Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Vikings - Family Life

relief, Tømmerby church
When times were peaceful, and the Viking lived at home with wife and children, he was a family man. The family was the most important of all, everyone supported and helped each other.

eating porridge
How was the daily food of the Viking? There has been much speculation about this, and a reconstruction of a Viking menu was made from the Saga-informations. Although the sagas were written in the 1300-14000s it is okay to assume that Mrs. Viking's daily housekeeping included things like  whole grain bread (rye), oat- and barley porridge,  fish (not at least herring) , various meat like mutton, lamb , goat, horse, oxe, calf, pork, and there were cheese and butter and cream, and not to forget beer and mjod (mead) - and there was wine for rich people. Especially in Norway and Iceland were whale, seal and polar bear important meat on the menu. Cooking and roasting were known. They probably also knew how to dry fish and meat. Catching birds played also an important role. Among the vegetables were cabbage and onions the most popular, and the fruit came from bushes and trees, like apples, berries and hazelnuts. They had bee-honey from which they made the sweet fermented drink, mjød. They probably knew how to keep the food fresh with ice and salt and sour whey.  They took salt from the sea water and from burning seaweed.

In places where the sea was far away and the forest was close the hunt was important. Hunting the big animals of the woods like elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, bear - they all contributed to the kitchen and the storeroom,  also the hare in the field and the geese and the chicken in the yard. In the northernest part of Scandinavia were also the reindeer and the bison. Nature was rich, but although it was easy to represent a comprehensive menu, there were poor districts, and in times of crop failures there might be famine, and people had to find emergency solutions like eating red seaweed, bark and lichen.

The viking had both table and chair, things like table cloth and plates were known, and he used spoon and knife, but not fork. It arrived later. It was supposedly usual to eat twice a day, a meal in the morning called davre and a meal in the evening called nadver. It was told that king Harald Hardrada only had one meal a day. He had it brought, before others came to the table, and when he had finished his meal he knocked on the table with his knife handle and ordered the food removed, while people were still hungry, following the food with sad eyes. The king was not to be opposed. I guess they had their head cut off if they quarrelled.

Were the Vikings cleanly? Some say yes, some say no, some say  they were cleanly if they had to, others that if it wasn't necessary, then they relaxed. Well, at least  they had combs and razors and all the things needed to take care of themselves. The literature from the Saga-period indicates that the Icelanders and the Norwegians were cleanly. One of the first stanzas in the Hávámal says about the guest: "he needs water at the host's table, a greeting and a handkerchief". Later is said: "Clean and satisfied should every man ride to the Thing, even though he has not got fine clothes". One of the weekdays, Saturday, was named after wash. An Icelandic physician Skuli Guðjonson draws the attention to that a mountain was sacred and that no one must turn an unwashed face to it.

The Arab Ibn Talad gives a drastic description of the Swedish Rus-people's bad uncleanliness. When he visited the districts by Volga (ab. 920), he noticed this more closely . "They are", he says, " the most unclean of God's creatures, they do not clean themselves after excrements or urination, they do not wash after ejaculation, and they do not wash their hands after meal. They are like savage donkeys". He describes their morning-toilet, which is done in a common washbowl, where the water is as dirty and as unclean as you can imagine. "The girl comes each morning with a big bowl with water. She gives it to her master; he washes his hands, his face and hair, he both washes and combs his hair in the bowl. Then he blows his nose and spits in the bowl. He leaves no dirt outside the water. When he has finished, the girl carries the bowl to the next man, and he does the same as the first. She keeps on carrying the bowl from one to another, until each one in the house has used it, spitting and blowing their nose and washing face and hair in the same bowl." 

This does not sound very cosy, but it is counterbalanced by some nice statements from another Arab, Ibn Rustad, who describes and praises the Vikings for their hospitality, their courage , their just decisions after a fight, and their burial rituals. "Their bodies are slim, they are good looking, they are frank and honest. They wear wide trousers; to each pair is used 100 meters (!) material. They put them on by rolling the fabric around their knees and fasten them there. Their clothes are clean, and the men like to wear bracelets in gold. They treat their slaves well and give them exquisite clothes. They honor their guests and treat the strangers well who seek refuge and everyone who come visiting. They do not allow their guests to be attacked by anynone, they help and defend them . They have got *sulaimanisc swords. If a group is called out for war, they all go out. They stick together like one man against their enemies until they have won victory". That was a nicer story!

