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Birka on the island of Björkö, was the hub of the rich Mälardalen
in the Viking Age. The shopping center was built in the 700’s and became a
important international port for visitors from near and far. On
Adelsö, just across the bay, is Hovgården where the king lived.
Birka World Heritage Site and Hovgården contains unusually high number of remnants
Viking Age people.
Since the late 1800s, archaeologists have examined the ancient remains of Birka
and Hovgården. The rich finds from the excavations tells of a
society with a strong hierarchy and large differences between both class and
sex. They had extensive trade contacts with the outside world and it shows in
Why food preservation is important
While the urban population during the Viking age may have had access to frequent markets or food stalls, the majority of the (rural) Vikings population had to rely on food preservation to survive the winter. Most Viking farmers had comparatively small holdings, and produced food mainly for the subsistence of their own families, rather than generating cash crops what would allow them to purchase food from external sources.
In a subsistence farming economy, each farming household had to rely on the produce of their farm for the majority of their living. Given the short growing season in the North, it was even more important to preserve the farm’s produce over the winter.
Almost all of the techniques for food preservation that we rely upon today were unknown in the Viking Age. There were no refrigerators, no canned food, and no freeze drying (at least as we know it today). The Vikings had to rely on traditional methods of food preservation.
Some vegetable foods can be preserved in their “raw” form over the winter, particularly in a cool climate. Onions, root vegetables, and to some extent cabbages can be preserved by burying them in sand or loose soil, or storing them in hay in a cool place like a root cellar. Since Viking cabbages were not headed cabbages like we have today, they probably didn’t hold up to such treatment as well as modern head cabbage.
How was food preserved
Many different foods can be preserved by drying, including grain, meat and fish, vegetables and fruit. Drying is well suited to the cold and often windy conditions prevalent in Northern Europe, and requires little in the way of resources. Dried food can be kept for long periods of time as long as it is kept away from moisture. Foods with a high fat content do not dry well without salt or other anti-bacterial agent.
Many different foods can be pickled, either in vinegar, salt, or other acids such as soured whey. In areas where salt was affordable, meat, vegetables and fish can be pickled in salt. In areas where salt was more expensive or unavailable, the same foods could be preserved in vinegar or sour whey. Soft vegetables, and fattier meats such as pork lend themselves well to pickling.
Some foods can be preserved in salt without liquids, such as some cheeses, smoked fish, or fatty meats like pork. However, the farther north you go in the Viking world, the less likely it is that salt was readily available or affordable. In Iceland salt was essentially absent, so pickling in acid or drying were much more practical. In the South, such as parts of Denmark or the Danelaw in England, salt would have been more available and affordable, making things like bacon, ham, or smoked fish more popular.
There are a whole host of bacteria that can be employed to preserve food for human consumption. Lactobacilli can pickle meat and vegetables by producing acid in liquids. Cheese, soured milk, and other dairy ferments are all produced by bacteria as well. Fermentation also produces alcohol, vinegar, and a wealth of other healthy and long-keeping foods.
Smoking is particularly important in keeping food that has a high fat content and will not be kept in liquid, such as ham, bacon, smoked fish or smoked cheeses. Smoking by itself is not sufficient, and smoked foods usually need to be salted as well. Smoke was also used to preserve some foods on a day to day basis. Dried breads were hung from a pole or string over the hearth, where the heat and smoke kept them dry and free from insects.
What was preserved
Grains such as barley, rye and oats can be preserved for a limited time just by drying. But grain in bins can only last so long. There are several ways of making the calories from grain last longer.
Bread or crackers baked hard will keep longer than grain by itself. Hard tack or crisp bread dried completely and stored in either waterproof containers or over the fire will keep nearly indefinitely. They are easy to eat, easy to store, and easy to transport. Thin dried bread (like modern rye crisps) can be eaten plain or with fish, cheese, or whatever you might have. Hard tack is best soaked or cooked in liquid before eating. You can break up hard tack for “porridge” or use it to thicken soups.
Calories from grain can also be preserved in the form of beer. By converting some of the grain’s starch to alcohol, bacteria or other contaminants can’t grow, and the calories are preserved. However, it is unclear how long the kind of beer made by the Vikings would really have kept. Given the brewing techniques available, beer may have been comparatively perishable.
The Vikings had access to a wide variety of fruits, and many of those are comparatively easy to store. Some fruit can be dried, some pickled, and a few might keep in a cool place well into the Fall at least.
Several easily dried stone fruits, including cherries and plums of various kinds were known to the Vikings. Apples can be dried as well, and some berries can be dried in a dry enough climate.
