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The Farms of Houses of the Vikings - Part II

Posted in Vikings  by antiques

the-farms-of-houses-of-the-vikings-part-iiIn the summer months, livestock was driven to pastures at higher elevations, called sel (shieling). During this time, from mid-June through mid-October, most of the livewstock were left to forage freely, while milk cows and ewes were kept close so they could be milked every day. The raw milk from the animals was collected and processed in a shed on site, where the farm family, or their hired hands, lived during the summer while they tended the livestock.

In some cases, the sel was near the farm, in the same valley, but further in the valley or higher up the wall of the valley. The sel for Bolli’s farm in the Sælingsdalur valley was located adjacent to the ravine Stakkagil, as told in Laxdœla saga. Although at the time of the saga, the valley was wooded, it’s possible that the farm was visible from the sel. Chapter 55 of the saga says that while working at the sel with only his wife and a few farmhands to help, Bolli was attacked and killed.

In other the cases, the sel was a considerable distance from the farm, perhaps in the next valley, or in the highlands between valleys. The sel ruins shown to the right were discovered only in 2004 and is probably a sel for one of the farms in Hrafnkelsdalur in east Iceland. Perhaps it is one of the sels that Einar rode to in search of the lost sheep, as described in chapter 5 of Hrafnkels saga. The site was studied in 2006, but little conclusive was found. As I write this in 2007, the site is flooded by Hálslón, the lake behind the new dam at Kárahnjúkur.

Milk collected at the sel was turned into butter, cheese, and skyr on-site. Skyr is usually translated as curds, which for most English speakers, fails to convey the pleasures of this yummy dairy treat.

The dairy products were brought down to the farms in skin sacks. Products such as skyr were stored in partially buried vats, which kept the skyr cool, helping to preserve it. During the winter months, when cows stopped producing milk, the skyr in storage became the main source of dairy food. In addition, sour milk was used as a preservative for other foodstuffs. Typical crops included grains such as barley (a staple crop throughout the Norse lands), rye, and oats. In the most southerly regions, wheat could be grown, a luxury crop. Depending on the local climate and soil conditions, vegetables such as beans, peas, cabbage, and onions could be grown. Thus, it was possible for a Norse farm family to have a varied diet. In addition, utility crops (such as flax for linen) were grown.

In Iceland, grain cultivation must have been difficult even in the best of times. The best chances for success were in the warmer parts of the country, in the south and southwest. Njáls saga, set in the south, contains a number of references to the growing of grain. Chapter 111 tells that Höskuldr Hvítanesagoði went out one morning with his seed bag in one hand and his sword in the other to sow grain in his field (left, as it appears today). The sons of Njál were waiting behind the fence, and they ambushed Höskuldr and killed him.

Regardless, grain cultivation was clearly attempted by the early Icelandic settlers. Both oat and barley pollen and barley grains have been found in the earliest settlement layers in Iceland. Substantial quantities of grain were found in the excavation of a Viking age granary in Reykjavik, suggesting that at least for this early Viking age farm, grain cultivation was quite successful. If the stone chest had been full, it would have held 200kg (440lb) of grain.

Larger grain fields were plowed with an arðr (left) drawn by oxen, while smaller fields were worked with hand tools. The iron cutting piece of the arðr (right) lacked flaring sides, so it merely cut grooves into the soil, rather than turning the soil like a modern plow. Plows were used in other parts of Europe during the Norse era, but there is scant evidence of their use in Norse lands during this time. Literary evidence (such as Landnámabók) supports only the use of ards. While iron cutting blades of ards have been found, no complete ards or plows are known to have survived from the Norse era, so their appearance is open to speculation.

It is thought that one man guided the arðr while another walked alongside the oxen, guiding them, encouraging them, and holding them when the arðr was stopped by a stone.

Sometime in the 11th century, a drift of sand covered a farmer’s field in northern Jutland. When the sand was removed in the 1950s, the Norse era field was still intact from its last plowing (right). The slightly curving furrows can be seen, along with the tracks of a wheeled vehicle, and footprints, possibly those of the farmer who plowed the field.

Continuous cropping was the cultivation practice most widely followed, where fields were continuously used year after year without any fallow periods. This practice required heavy fertilization in the form of manure. Only later in the medieval period, after the end of the Viking age, did crop rotation techniques come to be used in Norse lands. It is possible that alternating fields were left fallow for a year, and livestock were kept overnight on the unfallow fields as a way of fertilizing the field for the next year’s crop.

Barley was mowed with a sickle, then bound and stacked. After drying near a fire, the grain was threshed. The difficulty of growing grain was reflected in its value. A weight of dried grain was worth the same as an equal weight of butter or cheese. Grain was used for bread, porridge, and ale.

Various tools were widely used for cultivating, harvesting, and processing the crops. Iron-shod spades with a wooden blade and handle, and only a thin iron edge were used to dig ditches. Iron picks and iron-shod hoes were used to work the soil. Iron scythes, sickles, and leaf-knives were used for harvesting. Wooden pitchforks and rakes were used for spreading manure and for haymaking. Manure was also spread by dragging bundles of sticks over the homefield to break up and spread out the clots of manure. Flails were used to thresh the grain. Stone querns were used to mill the flour (although archaeological evidence suggests that water powered mills might have been used in towns during the Norse era).

The farm staff typically consisted of the owner of the farm, his family, as well as extended family who lived with the farmer in the longhouse. In addition, hired men and servants worked at the farm, in exchange for wages and room and board. Most farms kept slaves, a practice that was widespread throughout the Viking lands on both large and small farms. Slaves generally worked alongside the hired workers on the farm, but probably were assigned the harder and less desirable work. Lastly, shepherds were hired to tend the sheep, but this work had little respect. Shepherds received no wages, but only room and board. The law prohibited farmers from assigning shepherding duties to the hired men.

In general, farm families needed to be self-sufficient. With the exception of some luxury items, and some raw materials, everything needed for farm life was typically grown or manufactured on the farm. Wooden tools were made as needed. Every farm had to have a forge of some kind in order to be able to resharpen cutting tools such as scythes; whetting along was insufficient for keeping frequently used tools sharp. Most large farms had well equipped forges for working iron. Farmers were expected to be competent carpenters and blacksmiths. The tools shown to the left are reproductions of carpenter tools (top) and blacksmith tools (bottom). Sketches of period blacksmith tools are shown to the right.

Farms throughout the Norse lands were isolated. Farm life in the Viking age was a constant struggle against starvation, cold, and disease. Most people expected to and did work their entire waking hours.

Since there was nothing like a police force to maintain the peace, every farmer had to be prepared to defend his farm and property. A sense of solidarity was expected on a farm, between the farmer and his wife, on one hand, and the servants and farm hands on the other. In exchange for obedience and support, the farmer provided for defense and safety of his entourage. In addition, a farmer would look for support and assistance from people outside the farm: from family members; his chieftain; his neighbors; and others with whom he had made reciprocal arrangements for mutual help and protection.

In Iceland, each local district participated in a mutual insurance pact, called a hreppr. Regular annual payments from area farmers were used to help farms that suffered catastrophic losses to buildings from fire or to livestock from disease. The hreppr also saw to the welfare of orphans or others who could not provide for themselves. While the concept of the hreppr is discussed in the law books (Grágás K234), it is mentioned only once in passing in the stories (Víga-Glúms saga, chapter 18).

Entertainment was at a premium at the farm, and included games, feasts, and story telling. Any opportunity to travel to markets, to feasts, to games, or to gatherings such as þing meetings was welcome. —

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