Please gather ’round and find a place near the hearthside, my friends, for today we have a truly fascinating topic to discuss: farmsteads and agriculture! Now, now, I know what many of you must be thinking — I can hear the grumbling and mumbling even in the back of the Hall! What could be “fascinating” about farming? You all want raids, runes, and magic, not the toil of farmers in the soil! But while medieval agriculture in the North may not be as idealistic as some fancy it to be (they certainly weren’t Hobbits, after all), there is indeed a reward in knowing what life was like for folk back then. Farming was a central aspect of life in the medieval North, and although it is mundane and full of hardships, it shaped the culture and society that developed around them.
As I am prone to do, this discussion will start with the Viking Age and end somewhere during the late medieval period. In doing so, we shall explore the environment, the way in which the Norse interacted with it, and finally how all of this changed over the course of the medieval period. Allow me to briefly summarize my plans for this evening in a convenient bullet-list:
- The Northern Environment
- Norse Farmsteads
- Grazing Instead of Razing: The ‘Vikings’ Who Farmed
- Agriculture after the Viking Age
While this post may be dauntingly long, each section has been written so that it may be enjoyed individually. So, do feel free to come and go as it suits you! But for now I ask that you to fill your horns with mead and listen well, for the night is young and our sagas have yet to be told!
The Northern Environment
If you’ve ever wondered why the Norse had the best ships of the medieval world, it is because the sea was such an important aspect of life in the North. Since their homeland was surrounded by it, fishing was an essential source of sustenance for the Norse people. The geography of Scandinavia also meant that traveling by sea was often easier than traveling by land. Thus, between fishing and traveling, boat-building and seamanship came to be essential skills among their people. But the sea was not only helpful for its food and convenience — it also provided a pleasantly mild climate, thanks to the warming currents of the Gulf Stream. This was especially beneficial for regions such as the Lofoten Islands, which were able to engage in pastoral farming (the grazing of sheep and cattle) thanks to its warming affects, despite being so far north.
Yet, this alone was not enough to provide their harsh homeland with plentiful amounts of arable land (soil suitable for growing crops). As the map to the right demonstrates, most of Scandinavia dealt with a scarcity of arable land. The region of modern-day Norway, for example, only had two major areas for farming: the area around Trondheim in the north and the Oslo Fjord region in the south. Denmark, on the other hand, was much more prosperous in this regard. Despite being the smallest region of Scandinavia, they had the largest amounts of arable land, which was a major factor that allowed the Danes to become the wealthiest and most politically dominant Scandinavians during the Viking Age.
Let’s simplify things a bit by organizing everything into a neat little table (and do remember that these ‘kingdoms’ did not exist until the end of the Viking age):
[Fig.2] Scandinavian Climate and Agriculture by Region
|Norway 🇳🇴||Cool summers, mild winters (waters ice-free)||Poor for arable farming, suitable for pastoral farming (with mountains used for grazing during the summer)|
|Sweden 🇸🇪||Warm and sunny summers, severe winters (waters frozen)||Fair for arable farming, suitable for pastoralism|
|Denmark 🇩🇰 (and Southern Sweden)||Warm summers, cold (but not severe) winters||Well-suited for both pastoral and arable farming (best soils in Scandinavia)|
For those who could manage arable farming, the main crops were barley, rye, oats, peas, beans, and cabbage. But even then, the primary agricultural pursuit in medieval Scandinavia was animal husbandry, especially of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. After the eighth century, however, pigs were becoming more common in Scandinavia (as well as elsewhere in Europe), largely because of their simpler diet. Livestock was so important, in fact, that the prominence of a man was frequently based on the amount of livestock that he had. The social standing of a Norwegian traveler named Ohthere, for example, is described in regards to his animal captives:
He was a very well-to-do man, rich in the possessions which comprise their wealth, namely wild beasts. … He was one of the most prominent men in that land [Halogaland], yet he had no more than twenty cattle, twenty sheep, and twenty pigs, and the little that he plowed, he plowed with horses.
Thus, the environment of the North was such that, while the overall climate was pleasantly mild, arable farming was limited, pastoralism and animal husbandry were dominant, and fishing was often necessary for supplementing their agricultural pursuits.
Iceland and the North Atlantic Environment
The climate of Iceland is fairly similar to that of Norway, although one would probably consider it a bit worse. The island sits between two different air masses and oceanic currents: cold, dry air with polar currents to the north and warm, damp air with warm currents from the Gulf Stream to the south. Because of this mixture of opposites, Iceland’s climate is frequently unstable. But such environmental contrast does not end in the air nor the sea, for it continues even on the land. Iceland was (and still remains) one of the most volcanically active regions in the world. Yet, there are also several impressive glaciers covering its surface. This combination of ice and fire results in an erosive-prone landscape that affected Icelanders’ ability to work the land.