Apples in particular are traditionally pickled all over Europe today, and lend themselves well to it.
It is traditional in Finland to store lingonberries in water, which then freezes during cold weather. There’s no evidence (that I’ve seen) to suggest this was common in the Viking Age, but it’s not something that would be likely to show up in the archeological record.
Some vegetables will keep for a long time in cold storage if properly packed and cared for, such as turnips, carrots, parsnips, onions, and garlic. See above note on cabbages.
The most likely way to preserve vegetables is by fermenting them. Lactic acid pickles are easy to make, delicious and nutritious to eat, and contribute to a healthy digestive system (as modern science is rediscovering). Sauerkraut and “kosher” or “sour” dill pickles are good modern examples, but other vegetables like turnips, carrots, celery and others can all be pickled this way. Once you have a good bacterial culture, such pickles can be made with little to no salt, as it is primarily the lactic acid produced by the friendly bacteria that keep out the unfriendly ones.
The most common way to preserve meats is with salt. Salts of various types (sodium/potassium/etc.) keep unfriendly bacteria from getting into meat and allow it to be stored for long periods. Smoking will help fattier meats keep longer than salt by itself, as will immersing them in liquid (brine) since the liquid helps keep oxygen away from the meat.
Acid solutions such as vinegar or soured whey can also be used to preserve meats. Sausages in particular have traditionally been pickled in brine, in vinegar, in sourced whey, or by themselves. In Iceland they still use sour whey to preserve sausages made at slaughtering time, and such was most likely the case in the Viking Age as well. Some traditional (i.e. early modern) sausages are made with rye flour added to them. When rye flour is left in water, it sours naturally, so the rye-laden sausages were placed in jars of water that soured and thus preserved the sausages. Note: any such meat preserved in acid without salt is cooked first before being submerged.
Many oilier fish can be readily pickled. Herring, sardines, anchovies and possibly mackerel-esque fishes can be pickled in salt or in a lactic acid solution. The pickled herring that adorn the modern Scandinavian table are certainly different, since they tend to contain a fair amount of sugar and spices that were unavailable in the Viking period, but the overall effect would have been the same. Chopped up bits or herring suspended in a sour solution, possibly with the addition of some salt if available.
One of the great mainstays and staple foods of the Viking world was dried cod. Because cod contain almost no fat, they can be dried hard in the cold and windy Scandinavian climate, and will keep pretty much as long as they can be kept dry. The Viking warriors who travelled overseas took dried cod with them, and in a pinch were known to gnaw on the dried fillets all by themselves. In a more comfortable setting, the stockfish, or klipfisk, would have been soaked in liquid until they were soft(er) and made into soup or mixed into other dishes.
If salt is available, oilier fish can be smoked. Salmon, herring, haddock, and mackerel can be smoked and preserved for long periods, although not as long as cod.
Only a very few Scandinavians are lactose intolerant compared with rates in the rest of the world. It has long been speculated that this is because dairy products are easy to produce and the keep in their climate, which makes the ability to digest milk into adulthood a survival characteristic. Whether that is true or not, it is certainly true that milk and milk products have long played an integral role and source of nutrition in Scandinavia since well before the Viking Age. Dairy products are one of the few food products mentioned in the sagas, so there is some good documentary evidence for milk and milk products in the Viking period.
If raw (unpasteurized) milk is left out in mild temperatures, it will naturally grow lactobacilli that cause it to sour. Sour milk was commonly drunk as a beverage and probably used in cooking, baking, and in making cheese. In early modern Sweden, sour milk was mixed with small beer both as a beverage and as a cooking medium. If sour milk is heated, it will coagulate, and can then be drained to make a simple cheese to be eaten fresh, or preserved with salt or further bacterial action as cheese.
The simplest fresh or “farmer’s” cheese can be made from soured milk or fresh milk which is heated and coagulated by the addition of soured milk or other acids.
Milk can also be combined with rennet to create a whole variety of cheeses and cheese products. If salted and dried, “hard” cheeses can be kept for very long periods of time without spoiling.
Skyr is somewhere between a cultured milk and a cheese. It is cultured with lactobacilli much like yogurt of buttermilk, but it also is coagulated with rennet. Once the rennet causes it to set, the curds are drained, and the result is very similar to a drained yogurt. It is mildly sour and quite dense, and contains a great deal of protein. Skyr is traditionally made with skim milk, since the milk fat was used to make butter. Skyr was a mainstay of the Icelandic diet, and was eaten by itself, with fruit, or mixed into porridge or other dishes to stretch them and to add additional protein.
