Farmers and Fighters
Structure of the Viking Age Farm
In Viking Age Scandinavia, the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside and eked out an agrarian living farming, fishing or otherwise exploiting natural resources. Very few people lived in anything resembling urban settlement, particularly at the start of the Viking Age. Instead, people lived and worked on large farms. Those who owned the farms were the wealthier members of society, controlling a small hierarchy of tenants and labourers. Tenants were permitted to have small farms and households of their own located on the edges of the main farmer’s property, in exchange for which a proportion of their surplus would go to the landlord. These tenant farms were often located on land that was less fertile than the land farmed by the landlord. Alternatively, tenant farmers would be focused on more specialised forms of resource exploitation, such as fishing or logging, most of which would go to the landowner in exchange for grain and meat from the main farm. Labourers, on the other hand, simply worked the farms on behalf of both tenants and landowners. They formed part of a farmer’s household and many of them were slaves. Without any independent form of income, they were dependent on the farmer for food and clothing. Some lived in the complex of buildings which housed the landlords, whereas other occupied small houses throughout the farmlands.
Our best evidence of this model comes from Icelandic sources, as there were no urban settlements in Iceland in the Viking Age. Many sagas delve into the relationships and responsibilities between landlords and their tenants and labourers, often depicting disputes between tenants or labourers of different landlords that eventually escalate to involve the landlords themselves. One early source, Landnamabok (the Book of Settlers) shows an idealised version of how this social hierarchy was established in its account of Aud the Deep-Minded. Aud brings several slaves along with her to Iceland. Once there, she frees them and gives them smaller farms around the fringes of the land she claimed at Hvammur.
The Landed Aristocracy
Being a landlord granted one access to wealth, prestige and power. The raw materials and economic surplus that landlords gained from their own fields and from their tenants gave them the wealth and resources to build and equip warships, recruit men and employ craftsmen. It also allowed them to support and partake in trade for elaborate craft items that would enhance their prestige. As a result, the highest social tiers in Viking Age Scandinavia were comprised of landowners: the landed elite or aristocracy. With both aggression and tactical marriages, the most powerful landlords could expand their farms and gain others. They could use their superior might to be recognised as chieftains or even petty kings by their landowning neighbours. At the outset of the Viking Age, chieftains and petty kings were at the top of the social hierarchy. The landed aristocracy remained a powerful political class even after various unification processes had begun in Scandinavia (as seen on the Rulers page).
The landed aristocracy is the social class about which we have the most information. Much of the archaeological information we have for Scandinavian lifestyles in the Viking Age relates to the aristocracy, as they had the wealth to build lavish burial mounds, commission elaborate rune stones or craft items and build imposing longhouses. The skaldic poetry that was composed during the Viking Age was intended to enhance the prestige of aristocrats and chieftains and many of the poets themselves seem to have belonged to that elite class. When Christianity came to Scandinavia, members of aristocratic families dominated the ranks of priests, abbots and bishops. The literature produced in the two centuries after the medieval period was written by members of the elite for other members of the elite. As a result, the voice of the lower classes is hard to discern, but that of the aristocracy rings loud and clear.
A burial mound at Borre, an important aristocratic site from the early Viking Age in southern Norway. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
‘Central Places’: The Social Role of the Chieftain’s Farm
In archaeological discourse, a ‘central place’ is a location that performs an important social function for the community that resides in the area around it. Members of that community travel to the central place in order to fulfil that social function. The social functions referred to are rituals or practices which are performed to bring a community together and strengthen relationships between different members of the community, particularly if they live far apart and get little opportunity to interact with one another. These rituals and practices might include religious rites and festivals, marriages or other rites of passage, legal assemblies, feasts and other political meetings. Trade can also be regarded as a social practice in the medieval period, as it brought people together to interact with one another by exchanging goods. As people probably only met to trade a few times a year, these occasions were often regarded as festivals, involving feasts and sporting events. Some central places were able to combine some or all of these functions, with the result that often people were prepared to travel further in order to attend. The Icelandic Althing is an example of an annual gathering of this sort, making the location of the assembly a central place.