This natural instability certainly did not help keep the Icelandic environment consistent. To make matters worse, Iceland’s climate gradually went from relatively mild to more difficult weather over the course of the medieval period. The table below provides a general idea regarding the change (and instability) of the Icelandic environment from the time of settlement to the end of the Commonwealth (and beyond):
[Fig.4] Icelandic Climate Change (800–1600)
|800–900||Dry and warm summers|
|900–1050||Wet and cold summers|
|1050–1130||Dry and warm summers|
|1130–1160||Wet and cold summers, but worse than before (900–1050)|
|1160–1230||Dry and warm summers, but not as beneficial as before (800–900)|
|1230–1270||Wet and cold summers, but considerably worse than before (900–1050)|
|1270–1330||Slight improvement overall, but a period of instability|
|1330–1600||Gradual worsening of conditions, which culminate in the “Little Ice Age” (1600–1800)|
As this table shows, the climate of Iceland was relatively warm when the first Norwegians came to settle the island. During these warmer periods, Icelanders could have produced grain in all parts of the island (except for the interior); but from the twelfth century onwards, grain-growing could only occur in the southern and western parts of the island, eventually fading away entirely in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. But that is a topic I will return to at the end of this Hearthside History.
Generally speaking, arable land was restricted to the areas blessed by the Gulf Stream, which were primarily the the southern and western regions of Iceland. During the earlier periods, barley was fairly common in these regions. But even during the best periods, grain cultivation was never enough to sustain the population. Thus, like their Norwegian descendants, Icelanders were mainly pastoralists; and their environment was relatively favorable to such practice. Their livestock were imported from Norway, which included cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and poultry. These livestock grazed the highlands during the summers, but stayed on the farmsteads during the winters, living on fodder grown the previous summer.
Now that we know what their environment was like, how did they organize it? What were their dwellings like? And how did they use them to work the land? The farmstead (bær) was the North’s basic social and economic unit, and they could vary considerably in terms of materials, size, construction, layout, and sustainability. These factors change depending on what part of the Norse world we look at (and, of course, what time period we look at, as well). In Denmark, it was typical for communities to come together in small villages. In Sweden, settlements were a bit more diversified due to there being less fertile land than Denmark, but in fertile areas such as Uppland, there were some villages that formed (at least towards the end of the Viking Age). The situation in Norway, on the other hand, was quite different. Due to the lack of arable land and the difficulty of the terrain, settlement was very dispersed and limited to isolated farmsteads rather than villages. The situation was similar in Iceland as well, which remained entirely rural (with no villages nor towns) even beyond the medieval period.
In general, there were roughly three different ‘types’ of typical Norse farmsteads, each of which depending on the availability of local resources:
[Fig.5] The Varied Materials Used for Norse Farmsteads Based on Regional Resources
|Norway 🇳🇴/Sweden 🇸🇪||Heavily forested||A layer of waterproof birch covered with turf for insulation||Solid wood|
|Denmark 🇩🇰||Less forested||Thatch (straw, water reed, or heather); sometimes wooden shingles||Timber-frame covered with clay-plaster; later planks|
|Iceland 🇮🇸||Treeless||Turf||Turf or stone (if available)|
Size and Construction
While that covers materials, what about size and construction? A Norse farmstead consisted of at least one all-purpose building, which was called either a hall (skáli) or a longhouse (langhús). The term skáli is often used for “main hall” (as in a single room within a larger building), but it may help to consider the skáli as a smaller version of the langhús (i.e. one that is only one room). Nevertheless, the longhouse was a type of building that had dominated Northern Europe for hundreds of years before the Viking Age, and it was the very heart of the farm.
These homes could vary considerably in size, depending on the resources available to the family building it. The average small longhouse was typically around 13.4 meters long by 5.4 meters wide (Grelútott, Iceland). The halls of nobles, however, could reach as large as 48.3 meters long by 11.5 meters wide (Lejre, Denmark). Farmsteads like Grelutótt typically housed a single family and a few workers, while the large halls like Lejre were the homes of great chieftains and often hosted marvelous feasts for the local community. Small farmsteads often depended on loans of stock and rentals of land to get by, while larger farms could be mostly self-sufficient (until the demands of feasting, hospitality, and feasting caught up with them).