The milk fat from cow’s milk is easily converted into butter, which has a much longer shelf life than fresh milk. Also, since the Vikings tended to make butter from cultured or soured milk, the additional acid content would help preserve the butter.
Other cultured milk products
The documentary evidence speaks mainly of “sour” milk, but it is unclear if that means raw milk that sours naturally, or milk which was intentionally cultured. In modern Scandinavia, there are a number of cultured milk products that are “traditional” (meaning at least early modern) but there is no telling how far they go back. Piima, viili, and fil mjolk are all examples of modern Finnish or Swedish dairy cultures. They are fairly easy to obtain and to propagate, and may come close to simulated the naturally soured milk that we can no longer achieve with pasteurized milk today.
What evidence do we have?
Unfortunately, fermented foods are difficult to distinguish in the archeological record. Most food products decompose rapidly, and if anything is left it is the hard parts like seeds and bones, where it would be almost impossible to tell if they came from preserved foods or fresh. There is some evidence from the sagas about butter, cheese, skyr and sour milk, as well as dried cod. Several pieces of carbonized breads have been found in various Viking contexts, and good analysis has been done on their composition.
Luckily, a few artifacts have survived that are linked to food preservation
- The bottom board from a rectangular cheese press made of wood, similar to those used in Aland in the early modern period
- Several wooden butter churns
- Curd strainers, both wooden and hair
- Vegetable matter from potsherds consistent with fermentation
Hansson, Ann-Marie. On Plant Food in the Scandinavian Peninsula in Early Medieval Times. Theses and Papers in Archaeology B:5. Stockholm: University of Stockholm. 1997.
Isaksson, Sven. The culture of food in Early Medieval Middle Sweden. A pottery use perspective.Food and Rank in Early Medieval Time. Stockholm: University of Stockholm. 2000.
Jørgensen, G. et al. Analyses of Medieval Plant Remains, Textiles and Wood from Medieval Svendborg. The Archaeology of Svendborg 4, Odense: Odense University Press. 1986.
Early modern references
Bringéus, Nils-Arvid. “A Swedish beer milk shake.”Milk and Milk Products from Medieval to Modern Times. ed. Patricia Lysaght, pp. 140-150. Precedings of the Ninth International Conference on Ethnological Food Research. Edinburgh: Conongate Academic, 1994.
Gísladóttir, Hallgerður. “The use of whey in Icelandic households.” Milk and Milk Products from Medieval to Modern Times. ed. Patricia Lysaght, pp. 123-129. Precedings of the Ninth International Conference on Ethnological Food Research. Edinburgh: Conongate Academic, 1994.
Modern works on food preservation
Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon
Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz
Truly Cultured, by Nancy Lee Bentley
Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, by the Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante
Making sauerkraut and pickled vegetables at home, by Klaus Kaufmann
Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
http://www.culturesforhealth.com/ in Oregon City has several dairy as well as vegetable cultures, and fermentation and cheese making equipment.
http://gemcultures.com/ in Lakewood, WA has several dairy cultures.
In the past I’ve gotten piima and fil mjolk cultures from www.fermentedtreasures.com, but their server seems to have gone kaplooey.
http://www.kookoolanfarms.com in Yamhill has lots of cheese making supplies, as well as raw cow’s milk
http://www.cheesemaking.com is Ricki Caroll’s excellent cheese making supply company.
Viking Social Organisation
Viking social structure conformed to the Indo-European pattern by dividing people into classes; the rulers, the free and the unfree. This situation prevailed through the Vendel and Viking periods and was only significantly altered in the 11th century with the advent of unified kingdoms in the Scandinavian homelands.
Lowest in the social order were the thralls (male-thrall; female-ambatt) or slaves. Whilst the main sources for slaves were war, piracy and trade, their numbers also included those born into slavery and various criminals. A man who failed to discharge his debts could become the slave of his creditor until he redeemed his debt.Thralls had few rights and could hold no land, so instead of being fined for lawbreaking they were beaten, maimed or even put to death. However, a thrall did have some advantages over the freeman as the following laws show:
‘Now a freeman and a slave who commit theft together, it is the freeman who is a thief and the slave shall not lose by it, for the man who steals with another man’s slave steals by himself.’
‘A slave has greater rights than a freeman in one matter. A slave has the right to kill on account of his wife even though she is a bondmaid, but a freeman has not the right to kill on account of a bondmaid, even though she is his woman.’
Despite these advantages, the slave was still only considered chattel, as shown by other laws:
‘If a man’s slave is killed , then no levelling oath need be sworn for him any more than for any other cattle belonging to a man, should that be killed.’
