From 700-1100 AD, the Vikings ruled supreme. A strong and proud race of Nordic seafarers who traveled the Norwegian and Baltic seas in long boats, from land to land, battle to battle. Viking warriors were often seen wielding a sword and shield or a mighty ax in battle. In the old Norse language, Viking meant “pirate raid”, and that is what they were best known for. The Vikings would travel to new lands to seek valuables to plunder, leaving little left in their wake. We will look at Viking food in this post, but before we get there – when did the Vikings land in Britain?
The Great Invasion
Around 860AD, the Vikings were no longer satisfied with pillaging and moved onto new lands like Ireland and Britain in the hopes of conquering and settling. Thus, the “Great Viking Invasion” began. They were able to conquer almost all of the kingdoms in northern England until they came to Wessex where the Vikings were defeated by King Alfred the Great. While defeated, King Alfred was unable to force the Vikings out of the country. Despite a peace treaty, the warring went on for many years.
As legendary as the Vikings were, nothing is more recognizable as a Viking funeral. Norse funerals were important displays of their beliefs. Funeral pyres were used to cremate the bodies of their fallen friends, the smoke from the pyres bringing the spirits of their fellow warriors to where they belonged in the afterlife. Some Vikings chose to send those who fell in battle to Valhalla – a critical element of Norse Mythology – by placing their body on a boat, lighting it on fire to create a funeral pyre on the water so they could sail the sea one final time.
Not all Vikings were pillagers and raiders. Many would be surprised to know that some Vikings were farmers, craft makers, potters, traders of wares and excellent blacksmiths. Some rarely picked up a sword themselves unless it was in defense of family or home. They simply wanted to find some land in which they could settle, and make a life for their families.
Viking Food – The Diet
One question many have asked is about the diet of these mighty Viking warriors. Today, there are ways to fail safe foods from contamination that cause illnesses such as salmonella and e-coli, even so, from time to time something slips through and there is an outbreak of a food borne illness. What did the Vikings do before regulations and health codes? One also has to take into consideration, food was minimal in the Viking era. They could not simply walk into a grocery store to get what they needed whenever they wanted. They had to plan, hunt, ration. So how did they survive? Fairly good, from what historians have found.
Scientists and historians have given us a great look into Viking food and the dietary enrichment the Vikings indulged in. Some may be surprised to hear that the Vikings ate surprisingly well, and in fact, healthy at times. Vegetarians may be dismayed to hear that the Vikings were avid meat eaters, from the highest court to the lowest commoner.
Pork was the prime special on the menu during the Viking era, as it was easy to raise swine. Pigs grew quickly and one large hog could feed an entire family for days if rationed properly. Swine were also hardy and easy to keep in all seasons. Goats were also commonly raised for food as were, for a time at least, horses. Horse meat would start many clashes with Christian leaders who forbade the use of horses for human consumption during that era.
The Vikings were as excellent of hunters as they were warriors and were easily able to obtain wild game. The type of game depended on where they settled at the time. Most commonly, they would bring back wild boar, bear, or elk. Since the Vikings spent much of their time on their long boats traveling from land to land for raids or to barter, they also became efficient fishermen. Thus fish became a common item on the Viking food menu.
A very surprising fact to historians who have always pictured the Vikings sitting around a table, ripping chunks of meat off a roasted pig that is hanging over a fire, is that the Vikings actually preferred to boil their meats. Skause, a popular Viking food which is a boiled meat stew, was a staple of the Viking diet, and many modern dietitians credit that as a far healthier choice than had they fried their meats. It allowed the meat to cook longer at a higher temperature to kill the bacteria that could be present, and helped boil off some of the unnecessary fat.
Viking Food – A Balanced Diet
The Vikings were very good at balancing their diets with veggies and fruits that were available at the time. However, despite the seemingly healthy standards to which they ate, they were not the epitome of perfect health. Scientists have found that the Vikings suffered from parasites and other intestinal ailments. Scientists also discovered undigested seeds that were likely from breads the Vikings ate, that came from poisonous weeds.
What is unclear is if the Vikings were aware the weeds they used in the bread making were toxic to humans. It is clearer that the levels were not of a high enough toxicity to cause the death of a healthy Viking, so perhaps they knew just how much to use, or perhaps it was just sheer luck.
The Vikings have a rich and colorful history that is alive even today in their descendants who are found all over the world. Those descendants continue to celebrate the stories, legends and culture of the Vikings. They also celebrate the grand feasts with Viking food, only without the worms and poisonous weeds.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Viking Food" https://englishhistory.net/vikings/viking-food/, April 21, 2017