Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Vikings by Mary MacGregor
Stories of the Vikings by  Mary MacGregor

The Vikings at Home

In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, in all the villages and towns around the shores of the Baltic, the Viking race was born.

It has been said that the name "Vikings" was first given to those Northmen who dwelt in a part of Denmark called Viken. However that may be, it was the name given to all the Northmen who took to a wild, sea-roving life, because they would often seek shelter with their boats in one or another of the numerous viks or bays which abounded along their coasts.

Thus the Vikings were not by any means all kings, as you might think from their name, nor, indeed, is the word pronounced "Vi-kings," but "Vik-ings" (or men of the Viks); yet among them were many chiefs of royal descent. These, although they had neither subjects nor kingdoms over which to rule, no sooner stepped on board a Viking's boat to take command of the crew, than they were given the title of king.

The Northmen did not, however, spend all their lives in harrying and burning other countries. When the seas were quiet in the long, summer days, they would go off, as I have told you, on their wild expeditions. But when summer was over, and the seas began to grow rough and stormy, the Viking bands would go home with their booty and stay there, to build their houses, reap their fields, and, when spring had come again, to sow their grain in the hope of a plenteous harvest.

There was thus much that the Viking lad had to learn beyond the art of wielding the battle-axe, poising the spear, and shooting an arrow straight to its mark. Even a freeborn yeoman's son had to work, work as hard as had the slaves or thralls who were under him.

The old history books, or Sagas, as the Norseman called them, have, among other songs, this one about the duties of a well-born lad:

"He now learnt

To tame oxen

And till the ground,

To timber houses

And build barns,

To make carts

And form ploughs."

Indeed, it would have surprised you to see the fierce warriors and mighty chiefs themselves laying aside their weapons and working in the fields side by side with their thralls, sowing, reaping, threshing. Yet this they did.

Even kings were often to be seen in the fields during the busy harvest season. They would help their men to cut the golden grain, and with their own royal hands help to fill the barn when the field was reaped. To king and yeoman alike, work, well done, was an honourable deed.

Barley was the grain most cultivated by the Northmen, but they also grew oats, rye, and wheat. If the crops failed, as would often happen, there was great distress in the land.

Corn was threshed with a flail and then ground in handmills. Women usually turned the handles of these mills.

Once a man named Helgi, disguised himself as one of these women thralls in order to escape from his enemies.

It was in vain that his enemies searched for him, Helgi was nowhere to be found. At length in their search his enemies came to a barn in which was a handmill for grinding corn. A tall, strongly-built woman was turning the handle, but so violently did she work, that the mill stones cracked and the barn was shattered to pieces as fragments of the stone flew hither and thither. Then Helgi's enemies pounced upon the vigorous corngrinder, saying, "More suited to these hands is the sword-hilt than the handle of the mill."

Helgi indeed it was whom his enemies had discovered under his guise of a female thrall. But with the quick humour that at times stole over these fierce Northmen, Helgi's enemies forgot to punish him as they laughed together over his disguise, and over the strength which had made it useless.

The Northmen built their own houses, for they were carpenters as well as skilful at many another trade. Their buildings rose and their weapons were forged by the strength and cunning of their own right hands.

These houses had only one room, the side walls of which were long and low, with neither windows nor doors. The entrance was at the gable end, where a small door opened into a tiny ante-room. Through the ante-room the Northmen stepped into their large living-room or hall.

Glass was unknown in the North in those days, and the windows were merely open spaces between the beams which formed the roof of the house. They could be closed by wooden shutters.

The spaces which were not left open for light were covered with turf or thatch, but a hole was left above the centre of the room by which the smoke from the fire escaped. For the Northmen had no chimneys in their dwellings.

Sometimes the walls of the house were bare, sometimes they were adorned with weapons and shields, and these were dearer to the men of old than any pictures could have been. On feast-days, however, the women would deck the walls with beautifully woven silks or cloths, which had been brought home from some raiding expedition.

As for carpets, they would have been useless. For the floor was made of clay which had been beaten hard, while the hearth was formed quite simply by placing several large flat stones on the centre of the clay floor. Here the fire blazed right merrily, the smoke escaping through the hole made for the purpose in the centre of the roof.

There was but little furniture in the long, low room, and what there was, was of the plainest. Benches, which were often used as beds, were fixed to the walls.

At meal-times long tables were placed on trestles in front of the benches, and removed again by thralls as soon as the meal was over.

For the rest, wooden stools were occasionally to be found, and a few chests, in which were kept the treasures of the household, jewels and silks, silver and gold, and these were all that the Vikings needed to furnish their houses in those early times.

There were many of the Northmen, however, who were not content to trust their treasures to the chests, whose locks were anything but strong. These would place their jewels and their silver and gold in a copper box or in a large horn; then, digging a hole in the earth they would bury their treasure, marking the spot with a stone, or by some other sign known only to themselves.

Unfortunately the times were dangerous. A stray arrow, a sudden flash of passion, and the owner of a hidden treasure might be slain before he had the chance to tell any one where his goods were buried. Long after the Viking age had ended, farmers, as they ploughed their fields, would discover these hoards and marvel at the riches of the old Viking chiefs.