‘If a master kills his own slave, he is not liable before the law unless he kills him during legally ordained festivals or in Lent, then the penalty is banishment.’
Although thralls legally commanded no wergild it was normal in England to pay the owner the price of eight cows if you killed his thrall; in Iceland the equivalent was eight ounces of silver; in Scandinavia the killer must make ‘restitution according to the value set on him [the slave] naked.’
Although unable to hold land a thrall could have possessions, money and time to do work for himself. Slaves were permitted to do business at public markets and to make private transactions if the value involved was less than oneortug (1/3 ounce of silver, 20 pence). In favourable circumstances he might hope to purchase, earn or be rewarded with his freedom. Marriage was permitted but the children would also be slaves. Ill treatment of thralls was regarded as an undesirable quality and most masters appear to have treated their slaves quite well. A slave was not allowed to bear arms except in the case of fighting off invaders; and the slave who killed such an enemy was to be rewarded with his freedom.
As the Viking Age wore on, and the influence of Christianity grew stronger, slavery became less common, especially with slaves of the same nationality or religion. Once released the freedman ( leysingi) was still not entirely free; he was still dependant on his former owner and family for a number of generations and could not institute legal proceedings against him. He needed a patron to protect his new found freedom and often looked to his former master to champion him. He could however gain full freedom by buying it with a larger payment than would otherwise be required. Alfred’s treaty with Guthrum at Wedmore in 886 AD set the wergild of a Danish freedman equal to that of a Saxon gebur (who sat roughly in the middle of society in the Ceorl class) at two hundred shillings.
Above the freedman were the bondi and karls, the truly free land holding farmers. This class was a very broad one ranging from impoverished peasants to men of wealth and local authority. Whilst they could be sailors, hunters, traders or raiders they were still fundamentally farmers, even if absence and large holdings meant they required the labour of other men – both free and thrall. Their wergild at Wedmore was set as the same as English nobility, eight half-marks of pure gold.
Although in theory a bondi had a farm of his own, in practice most young men had to live with their parents, or farm the lands of a large landholder. Such men still retained their status.
‘These were the men who tilled land and raised stock, bore witness and produced verdicts, said aye or no on matters of public concern at the Thing (including matters as important as the election of a king or a change of religion), attended religious and lay ceremonies, made and bore weapons, manned ships, served in levies, were conscious of their dues and worth, and so impressed these upon others that as a free peasantry they stood in a class of their own in Europe.’
One stage above the bondi were those landowners with hereditary rights to their land. In Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles these were known as odalsbondi, in Norway as hauldr, and in England as holdas. Odal rights were fiercely maintained as they distinguished a family claim, and could not be usurped by jarls or even the crown (in Scotland odal rights survived into the eighteenth century!). The weregild for a Holdas was established in English courts as half that for an eolderman.
The upper levels of Viking society were comprised of the various forms of aristocracy and the kings. The lowest rank of rulers were the landsmenn (roughly equivalent to the later medieval ‘baron’), known as styraesmen in Denmark. Originally the individual ship commanders, the later qualification for this rank was the ability to field and maintain forty armed men in the levy. The position was not hereditary and was gained through an oath of loyalty to the king, on whose behalf they held their authority. In Norway their ‘manbote’ (weregild) was fixed at six full marks of silver.
More frequently encountered is the title of jarl, a semi or fully independent lordship. As with the bondi some held lands by odal right of inheritance, others ruthlessly fought their way to power. In the early period there is little clear difference between powerful jarls and the many petty kings who flourished in Denmark and Norway. Later, in the eleventh century, under kings such as Harald Hardrada, the power-broking jarls were crushed. The Viking captain with his fleet and hirð was a thing of the past. The new chieftains were landed men who wished for stability and peace, members of a bondi aristocracy who supported centralised kingship. In the century after Harald Fairhair, no Norwegian king died peacefully in his bed or was succeeded by his son. Magnus became king in 1035 at the invitation of the people and came to peace with his uncle Hardrada. Hardrada’s death in 1066 was not the fault of his subjects, and his sons, grandson and great-grandsons all succeeded him in due order. The power and organisational abilities of the Christian Church also aided the king, to their mutual benefit.
This influence increased throughout the eleventh century. As power centralised the royal estates were left in the charge of stewards, bryti, who formed a layer of local authority balancing that of the local landsmenn.
