The 'Norse Encampment' is the collective name given to a series of living history programs, which illustrate daily life in the Viking Age. Historic interpreters, employing replica objects, bring the past to life through typical activities of the Norse, and portraying historic styled characters. Throughout the series exceptional care was taken to ensure everything involved in a presentation was reflective of current archaeological research. One cornerstone of all the presentations was reference to the Vinland voyages by the Norse, circa 1000 AD.
A Teacher's Guide to the World of the Norse
A brief overview
This summary presents a general overview of the culture of Scandinavia during the 'Viking Age', from roughly 800 to 1100 AD. The material covered refers mainly to 'daily life' rather than detailing specific historic events. Included is a discussion of the Norse exploration of North America as shown by L' Anse aux Meadows Newfoundland, circa 1000. This overview was originally offered for classroom use in conjunction with the 'Norse Encampment' - a living history presentation that centres on the original Norse settlement in Canada. Note that teachers are given permission to reproduce this article for classroom use.
The people who inhabited Scandinavia and north east Russia at the beginning of the Middle Ages were a cultural group distinct from that in the rest of Europe. They shared closely related languages, regional character, artistic tradition, and even a separate religion that differed from their southern neighbours. As a people, their attitudes where shaped by the hardships and isolation forced upon them by the geography of their homelands. They were to explode across Europe in the last years of the eighth century, and remain the dominant force in northern Europe until the eleventh century. At the height of their power, their influence would be felt from the Middle East to North America - the entire known world in those days. These people were the Norse.
"From the fury of the North men, oh Lord, deliver us", was a plea attributed to a mediaeval cleric. In 793, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record the brutal sacking of the church at Lindisfarne by "heathen men". This was to be the first in a succession of raids in the West. Going 'viking' meant going raiding; it was an action rather than a description of nationality. To the English, there was little difference between a Dane, a Swede or a Norwegian. It is important to remember, however, that while all Vikings are Norse, not all Norsemen are Vikings. A number of factors merged together to give the Vikings the characteristics which made them so feared. The rugged environment of their homelands bred a people who where fiercely independent and physically strong. They had a fatalistic outlook on life, and a religion that held that the way to heaven for a warrior was to die in battle. Being non-Christian, the sanctity of the Church meant nothing to them, and its wealth made it the obvious target for raids. Generations of seafaring had enabled them to perfect their navigation skills. Their dragon-prowed ships were far more technologically advanced than ships elsewhere. This combination of characteristics was to prove so successful that by 886 over half of England was under the direct control of the Norse. This area was known as the Danelaw. The policy of bribing the invaders to leave with ever increasing amounts of silver (known as danegeld) had failed. The grandsons of these raiders made the last great invasion of England, under William of Normandy in 1066.
Generally, each viking warrior was well-equipped. The main battle weapon was the sword. The common blade averaged about 5 cm wide, was 70 - 80 cm long, and even the heaviest had a total weight under 2 kilograms. They were often made of layers of steel that had been elaborately folded and twisted, a process known as pattern welding. Long single-edged fighting knives were common as well. Secondary weapons were either spears or axes. The use of these tended to be a regional preference, the Danes favouring the axe, with the spear being more popular with the Swedes. The axes used were single edged, and tended to be longer in body than in the width of the curved edge. Even though the weight of these weapons was in fact only between 1 and 2 kilograms, they were devastating in use. War spears generally had large double-edged heads that came to a long tapering point. Although the functional capability of a weapon was the most important quality to a Norseman, many weapons were elaborately engraved or inlaid with gold or silver. Each man would carry a round shield for protection. These were normally about a metre in diameter, and made of wood with a leather covering. A metal rim strengthened the edge. The grip was in the centre, covered with a bowl-shaped iron boss. Chain mail was considered to be the finest armour, but its high cost caused it to be worn only by the wealthy (or those in the service of the wealthy). The primary protection worn was heavy leather jerkins and caps, sometimes reinforced with metal splints. For the same reason, iron helmets appear to have been less common. Most were simple skull caps, open at the sides. Some had nasals or goggle-like protection for the face. The horned helmets of popular imagination did not exist; this type is an invention of Victorian artists.
