By Dick Martin
Everybody knows who the Vikings were. They traveled the seven seas in their longboats, pillaging, raping, murdering, plundering monasteries and nunneries for their gold and silver, and taking slaves for use at home. Is all this true? Yes, it is, but many, perhaps most Vikings as I found out, in Iceland museums several years ago stayed at home and farmed, raising gardens, crops, and livestock.
I came from Viking stock myself since many of my ancestors lived in Denmark, which along with Norway produced most of those early Vikings, so I have a special interest in those people. And a long look at Google, at books and magazine articles, and more, told a story that went far beyond murder and pillage.
They lived in lands hard to survive in because of their bitter weather, and under such conditions the weak usually died, building a hardy people who could handle anything.
Instead of living on small farms and eking out a living as best they could, most made a home in crofters, large homes with many outbuildings, run by a single warrior with his wife, children, slaves, relatives, and ordinary workers. Under those conditions, many left to find new lands to build new crofts and start their own homes.
So, the long ships with their dragons heads, oars, and square sails, went forth in all directions, beginning around 800 AD. They settled Iceland, then Greenland (which lasted only 400 years), then reached the coast of North America around New Brunswick. They called their brief settlement there ‘Vineland’.
You might ask how the Vikings of North America and elsewhere lived? What did they eat? How did they farm compared to our own ancestors? Very little different.
Since growing seasons were short, the Vikings depended mostly on livestock and cereal grains. They grew oats, rye, and barley, along with a little wheat and millet in more southern areas, and followed crop rotation practices. Typically, a field would be plowed with a wooden plow pulled by horses, oxen, or cattle, and later by a plow tipped with iron as they learned blacksmithing.
Rye would be planted one year, then next year barley or whatever, then the field would lie fallow for a year, and be worked and manured before the next crop. They used barley to make a thin, flat bread, oats for bread and porridge, and rye for a heavy, thick bread.
Since Vikings were famous for their periodic drinking spells, a fair amount of barley went to make beer, and bees were kept for a potent drink called honey mead. Hops and bog myrtle flavored their ale, and a fair amount of fruit went to make wine.
They worked hard for every bite they ate, and stored as much as possible for the hard winters. The women and young people gave time to caring for gardens that held root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, onions and turnips that could be stored underground for later use. And they also planted leeks, peas, celery, fava beans, and cabbage.
The men and older boys cared for a variety of livestock that included sheep and goats, cattle and horses (they favored horse meat), pigs that were fattened on forest mast like acorns and beechnuts, and each November they killed excess pigs, the weaker cattle and sheep, and chickens, ducks, and geese, smoking much of the meat for winter use, and keeping the best animals for next year's breeding.
They hunted too, for winter meat, elk, deer, reindeer, hares, bear, wild boar, even squirrels, which were favored as much for their fur as winter meat. And other days some would be assigned to fish with home-made iron hooks and usually made good catches of cod, coalfish, salmon, herring, haddock, and pike and smelt. Nearly all of any catch was dried and stored for winter. It wasn't an easy life by any means.
Would you like to sample real Viking food? One of their daily staples was porridge, and according to an ancient recipe it was made from 10-12 cups of water, salt, two cups of chopped barley kernels soaked overnight in cold water, a handful of whole grain wheat flour, a handful of crushed hazelnuts, and 3-4 teaspoons of honey. The mixture was cooked until soft and started the day of many an early riser.