Top 10 facts about the Vikings

5. Vikings Were Excellent Farmers

An abandoned farm in Iceland. Probably a Viking farm.
An abandoned farm in Iceland. Probably a Viking farm.

The popular myth surrounding Vikings is that they spent their lives at sea using their powerful and maneuverable long boats to travel from settlement to monastery to settlement raiding, raping and pillaging along the way.

This was a popular activity amongst Vikings and its importance to Viking society should not be undermined.  Raids allowed them to obtain large amounts of wealth and trade goods as well as gathering slaves for sale or for their personal use back at home.  Raiding alone, however, would not have been sufficient to support their families back at home.  Most Vikings, therefore, farmed land back in their home countries.  Some of the men may have gone on raiding expeditions but they would have come home to their wife and children on the family farm.  The expeditions to and the colonisation of Iceland and Greenland were driven by the desire to find richer and more sustainable farmland as not all of the land available to the Vikings was suitable for intensive agriculture.

Arable farming seems to have been the main way of life in Denmark, southern Norway and central Sweden where common crops were barley rye and oats which were suitable for the harsh northern latitudes.  More marginal lands would have been used to farm animals such as sheep and goats.  Most farms would also keep pigs, chickens and at least one cow for milk, whilst horses were kept for transport.  These animals were not kept in a separate barn but lived in the main family ‘long house’, partitioned off from the living quarters.  This practice helped to keep the longhouse warm in the winter and meant that the animals could be tended to and eggs, milk etc. gathered without needing to go outside in the cold snow and rain.

Farmers across the Viking lands also grew vegetables to provide the all-important vitamins and minerals in their diet.  Common plants included cabbage, root vegetables (such as turnips, swedes etc.) peas and beans.  Their diet was further supplemented by fish from local rivers or from the sea, berries, seaweed and animals brought home from hunts either on sea or inland.

Viking farms would also produce cheese from the milk of their herd animals and keep a supply of mead and beer.

4. Vikings were Very Enlightened With Regards to Women’s Rights

Vikings were quite progressive when it came to divorce and relationships
Vikings were quite progressive when it came to divorce and relationships

Viking women had more rights than almost any other women who lived in a similar time period. While their marriages were arranged for them by the head of the family they were never ‘given away’ in that they were always considered to be a member of their birth family.  They took their dowry with them to their new home including bedding, a loom and bed, sometimes animals, a farm and jewelry.  The dowry was not passed to her husband but remained her property and was passed to her children on her death.

If a woman’s husband proved a disappointment she was free to divorce him at any time.  In order to get her divorce all she had to do was inform witnesses that she wanted to leave, firstly at the doorstep of the house and secondly next to her bed.

Unusually for the time a divorced woman would retain custody of all her smaller children, older children would be divided between the families of the mother and father and probably had a choice of where to go and would have been permitted to maintain a relationship with both parents.  Children who stayed with their mother were still legally their father’s children and had a legal right to inherit from him on his death.

Married women were considered to be responsible for the running of the house and could (at least in theory) command her husband to her will once he was over the threshold.  Women were given the keys to the money and store chests on marriage as a symbol of this responsibility.  Most Viking women carried these keys at their belts at all times both for safekeeping and as a symbol of authority.  The household responsibilities extended to religious worship and it was the wife rather than the male head of the family who led family religious worship in the house.  When their husbands went adventuring their wives were responsible not only for the smooth running of the household but of the farm as well.

3. Vikings Did Not Wear Horned Helmets

Apparently horned helmets weren't a thing.  I'm going to choose not to believe this.
Apparently horned helmets weren’t a thing. I’m going to choose not to believe this.

Of course Vikings wore horned helmets!  Every picture in a history book, every Viking in a film has a horned helmet so it must be true.

Sadly the horned helmets are a modern day myth.  Vikings did have some ornate helmets, some with wings or even horns on them but they were for ceremonial use only.  Day to day battle helmets were plain conical affairs that sat close to the head.

While this might give a disappointing picture in your mind think about it rationally.  Viking fought hand to hand either in single combat or in shield walls where they stood close together and each warrior was protected by the overlapping shields.  They used this shield wall to push at the enemy and stab over the top of, underneath or in between the gaps of shields.  Vikings therefore got very close to both each other and their enemies during battle.  A horned helmet would be an entanglement risk – a positive liability, so while the conical helmet might not have looked quite so cool it would have been a safer bet for your average Viking warrior.

So where did the glamorous image of the horned helmet come from?  It appears that it was first invented by a costume designer for Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  The image was then perpetuated by other costume designers and book illustrators.  It proved popular and it stuck in the collective public imagination.  Archaeological finds have proved, beyond doubt that Viking helmets were plain but it is much more fun to imagine these fierce warriors charging into battle with their impressive horned helms.