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The Farms of Houses of the Vikings - Part I

Posted in Vikings  by antiques

the-farms-of-houses-of-the-vikings-part-iThe vast majority of Norse people lived on small farms. However, the nature of these settlements varied widely from one region to another. In prosperous regions, farms tended to cluster into small villages or hamlets. In less prosperous areas, individual farms were well separated.

Typical farm settlements took the form of a central cluster of buildings enclosed by fences. Outside the fenced areas were the fields used for cultivation or grazing. Each homestead typically consisted of a longhouse and multiple out-buildings.

In the earlier part of the Norse period, it appears that everything was contained in the longhouse: animals, people, tools, food storage, work shop. Later, all but the people were moved to out buildings. For example, the early longhouse recently excavated under the streets of Reykjavík had animal stalls in the living quarters. The floor plan to the left shows the animal stalls located opposite to the front door. While this arrangement was common in early longhouses found in Norway, this is the first example found in Iceland.

The main farming activity throughout the Norse region was animal husbandry, and cattle were the most important of the livestock. That importance is reflected in the language: the word for cattle and the word for money are identical: fé. Cattle were the only farm animals covered by the insurance provided by the hreppur, described later in this article.

Cattle were raised for many purposes. Milk cows provided diary products, which were consumed fresh, but more importantly, they were turned into foods such as cheese, butter, and skyr, which could be stored over the winter months when cows stopped producing fresh milk. Beef from the cattle was a regular part of the diet. Oxen were used as draft animals, to pull a sleigh, a sledge, or an arðr , an early form of plow. Additionally, bulls were used as offerings to the gods in pagan era sacrifices.

The large, wealthy farm at Stöng in Iceland had a barn with stalls for 18 head of cattle when the farm was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the year 1104. The ruins of the cow shed are shown to the left, as it appears today. Stone slabs that divided the stalls are still visible.

Njál’s farm at Bergþórshvoll had stalls for 30 head of cattle, a very large Viking age farm. Cattle were smaller in the Viking age than today, standing about 125cm high (49in) at the shoulder. Few bulls were kept. Rather, they were allowed to reach puberty, bred widely, and then slaughtered before they reached the point where they consumed large amounts of fodder in the winter.

In the summer, cattle were driven to pastures in the highlands. Barren cattle might be grazed outdoors year round, but generally milk cows were brought in under cover during the winter and fed from the stored stocks of hay. During especially harsh winters, it is likely that livestock left outdoors starved to death.

Second in importance to Viking age farmers were sheep. Sheep were raised for their fleece, their milk, and their meat. Wethers were allowed to graze, but ewes were penned and the lambs weaned from them. Smaller numbers of ewes than wethers were kept, which suggests that the milk from sheep was of lesser importance than it came to be after the end of the Viking age. Like the cattle, the sheep were driven to higher pastures in summer, where they were allowed to roam free. In the fall, all the farmers in a region worked together to round up the sheep and sort them by owner. This practice is still followed in Iceland; the sorting pen shown to the right differs little from those used in medieval times. In winter, some sheep may have been sheltered in barns or simple barrows (fjárborgir).

Horses were raised, not only for their utility for travel and transport, but also because their meat was prized. It was a common, inexpensive part of the diet. In addition, horses were sacrificed to the pagan gods, and the meat consumed as part of the feasting ceremonies. When Christianity was adopted, the consumption of horseflesh was banned.

There appears to have been special interest in breeding horses in Iceland, perhaps the only farm animal to be systematically bred. Large breeding stocks were kept, with the goal of producing horses that were especially good for the popular sport of horse fights.

Other livestock raised on Viking age farms included goats and pigs. Goats grazed year round in areas of brushwood. Home field pigs (túnsvín) were kept close to home and slaughtered for home consumption.

The growing of hay was essential to maintain the farm animals over the winter in Norse lands. Hay was required for the animals that were sheltered under cover over the winter, and hay may have been provided to livestock in pasture lands for animals that were out of doors through the winter.

As a result, it was necessary to put up sufficient hay each autumn to maintain the livestock until spring. At the beginning of the winter, the number of livestock was compared to the amount of hay in storage. If the farmer thought that insufficient hay was available, the weakest animals were slaughtered before the winter started, so that the available fodder would last the winter. Over two tonnes (2 tons) of hay was needed for each cow to last the Icelandic winter. A large farm in Viking age Iceland had around 20 to 40 milk cows, so harvesting and storing sufficient hay to last the winter was an arduous but important task. Studies of several Viking era farms in north Iceland suggest that farms could produce between 0.5 and 0.9 tonnes of hay per hectare (0.22 - 0.44 tons/acre) in good years. These figures imply that large farms required 20 to 80 hectares (50 to 200 acres) of land set aside for hay cultivation to keep their livestock over the winter.

Sheep and goats, being hardier, could survive the winter, but might be brought under cover at the height of a storm. While hay was grown on uncultivated land, the best hay was grown in the tún, the home field near the farm. This hay was carefully cultivated, with animals (and people) excluded so that the grass remained untrampled and uneaten while it grew during the summer.

Hay was harvested using scythes, and then raked and turned and stacked against a wall for drying. Scythes needed frequent resharpening in order to keep the edge sufficiently sharp. Whetstones, imported from Norway, were used to keep the edge sharp. In addition, the ropes (ljábönd) which attached the blade to the wooden handle worked loose as the work progressed, requiring a pause to retighten. As much hay as possible was stored under cover in barns, but it’s likely that at least some of the hay had to be stored outdoors over the winter. This hay was built into stacks and protected from the weather by turf piled around and over the stacks.

The tún at Bjarg, the farm where Grettir the Strong was raised, is shown to the left as it looks today. When the photograph was taken, the haying operation was in full swing, using modern farm machinery.

In order to keep out animals, walls were built of sod and stone. The walls both enclosed and protected the hayfields, and also marked boundaries. A turf wall is shown to the right, which was under construction when the photograph was taken. Building and maintaining the walls surrounding the meadows and the homefield was a major chore at the farm every year.

All available manure was spread on the homefield to fertilize the soil and to maximize the crop. In the spring, manure that had accumulated in the animal shelters over the winter was spread on the homefield. There is some evidence that some fields were irrigated, for example the laws about irrigation that appear in Grágás (K 191), the medieval Icelandic law book. However, if irrigation happened at all, it must have been on a small scale, due to the difficulty of digging extensive irrigation ditches with the tools available in the Viking age.

Hay was so important to Viking age farms that growing sufficient hay was written into the law, which required that tenant farmers hire enough farm hands that all hay meadows could be worked. The law prohibited land from becoming waste through lack of attention. —

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