Although under Scandinavian influence the Danelaw was an integral part of the English kingdom. Like the rest of England it was divided into shires, some massive like Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, others far smaller. The larger shires were divided into ‘trithings’ (a Scandinavian word for thirds) which gives us our modern ‘ridings’ in Yorkshire. The Midland shires and the shires of the south-east Danelaw conformed to the usual English patterns, as did the East-Anglian divisions of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Much of the Danelaw, like the rest of England, was further subdivided into hundreds, and the basic fiscal and disciplinary business of the community passed through the hundred courts. However, where Scandinavian influence was strongest, such as Yorkshire and the Five Boroughs, the equivalent sub-division was the wapentake. Despite the differences in nomenclature of the sub-divisions, the legal system was much the same. Even in Scandinavia the legal system was not vastly different to that in England. The only major differences were in religion and, as the Danes were converted, even this difference grew less. This does not mean that the laws were identical, however, as one of Edgar’s codes permitted the Danes to exercise their rights ‘according to the good laws they can best decide on.’
The wapentakes were further subdivided into the Danish carucates, the land that could be ploughed by one plough team in a year, and bovates, the amount of land apportioned to a farmer contributing one ox to the eight-ox plough team. In Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, traces of a further Scandinavian sub-division are to be found – the manslot (allotment to one free settler). Hundreds were still divided into hides.
It is not clear exactly how warriors were recruited for the Here (army). It is likely that they may have been drawn on the ‘one man from several basic land units’ as was done in Saxon areas.
The blót (Old Norse neuter) refers to Norse pagan sacrifice to the Norse gods and the spirits of the land. The sacrifice often took the form of a sacramental meal or feast. Related religious practices were performed by other Germanic peoples, such as the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The blót element of horse sacrifice is found throughout Indo-European traditions, including the Vedic Indian, Celtic, and Latin traditions.
The verb blóta meant “to worship with sacrifice”, or “to strengthen”. The sacrifice usually consisted of animals, in particular pigs and horses. The meat was boiled in large cooking pits with heated stones, either indoors or outdoors. The blood was considered to contain special powers and it was sprinkled on the statues of the gods, on the walls and on the participants themselves.
It was a sacred moment when the people gathered around the steaming cauldrons to have a meal together with the gods or the Elves. The drink that was passed around was blessed and sacred as well and it was passed from participant to participant. The drink was usually beer or mead but among the nobility it could be imported wine.
The old prayer was til árs ok friðar, “for a good year and frith (peace)” They asked for fertility, good health, a good life and peace and harmony between the people and the powers.
Modern adherents of the reconstructionist religions Theodism and Ásatrú continue to practice the ritual of blót, which is one of the most important ritual observances of their religion, in addition to symbel.
Symbel / Bragafull – Acknowledging ourselves and our acomplishments
In Christian thinking “boasting” is seen as something to be avoided, not so in pre Christian Norse culture.
Or i should correct myself, boasting in this case is not the empty claims and exagerations we normally associate with the word, but an acknowledging of our own acomplishments AND the help of the Gods and ancestors.
In other words a thanksgiving of sorts ,notice that there is no sacrifice in Symbel, since it is not a prayer for something but a thanks for what is allready given.
We acknowledge our own part in the acomplishment and thus strenghten ourselves.
The Gods are not doing everything for us since they´re not our servants. Gods and men co exist.
Thus WE have a place in the equation.
At the end of Symbel / Bragafull oaths are often taken, thus further empowering us. These vows are BINDING and taken very seriously.
Symbel involved a formulaic ritual which was more solemn and serious than mere drinking or celebration. The primary elements of symbel are drinking ale or mead from a drinking horn, speech making (which often included formulaic boasting and oaths), and gift giving. Eating and feasting were specifically excluded from symbel, and no alcohol was set aside for the gods or other deities in the form of a sacrifice.
Accounts of the symbel are preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf (lines 489-675 and 1491–1500), Dream of the Rood and Judith, Old Saxon Heliand, and the Old NorseLokasenna as well as other Eddic and Saga texts, such as in the Heimskringla account of the funeral ale held by King Sweyn, or in the Fagrskinna.
The bragarfull ”promise-cup” or bragafull ”best cup” or “chieftain’s cup” (compare Bragi) was in Norse culture a particular drinking from a cup or drinking horn on ceremonial occasions, often involving the swearing of oaths when the cup or horn was drunk by a chieftain or passed around and drunk by those assembled. The names are sometimes anglicized as bragarful and bragaful respectively.
That the name appears in two forms with two meanings makes it difficult to determine the literal meaning. The word bragr ’best, foremost’ is a source for its first element. The form bragafull (but not bragarfull) can also be interpreted as ‘Bragi’s cup’, referring to the Bragi, god of poetry, though no special connection to Bragi appears in any of the sources.