The incredible Vikings (or Norsemen) have remained a source of intense interest down the ages. Far from being the uncivlised and uncouth barbarians often depicted today in popular culture the Norsemen in fact had well ordered societies, advanced technologies and distinctive arts, crafts and music.
The organization of Viking society had many similarities with other nations of past – such as ancient Rome. There was a well-defined class structure with royal families, including the kings, preeminent. Below them were the chiefs and their families who were also landowners.
There was a middle class, called the karls who ran the farms, operated fishing fleets, and were the tradesmen, craftsmen and builders. At the bottom of the pecking order were the thralls, or slaves, who were usually people captured in the various Viking raids. Modern research has suggested that labour provided by the thralls was fundamentally important to the operation of Viking society.
Underpinning Viking legal structure was a system of public meetings that gathered in each local area for a week each year called the Thing. This was a democratic platform that allowed the karls to have input into government. The Thing had considerable powers including the establishment of laws, the levying of taxes, deliberation of disputes and judgement of crimes.
Viking technology was well advanced in boatbuilding with the famous longships striking examples of medieval maritime skills. Their housing construction was also state of the art for the era, with many Norse people living in “longhouses”, that were up to 30 metres in length in which families, farm workers and even farm animals took shelter. The harsh winter climate demanded solid construction that was usually timber or stone topped with a thick turf roof that retained heat from a large, central indoor fire.
Viking weaponry consisted of bows and arrows, battle-axes, swords and spears, with iron and steel both used. The axe was the most common weapon, possibly because it had a dual role as both a weapon and domestic tool.
The Vikings were generally well dressed against the cold, with animal skins, wool and linen used and ornamental items such as brooches, rings and necklaces were also manufactured. They also dressed for social occasions such as marriage feasts and village celebrations, when pork and lamb were eaten and beer and wine consumed. Music was also played on such occasions when instruments bearing a resemblance to modern day flutes were used.
The Vikings also had their own form of the written word, and this consisted of symbols called runes and as there was no paper available runes were carved into stone, wood or metal.
The picture that emerges of the Viking people indicates a degree of cohesion and sophistication that was on a par with many of the existing societies of the era.
Image: Stamps of Postverk Føroya, Faroe Islands depicting everyday life in the Viking Age by artist Martin Mörck. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.