Here is a list of some of the basic features that made up the average Norse longhouse. Below the list is also a diagram that should help you all visualize all of these features:
- Three naves
- Two rows of interior wooden posts (which were connected in pairs by beams)
- Wooden posts along the walls (which were connected to the interior posts)
- Benches and chests along the walls
- Rugs and tapestries on the walls (which protected against drafts)
- Central hearth
- Earthen stamped floor (sometimes wooden planks)
- Door (often decorated with woodcarvings or iron fittings; sometimes with locks)
- Roof (varied materials, see above)
- Walls (varied materials, see above)
The average longhouse in Scandinavia was typically divided into several different rooms, each with their own functions and purposes. The larger the house, the more specialized rooms one hall could hold. Traditionally, at least at the beginning of the Viking Age and earlier, the farmsteads were essentially divided into two parts: the western end for the living quarters and the eastern end for the animals during the winter months, but also for dairy work. This began to change towards the end of the Viking Age, when farmers began to build smaller longhouses for their own living spaces and separate, specialized buildings, such as buildings for their animals or for workshops. These additional buildings were typically pithouses, which were partially dug into the soil. Thus, over the course of the Viking Age, farmsteads went from being one larger building with several rooms, to several smaller buildings spread out over the property.
At least in Iceland, farmsteads also made use of off-site common lands (almenning), where animals were taken to graze and where shepherds, farmhands, and families could work during the summertime. While in the pastures, work would be done in small buildings called sel, which were especially used for milking ewes and cows. Sometimes the whole family would move to their sel during the summer, staying there for three to four months at a time. Such sites were not always very far from home, though. In chapter fifty-five of The Saga of the People of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga), for example, an account is told of a family who were at their sel for a summer. (If you are familiar with this saga, you’ll recall that this chapter is quite the scene). At that time they were living at a farm called Sælingsdalr, while their sel was at a place called Bollatóftir. To the right is a map showing the distance (in miles) between these two locations.
But that, my friends, wraps up our overview of Norse farmsteads! So let’s turn now to a more specific example from eleventh-century Iceland: Ströng. Perhaps in doing so we may be able to better understand and appreciate what a Norse farmstead was really like.
A Farmstead in Iceland: Ströng
Located in the Thjór’s River Valley of southern Iceland, Ströng was once an average-sized farmstead for a well-to-do farmer or chieftain. It was built during the eleventh-century and abandoned in 1104 when the volcano Hekla erupted, forcing them to flee. While it sucks to have your house smitten by the neighborhood fire-mountain (eldfjall), it was beneficial for preservation. But luckily for them, they had time to escape with their valuables, although archaeologists were disappointed that they did not find more than broken combs and needle-cases. Despite that, however, this site has still offered them (and us) some exciting insights. After all, Ströng provides a picture of farm life in the late Viking age that we don’t normally get.
Ströng was a multi-roomed farmsteads surrounded by a cluster of smaller buildings, which included two smithies, a cowshed with enough stalls for ten cows, a small church, and even a graveyard. The image to the left presents a visual example of how a typical farmstead was organized using archaeological data from Ströng as an example. Hay (taða) was typically kept in a haystack enclosure called a stakkgarðr. This protected the hay from weather, animals, and even neighbors. Another wall was erected around the property itself in order to protect their property and livestock claims. Without the supply of wood enjoyed back in Scandinavia, however, Icelanders had to adjust their methods. Using the materials most readily available to them, Icelanders made walls out of turf or stone instead, although the latter often meant struggling with brittle volcanic rock. But wall-building was serious business for Icelanders, and there were legal codes that regulated the process. First of all, there was a specific type of wall that was considered legal:
…a legal wall is five feet thick down at ground-level and three at the top. From the base it should come up to the shoulder of a man whose arm-size gives valid ells and fathoms [c.150cm].
And there were even legal times to build these walls:
Legal walls are to be built between work-seasons, and the spring work-season lasts until a month of summer has passed, and the walling work-season for two months after that, [then the haymaking season for another two months], and then the legal walling work-season for the last month of summer.
Thus, wall-building season was roughly May through June, and then September (with the Old Icelandic months being: Stekktíð through Sólmánuðr, and then Haustmánuðr). As for the other buildings on the property, there were typically two animal sheds (although Ströng only seems to have had one). These were sometimes attached to the longhouse, but it was more common for them to be built as separate buildings away from the homestead. This was especially true for sheep sheds, which were kept close to meadows used for grazing.
Now that we have a good sense for what these farmsteads looked like on the outside, what about the farmstead itself? What was it like inside? Since Ströng was the home of a prosperous farmer or chieftain, we have the opportunity to see what kind of rooms actually filled these multi-roomed farmsteads. But since this is a post focused on agriculture, I’ll be spending more time on the food storage room than the rest.