The major weapon that made all this possible was the longship. Light but strong, and powered by both sails and oars, these ships could make deep sea voyages, or penetrate far up river courses. They had pronounced keels that swept up at the bow and stern to produce a distinctive outline. This deep keel, combined with an adjustable square sail, allowed travel 'close to the wind'. In cross-section, the hull planks flared out in a wide curve. This produced a hull that supported a large cargo, but at the same time allowed a shallow draft. (A boat that held a crew of 50 would float in four feet of water.) The thin hull planks of oak overlapped and were riveted to each other (clinker built), but were lashed to the cross beams that gave them shape. This resulted in a structure that would flex, giving slightly to the force of heavy seas. These vessels came in a number of different types, from the light and slender royal yachts like Oseberg, to the squat merchant ships with partially covered decks.
In combination with the highly developed ships came specialised navigation skills. To the majority of Europeans, to lose sight of land was to lose all sense of direction. The Norse were the only sailors of that time to travel directly across open oceans. By measuring the changing azimuth of the sun and the Pole Star, it is possible to roughly gauge latitude. Typical Norse sailing directions consist of listing a major landmark, followed with the number of 'doegor' (sailing days) required to make the crossing. Some experts believe saga references to 'sun stones' refer to the use of Icelandic feldspar, which reacts to polarised light. This would allow navigators to find the sun's direction even on cloudy days. Knowing this, it is no surprise to find that Norway, the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually Labrador, are located almost in a straight east - west line. In most cases, travel between each of these steps westward requires only a day or two out of sight of land.
Although the image of the Viking pirate captures the imagination, the Norse trader actually had the greatest overall impact on his time. The same mastery of the seas that made raiding possible also allowed the Norse merchant to dominate economics as well. Norwegians tended to move westward, linking Scotland, Ireland and Iceland. The Danes moved along the coast to Germany, France and England. The Swedes turned to the east, down the river systems through Russia to the Black Sea and on to the Middle East. The principles of 'buy cheap and sell high' moved raw materials from the north in exchange for manufactured products from the south and spices and silks from the east. Through it all, silver was the medium of exchange. The Norse were a cosmopolitan people, quickly adopting foreign fashions and customs. The profits of this trade lead to the growth of major towns such as Dublin, Hedeby, Uppsalla, Birka and Yorvik.
The sudden Norse expansion can be linked to general warming of the climate in the 700's and the resulting increase in population. With too many people crowding into the limited land available in Scandinavia, raiding turned into land-grabbing. The increasing power of centralised kings also influenced the colonising movement outwards. The northern islands were largely uninhabited, and quickly became Norse enclaves.
The majority of the Norse lived on large farms, usually separated from each other because of the scarcity of good land and the generally rugged terrain in Scandinavia. The sea provided the main transportation routes, as well as food in the form of fish, whales and seals. Cattle were commonly kept, and dairy products made up a large part of the diet. Meat animals included cattle, as well as sheep, goats, pigs and horses. Hunting added wild game to the menu, as time and skill permitted. Eggs were harvested from sea bird colonies every spring, although some chickens and geese were kept. Since crops of wheat were often unreliable, barley appears to have been the main cereal. The main vegetables grown were cabbages, peas and onions. A wide range of wild fruits and nuts were harvested. In a world without refrigeration, food would generally be salted, dried or smoked - and cooked by boiling. In towns the menu would be less diverse; most foods would be bought at markets. Archaeological evidence has shown a high proportion of fish was consumed in these communities. Historic commentaries say the Norse were mighty drinkers. Beer was common, as well as mead (made from honey). Those who could afford to drank imported wines. It is important to remember that alcoholic beverages could be easily stored - and trusted to be safe to drink!
Houses tend to vary from country to country, dependent on local weather and available building materials. Generally, there was timber framing, single doors at one end or in the middle and no windows. Fires were laid in open trenches that ran down the centre of the hall. Smoke rose to escape from a shuttered hole in the roof. Most houses consisted of a single open room. Raised earth platforms often ran down either side of the hall; what privacy there was would be provided by hanging a curtain around one section. In the southern and eastern regions, roofs were often thatch, the walls of planks or wattle and daub. To the north and west, thick turf was usual for walls and roof cover to keep out the winter cold. Those living in the towns had houses set on long, narrow plots, often only the width of the house. Usually this small house would be used for workshop and living quarters. Despite the prosperity of the towns, conditions must have been cramped and squalid compared to those in rural areas.