In winter evenings the room or hall was lighted by the fire which blazed in the centre of the floor, or by torches made of pieces of pine-trees, which were stuck roughly into the walls.

The plates and dishes used by the Vikings were usually plain wooden trenchers. They fed on bread and milk, and used honey instead of sugar. Wild game, too, they would often have after the men came home from the hunt. Horns were for the most part used instead of cups, and these the daughters of the house would hand to the men, brimming over with home-brewed ale or mead.

In the houses of the rich, however, the meals were not so simple or the dishes so plain. Here is a curious old song which will tell you the kind of fare which was provided for the chiefs of the Vikings.

"Then took the mother

The embroidered cloth

Of linen, white,

Then set she down

Thin loaves of bread

Wheaten white,

Upon the cloth.

Next brought she forth

Dishes brimful,

Silver mounted,

High-flavoured ham

And roasted fowl.

There was wine in cans

Beauteous cups.

They drank, they talked

Till break of day."

Thus you see that the chiefs who fought could also feast.

Skins, furs, woollen, linen and silken stuffs, all these were used for the dress of the people. Silk, however, was thought a great luxury, and was used only by the wealthiest. When a little Viking prince or noble was born he was wrapped in silk.

The Northmen delighted in bright clothing, scarlet being their favourite colour.

Their kirtle or coat, often of blue, was held together by a waist-belt. Over the kirtle was flung a scarlet cloak fastened at the shoulder with a buckle, which was often of gold or silver and studded with gems.

The Northmen wore boots of a tan colour, gold spurs and a golden helmet, or, if the helmet were laid aside, a grey hat.

Bright colours, too, were worn by the women. Their kirtle or gown had a train and usually long sleeves which reached to the wrist. It was fastened round the waist by a belt, often made, as were the men's, of gold or silver, and from the belt hung a bag in which the women kept their keys. These keys were the sign of the women's power in the household.

In their bag the women would also sometimes keep their rings and other jewels, for then they were sure that they would be well guarded. Over her kirtle a careful housewife would wear an apron.

Hats they did not use; instead they wore a linen cloth called a wimple. This came down over the ears and round the chin. On the top of the wimple they wore a high, twisted cap, which was sometimes bent at the top into the shape of a horn.

They were proud of their beautiful clothes, these women of olden days. Here is a picture the old Sagas draw for us of such housewives.

"The housewife

Looked at her sleeves;

She smoothed the linen

And plaited them.

She put up her headdress;

A brooch was on her breast;

The dress was trailing;

The shirt had a blue tint;

Her brow was brighter,

Her neck was whiter,

Than pure new-fallen snow."

The Northmen, as I have told you, would often go to the hunt to bring home game for the household, as well as for the pleasure of the chase. Hawking, too, was a sport followed with keenness by kings and nobles alike.

A king named Olaf was used to be very well pleased with himself if he had a good day's sport, just as kings and their subjects still are in our own times. Olaf rode out early one bright morning with hawk and hounds. In its first flight the king's hawk brought down two blackcock, and a short time later three more of the same birds. The hounds darted upon them as they fell to the ground, and Olaf rode homeward with his quarry in great glee.

The king's little daughter ran into the courtyard to meet her father as he came home from the chase.

"Hast thou ever heard of such sport in so short a time?" he asked her, showing her the birds.

"A fine morning's sport is this, my lord," she answered, laughing up into his face, "in that you have bagged five blackcock, but Harald, king of Norway, made a better bag when he took in one morning five kings and laid their kingdoms under his sway."

While the men hawked and hunted the women would do their household duties and spin threads into woven stuffs, using, even in those early days, distaff and loom.

Then, their duties over, they would wander down to the nut groves together to gather nuts, or in yet gayer mood they would play at ball, their merry laughter echoing through the glades.

When a Viking baby was born, if he were a prince or noble, he was, as I told you, wrapped in a garment of silk. But before this was done he, and every other little baby, was laid on the cold ground outside the house. And there the poor little thing had to stay until its father was brought to see it. He, the father, would listen to its cry, and the louder it was the better he was pleased, for at least his little son was sound of lung. Then he would lift the baby and feel each limb, and if these were strong enough to satisfy him, he would hand the child to the women who stood anxiously waiting, bidding them tend and care for it.


The King's little daughter ran into the courtyard to meet her father as he returned from the chase.

The child was then washed and clothed, and almost before it could speak or walk it was trained to be brave and to endure hardness, that, when it was older, it might be strong to fight for the gods.

But some little Viking babies could not cry lustily, while their limbs were thin and feeble. Such weak and puny children the fathers would leave lying on the ground, nor without his leave did the women dare to lift them up from the cold earth. So they were left to perish from cold, or, more terrible still, left to be devoured by wild beasts which stole out of the woods in search of food.

At other times it happened that a neighbour would see the little babe by the wayside and be too kind to leave it there. He would stoop to lift it, and carrying it to his own home he would give it to his wife. She would then become the foster-mother of the little child, and he its foster-father.

The bond between the foster-parents and the child would grow stronger as each year passed away, until it seemed that those who had trained the boy and given him a home were indeed his own parents.

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