Nevertheless, we’ll start with the entrance room. This room was a sort of “mud room” where wet clothes, dirty footwear, and other types of equipment were kept. Ströng‘s entrance room included a storage closet, which could have stored smoked or dried fish (but could have also been used for sleeping). There was even an indoor latrine at Ströng, so the people living here did not have to go outside to relieve themselves. Next is the main hall (skáli). The majority of cooking occurred on the long-fire hearth, which was lined with stones and slabs. This room would have been smokey due to the fire, but the deigns of the roof (and possibly a few holes in the roof) helped ventilate the smoke. Along the walls were benches, and foldaway tables were probably used for meals (yes, the Norse had TV trays). Most shocking (for us) perhaps is that everyone slept in this room with no to little privacy. The husband and wife living at Ströng were fortunate enough to have a private, lockable bed-closet, but the rest of their household had to make due without such luxuries.
Now for the additional living quarters (stofa). The word for this room originally meant “heated room” and is indeed related to the English word for stove. This room was sometimes used for cooking as well, as well as a sitting room for the family in the evenings. The hearth in this room was a partially sunken stone box, and the benches along the walls were more narrow than those in the skáli. But these benches were not for sleeping! Instead, this room was used as a fine feasting hall! Even so, work still had to be done, so at the end of the room there was a raised platform called a pallr, which was where women could work with wool.
And finally, we have the food-storage room, which contained large wooden vats (each 1.44 meters in diameter) for preserving food. Ströng had three of these vats. They were typically buried into the ground partially in order to keep the contents within them nice and cool. So what was inside? Usually a sour whey called súrr, which was a liquid that served as a preservative since most Icelandic farmers did not have large qualities of salt, if any. The word for this substance is related to the English word for sour, because it would give food a sour taste. Thus, it wouldn’t be odd to find a vat full of pickled meat and whey in an Icelandic farmstead.
But other goodies could be kept in these vats as well, such as skyr. A technical definition for skyr is “a form of coagulated milk high in protein, which would keep over the winter.” But that doesn’t make it sound very appealing, does it? Although it may not sound good, it was actually the most important dairy product that Icelander made on their farmsteads, because it had such a long shelf life, even while there was no fresh milk to be found (which was most of the year). It typically had the consistency of a thick yogurt, but some people drank it by adding additional súrr, which helped thin it out a bit. Skyr was typically produced at the sel during the summer and transported back to the farmstead for storage. Here’s an example of that (and more of what we’ve discussed) from Grettir’s Saga (Grettis saga):
Grettir asked if Audun was [home], and the people there said that he had gone up to the sel to collect dairy goods. Grettir unbridled his horse. The home fiddled was a yet uncut, and the horse went there to graze on the best grass. Grettir entered the skáli, sat down on one of the side benches, and fell asleep.
A little later Audun came home. He saw the horse with its painted saddle loose in the home field. Audun was bringing back fair products loaded on two horses. One of the horses carried skyr, which had been placed in skin bags that were tied shut at the top and were called skyr-bags. Audun unloaded the horse and carried the skyr into the house.
Indeed, skyr was a very important dairy product for medieval Icelanders, and it continues to thrive even today! And while it may not have the most appealing definition, it is actually quite delicious (probably more so now that it used to be, though, I will admit). Better yet, the Icelanders of today have been kind enough to share their skyr with the world! In Vínland (North America), a company called Siggi’s sells skyr in many grocery stores. And if that’s not impressive, an Icelandic dairy company called Ísey has recently signed an agreement which will introduce their skyr to the Japanese market! And so the world may enjoy the fine Viking Age food product that medieval Icelanders themselves took pleasure in.
And now for another, final treat! Ströng has actually been reconstructed, which means that Norse-loving pilgrims can travel there and experience the site themselves. Here’s a gallery of images from this reconstruction for you to enjoy before we move on to our next section:
[Fig. 13] A Gallery of the Ströng Reconstruction: Þjóðveldisbær
Grazing Instead of Razing: The ‘Vikings’ Who Farmed
Now that we’ve spent time on both the environment and farmsteads, I think it is finally time to discuss the agricultural process. Who farmed the land? Where did they work? What tools did they use? And what foods (other than skyr) did they make? As was the case for all premodern agricultural societies, both men and women had to participate in the daily work that took place on the farmstead. In fact, a farmstead could not function without being headed by a couple. Indeed, although popular to do, it is an exaggeration to say that all able-bodied men in medieval Scandinavia left their wives during the summer so they could go raiding as Vikings. In reality, most of the men who went raiding were young, unmarried, and owned very little land.
Despite how often the sagas tell of husbands leaving their wives behind on the farmstead while they go í víking (raiding), the reality was that husband and wife were both needed at home in order to keep their farmstead (and families) alive and well. But even when those saga accounts tell of husbands going raiding, their wives are reluctant. Although it is certainly not the only account of its kind, a good example of this comes from The Saga of the People of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga):
It is said that one spring Olaf announced to Thorgerd [his wife] that he intended to travel abroad, “and I want you to look after our farm and family while I’m away.”
Thorgerd said she was not in favor of the idea, but Olaf said he intended to have his way.