Clothing was commonly of wool, woven by the women on standing looms. A number of twill patterns were used. A wide range of colours were available through the use of natural dyes. Although clothes varied over time and location, some generalities can be made. Basic male dress consisted of a tunic of thigh to knee length. This garment had either short or long sleeves, sometimes with a button at the neck. Simple pants, held with a draw string at the waist, were worn underneath. Women wore ankle length gowns of a cut similar to the tunic. Over this was worn a shorter apron that varied in style by region. In Norway, Iceland (and by extension Greenland and Vinland), this apron was a simple tube of fabric, secured by brooches below the shoulders. It was not unusual to wear a second tunic or gown, slightly shorter in length, over the first. Under dresses and tunics would be of imported linen, if it could be afforded. Even more costly were silks, but various grave finds have shown these costly fabrics were available. Hems, wrists and necklines were often reinforced with embroidered or tablet woven bands. Both sexes wore rectangular cloaks overall. On the feet went knitted socks and leather shoes of ankle height. Jewellery of various kinds was worn by both men and women, regardless of social standing. Besides the dress brooches, there were straight or circular cloak pins; rings for finger, neck or arm; and necklaces. Everyone wore a short single bladed knife for everyday tasks.
The Norse were almost compulsive in their use of surface ornament. Over the 300 years define the Viking Age, they developed a series of related decorative styles. All were based on design incorporating intertwined animals with elongated bodies. Human figures are depicted, but are often highly stylised as well. There are few samples of 'fine art', most exists as embellishment on functional objects. The pagan practice of burying possessions with the dead has yielded a rich source of objects from the early part of the time period. Royal ship burials like Oseberg and Gokstad reveal elaborate wood carvings and intricate metalwork, but even the objects in the poorest graves bear simple carvings. There are few surviving samples of textiles, but those that have been found suggest that the Norse created rich tapestries. Stone carvings consist primarily of 'rune stones', raised to commemorate an event or as a memorial, rather than sculpture.
What wood carvings which did endure are often fragmentary. Even so, it is obvious that almost all wooden surfaces bore some kind of ornament. Although some are the work of master craftsmen, many display the more basic skills of the common man. This is hardly surprising considering the length of northern winters. The tools used to create these designs were quite simple, often little more than a small knife. Boards were split from logs with wedges, beams roughed out with axes and adzes. A well-equipped tool box would contain a small saw and various chisels and scrapers. Many wooden pieces bear traces of paint, suggesting that vibrant colours once covered the surfaces.
It is in metalwork that the Norse excelled. The blacksmith and the jeweller were specialised craftsmen, held in high esteem. In the finest objects, the skills overlapped. Weapons were often embellished with inlays of gold and silver. The best quality swords were manufactured using a process called 'pattern welding'. In this method, thin layers of alternating steel and iron are stacked, welded, stretched, folded and welded again. The sequence is repeated several times, with spiral twisting between the folding. The finished blades show fine lines in serpentine patterns on their surfaces. Such weapons were the product of the most skilful blacksmiths, even more so because of the primitive nature of the tools they used. Few smiths owned even the tiny metal anvils of the period, most worked on anvils of stone. As well as weapons, the blacksmith produced hardware, fittings, household goods and even horseshoes. Many of the larger farm steads were equipped with their own forges.
Jewellers on the other hand, tended to be clustered together within the towns. The very finest objects were the products of 'royal workshops' whose work would be sought after across national boarders. The quality of the pieces, and the expense of the materials, would vary according to the wealth of the potential customers. The simplest work was cast of pewter in open soapstone or antler moulds. Better quality jewellery was manufactured by first making clay impressions from master patterns. This mould method was used to cast both bronze and silver. Bronze pieces were often later covered in layer of gold (a process known as gilding). Further details could be added to the finished castings by the use of engraving, granulation, and stone inlay. Beads made from imported glass, with swirls or spotted millifiori patterns, added bright colours. Amber, jet and walrus tusk was worked into amulets, rings and gaming pieces.
Norse society, although ruled by petty kings, was in many ways a democratic society. The same harsh environment that bred such physical toughness in the individuals also resulted in fierce independence. In fact, to say that a man "aspired to kingship", was considered to be an insult. Iceland was to prove the home of the last direct democracy. (With the exception of the Swiss, who have maintained their democratic traditions since medieval times.) Once a year was held a great council, or 'Thing'. All free men who owned property could attend and speak before this assembly. Legal cases would be heard and judged by a jury which usually consisted of 12 men. Over all presided a Lawspeaker, who would also recite one third of the established laws each year, from memory. Fines would be set for lesser crimes, serious matters demanded the punishment of outlawry (banishment). The seriousness of a crime was often measured not by sanctity of life, but by loss of dignity. 'Murder' consisted of a hidden death, whereas 'Killing' was death dealt in public, and could be settled by the payment of a fine to the victim's family. Even kings could be elected or deposed by the consensus of the Thing.