In the early Viking Age, the chieftain’s farm was the focal point of social life, combining almost all of the social functions of society. On Viking Age chieftains’ farms throughout Scandinavia, we find burial mounds that were considered to have religious significance as the resting places of important ancestors; consequently, they were often the site of religious rituals. In Sweden, a number of buildings have been discovered near chieftain’s halls which seem to have functioned as temples for pagan rituals: they often show signs of animal sacrifice and deposits of metalwork. Many religious rituals also took place in the chieftains’ halls themselves. These longhouses were also the venue for feasts between a chieftain and his followers at which marriages were arranged, alliances proposed and finalised. They may also have been used for trade. Even beyond the longhouse, most trading places are likely to have occurred on the property of chieftains: trade sites gather valuable resources in one location and are thus a tempting target for raids. To avoid that possibility, traders needed protection and chieftains were able to provide that with the military forces they were able to drum up. In return, they could expect a cut of the profits. This relationship between trade and secular power was not essential, but archaeological sources suggest that many Viking Age trade sites were located next to political power centres. This is particularly true of Norway.
Gullgubbers: small images of humans stamped from gold foil. These are often found in excavations of Viking farm complexes and are thought to suggest that a building had a religious function. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
The longhouse was the dominant form of elite dwelling in Viking Age Scandinavia. These iconic wooden buildings actually came into vogue centuries before the Viking Age and they continued to be used afterwards, although they varied slightly in their design during that time. They are so named because their length was usually several times their width. Inside, the longhouses were supported by a series of sturdy trestles which supported the planks of the roof and divided the interior into two or three aisles. This allowed the length of the hall to be extended simply by adding more trestles. As a result, some Viking Age longhouses reached incredible lengths. The longhouse at Borg in Lofoten, for example, was 83m long. Although the longhouses were essentially rectangular, many of them got wider and higher towards the centre, giving the longhouse a gentle curve which is reminiscent of the upturned hull of a boat. Longhouses as vast as the one at Borg must have been able to support huge social events for which people would travel from many miles around.
Many longhouses were divided roughly in two. One half, separated from the other by a wooden screen, would act as a byre for cattle during the winter, when the adverse weather prevented them from being grazed outside. The presence of the cattle had the advantage of increasing the temperature of the longhouse in winter. The other half was dedicated to the living and dining quarters of the hall’s human inhabitants. Depending on the length of the building, this might be divided into several rooms, although smaller longhouses are likely to have had just one main living room, with an area screened off for the head of the household. Benches around the edges of the central hearth would double as beds during the night.
There is little doubt that Norse aristocratic society glorified warriors. This is evident from burials, which often contained weaponry, and from Norse mythology, which reserved the best afterlife for warriors and foresaw the end of the world in universal conflict. Nevertheless, few members of society were permanently employed as fighters. There were no standing armies, although high-status members of societies might be permanently accompanied by bodyguards and military retinues made up of aristocrats (an example would be the king’s hird). Chieftains were expected to be proficient warriors but would also spend much of their time managing their
farms. When a wealthy chieftain decided to supplement their income with silver obtained overseas at sword-point, they would assemble a crew from their dependents, including tenant farmers and labourers. Most Vikings would have been farmers for most of the year. This is reflected in the fact that raiding activity in Britain, Ireland and western Europe often occurred in the spring or early summer, allowing the Vikings to return home for the harvest.
As royal power grew, it became necessary for kings and overkings to draw upon military forces to support their agenda. Maintaining a permanent army was expensive, so rulers hit upon the solution of making military service a duty owed to the king. A levy system known as the leidang was developed. Rather than every individual owing military service, it was decreed that every farm in a certain area would provide enough manpower to crew a specified number of ships. Whenever they were not needed, these men would go back to being farmers or labourers. The leidang may have been responsible for creating one of Scandinavia’s earliest administrative system, as it became necessary to divide kingdoms up into districts responsible for providing ships. The leidang system may have been inspired by the military duties created for Anglo-Saxon England by Alfred the Great. However, it is not certain when this system was first implemented in Scandinavia: some scholars attribute it to Hákon the Good, who ruled Norway in the mid-tenth century, but others think that an eleventh-century date may be more likely.