* sulaimanisc swords are from Iran / Persia.

finds from the Viking town under Århus
Literary sources say about the Danes, who lived in England that they combed their hair, took a bath each Saturday and changed clothes very often "to be able to overwin the chastity of the women and to get a daughter from nobility as a mistress". The conclusion is not that the Norwegians and the Icelanders were clean, that the Swedes were dirty and the Danes were clean. The common view must be that the Nordic Viking was not unfamiliar with cleanliness, but if the circumstances did not force him, then he might relax.
comb from the Viking town under Århus

It is not known if the Vikings knew about soap. In coarser laundry they possibly used staled cow-urine like they did later on Iceland. The ammonia was a fine cleaner.

Mrs. Viking
The Viking loved luxurious clothes. In Dublin the Irish found from the conquered Norweigan Limerick large stores of gold, silver and woven material in all colours: satin, silk and cloth. The Arab Ibn Fadlan says about the Swedish Rus-people  by Volga and in the western Russia : " I saw the Rus-people when they came on their trading expedition. I have never seen people with a more perfect body building. They are tall like date palms and reddish. They do not wear a robe or a caftan; the man wears a cloak, which covers half his body,  leaving one hand to stick out from it. From his nails to the neck is a collection of trees, figures and other things. (this must be tatoos). (...) Their women have a container on the breast, it is tied and is in either iron, copper, silver or gold, according to her husband's riches. In each container is a ring with a knife, also tied to the chest. Around the neck the women have necklaces in gold and silver. When the husband owns ten thousand dirhems, then he makes a necklace for his wife. When he has got twenty thousand dirhems, he makes two necklaces. In this way his wife gets a new necklace for each ten thousand dirhems he adds to his fortune. So the women wear often many necklaces. Their finest jewelry is a green glass pearl. "

Viking dress, King Aethelstan (900s)
But there are archaeological examinations, which tells us about the Viking's clothes.  The men wore a shirt, maybe two; the trousers were in two characteristic fashions, one was ankle-long and narrow, the other was a kind of plus fours, and for these he wore stockings and wrapping bands. He also wore a cloak,  held together with a buckle on the right shoulder.

The medicine was primitive, but they might have had some experience in treatment of wounds. They were often in fight and got some heavy wounds. The Icelandic physician Skuli Goðjonson says that Snorre's tale about Stiklestad  (1030) is an interesting piece of medicine. Thormod Kolbrunarskjald dies after having drawn out the arrow from his heart himself. "I have not yet fat in my heart-roots," he says, while he is watching the shreds, hanging from the barbs of the arrow. Snorre tells about the lazaret in the barn at Stiklestad, where the women heated the water (possibly sterilisation) and dressed the wounds, possibly partly antiseptic. Then they prepared a fluent porridge of onion and herbs and let the wounded man eat it, whereafter they examined, if they could smell the onions from the abdomen, undoubtedly in order to find out, if there was a hole in the guts. If so it was perotinitis, and they knew this meant death. They used the onions to make a diagnosis like we today give test meals.

Viking board game, Wessex
In daily life the Viking liked to play board game. There is a wellknown episod between Cnut the Great and his brother-in-law Ulf Jarl playing a chess. But the Vikings also played checkers and hund efter hare (hound chasing hare). The Nordic word for board game = tavlebord is a loan word in Welsh. The board game has left several archaeological traces, both board and pieces. In the Gokstad ship (900) was a game board made for various games on both sides, and at Ballinderry in Ireland was in 1932 found a well-kept game board in tax-wood, probably a "hound chasing hare"-game, with Norse-Celtic ornaments. It is now in the National Museum in Dublin. It belongs to the middle of the 10th century, and it was probably made at the Isle of Man. There have been found several  game-pieces from the Viking period and the early Middle Ages.

relief, Tømmerby church
In times of peace the Viking was a family man; he loved his wife and his children. When a marriage had to be made, the two families came to an agreement, and there were only conflicts, if the young lovers were upsetting the interests of the mighty family. For the family was mighty. Inside the large blurred society the family was a strong place of refuge. The family members stayed by the family during kill and unrest, they got help and support from relatives, and they were under the obligation to do the same. Woe he, who dared to betray his family. He was expelled from the family, he became an outlaw. But just being a member of a mighty powerful family could be dangerous. A man could not take care of himself by keeping to himself. He had the obligations to react on his family's behalf, and that might lead a peaceful man into heavy complications. Hávámal praises the good friend several times. Behind this lies that you have to be prepared. "He who has no friend is in danger".