Now, it is also important to mention that Olaf and Thorgerd were much more well-off than the average family, which meant that Thorgerd would have had more farmhands for support. Nevertheless, her hesitation can be explained not only by her love for Olaf (for they “cared greatly for each other”), but also by the fact that it would be a devastating loss to the farm if Olaf didn’t come home again. But most husbands could not afford to leave their farmstead behind for even one summer, nor could their wives always manage affairs alone without hiring additional help (if they could). Even families that were well-off had to ask their friends to help watch over their farms and help manage affairs while they went abroad (if a family member wasn’t available), which was the case for Gunnar in Njal’s Saga (Njáls saga):
“Will you look after my property while I am away?” said Gunnar. “I want my brother Kolskegg to go with me, and I would like you to and my mother to run the farm.”
In reality, going abroad usually meant making special arrangements. But a friend or family member could only watch over property if they had the means to do so. After all, helping another meant devoting less time to one’s own affairs. Thus, the ‘Vikings’ who farmed at home were often not actually Vikings at all.
The Division of Labor
With that having been said, men and women had relatively defined roles when it came to agricultural work on the farmstead: women held authority over affairs within the farmstead, while the men were in charge of the work taking place outside of it. While I may not like confining this discussion to their supposed gender roles, it is the best way to keep all of this information straightforward and organized. As a result, I will generally discuss the labor of men and women separately, although there were times when they would work together and cross the threshold separating their domains. Nevertheless, both of these domains were vital for agriculture in the North. While there is certainly a stigma for confining women to working indoors, their role cannot be discarded as being without value or importance.
Of course, no history is ever so cut and dry. Some scenes from the sagas suggest that not all women were very pleased with their role, nor were they always silent about doing work without their husbands doing their fair share as well. Consider this example from The Saga of Bjorn, the Champion of the Hitardal People (Bjarnar saga Hlítdælakappa):
It is said that early in winter Thord came to talk to Oddny and asked how the work was to be organized.
“We have much on hand,” he said, “and we need everyone to be useful in some way.”
And island lies in the Hitara river, abundantly stocked for both sealöhutning and egg-gathering, and with fields of hay and crops.
“Now both men and women are going there to stack corn,” he said, “but you are to stay at home, because the sheep will be driven in during the day, and you must be here to see to the milking, though you don’t usually do it.”
She said, “Then I can see just the man to shovel dung from the sheep-pens; that’s what you are to do.”
I would argue that Oddney’s line is among the best in the sagas, honestly.
Another thing to mention is that not all tasks were necessarily gendered at all, at least in their minds. Here is another example from The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People (Bjarnar saga Hlítdælakappa), where Bjorn, the sagas protagonist and eminent warrior, helps his mother dry linen:
Bjorn and his mother were busy that day spreading out the linen that had been washed to dry.
But alas, let’s continue.
Men’s Labor: Working the Fields
Men typically managed the fields, which meant they were in charge of plowing, fertilizing, sowing, harvesting, and threshing (which is the removal of the edible part of a crop from its stalk). Their most important tool was called the ard, which was used to break up soil. However, because it did not turn the soil, farmers would frequently cross-plow their fields by going over the same ground more than once. These were generally pulled by oxen or slaves, but as we saw with Othere earlier, horses could be used on occasion. they were also typically made entirely out of wood, which meant that the ard’s edge wore out very quickly, resulting in it needing to be changed every other day or so. In the early medieval period, however, iron was used for the ard’s edge, saving Norse farmers much time and effort. The ard was eventually replaced by the moldboard plough, a transition which began during the Viking Age (for Denmark, at least).
That covers plowing, but what about the other tasks? When it came to fertilizing, Norse farmers used dung from their livestock (and household) that they had saved. In Iceland, dung was even used as a fuel for heating, since wood was scarce shortly after the settlement period (c.900). While that may sound gross, it was quite effective and practical for them. In fact, this manure was so important for medieval Icelanders that it was listed in property divisions in their legal codes (Grágás). Have a look for yourself:
If men are joint owners of arable land, the one who wants to have it divided is to go to the home of the other and call on him for a division of arable land, and similarly of hayfields [and manure] on it, seven nights before the division, and in division of arable land proceed in every way as when men divide buildings or meadowland.
As for sowing, seeds would probably have been kept in a sieve (a bag or basket of sorts) while they worked in the fields. An example of this comes from Njal’s Saga (Njáls saga), although some details in this passage are unlikely and included for narrative purposes only (carrying an axe and wearing a fine cloak while working in the fields would just not be very practical):
Gunnar had walked away from his house all alone, with a basket of seed in one hand and his hand-axe in the other. He went to his field to sow grain and put his finely-woven cloak and the axe on the ground and sowed for a while.
