When people see the word Norse, they often immediately think Vikings, Longships, Axes, Shieldwalls.
But the Norsemen weren’t raiding 24/7. Many never did ‘go a-Viking’ at all. What was life like for men and women living their lives in a Norse Village?
Who actually were the Norse people?
Scandinavian has now generally replaced the term ‘Norse’ but when we refer to Old Norse, we are describing the people of modern day Denmark, Norway, Sweden, The Faroe Islands and Iceland. All north Germanic groups that spoke the Old Norse tongue (it’s most similar modern day language being Icelandic). To an extent this definition of Norse is sometimes to include both Greenland and Finland, too.
Of course, Norsemen also settled in the British Isles and modern day France; Normandy deriving its name from its settlers.
Vikings often raided during the spring and spent the winters at home, taking up the jobs their other kin would spend all year doing. The majority of all Norse people were farmers, craftsmen, fishermen, blacksmiths, carpenters, merchants and shipbuilders.
When at home at least, Norse people did live in a hierarchal pyramid, ruled by a King at the top, with many influential Bóndis, or Freemen, enjoying a degree of power – they could be simple smallholders or wealthy individuals holding large farmsteads and their wealth determined their social status. Many were land owning farmers with the potential for social mobility, the heads of the families always looking to increase their standing.
They would not be as powerful or influential as a Jarl, of which there were much less – though even the King was not untouchable. Unlike the Christian kings who were revered as having their power through divine right, a Norse king had to earn and maintain respect and loyalty, and succession wasn’t always a claim to the throne. If a king wasn’t behaving in the interests of the people, the bóndis were able to lawfully remove the king and replace them with a new leader.
Beneath them all was the thrall. A thrall was a slave – you may have heard the expression ‘in thrall’ and they were treated no better than animals, owned completely by their master. The thralls carried out all the most tiring and demeaning jobs; if they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, they were disposed of in the same way a lame horse would be.
It wasn’t just longships, there was also the longhouse. There was an abundance of timber in most of Scandinavia so the buildings were mostly wooden. Your average longhouse might be around 40-50 feet in length, though examples have been found in Denmark and Norway over 160 feet. The width, however was rarely wider than about 15/16 feet, restricted by the length of its crossbeams. Many of the buildings therefore always had that long appearance.
The rooms in the longhouse were usually part of the same long room technically, often separated by curtains or improvised. The hearth was usually situated right in the centre of the room.
In towns, there would also usually be a fenced off yard with animals in and the workshops built into the longhouse itself.
In the countryside, wealthier bóndi often had other smaller buildings outside such as stables and a smithy. The less wealthy would often have to share accomodation with their animals.
The very poor and the thralls would live in tiny wooden huts no more than 4 metre squated or improvised pits with thatched roofs.
Women’s experiences weren’t as bad as those in other parts of medieval Europe and they did have a few more rights. Their main task was still however to make clothing and look after children and the men made many of the important decisions, such as having the right to take part in the Thing (see Law).
Women were however seen to be the masters of the home and their authority in these matters wasn’t generally questioned.
Each district had its own Thing which was an open air assembly usually called twice a year in which matters of importance could be discussed, raised and debated.
The Althing was founded in Iceland in around AD 930 and was a national assembly held for two weeks every year at Thingvellir, near modern day Reykjavik. It was as much a social event as anything else, which Icelanders would look forward to partaking in. 36 Icelandic chieftains would convene, who in turn would select 36 judges. Matters of national importance were discussed.
Hopefully after the Gods and Mythology week, you should already know a fair amount about the Gods. But how were they worshipped?
Usually in the open air at ancient sites and sacred groves. They also built wooden temples on occasion, with some ornate carvings of the Gods surviving today. Sacrifices were regularly made; crops, animals and sometimes humans – mostly thralls and enemies. All matters of importance were put to the relevant gods first as a matter of respect and reverence.
I hope you enjoyed this short window into the life of the Norse people! Feel free to share any of your own facts in the comment section!