like an upturned boat—everything comes back to ships for the Vikings. Walls were made of thick timbers sunk into the ground with planks or wattle, with daub in between—no windows. The thatched roof rested on wooden beams. Often the building was divided in half, with stalls for livestock at one end and the family’s living area at the other.
Inside, the only light came from hazy fish oil (pleasant, I know) or tallow lamps, smoky central and cooking fires, and the hole in the roof that all the smoke was supposed to escape through. Can’t imagine it was super effective.
Built-in benches along the walls served as seating, storage, and beds, with long, narrow wooden tables. Needless to say, privacy was hard to come by, although the husband and wife might have a closet bed with shutters that closed. Wealthy royals occasionally had large, decorated wooden beds. Most people slept under heavy woolen blankets and possibly down comforters. For additional storage, wooden chests and boxes came in handy, some elaborately carved and some with clever iron locks. The lady of the house kept all the keys on a ring on her belt as a symbol of her status.
All in the Family
A Viking household was made up of a married couple and their children, with servants for wealthy families. Vikings, like other groups in the Viking Age and Middle Ages, might have anywhere from no children to ten or even twelve—and, oh yeah, no separate bedrooms. Can you imagine?
Childhood in the Viking Age was mostly an apprenticeship for adulthood. Archaeologists have found children’s toys, including dolls, ships, swords, and small animal figures. But many toys could also work as teaching tools for adult tasks: a spinning top might teach a child the motions of spinning wool into thread, and a wooden sword could be used for training.
Vikings mostly educated their children by having them help with chores and grooming them to perform adult tasks. Children might tend the fire or gather firewood, help with cooking, pick berries, or take care of animals. In the poem “RigsÞula,” a myth about the creation of the social classes, only the upper-class children of the nobleman named Jarl learn to read and write runes.
Coming of Age
Life was hard in the Viking Age, with a high infant mortality rate and women at great risk of dying in childbirth. If parents could not afford to support a new child, infanticide, or leaving a baby out to die, was legal into the 1200s. With life expectancy hovering around a mere forty to forty-five years, children who survived grew up quickly. Boys could inherit at age sixteen, and girls could marry as young as twelve. They were considered adults as soon as they were married.
THE LOOK FOR MEN
You may imagine Vikings outfitted in nothing but fur and leather, but archaeological evidence shows that most clothing was made of woven wool and linen fabric, with silk trim on fancier pieces.
TROUSERS: Vikings wore a couple of different styles: narrow, tailored leggings and baggy knee-length pants. Men wore leg wrappings, or puttees, in a variety of colors with trousers of both styles. Narrow strips of cloth were wound around the calves, covering the hems of the pants and offering extra warmth and protection against wear and tear.
TUNICS: These long-sleeved shirts reached below the waist and could be layered for warmth. Usually made of wool, tunics could have a rounded neckline or a keyhole collar with a single button or bead to hold it shut. Some were cut close to the body, while others used extra cloth to create a flared waist. They might feature trim or embroidery at the neck and cuffs.
CLOAKS: Men pinned their cloaks with a metal brooch at the shoulder to keep their sword arms free—so you could tell at a glance whether a man was right or left handed. Cloaks were made from a single rectangular piece of fabric, ranging from lightweight woven wool to thick, shaggy wool thought to be a type of faux fur. The graves of some high-ranking individuals contained fur-lined cloaks with colorful silk trim or plaid cloaks with fringe.
COATS: Some men in the eastern Swedish city of Birka wore long Rus riding coats, buttoned from neck to waist and open below. Historians believe they were adapted from the Byzantine Empire’s long coat called a skaramangion. Trade with Russia was well established at the beginning of the Viking Age, and the Vikings imported fashions as well.
CAPS: Men’s caps were made from leather or woven fabric and had either rounded or pointed tops. Rich men might have embroidered or woven trim—and among the fashionable set in Birka, metal knot work seems to have been popular. Men wore helmets in battle (but not with horns!)—see Horned Helmets here for details.
BELTS: Simple metal buckles have been found in many graves, with traces of both leather belts and colorful tablet-woven fabric belts. A man might carry a knife on his belt alongside a purse containing a comb, a nail cleaner, flint, gaming pieces, or coins.
SHOES AND BOOTS: Men and women both wore leather shoes and short boots, either slip-ons, laced, or buttoned. They were generally plain—Vikings didn’t risk sewing precious silk or woven trim to the hems of their skirts or trousers, let alone waste it on footwear.
THE LOOK FOR WOMEN
Even rich Viking women lived active, outdoorsy lives, and the layered look was a practical solution that also offered plenty of opportunities for decoration. As with men, fur and leather played a much smaller role with women than pop culture leads us to believe. Working our way outward, here’s a breakdown of the four main layers:
SHIFT: The innermost garment would be floor length with long sleeves, made of woven, undyed linen. Regional variations included a boatneck versus a keyhole neckline closed with a small metal brooch, pleats versus smooth, and gores added for fullness (à la homemade bell-bottoms) versus straight cut. In Birka, it was fashionable to wear a pleated shift and let your slip show under a shorter gown.
GOWN: Also floor length with long sleeves, this tunic went over the shift and could be linen or wool. It was usually dyed bright colors, with the sleeves and torso embellished with embroidery, braid, or appliquéd strips of imported silk. The fancy Swedes of Birka, which was a market town, sometimes used metal trimmings like knotted strips of silver wire or looped metal meshwork. A few areas used fur trimmings, but not many groups treated fur as a decoration.
APRON DRESS: This wraparound piece had shoulder straps rather than sleeves, pinned in place by distinctive oval brooches. The cloth was less heavily decorated, as you might expect for an outer garment that saw a lot of wear and tear.
LONG COAT OR CAFTAN: No, not a 1970s Elizabeth Taylor–style caftan, although that would be awesome. This was a floor-length, long-sleeved wool coat that pinned shut with another large brooch at the chest. Like the gown, the sleeves and bodice of the caftan were heavily embellished and might have been lined with linen or silk. It replaced the more shapeless shawl and went out of fashion later in the Viking Age as pleated shifts became more popular.
Homegrown ingredients like the root of the madder plant and the leaves of yellow flowering woad dictated many of the colors in a Viking woman’s wardrobe.
DARK RED: The Danelaw in England
For more on dyeing techniques, see Weaving and Sewing, here.
FARMING THE FJORDS AND FJELLS
Most farms focused on livestock: cows, sheep, horses, pigs, and some poultry. Farmers valued their animals for milk, wool, and work (plowing and riding) more than for meat—in fact, many poorer farmers would only kill and eat an animal as a last resort when facing starvation.
Pork became more popular with richer farmers over the course of the Viking Age, as they converted more fields from grazing land to grain crops. Pigs can forage in the woods and eat kitchen scraps, which means they need much less pasture space.
Women and men both tended animals, but the outdoor work of plowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and threshing fell to men. Since “fertilizing” meant spreading human and animal dung over the whole field, the women were probably glad to let them have it.
Put Your Back Into It
- On Sale
- May 5, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Running Press