Life in Viking Times

By Tim Lambert

Viking Society

Upper-class Vikings were called Jarls (from which we derive our word, Earl). Below them was a class of farmers and craftsmen called Karls. At the bottom of the heap was a class of slaves called thralls. Slavery was common in the world at that time. It was accepted as an inevitable part of life.

The Vikings captured women and children on their raids and made them slaves. They were sold in markets and they had no rights. Slaves did the hardest and most unpleasant work. However, Viking women had a good deal of freedom.

Viking Merchants and Craftsmen

Viking merchants imported glass and silk from the Byzantine Empire. They also imported spices, fine wool, and wine. They exported slaves, furs, beeswax, honey, and walrus ivory.

Viking craftsmen included blacksmiths, bronze smiths, coopers, leather tanners, saddlers, shoemakers, and other men who made leather goods like purses and belts. They also had jewelers and men who carved bowls from soapstone. Other craftsmen carved bones and antlers into goods like combs.

The Vikings also had their own form of writing. The Viking alphabet was called the futhark and the 16 individual letters were called runes. They were made of straight and diagonal lines, which were carved into wood or stone. (In the late Viking era people wrote on sheep or calf skin).

Viking Weapons

Vikings wore iron helmets. Some of them also wore chainmail. They also carried round wooden shields. They fought with spears, bows, axes, and swords. In battle, Vikings stood in rows and formed a wall of shields called a skjaldborg.

The Vikings also built fortresses. They dug a ditch and created an earth bank then erected a wooden stockade on top.

Viking helmets

Viking Food

The Vikings grew wheat, barley, and rye. They made bread and porridge. Sometimes they added peas to the porridge to make it go further. They also ate cabbages, onions, and leeks and they used herbs like dill and coriander. The Vikings grew apples and plums and they gathered wild berries.

Fish was an important part of the Viking diet and they ate cod and herring. They also raised pigs, cattle, sheep, and goats. (Sheep and goats were used for milk). Vikings also kept geese and chickens.

However, the Vikings could not grow enough food to keep much livestock through the winter. So in autumn they killed many animals and salted or smoked the meat to preserve it.

The Vikings were fond of pork and beef but they also ate horse meat and goat meat and they hunted deer for venison. The Vikings also hunted whales and seals. Meat was roasted on a spit. Viking women also boiled food in an iron cauldron.

Vikings drank mead (a drink made from honey, water, and yeast), beer, and (if they could afford it) wine. The Vikings ate from wooden bowls and dishes. Spoons were made of horn or (for the well-off) metal. The Vikings also ate with knives but there were no forks. They often drank from hollow horns called drinking horns.

drinking horn

Viking Homes

A Viking house often consisted of just one room. (Although in a well-off family, mum and dad might have a separate bedroom). The house was usually made with a wooden frame, which was filled in with timber planks or wattle and daub (wickerwork and plaster). However, in areas where wood was scarce (like Greenland) stone was used for building and roofs might be made of turf.

In a Viking house, there were no panes of glass so windows had to be small. At night wooden shutters covered them. Viking houses were dark because the windows were small and the only light came from oil lamps carved from soapstone. In the center of the hut was a hearth where the cooking was done. However, there was no chimney.

Viking homes had little furniture. In the hut, there would be a table and stools but chairs were a luxury. Chests were used to store tools and clothes.

Only wealthy Vikings could afford beds. Most people slept on benches with rugs around the side of the hut. Even if you had a bed the mattress was not very comfortable, it was stuffed with straw or down. Blankets were made of wool otherwise you used furs.

Rich people might have tapestries on the walls but there were no carpets on the floors. Instead, people spread rushes on them.

To us, Viking houses would seem very uncomfortable. They were cold and drafty, dark and smoky. The furniture was hard and uncomfortable.

Viking Clothes

Viking women spun and wove cloth at home and made the family’s clothes. Women wore a dress-like garment called a shift made of linen or wool. Over it, they wore a dress open at the sides, held with shoulder straps. In cold weather, they wore cloaks or shawls. Clothing was held in place by brooches. Viking women often had their hair plaited or held under a headscarf.

Viking men wore trouser-like garments and linen shirts and tunics. They usually wore beards. Both sexes wore jewelry.

Viking Games

The Vikings enjoyed many sports including swimming, wrestling, skiing, and ice skating. They also practiced archery. Vikings also enjoyed hunting and falconry. They were also fond of horse fighting.

Indoors they played dice and a board game called Hnefatafl. They also played chess. Vikings also played a game similar to backgammon called Kvatrutafl and, an early form of draughts. The Vikings were also fond of listening to stories and telling riddles.

Rich Vikings held great feasts. At them, poets called skalds sang poems praising their lord’s brave deeds. Viking musical instruments included harps, horns, and wooden pipes.

Viking Transport

The Vikings built long and slender ships called longboats for raiding. Longboats could be up to 23 meters long. For trade, they built shorter and broader ships called knorrs. The Vikings also built a type of little rowing boat with 4 oars called a faering and a boat with 6 oars called a sexaering, which were used for fishing. Viking ships were clinker-built i.e. they were made with overlapping planks. They had a single square sail and up to 50 oars.

On land in summer goods were transported by packhorse or cart but in Viking lands in winter sleds were used. People rode horses or walked in summer but in winter they used skis or skates made from bone.

Viking roads were just dirt tracks but in towns, they were paved with wooden planks. In alleys, panels of wattle (a kind of wickerwork) were laid down to keep your feet out of the mud.

Last revised 2024