Some Norse farmers did practice crop rotation, which helped replenish the soil by alternating the crops that were planted in each field. When it came to harvesting, both men and women often contributed, especially during crucial times. Men typically cut the crops with a scythe with the women raked the farm. And finally we have threshing. In the rest of the medieval world, this task was done by using a threshing flail to beat the crop on a threshing floor. But since archaeologists have not uncovered a flail dating to the Viking Age, it is more likely that Norse farmers used clubs and pokes for this task instead.
But most of the work that needed to be done on the farm centered around livestock. Thus men typically led their livestock to pastures and meadowlands during the summertime for grazing, as well as transported them and various agricultural goods back to the farm. In Iceland, these task were frequently done on shared common lands called almenning or at their nearby sel.
Women’s Labor: Working the Yields
While men worked the fields and looked after the grazing livestock, women were responsible for the important task of processing and converting their yields into edible food, both for short-term consumption and long-term preservation. Generally speaking, women had three major roles in agriculture: processing grain, wool, and dairy.
Grinding, Cooking, and Brewing with Grain
Women would use hand mills to grind the grains down in order to make bread, which was an important aspect of the Viking Age diet. In Iceland, however, grain was scarce, so it never became the staple that it was for Scandinavia. Nevertheless, Viking Age bread was typically very thin (0.5 to 1.5 centimeters thick) and round. The main ingredient was hulled six-row barley, which was the most commonly cultivated grain in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. Rye, spelt, oats, flax, and even peas were sometimes mixed into these breads. Of course, we shan’t ignore the fact that grain was also an ingredient for beer and other brewed beverages. Brewing was also a task reserved for women, so you can thank them for your good ale!
At least in Iceland, wool became a crucial part of the economy after their source of silver ran dry shortly after settlement. In fact, homespun wool (vaðmál) was actually used as a form of currency in Iceland, where it was equated to a value of silver based on its wight. Thus, homespun was significant not only for the production of clothing but also for trade — and it was the women who typically made it.
So how did they do it? Their first task was to remove the wool from the sheep, which was originally done by plucking the wool off of the sheep while they were shedding; but the sheep would eventually be sheared. After that, the wool would be cleaned, probably using a mixture of urine and water (although our source for this comes from the twentieth century). Then the wool would be combed and straightened in order to prepare it for spinning. Once that was done, the wool was either kept in a special basket (ullaupr) or immediately spun. Spinning was done using a distaff (rokkr) and a spindle (snælda).
So how did they do it? Their first task was to remove the wool from the sheep, which was originally done by plucking the wool off of the sheep while they were shedding; but the sheep would eventually be sheared. After that, the wool would be cleaned, probably using a mixture of urine and water (although our source for this comes from the twentieth century). Then the wool would be combed and straightened in order to prepare it for spinning. Once that was done, the wool was either kept in a special basket (ullaupr) or immediately spun. Spinning was done using a distaff (rokkr) and a spindle (snælda). After this, she would move on to the loom to begin saving the wool into clothing. But, since this is a discussion about agriculture, we shall save that topic for another day.
Milking and Dairy Production
When it came to livestock farming in the North, women’s primary role was to do the milking. This task was extremely labor intensive and had to be done daily, at least once every twenty-four hours. During the wintertime, this task typically occurred at the farmstead, and women frequently rose early in the morning to do this work (as a part of their daily routine), as is told in Grettir’s Saga (Grettis saga):
One morning, towards the middle of winter, Thorhall’s wife [Gudrun] went to the cowshed at the usual time to do the milking.
During the summertime, this role frequently took women away from the farmstead, since most of the sheep and cattle would be grazing on off-site meadows and required constant attention. In Iceland, most livestock grazing occurred in common lands called almenning, and work was done in small buildings called sel. Sometimes entire families would travel to the sel, working there for up to three to four months of the summer. While there, the men would take to shepherding while the women milked, although some of the male shepherds would have milked as well. But after the milking, women sieved the milk into ceramic vessels (or other containers), which were also used to separate the curds from the why when making cheese. Butter, cheese, and skyr were the most common products that they fashioned.
The Harsh Realities of Medieval Agriculture
Although I have talked about the tasks carried out by both men and women, I have not yet emphasized that children were included among them. Indeed, children were forced into their adult roles at a very early age. This was not a choice, but rather a necessity for families struggling to survive in the difficult environment of the North. In The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath (Heiðarvíga saga), for example, a mother and her two young daughters would work in the pastures, milking the livestock, while the father and their sons would work in the fields at home. Likewise, in Bard’s Saga (Barðar saga Snæfelsáss), a young girl named Thordis, who was only 15 winters old, worked in the pastures during the summers and in early autumn.
