Viking Age Men

From the Fury of the Northmen....

A furore Normannorum, libera nos Domine – ‘From the fury of the Northmen, O lord, deliver us!

That is probably the most hackneyed line in all the vast literature about the Vikings and their evil ways. It is alleged to have been the fervent litany chanted in every medieval church throughout Europe once the Viking ravages started. In fact it is quite certainly apocryptal, as the Belgian scholar D’Haenens has documented in his work Les Invasions Normandes en Belgique au IXe Siecle, Louvain, 1967. No scholar has ever been able to find a ninth century text containing these words, although there are various litanies in which the faithful prayed to heaven to deliver them from the menace of their enemies; but it is difficult to date those prayers or to identify the enemies for they could have been Vikings, or Saracens or even Hungarians. Only once sentence, from an antiphony intended for churches with a particular cult dedicated to St Vaast or St Medard, bears any resemblance to the celebrated slogan: Summa pia gratia nostra conservando corpora et cutodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna, "Our supreme and holy Grace, protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms"

Farmworkers and Craftsmen

Individual free men would normally find employment on the family farm, but natural excess of labour in some places and dearth in others meant that some free men would be available as hired workers. These men seem to be the reksÞegnar of the Trøndelag laws while Icelandic terms are einhleyÞingar, lone runners or unattached men, and lausamenn which means men not tied or voluntarily in service. Whilst in gainful employment they were called in Norway and Iceland, griδmenn or home-men, in Denmark inǽsmǽn or inside men, both names signifying their place within a household whilst making clear their rights and obligations as temporary members of the established family unit. Another term for men in service is húskalar or house-carls, but this came to mean particularly retainers of a lord or leader. Farm work required active men as herdsmen and shepherds, especially when highland pasturing was a part of their lifestyle and system. Other men would be required for hunting and fishing, where conditions were favourable as well as for timber felling and peat cutting where slaves were not available. Every farmer would be his own woodworker and blacksmith to some extent. Some men where talent allowed found it possible to carve out a living by specialising in house building, boat building, the manufacture of weapons and shields including jewellery making.

The law

It was important that a large proportion of the free men should have a good knowledge of the laws. Indeed, where social order depended to a great extent on agreement among the yeomen and the execution of judgement lay in the yeomen’s own hands, such widespread legal knowledge was essential for peace. Learning the law by heart, such as it was orally preserved back then, discussing law, practising legal ceremony and rehearsing formulas must of necessity been the larger extent of a boy’s education during the Viking era. Thus, it became an obligation as well as a pastime. The Småland Law begins: Now men must go to the thing and hear our recital of the law; those who are present must listen and tell those who stay at home. In the thirteenth century Gunnlaugs saga a scene is described which is probably not untypical. Gunnlaug as a boy stayed at the home of the chieftain Thorstein and learnt law from him.One day he said, ‘There is one point of law which you have not taught me: how to betroth a wife.’‘That is a small matter,’ said Thorstein and taught him how to do it.Then to prove he had grasped it, Gunnlaug went through a mock-ceremony in which he appointed his witness and became betrothed to Helga, Thorsteins daughter.

It was inevitable that some men would stand out as lawyers because of their capacious memories and casuistically insights, and their teaching and advice would be much sought after.It was common for a principal in a case to conduct his own prosecution or defence, but anyone who had doubts about his own ability could transfer his responsibilities to someone else.The term Iǫgmenn, lawmen was used of such lawyers, and it was also used an official title for the most skilful and best connected of them who were called on to play important presidential or consultative parts at the local, provincial or national assemblies.From Denmark, we have no record of lawmen who functioned at meetings, but there must have been Danes who preserved, created and transmitted he laws.The Danelaw boroughs in England had groups of lawmen who formed a kind of judicial committee, and this system may be compared with that in Norway, where the yeomen at their assemblies elected a similar committee of lawmen. They would presumably consider and formulate new legislation.In the west-coast laws of Norway, for example, there is reference to that statue (concerning the levy) which has hitherto applied and which Atli announced before the men of the Guli assembly. Atli must have been the chief lawman of the legal province, possibly the same man as the Atli who was active as leader of the yeoman in the years about 1040.Such a man would be responsible for reciting the law and giving decisions on points of law.These were the functions of the elected lawman in the Swedish provinces; in addition, he acted as the yeoman’s representative in dealings with the king and bishop, and much seems to have been made of his independent dignity.In the Vastergotland Law it is said emphatically that the lawman must be a yeoman’s son.There is an interesting thirteenth-century list which enumerates nineteen lawmen for this province, starting in heathen times, probably about A.D 1000.We see that the office often passed from father to son, and we get some notion of the influence for good or bad of the lawmen from the comments added to their names.

The Vikings were the master mariners and ship-builders of the middle ages: their success depended on these skills. Spectacular archaeological finds of whole or partial ships, from burial mounds or dredged from harbours, continue to give new and exciting evidence of their practical craftsmanship and urge to seek new shores. The nautical vocabulary of the Viking Age, however, has been surprisingly neglected - the last comprehensive study was published in 1912 and was heavily dependent on post-Viking Age sources.  Far better contemporary sources from the later Viking Age are available to document the activities of men and their uses of ships from c.950-1100, and Judith Jesch undertakes in this book the first systematic and comparative study of such evidence. The core is a critical survey of the vocabulary of ships and their crews, of fleets and sailing and battles at sea, based on runic inscriptions and skaldic evidence from c.950-1100. This nautical vocabulary is studied within the larger context of "viking" activity in this period: what that activity was and where it took place, its social and military aspects, and its impact on developments in the nature of kingship in Scandinavia.

Ref: Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age: The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse by Judith Jesch 2001

Did the Viking men wear make up?
Vikings used a type of eyeliner known as kohl which was a dark-colored powder made of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla.  It helped keep the harsh glare of the sun from damaging one’s eyesight while also increasing the dramatic sex appeal of the wearer. Ibrahim Al-Tartushi, an Arab traveler who visited the Viking trading hub of Hedeby in 950AD wrote: “there is also an artificial make-up for the eyes, when they use it beauty never fades, on the contrary it increases in men and women as well.”  So there you have it, eyeliner on both men and women is as sexy today as it was over a thousand years ago.

During the Viking Age overpopulation became a leading reason to search for new lands and the migration to them.The first stage of these migrations was to England and the European mainland.Then in the mid-9th century Vikings turned their attention to uninhabited islands reported further west - first the Faeroe Islands, then Iceland, and later Greenland. On these virgin lands the Vikings had a dramatic impact on the environment by cutting down forests, hunting unsuspecting wildlife, and introducing new animals and plants. This process was known as landnám, literally “land-taking.”    The most important knowledge about the physical appearance of the Vikings comes from archaeological finds of skeletons from the period. Up until now, around 500 Viking skeletons have been found in Denmark. However, here the picture of the big, strong Viking fades a little. The bones show a population that suffered from tooth problems and aching joints, for instance the faces of men and women in the Viking Age were more alike than they are today. The women’s faces were more masculine than women’s today, with prominent brow ridges. On the other hand, the Viking man’s appearance was more feminine than that of men today, with a less prominent jaw and brow ridges. These ambiguous facial features mean that it is difficult to decide upon a Viking skeleton’s sex based on the skull alone. Therefore, other traits need to be studied to identify the sex of skeletons. Pelvis width can be very useful in this respect.