TOP TEN FACTS ABOUT VIKINGS
1. Viking was not a Culture
“Viking” was a profession. To go viking was a part-time occupation. Although we today refer to all Norse of the time as Vikings, they would often refer to pirates from other cultures as vikings, and I can only laugh when people authoritatively talk about the people. Of course, in the common language, saying any Norse is a Viking is about as ubiquitous and erroneous as calling an American bison a buffalo.
2. The Norse were a very practical people
Viking meant that the person was a raider or a trader. In general, if they landed where there was a strong defense and warriors, they were traders and went peacefully about that job. However, if there were no defenses—such as monastic sites, which had golden objects and were safe from Christian brigands who would never attack a Christian center—they were raiders.
3. The Vikings existed during the Viking Age
But I refer to the Viking Age for the same reason I refer to the Iron Age, the Bronze Age or the Nuclear Age, because Viking longships—drakkars, the war ships, and knarrs, the broader “trucks” of the sea—were the foremost technology of the time. The ships were quick (today, they have been fairly comparable when racing against sophisticated modern yachts), agile and capable (they were powered by both rowing and sails). They were built so they could easily travel both forward and back, so they could easily come into and leave a landing. The ships could be lashed together for combat and were outmoded only when other ships became taller, and the Viking ships had war coming down on them for forecastles and other developments.
4. The men they refer to as “Vikings” were mainly farmers when they weren’t out Viking
Everybody at the time was involved with farming. They needed farming to survive, and even the wealthy and the high status were closely if not physically connected to the process. Many times, the men would put in crops and then head out viking until they had to return home for harvesting. Sometimes, they would journey out again after harvest and hardly ever stay out for the full winter.
5. They weren’t dirty barbarians
They regularly bathed and had high hygienic standards. Nearly every Norse person had a comb—though many other peoples of the time did as well—and they had weekly, fully immersive baths when many people around them generally would regularly wash only their hands and necks. There is a chronicle that indicates that English girls often ditched local boys to court with Norse lads since they did not stink!
6. They were not illiterate
Generally. The number of them who knew runes is a controversial subject, but the fact that there were so many memorial runestones set on the sides of roads indicates to me that quite a few knew runes. However, they did not use their alphabet—fuþark if you prefer—the way that Christians used their alphabet. They did not use them to write chronicles or histories, at least not until after they converted, and the things they learned and recounted by rote were not written down until some time after they were Christianized, so not only do most period accounts written by the opposition—the Church and churchmen—but what we do have was written by Christians, who might have changed or invented things. Although runes did have a magical aspect, the new age use of runes for divination and prophecy appears to be a modern derivation.
7. They did not wear horned helmets, furry breechcloths or leather armor
Their helmets did not have horns—this was a nineteenth-century stylization. They generally wore the same sort of clothing that anyone else in Europe of the time—with certain minor regional differences like any other culture—wore. Their armor, if they had any, was maille. There is little evidence that they wore extensive leather armor.
8. There were no woman Vikings
Norse women might travel with their men—generally for colonization—but female warriors were the stuff of fantasy, both then and today (eg, the Valkyries). Women had a position in the society of the time—actually, both Norse and Englisc—that was higher than that of women in many later cultures, though they were certainly not the equals of the men, with great prestige and influence. In addition, there is evidence that they learned how to handle weapons, and were often put in charge of the home, farm and defense when men folk went out viking, though there is little evidence for their use of weapons and none for their participation in aggressive warfare.
9. They were skilled artisans
As jewelers, gold workers, weavers and so forth, the Norse had few equals. The more the archaeologist find of Norse crafts and arts—and they regularly being discovered—the more sophisticated we realize that the Norse people were!
10. They were widely traveled
The Viking Age was a time of good weather, often known as the Optimal Warm Era. They were able to sail easily to distant lands; and the great era of exploration gradually was ended with the Mini Ice Age. The Norse vikinged throughout the north, as far south as North Africa, as far east as Baghdad and Russia (which is named after a Viking tribe, the Rus) and as far west as North America (although attempts at colonization ended after about twenty years, we are uncertain how far west or how far south they traveled).
This has been inspired by a similar blog entry written by Don N. Hagist, an excellent reenactor, researcher and writer, on the “Top 10 Facts about British Soldiers.” Thanks and a tip of the helm to Mister Hagist!