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The Food and Diet Among Vikings

Posted in Vikings  by antiques

the-food-and-diet-among-vikingsThere is insufficient evidence to determine what Norsemen ate and how their food was prepared. While the raw materials and the cooking utensils are found in archaeological studies, the ways in which foodstuffs were combined, prepared, and presented are largely unknown. In addition, diet probably varied quite a bit across the Norse lands, depending on climate and available resources.

The best available guess is that Norse people primarily ate agricultural products raised on their own farms: meat from cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, goats, and poultry; cereals, such as barley, rye, oats, and (rarely) wheat; dairy produce, such as milk from cows, sheep, or goats, as well as cheese and butter; vegetables, such as peas, beans, cabbage, onions, and an assortment of herbs; and wild fruits, such as apples, pears, cherries, and berries. Sugar was unknown; the only available sweetener was wild honey.

To these foods would be added whatever could be hunted, captured, or gathered. Along coastal regions, and near rivers and lakes, fish were a staple part of the diet. Fish were caught with hook and line from small boats. (Two 10th century fish hooks are shown to the right.)

Saga evidence suggests the importance of fishing. Laxdæla saga (ch. 14) mentions a fishing station at Bjarneyjar, and the author says that at the time of the saga, people went there in great numbers and that some stayed year-round.

It’s likely that fish was the most important food wherever there was a concentration of people, such as in trading towns, or at the annual Alþing assembly. Some sources suggest that whales were driven ashore by Norsemen in their ships, where they were killed, providing a bounteous harvest for an entire settlement. More probably, Norsemen simply took advantage of dead or weakened whales that washed ashore.

Wild animals were hunted for food, using either spears, or bow and arrow. These include deer, bear, boar, and elk, as well as smaller game such as rabbits. In the far north, seals and walruses were hunted, not only for the meat, but also for the skins which were especially valuable.

Sea birds and their eggs were also a part of the Norse diet. Norsemen harvested both the eggs and the birds from the cliffs on which the birds nested by swinging down from the top of the cliff on ropes. The great auk (Pinguinus), a large, meaty, flightless bird now extinct, was an important part of the diet in Iceland, based on excavated bones. Birds and eggs of other species were also consumed, such as Ptarmigan, which nest in highland heaths.

Some wild plants were probably consumed because of the medicinal qualities they were known to possess. For instance, the leaves of scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis) were known to help prevent one’s teeth from falling out, one of the symptoms of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency). The plant is mentioned in the stories (for instance, chapter 73 of Grettis saga), but its medicinal properties are not, making me wonder if it wasn’t until later in the medieval period that the beneficial properties became known. The stories do suggest that scurvy (skyrbjúgr) was known to sailors (chapter 4 of Þorsteins saga hvíta).

Dulse (Palmaria palmata) is a red alga that can be easily harvested from shore, dried, and stored for long periods. It’s delicious and is an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals. Meat and fish were preserved by smoking (the smoky upper reaches of the longhouse helped to keep meat hung there from spoiling), pickling in brine or whey (in which the lactic acid prevented food spoilage), salting, or drying.

Smoked lamb hanging from the kitchen beams in the longhouse at Eiríksstaðir is shown to the left. Despite its thoroughly unappetizing appearance, the meat is delicious. On the right is shown fish drying outdoors in an open shed in modern Iceland. The dry, cold wind removes the moisture and preserves the fish.

The most common method for cooking food was by boiling it. Meat was sometimes prepared by boiling it in a wood-lined pit. A pit was dug and lined with wood. Meat and water were placed in the pit, and hot stones were dropped in to bring the temperature up to boiling. More hot stones could be added as needed to keep the liquid hot. The liquid was seasoned with whatever spices and herbs might be available.

Meat could also be roasted on a spit. The sketch shows a spit found in Norway, with an elaborate handle, allowing the meat to be turned as it roasted over the fire. The spit probably rested on forked sticks on either side of the fire.

More commonly, food was boiled in soapstone or iron cauldrons. A reproduction Norse era cauldron is shown to the left. Cauldrons were constructed from a number of thin iron plates riveted together to form the pot.
The photo to the right shows a modern replica in use, suspended from a tripod over an outdoor camp fire. The cauldron holds a stew made of pork, cabbage, leeks, and spices.

The medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás (K 246) states the standard dimensions of an iron cauldron: a weight of half a load (40 pounds, or 18kg) with a capacity of eight bucketfuls (7.5 gallons, or 30l). The thickness of the iron required would have been nearly 1/4 inch (about 6mm). That much iron would have represented a small treasure in the Norse era, so cauldrons this large couldn’t have been common. Typical cauldrons found from the Norse era are smaller than this standard. However, in chapter 145 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Sölvi was boiling meat in a cauldron at the Alþing. The cauldron was big enough that when Hallbjörn picked him up and plunged him head first into the boiling cauldron, Sölvi was killed instantly.