An example of a chief's  family in the 1000s: The family-feeling in the large families from that time did not reach only parents, children and siblings, but also cousins, uncles and aunts, nephews and grand nephews. The family had friends and faithful companions too. Under the family were different serving people and slaves and maybe also military - like the farmers, who lived on the family estate, being attached to them in both work and war. All this formed something difficult to namecall. It might be called a Family Union , but also a 'clan' like in Scotland. In that period was often used the latin term 'familia', which might be interpreted like a 'large household'.

The Nordic Viking was open for satire and sarcasm. He himself was scared ot the power of an evil tongue. Hávámal sometimes speaks with a delightful serene irony, when it is about the phenomenon "hospitality without riscy generosity ".
"Some would invite me to visit their homes,
But none thought I needed a meal,
As though I had eaten a whole joint,
Just before with a friend who had two".

The Viking had a sharp eye for the flaws and peculiarities in his fellowman. The custom of giving nick-names was common. They loved to hand out nick names, especially to kings and chiefs. Harald Bluetooth, Sweyn Forkbeard, Harald Fairhair. Many nick-names point at blemishes, like Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Ivar the Boneless, and names like Catback, Crowfoot, Juice Roach, (who might have had some rash on his head, or maybe he liked to drink plant-juices) -   and on Iceland was  Egil Skallagrimsson (=  ugly roach). It is said about Egil that he exhibited berserk behaviour, and this, together with the description of his large and unattractive head, has led to the theory that he might have suffered from Paget's disease. This is corroborated by an archeological find of a head from the Viking era which might be Egil's. At the same time there is a capriciousity in the nick-names. They meant sometimes the opposite of, what they actually meant,  like "Tord the Short". It is known that he was a very tall man. So it is not easy to guess, what a Viking's nick-name really meant.

Hagar the Horrible

Johannes Brøndsted, Vikingerne, Gyldendal 1960; Arkæologisk magasin Skalk, 1/1989, 2/1965, 4/1995. Danmarkshistorie, bd. 3, Da Danmark blev Danmark, (700-1050), Peter Sawyer, Gyldendal og Politiken. "Thi de var af stor slægt", Marianne Johannesen og Helle Halding.


Joan said...

This was so interesting. Hard men! I have more to catch up on.. thank you Grethe!

Thyra said...

Hej Joan, it's so good to see you back on your blog! I hope you had a good journey. The photos from Hongkong are great.
Yes, the story is mostly about men. There isn't much stuff about women. I'm searching with light and torch, and they are not very visible! But I'll find some. They were strong too, but it was a man's world! Would you like to add a remark here??
Grethe `)

Wanda..... said...

A man's world indeed, Grethe! Such an interesting time in history. Vikings are always portrayed(in movies) as big brave men. The Swedish Rus-people's daily habits were ghastly and their morning-toilet proves they would need great courage to wash in that manner! I imagine the ways of the whole world back then would seem dreadful to us now.

Out on the prairie said...

Some very interesting facts. They have found a rune stone in the southcentral US from about 1000 so they were very well traveled.

Thyra said...

Hej Wanda! Yes, we would not be happy to live like this, now that we know how to live the good life! It's fun to read about it. I hope you've had a good week-end with a fine autumn weather.
Grethe `)

Thyra said...

Hej to you Steve from the prairie! If you mean the Kensington stone then try to read about it on wikipedia or on the net. I won't be the messenger, I'll just hint that it is disputed..........
Thank you so much for your comment!
Grethe `)

Carolyn said...

What a wonderful history lesson! Vikings - other than Eric the Red - were missing from my history book...

Love this post .... AND I love Hagar the Horrible! one of my favorite comics... Hahaaaa he kills me

Thyra said...

Thank you so much Carolyn. I didn't know the cartoon guy was called Hagar the Horrible!! Sounds like he's famous and funny!
Grethe `)

Carolyn said...

He's in our newspaper everyday! Here's a website for him.

Pretty silly ol boy! ;)

Thyra said...

Now I know who he is, Carolyn. Thank you. He's called Hagbard or Baldur hin Barske in Dk, but also the English name. He's so cute and funny. And the drawings are great. I have read a little about him now. I don't remember which newspaper he's in here in DK, but I'll find out later. I wonder if I may use this picture. Maybe I should replace him, although he is such a great and funny viking! Thank you for telling me!
Grethe ´)

Carolyn said...

Here's Sunday's... speaking of a man's world ;)

Thyra said...

Thank you Carolyn, I have made a link to this great Viking in the post. He's so funny and cute. I asked my son, when he phoned me today, if he knew Hagar, and he's got some old cartoons with him, so he knew him very well,.. Gosh! how ignorant I am!! It was good of you to tell me.
Grethe ´)