Like many medieval folks, the Viking population typically lived on farms. Some were small, and others large enough to supply food for a family unit, and staff. The Viking world stretched over vast areas of land from Denmark to parts of the Anglo-Saxon world, northern Scotland for a while, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and then into North America. So, it’s natural that Viking farming looked a bit different, depending on the location. Resources were scarcer in some locations. This meant the way they supplemented food on farms was different. Some locations depended more on trading for resources, while others had abundant wildlife and fauna to support a fairly diverse diet. Stick around and let me tell you a little bit about what we have learned about Viking Age farming from archaeological sources, literary sources, and law codes.
Farms Might Resemble a Village
In prosperous regions, the farms would cluster together into what looked like a little village. This was common throughout Europe as well, and provided an opportunity to add protection, and community effort. In more rural areas farmers had more land to spread out. In Viking Age Iceland, they did not have any urban-ish centres, so farms were spread pretty far apart. You can still see many of these farms today, and some still have signs indicating which original settlers lived on the property during the Viking period.
Viking farming settlements were not unlike settlements anywhere else at the time. They consisted of a central cluster of structures. These would be divided by fences for separating livestock from fields used for growing food. Each cluster might have a longhouse and then any number of out-buildings. This would depend on the prosperity of the farm. Out-buildings could be used to store food for the farm throughout the winter, sometimes as guest lodgings, or hay storage to feed the animals throughout the harsh winters.
Well Preserved Farm Dwelling on Faeroe Island
An archaeological dig on the Faeroe Islands (settled in the early Viking Settlement period as well) has uncovered a clearer picture of the layout and function of a Viking Age farm.
The Dwelling (which you can see photos of here) was made up of four buildings. The largest dwelling was the longhouse, which measured 20 meters in length. The width of the structure was 5 meters. The walls were thick to protect from the wind, and in-laid with turf. The central fireplace (long-fire) was roughly 5 meters long. It is speculated that one end might have contained a byre, or a cowshed. It wouldn’t be uncommon to share a living space with the animals when they needed protection from the elements. We will touch more on livestock down below. It is worth noting that they were extremely important to farmers and in their interest to protect them during colder months by bringing them inside.
Artifacts Used on a Viking Farm
A number of artifacts from this location give insight into what was readily available, and what might be imported for use on farms. This site uncovered schist querns (schist being a medium-grade metamorphic rock formed from mudstone or shale) and querns (which are stones used for grinding grain into flour). There were also bowls, saucepans, and spindle whorls (stone fitted onto a spindle to increase the speed of the spin – like a wheel.) It also uncovered line-or-net-sinkers for fishing, as well as whetstones (for knife sharpening). This gives us a picture that the Viking kitchen was pretty complete.
The longhouse is where everything was generally kept on the farm. In the early Viking Age it wouldn’t be uncommon for the animals to share space with the people, the tools, the food storage, and the work shop. In later years people would move to the out-buildings into family units.
Location, Location, Location
Farm houses were generally built up a bit on a hill. This would help with drainage ( a smart decision even today). They would also be built near running water. Luckily in Norway, the Faeroe Island, and Iceland running fresh water was pretty abundant. There are many small water sources. Wells were also known to be used on the farm.
One theory I actually had was that the “money pit” found on Oak Island here in Nova Scotia, might actually be a Viking well. If you want learn a little bit more about this location, check out this article I wrote on the possibility of Vikings being the ones to land at Oak Island.
Being high up on your property also meant that you could light signal fires to alert neighbouring farms that you needed help. This is a very old medieval concept (and I’m sure beyond that) and you will find it in practice all over early Europe. Castles are often located at a vantage point where attacks would be uphill and easily seen coming.
What Kind of Animals Did They Keep?
Although the Norse were great at supplementing food sources from the ocean, they also wanted some meat. The main kind of farming in Scandinavia was therefore animal husbandry. Cows were an important livestock on the farm.
Cattle was so important during the Viking Age that they share the same word as currency – fé. Cattle were important for creating dairy products. Milk was a staple, and foods such as cheese, butter, and Skyr (a yogurt type food). Some of this could be store during the winter and help sustain a family.
If a family could afford it, they may use the cattle for beef, which was an important part of the diet. They utilized oxen to pull plows for the fields, a sleigh, or a sledge. Bulls on the other hand might be used as a sacrifice to the gods before the Christianisation of Scandinavia (which happened at different times).
Cattle were not as large as they are today, and bulls were usually slaughtered before they reached puberty. In the summers, cattle were released into the highlands to feed. Dairy cows would be seen as important and would be taken in during the winter to avoid freezing to death.
Small Farms Could Get By on Local Wildlife
On the Faeroe Islands, early farmsteads uncovered evidence of seabirds, fish, and molluscs being eaten. The site appeared to rely heavily on a broad spectrum of local wild resources to supplement what they could produce through an agricultural base of animal husbandry and cereal cultivation.
Vikings Really Liked Bacon
Domestic animals kept included sheep, cows, pigs, and single bones of goat and dog were also uncovered on this site. This site showed significant numbers of pig bones which indicates that sustained pig keeping occurred up to and beyond the 13th century. They were also heavily dependant upon seabirds such as puffins. (These are still hunted and eaten in Iceland). Additionally, the ocean provided an abundance of food for the farm. Atlantic cod was plentiful and evidence suggested that it was well used to feed a family.