Food was also prepared by roasting in soapstone pots. While clay pottery (left) was known in Norse lands, almost no broken potshards have been found, as in other parts of Europe. Pottery was probably a poorly developed craft in Norse lands, and soapstone must have been used almost exclusively. Some lands, such as Iceland, had little clay available suitable for pottery, making it even less likely that clay pottery was commonly used.

Soapstone has the advantage that it can be pierced, allowing it to suspended by iron hooks over the fire. Additionally, if broken or cracked, soapstone can be repaired with iron staples, unlike pottery. Liquids that needed to be warmed were poured into a suspended animal skin, and then hot stones were dropped in.
In some Norse households, stone ovens were used. Small stones were heated in the open cooking fire and then rolled into the oven to heat the interior for cooking food. Reproductions of two different utensils for frying food are shown in the photo to the right. The gridiron (on the right in the photo) was used for cooking meat or fish over an open fire. The pan of the griddle (on the left in the photo) is fixed to the handle with a single rivet, so it rotates at the end of the handle. At one time, it was thought that this allowed the pan to be rotated in the fire, allowing more even cooking. That suggestion has been partially discredited by finds in which the pan is fixed to the handle with two rivets, preventing the pan from moving with respect to the handle.

Bread was typically made from unleavened barley flour ground in stone querns. The handle of the quern was used to rotate the top stone over the bottom stone, grinding the grain between the stones. In Iceland, lava querns were used, which produced finer flour.

Stone chips from querns have been found in recovered flour, so the bread must have made for a gritty repast. Cooked on a flat pan over the coals of an open fire, it would have been eaten warm, since such loaves turn rock hard when cooled. The bread shown in the photo above was made from stone ground wheat, barley, oat, and rye flours, mixed with whey, honey, and nuts.

It seems likely that women prepared and served the food in the home. There is one example in the sagas of a man preparing food at home who was mocked for it (Vatnsdæla saga chapter 44), although the sagas suggest that away from home, men prepared their own food (for example, at assemblies, on-board ship, and at game festivals).

Ale, made from malted barley, was the staple drink of all classes and all ages, although milk, beer, mead, and fruit wines were also known. Norse feasts and parties must have been alcoholic to excess, if the stories are to be believed. Because of the impurities in the drink, there must have been some head splitting hangovers the following morning. The proper way to drink was “without restraint”, according to some sources, and the stories suggest that was the rule. Yet Hávamál (Sayings of the High One) suggests in several verses that one should drink with moderation. When Hárekr challenged Brandr to drink, Brandr declined, saying that he didn’t have such an excess of wits that he wanted to drink them all away, as is told in chapter 8 of Ljósvetninga saga.

Norse families ate two meals per day: dagverðr at mid-morning, and náttverðr in the evening. Most families had a table of some sort, and wealthy families used a linen tablecloth. Meats were served on wooden trenchers and eaten with one’s personal knife. Stews, porridge, and similar items were served in wooden bowls and eaten with wooden or horn spoons. A reproduction of a wooden serving bowl is shown to the left. Shells were used for ladles and spatulas.

Cold beverages were consumed from wooden cups or (especially for feasts) from drinking horns. Modern replicas are shown to the left. Cups made from metals such as copper or silver were also used. Evidence for the horn cups shown in the photographs is slight.

While glass drinking vessels are known to have been used, their cost must have limited them to only the wealthiest of families.

Meals were eaten in the longhouse, while sitting on the benches. It’s likely that trestle tables were set up for meals and stored overhead on the rafters when not needed. A modest longhouse, such as Eiríksstaðir, would scarcely have room for tables in the space between the two benches. Meals in these houses may have been taken without tables.

Autumn was the season when the greatest variety of foodstuffs were available. It was when freshly slaughtered meat was most available, when fresh vegetables and grains were available, and when imported foodstuffs were most abundant. Feasts and celebrations were planned for the fall to take advantage of this abundance and variety. The image to the right depicts the variety of food available in York during the Norse era and includes fish, small game, vegetables, nuts, and fruit.

There is nothing to indicate that poor quality food or cookery was accepted in the Norse era. Spices were available and were used, not to disguise the taste of food gone bad, as is commonly thought, but to enhance the flavor of food. Based on current knowledge, it is quite possible that a varied and nourishing diet was available. But there is insufficient data to say how much of the population was able to take advantage of such a diet. —

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