Women were also to hold their last position of relative equality during the Viking Age (until the modern day). Under Norse law, a woman could bring a case before the Thing, hold property, inherit, and even divorce a husband. Commonly Norse girls were taught weapons use, (on the theory that it was hard to abduct someone who was trying to hack your head off!) Many of the saga tales relate stories of strong willed women who ruled over their weaker husbands.
One of the distinctive characteristics of the Norse during the Viking Age was that they held a religious view separate from that of the rest of Europe. While the rest of the continent had been Christian for centuries, the Scandinavians held to a more ancient system of beliefs. This world view was again a reflection of their severe homeland. The Gods were seen as grim and distant figures having their own set of priorities, who generally found human beings beneath their notice. Petitions for intervention by the Gods were considered chancy at best. Even if you could get the Gods to notice, they were just as likely to hinder as help. The Norse had a grim fatalism about life. The powers of good and evil were seen as locked in a constant struggle, and although good would triumph in the final battle of Ragnarok, they would destroy themselves in the process. In the end the best a man could do was endure. To die with a snarl on his lips and sword in hand was to guaranty his entry into Valholl, there to endlessly feast and fight with other chosen heroes. There was belief in some kind of life after death, and for this reason the dead were buried with their possessions. (Much to our latter benefit, for these grave goods supply one of our main sources of information.) Hel, the ultimate destination of the dead, was seen in terms of what the Norse deemed most miserable. Their Hel was a dark twilight land of endless ice and cold. Odin, the All Father, was the principle god. He was the god of warriors, who oversaw the battlefield mounted on his eight legged horse Sleipnir, and accompanied by the two ravens who brought him the news of the world. He was a mysterious, one eyed figure, having sacrificed an eye to gain wisdom. He also hung himself for 9 days from the world tree in order to learn the secrets of the runes, which would allow him to question the dead concerning the future. For this reason sacrifices to Odin consisted of the ritual hanging of male animals and even men.
The hammer of Thor is perhaps the most enduring symbol of the Viking Age. Thor was the god of thunder, of the smith and the farmer. He was the common man's god, seen as a huge man with blazing red hair and beard. The legends about him describe a figure quick to laughter or anger, a brawler and reveller, both brave and noble, a true Viking's Viking. He was the Guardian of the World, protector of both Gods and men against the forces of evil. One of the most common grave finds are amulets shaped in a likeness of Thor's hammer, Miolnir. Compared to the grim and remote nature of Odin, it is easy to see why the worship of Thor was popular with the Norse.
The Norse pantheon of gods included a large number of other figures, all with their own special attributes and areas of influence. Frigga was wife to Odin, goddess of childbirth and patroness of housewives. Freya was goddess of love and beauty. Loki was the god of mischief and fire, the trickster. As in all things, the worship of the gods was a personal thing to the Norse. There was no organised religion, offerings and prayers were given, often by the head of a household, as circumstances dictated. In may ways, petitions to the gods were held to be mechanical precautions to be taken, (just as we automatically buy fire insurance for our homes). These offerings were made at places perceived to hold some special significance, a spring, a standing stone, a gnarled old tree.
Christianity was poorly accepted at first in Scandinavia. The Norse were generally tolerant in matters of religion: what Gods a man prayed to was his own affair. To them, "the White Christ" was just another figure to be added to the divine list. A person could offer up a goat to Thor on Thor's day (our Thursday), and then pray to Christ on Sunday, with no perceived conflict. The ideology of Christianity was a hard sell to the rugged Norse. Such teachings as 'the meek shall inherit the earth', were seen as contradictions to the basic realities of life in Scandinavia. The easy going attitude of the Norse towards spiritual matters, however, plus the fervour of the Christians, was to slowly lead to conversions. As the Vikings in England settled down to farm with local girls as wives, they slowly adopted the customs of their new homes. Both widely traveling merchants and political leaders soon realised the advantages of sharing the religion of the rest of Europe. In the last years of the 900's, Norway was to undergo a forced conversion to the new religion under the hand of Olaf Tryggvason. Iceland, under political pressure from Norway, voted at the Althing of 1000 AD to make Christianity the official religion. Sweden was the last nation to adopt Christianity, holding out until the 1100's. Many of the daily rituals and superstitions were to remain down into the modern era, and the old legends of the Gods were to remain favourite tales to be told on long winter nights.
The Wareham Forge
Who is Darrell Markewitz?