The tolls that this life had on a person is perhaps best illustrated by an Eddic poem called The List of Rig (Rígsþula). Here is how the poem describes the life of a boy and girl of the lowest class in Norse society: Thrall (þræll).
7. Great-grandmother had a baby, sprinkled him with water;
dark-skinned, they called him Thrall.
8. He began to grow and thrive well;
on his hands there was wrinkled skin,
knotted knuckles, …
thick fingers, he had an ugly face,
a crooked back, long heels.
10. Then there came to the farm a bandy-legged girl;
she had mud on her shoes, her arms were sunburned,
her nose bent downwards, her named was Thrall-girl.
12. Children they had, they lived together and were happy;
I think they were called Noisy and Cowshed-boy,
Stout and Horsefly, Shagger, Smelly,
Stumper, Fatty, Sluggard and Greyish,
Lowbent and Longlegs; they built fences,
put dung on the fields, looked after the pigs,
herded goats, dug the turf.
13. Their daughters were Stumpy and Dumpy,
Bulgy-calves and Ash-nose,
Rackety and Bondwoman, Great-gabbler,
Raggedy-clothes and Crane-legs.
From them are descended all the race of thralls.
While that poem does simplify the social reality of the Norse world, it does indeed reflect some level of the daily life experienced by poorer families (as well as the better off). People without much struggled to get by, working all day long while their bodies took the toil. Their appearances and, in the case of the poem, even their names show the level of hardship they lived through on a daily basis. But even the wealthier families, with larger farmsteads and hired help, often had to work in the fields and pastures themselves.
It is important that we do not romanticize life on the Norse farmstead, for their daily lives were filled with back-breaking work and constant threats looming around every corner, such as plague, famine, and local wars (or feuds). When reading old lore and sagas from the past, it is easy for us, who are sitting comfortably in our homes stocked with food that we didn’t have to grow, to become detached from the harsh realities that people faced in times long since passed.
Agriculture after the Viking Age
While the farmers and their tasks may not have changed a great deal after the Viking Age, their technology, crops, and overall diet did indeed change. During the Viking Age, grain cultivation gradually became more and more important in the North, while before it was livestock farming, even for areas that had plenty of arable land to work with. With the introduction of an improved and more productive plow into the North, the Norse were able to devote more of their land (which had been reserved for the pasturing of their grazing livestock) to grain cultivation. This, along with the introduction of the typical medieval diet into the North, resulted in a greater emphasis on grain consumption. This shift began in southern Scandinavia, especially Denmark, and gradually moved north.
This kind of shift, however, was not possible for Iceland. While grain cultivation was never a major part of Icelandic agricultural life, the little that did occur only declined as time marched forth. From the twelfth-century onwards, Iceland gradually lost its ability to support grain-growing. The south and west regions could support grain longer than other regions could, but grain-growing disappeared completely by the fifteenth or early-sixteenth century.
But even Iceland’s reliance on pastoral farming began to take a toll as the medieval period continued, threatened by a combination of climate change and the desire to protect their culture values and traditional way of life. Even with a plentiful sea surrounding them, Icelanders preferred farming over fishing and even established laws that forbade people from being full-time fisherfolk. Thus, when the productivity of farming started to decline as their environmental conditions worsened, they stubbornly clung onto their farming traditions. The independent farmstead was strongly valued for its symbolic representation of everything Icelandic: independence, power, and household honor. And so when it would have been better for Icelandic society to concentrate their labor on bigger (but fewer) farmsteads, they stubbornly refused. But while we may criticize them now, it can also be hard to blame them. It is never easy for a society to change their way of life, even when they can see their world cracking and crumbling around them.
So ends today’s gathering…
But at long last, after over 7000 words of a skald’s rambling, this discussion has finally come to its end. But before we all go our own ways, I’d like to take a moment to summarize everything we have learned today. With so much told in one evening, a recap is certainly necessary!
The North was a difficult environment to live with — it was cold and lacked good land for farming. Nevertheless, the ocean gave their land life, bringing warmth through the influence of the Gulf Stream, which blessed the coastal regions of western Scandinavia with a more mild climate. The situation was similar in the North Atlantic, since Iceland was also affected by the Gulf Stream. But Iceland faced difficult terrain, for it was both glacial and volcanic, resulting in an unstable environment and erosive landscape.
Since grain was not always easy to grow, most Scandinavians relied on livestock farming, or pastoralism. This was especially true for regions like Norway and Iceland. While these animals grazed in distant pasturelands, the Norse often took care of them on their very own farmsteads. The typical Norse farmstead was a longhouse, which had been the more prominent form of home built in the North for hundreds of years. The appearance of their farmsteads could change depending on location and available materials, but they often shared many features.
