Seeds in the Snow
Agricultural Practices of the Vikings
North into the forbidding, ice-laden alleyways and byways of the Scandinavian coasts and isles once lived a tribe feared for its fierceness, but remembered for its valiant warriors. Their reputation as pirates and plunderers is well documented in the visual and written genres – but Viking society was actually based on agriculture and trade. Vikings loved war and warriors, but placed great emphasis on the concepts of honor and law. They were a contradiction, and, like the land on which they lived, they were, in turns, war-like and gentle.
The Vikings first lived in the snowy, icy climate of Northern Europe, in the Scandinavian peninsulas and isles. Winters were long, dark, and extremely cold, but the land could yield crops at the proper time of the year and with the proper urging, divine or otherwise.
The Vikings thus lived on the coasts, where farming and fishing were often good; and where the climate was less harsh, owing to the Gulf Stream, which warmed the waters free of ice during the winter months.
Viking communities consisted of large family groups, each of which was led by a patriarch or his eldest son, whose duty it was to ensure that all members of the family and community had enough food to eat. His wife was likewise granted power, as she shared in the responsibilities of keeping enough food stores to last through the winter. She was also expected to be a doctor, and to know about medicinal herbs; a nurse, who could care for the sick or wounded in battle; and an overall guard and gatekeeper of the manor, as it were, while the men went abroad to raid, trade, hunt, and plunder.
Viking women, in fact, held much authority in the community. Although girls were married as early as twelve, they were entrusted with an entire household to run, almost on their own. As the lady of the manor, the Viking wife locked all the food in chests and trunks, and wore the keys to them at her waist. Most marriages were arranged – but none of them favored the husband’s or wife’s interests exclusively. Marriage was an alliance, a method to protect families and keep wealth. If the wife so wished, she could leave her husband and take all her property with her.
The concept of divorce was not unknown to the Vikings. If her husband mistreated her or her children, was too lazy to provide for the family, or insulted her or her mother or father, a wife could call some witnesses and declare that she was divorced. This would occur first at her front door, then at the foot of the couple’s bed.
From then on, smaller children would automatically join their mother, while older children would be divided between the parents according to the wealth and status of the two families involved.
Although seemingly anarchistic, the Vikings were bound by a set of laws which closely resemble the models of justice today. There were trials by jury, the members of which were gathered in multiples of twelve, depending on the importance of the case. A client would be represented by a “law-sayer,” who told the jury what the law said about the crime committed. In the end, the jury could either convict the accused, or declare him innocent.
As a convict, a criminal was either fined, or sent out to live in the wilderness, out of reach of the law. This “out-law” status meant that no one was allowed to help the criminal in any way, and he was as good as game, to be hunted down and killed by his enemies.
Norse mythology tells us that the northern European tribes believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, and a heaven for warriors called Valhalla. This Promised Land for the brave in battle may perhaps explain the Vikings’ war-like nature, although their tendency to plunder and pillage may be ascribed more to their need for food and provisions. As there was little land to farm on the Scandinavian coasts, the Vikings made the most of what they had, while raiding neighboring tribes’ villages if they needed to acquire more land.
If the land was ready and weather permitted, planting began in the spring. During this time, Viking farmers or their slaves spread manure over their hayfields, to prepare them for growing grass, which, in turn, would be used for grazing. They broke their crop soil with “ards,” or oxen-drawn ploughs, then sowed their seeds by hand. Once this was completed, they would dig a hole in the middle of their field, fill it with pieces of bread and some eggs, and pour beer on top of the food heap. This was their offering to their god Frey, who, it was thought, would ensure the Vikings a great harvest.
The Vikings also rotated their crops between wheat, root, and livestock, which resulted in medium-grade soil.
Summer was spent preparing for the long, dark winter. Cattle were brought to graze in the mountain pastures, while their milk was churned into butter or turned into cheese. Weak animals were killed, and their meat was salted or pickled, to keep them for the winter stores.
All this preparation, sowing, and harvesting was not without festivity, however. Vikings, in fact, loved to feast, and had big feasts or holidays three times in one year. The first, Sigrblot, took place in early summer; Vetrarblot occurred after the harvest, and Jolablot marked the middle of winter. In every feast, there would be two weeks of eating, drinking, dancing, singing, and story-telling – the last a favorite of the Vikings, as it allowed the elders to tell of the exploits and bravery of the great Viking warriors, and the honors that awaited them in Valhalla.
Foremost amongst Viking crops was grain. Smaller versions of today’s barley, wheat, rye, and buckwheat grew on the Scandinavian coasts. The Vikings used their grains to make bread and porridge, or to enrich soups and meat. Aside from grains, farmers kept home gardens, where they planted peas, beans, onions, angelica, hops, parsnips, wild carrots, cabbage, and garlic.
Vikings also took to the woods and groves to gather acorns, seeds, nuts, and berries, such as cherries, elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Children were often sent out to gather cress, wild apples, herbs, mustard, and mushrooms for the winter stores. With the threat of cold and scarcity forever looming, every tree and plant was used, either to make homes, herbal drinks, or the famed Viking boats.
The Vikings also used onions to gauge how deep stomach wounds were. They fed their wounded warriors onion, then smelled the man’s belly afterward. If the stench could pierce through the gash, then the wall of the stomach had already been cut, indicating that death was imminent, and no treatment would be effective. This allowed herbal remedies to be saved, and to be used only when necessary.
The Vikings were excellent mariners, and their ships were engineered in such a way that they could perform efficient hit-and-run attacks with minimal injury to their sailors. They could also sail in shallow waters, and could run at 14-15 knots, an exemplary speed for their time.
worked well on their nautical skills, yielding exceptionally accurate
distance tables for their sea voyages. Their measurements differ only
2-4% from modern satellite measurements, and cover Viking routes through
the British coasts, France, Spain, some areas of Russia and the Mediterranean – and
across the Atlantic, in North America.
So unforgiving were the times, however, that when a miniature Ice Age swept from the north, and when The Plague broke out in Europe, the Greenland and North American colonies were kept from further expanding, and thus disappeared.
The Vikings did not stop their expansion, however, and their successors, the Normans, moved south to the warm Mediterranean. With their voyages came more tales of brave warriors and dark-browed gods – and into the centuries sank their culture. Today’s Vikings live on: their spirits persist in language, like plants in the wilderness; and lie dormant in myth, like seeds in the snow.
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