Viking Age Farming on the Faeroe Islands
This evidence suggests that despite their remote location, the Icelanders and Faroese Vikings actually enjoyed a fairly diverse diet through the medieval period. This is not the case for Greenland which had a harsher climate, not as conducive to animal husbandry. While some animals were kept, they relief mainly on food sources from the ocean, including the surrounding seabirds. Cereal cultivation played a lesser part in their diet, and it is likely that things like barley would have been imported.
Sheep Were Important to the Farm
Sheep were also coveted livestock on a Viking farm. They could be used for fleece, milk, and their meat. They were also set free to graze all summer and then farmers worked together to heard them in the fall. This practice still occurs in modern day Iceland, and the farmers kind of make a fun weekend out.
Horses were Bred and Kept for Viking Age Farming
The Icelandic horse is still famous today for its lineage that remains uncorrupted from the Viking era. They were essential for travel and transport during the Viking Age. They were also used for their meat, and like the Puffin, they are still raised for meat in Iceland today. Although this practice is less common.
They Had Barn Cats and Domesticated Dogs
Evidence suggests that cats were likely used for pest control. Just like today, a barn cat would be kept, fairly wild, and to fend for itself by hunting rodents. They are also mentioned in a few literary sources as being used for lining gloves and garments. Dogs were also kept on the farm. This was probably to warn of intruders, but dogs were domesticated and were probably companions as well.
Growing Hay was Essential to Surviving the Winter
A large farm might have somewhere between 20-40 milking cows alone, so growing and storing enough hay to feed the animals was a priority. Each animal would need roughly two tons of hay to survive the winter. This was likely stored in some of the out-buildings to protect from the elements.
Hay would be grown in uncultivated fields over large swaths of land. It is estimated that a large Viking farm would need between 50-200 acres of land to accommodate animals, fields, and homesteads. The best hay would be grown near the tún, the home field near the farm.
Scythes Were Used For Harvesting
It is surprising how modern the Vikings were. Or in contrast, surprising how long these practices remained in operation in the modern world. Hay was harvested using scythes. I have a scythe on my wall that belonged to my grandfather. Modern combines and lawn tractors really only emerged in the last century. Before that, people lived in a similar fashion as they did 1000 years ago.
Fences Were Used to Protect Fields and Livestock
Fences, or walls using sods and stones were built to separate the livestock from the fields. It was especially important to protect fields growing hay reserves. This would provide plenty of work on the farm. Building and maintaining these walls was a constant job. Anyone who has ever put up some hog-wire to enclose a space knows that you constantly have to walk the property looking for damage. It was much the same 1000 years ago.
Law Codes Were Written to Protect Viking Farming Practices
Establishing a farm meant caring for more than just your immediate family. A farm that held 20-40 milking cows, goats, sheep, pigs, horses, grew hay, and hunted the local wildlife required a large number of workers to bring their efforts to fruition. In Iceland they developed a written law book called the Grey Goose Laws (Grágás in Old Norse). These laid out some foundational laws for maintaining a large farmstead.
Walls protecting fields needed to be as high as a man’s shoulder, and five feet thick at the base. Hay was so necessary that the laws also required farmers to hire a sufficient amount of farm hands to tend the fields. The laws did not allow for fields to become wasteful through inattention. This must speak to the threat of droughts, bad winters, or invasions. Food protection was written into the law, which must mean they experienced times of scarcity and needed to heavily enforce provisions.
Everyone Belonged to a Farm
In Iceland every person had to be associated with a farm. This helped society maintain some kind of safety and stability. You had to be associated with a farm in a region, and that allowed the law makers to know who kind of spoke for one another. You couldn’t bring charges against someone who was not associated with a farm, and that made them a danger to society.
Self-Sufficiency in Viking Farming was a Must
There were no department or grocery stores back in medieval Scandinavia. So families had to be pretty self-sufficient to keep a farm going. The Vikings did plenty of travelling and trading, so prosperous farms did have an opportunity to import items. Some tools were made as needed from local materials. Each farm would be expected to have a forge for making tools. A large farm could be expected to have a sizable forge to creating and sharpening tools like scythes. This meant that a lot of farmers were expected to be competent carpenters and blacksmiths.
You Were Expected to Defend the Farm
In these Northern climates, food is always at the threat of shortage. Therefore farmers were expected to be able to defend their property. It helped to have these capable workers tied to your farm. They would also take up arms in loyalty to the farmer if there was an attack. Their society worked a great deal on reciprocal loyalty. Viking children would sometimes even be fostered out to neighbouring families to build allegiances between property owners and keep peace.
They Worked Hard, and Played Hard
When there was time to rest, entertainment could be found in abundance. The Vikings were obviously amazing storytellers. Their oral history survived for hundreds of years before it was eventually recorded during the Christian period in Iceland. They were also a big fan of games, sports, feasts, and assemblies.
Viking farming certainly sounded tough at times. But they had access to many of the same food sources as any other European farmer at the same time. Our advancements in urban centres, especially surrounding food availability is a very new concept. I don’t think the vikings had it any worse on their farms than anyone else. In fact, some of the laws in place might have made it easier to maintain large farms.
Viking Age farming included many of the same practices we saw in use up until fairly modern times. The tools used were still in use a little as 100 years ago. If it’s not broke, why fix it right?
While I enjoy the luxuries of modern day grocery shopping, I’m glad to know they at least had a feed of bacon on a cold winters day.
If you want to know more about what they drank on the farm, check out this post on Viking Age Mead.
For more on what they might have worn on the farm you can have a look at this post on Viking Age Clothing.