While we love talking about Vikings, most of those who went raiding were not people with much to come back home to. Instead, the Vikings were typically young men without land or families. Thus, the ‘Vikings’ who farmed weren’t really Viking at all, since it was necessary for both husband and wife to be home at the farmstead. Their farm could not survive without both of them. Men typically took care of the work outdoors, such as plowing and sowing the fields. Women, on the other hand, primarily worked indoors, producing wool and dairy products from the livestock. But women frequently worked outdoors as well, working in the pasturelands with shepherds to milk the animals and process their yields.
While such lives may seem pleasantly peaceful, the reality was much less pleasant. Not only was the labor intensive, but farmers typically worked all hours of the day to make ends meet, especially if they were a poorer family. Worse yet, children were forced to grow up quickly, working on the farm or in the pastures with their parents at a very young age. Their hard work took its toll on their bodies and lives, and we must not romanticize their experiences.
During the Viking Age, grain cultivation gradually became more important in Scandinavia than pastoralism, which used to be the primary form of agriculture. This was because of improvements made on the plough, which was introduced into the North through Denmark. This also resulted in the typical medieval diet gaining popularity in the North, as grain cultivation resulted in higher grain consumption. But this was not the case for Iceland, which gradually lost its ability to grow grain entirely. While grain was never a central aspect of Icelandic agriculture, their farming-centered way of life was threatened as their climate changed for the worse. This was not helped by their general desperation to cling onto their traditional way of life, which was centered around the independent farmstead. Thus fishing was disregarded, farming declined, and their environment worsened as time continued moving forward.
And with that, I do believe our story has been told, at least for today. We can all leave this Hall with a better understanding of what Norse farmsteads and agriculture was really like. While much more could be said about this topic, I hope that this information may serve you all splendidly in the future. Take it with you on your wanderings! For your mind is the best weapon that you have, especially when faced with folk who twist the past to suit their own desires.
Wander well, my friends, and keep your wits!
If you have any questions or concerns about the contents of this post, please feel free to send me a raven at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will make sure that your raven is well-received and happily fed before sending back a reply.
The Northern Environment
 Ibid., 22. Because of this, they also had a larger population than other regions in Scandinavia, despite their small size. [return]
 Ibid., 36. [return]
 Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald ed., “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan,” in The Viking Age: A Reader, Second Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 3. Those wild beasts also include reindeer. This source is from the late ninth century and was interpolated into an Old English translation of Orosius’ latin Historiae adverse paganos. [return]
Iceland and the North Atlantic Environment
 Judy Quinn and Martin S. Regal trans., Gisli Sursson’s Saga and The Saga of the People of Eyri (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 222. [return]
 William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: The University og Chicago Press, 1990), 78. [return]
 Ibid., 173. [return]
A Farmstead in Iceland: Ströng
 Ibid. [return]
 Ibid., 111. [return]
 Viðar Hreinsson ed., The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. V (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 422. [return]
 Ibid., 364-5. [return]
 Ibid., 51. [return]
 Ibid., 47. [return]
Grazing instead of Razing: The ‘Vikings’ Who Farmed
 Keneva Kuntz trans., The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolla Bollason’s Tale (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), 57. (Chapter 29) [return]
 Ibid., 49. (Chapter 24) [return]
 Alison Finley trans., The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. I, edited by Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 269. (Chapter 12) [return]
 Ibid., 268. (Chapter 11) [return]
Men’s Labor: Working the Fields
 Denis, Foote, and Perkins trans., Grágás II, 125. The part in brackets was added but is included in Konungsbók (Gl. kgl. Sml. 1157 fol.), which writes taðs (the sg. gen. of tað, meaning “manure”). [return]
 Ibid. [return]
Women’s Labor: Working the Yields
 Ibid., 135-6. [return]
 Ibid., 122. [return]
The Harsh Realities of Medieval Agriculture
 Keneva Kunz trans., The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. IV, edited by Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 89-90. (Chapter 12) [return]
 Sarah M. Anderson trans., Bard’s Saga, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. II, edited by Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 252. (Chapter 11) [return]
Agriculture After the Viking Age
Images and Tables Used
[Fig. 2] Ibid., 17. [return]
[Fig. 7] Made by yours truly. [return]
[Fig. 9] Judy Quinn and Martin S. Regal trans., Gisli Sursson’s Saga and The Saga of the People of Eyri (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 223. [return]
[Fig. 11] Ibid., 367. [return]
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Books Used (In Order of Appearance)
I would like to offer my most sincere thanks and gratitude to Fjörn’s Fellowship. Without their support, this post would not be possible. In fact, this entire Hall would be nothing if not for their support and companionship. Here are the names (taken from Patreon) of the members of this Fellowship who supported me during the time I wrote this post:
Anastasia Haysler, Cataclysmit, Cooper Brown, Froggy, and Kathleen Phillips.