The Viking society was divided into the three socio-economic classes of Thralls, Karls and Jarls. This is described vividly in the Eddic poem of Rigsthula, which also explains that it was the God Ríg - father of mankind also known as Heimdallr - who created the three classes. Archaeology has confirmed this social structure.
Thralls were the lowest ranking class and were slaves. Slavery was of vital importance to Viking society, for everyday chores and large scale construction and also to trade and economy. Thralls were used as servants and workers in the farms and larger households of the Karls and Jarls and they were used for constructing fortresses, fortifications, ramps, canals, mounds, roads and similar hard work projects. According to the Rigsthula, Thralls were despised and looked down upon. New thralls were supplied by either the sons and daughters of thralls or they were captured abroad. The Vikings often deliberately captured many people on their raids in Europe, enslaved and made them into thralls. The new thralls were then brought back home to Scandinavia by boat, used on location or in newer settlements to build needed structures or sold, often to the Arabs in exchange for silver. Other names for thrall were 'træl' and 'ty'.
Karls were free peasants. They owned farms, land and cattle and engaged in daily chores like ploughing the fields, milking the cattle, building houses and wagons, but employed thralls to make ends meet. Other names for Karls were 'bonde' or simply free men.
The Jarls were the aristocracy of the Viking society. They were wealthy and owned large estates with huge longhouses, horses and many thralls. The thralls or servants took care of most of the daily chores, while the Jarls engaged in administration, politics, hunting, sports, paid visits to other Jarls or were abroad on expeditions. When a Jarl died and was buried, his household thralls were sometimes sacrificially killed and buried next to him, as many excavations have revealed.
In daily life, there were many intermediate positions in the overall social structure and it is believed that there must have been some social mobility. These details are unclear, but titles and positions like hauldr, thegn, landmand, show mobility between the Karls and the Jarls.
Other social structures included the communities of félag in both the civil and the military spheres, to which its members (called félagi) were obliged. A félag could be centred around certain trades, a common ownership of a sea vessel or a military obligation under a specific leader. Members of the latter were referred to as drenge; one of the words for warrior. There were also official communities within towns and villages, the overall defence, religion, the legal system and the Things.
The three classes were easily recognisable by their appearances. Men and women of the Jarls were well groomed with neat hairstyles and expressed their wealth and status by wearing expensive clothes (often silk) and well crafted jewellery like brooches, belt buckles, necklaces and arm rings. Almost all of the jewellery was crafted in specific designs unique to the Norse (see Viking art). Finger rings were seldom used and earrings were not used at all, as they were seen as a Slavic phenomenon. Most Karls expressed similar tastes and hygiene, but in a more relaxed and inexpensive way.
Farming and cuisine
The Sagas tell us about the diet and cuisine of the Vikings, but first hand evidence, like cesspits, kitchen middens and garbage dumps have proved to be of great value and importance. Undigested remains of plants from cesspits at Coppergate in York have provided a lot of information in this respect. Overall, archaeo-botanical investigations have been undertaken increasingly in recent decades, as a collaboration between archaeologists and palaeoethno-botanists. This new approach sheds new light on the agricultural and horticultural practices of the Vikings and therefore also on their cuisine.
When the information from various sources are put together, a picture of a diverse cuisine, with lots of different ingredients emerges. Meat products of all kinds, such as cured, smoked and whey-preserved meat, sausages and boiled or fried fresh meat cuts, were prepared and consumed. There were plenty of seafood, bread, porridges, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, berries and nuts. Alcoholic drinks like beer, mead, bjórr (a strong fruit wine) and, for the rich, imported wine were served.
Certain livestock were typical and unique to the Vikings, including the Icelandic horse, Icelandic cattle, a plethora of sheep breeds, the Danish hen and the Danish goose. The Vikings in York mostly ate beef, mutton, and pork with small amounts of horse meat. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to get out the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as the black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found.
Seafood was an important part of the diet, in some places even more so than meat. Whales and walrus were hunted for food in Norway and the north-western parts of the North Atlantic region, and seals were hunted nearly everywhere. Oysters, mussels and shrimps were eaten in large quantities and cod and salmon were popular fish. In the southern regions, herring was also important.
Milk and buttermilk were popular, both as cooking ingredients and drinks, but were not always available, even at farms. The milk came from cows, goats and sheep, with priorities varying from location to location, and fermented milk products like skyr or surmjölk were produced as well as butter and cheese.
Food was often salted and enhanced with spices, some of which were imported like black pepper. Home grown spices that were used included caraway, mustard and horseradish as evidenced from the Oseberg ship burial or dill, coriander, and wild celery, as found during the archaeological examinations of cesspits at Coppergate in York. Thyme, juniper berry, sweet gale, yarrow,rue and peppercress were also used and cultivated in herb gardens.
Vikings collected and ate fruits, berries and nuts. Apple (wild crab apples) plums and cherries were part of the diet, as were rose hips and raspberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, elderberry,rowan, hawthorn and various wild berries, specific to the locations. Hazelnuts were an important part of the diet in general and large amounts of walnut shells have been found in cities like Hedeby. The shells were used for dyeing and it is assumed the nuts were enjoyed as well.
The invention and introduction of the mouldboard plough revolutionized agriculture in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and made it possible to farm even the poor soils. In Ribe, grains of rye,barley, oat and wheat dated to the 8th century have been found and examined, and these are believed to have been cultivated locally. Grains and flour were used for making porridges, some cooked with milk, some cooked with fruit and sweetened with honey, and also various forms of bread. Remains of bread from primarily Birka in Sweden were made of barley and wheat. It is unclear if the Norse leavened their breads, but their ovens and baking utensils suggest that they did. Flax was a very important crop for the Vikings. For oil extraction, food consumption and most importantly the production of linen. More than 40% of all known textile recoveries from the Viking Age can be traced as linen. This suggests a much higher actual percentage, as linen is poorly preserved compared to wool for example.
The quality of food for common people was not always particularly high. The research at Coppergate shows that the Vikings in York made bread from whole meal flour — probably both wheat and rye - but with the seeds of cornfield weeds included. Corncockle (Agrostemma), would have made the bread dark-coloured, but the seeds are poisonous, and people who ate the bread might have become ill. Seeds of carrots, parsnip, and brassicas were also discovered, but they were poor specimens and tend to come from white carrots and bitter tasting cabbages. The rotary querns often used in the Viking Age inevitably left tiny stone fragments (often from basalt rock) in the flour and when eaten later on, these small stones wore down the teeth. The effects of this can be seen on skeletal remains of that period.
Sports were widely practised and encouraged by the Vikings. Sports that involved weapons training and developing combat skills were popular. This included spear and stone throwing, building and testing physical strength through wrestling, fist fighting, and stone lifting. In areas with mountains, mountain climbing was practised as a sport. Agility and balance were built and tested by running and jumping for sport, and there is mention of a sport that involved jumping from oar to oar on the outside of a ship's railing as it was being rowed. Swimming was a popular sport and Snorri Sturluson describes three types: diving, long-distance swimming and a contest in which two swimmers try to duck one another. Children often participated in some of the sport disciplines and women have also been mentioned as swimmers, although it is unclear if they took part in competition. King Olaf Tryggvason was hailed as a master of both mountain climbing and oar-jumping, and was said to have excelled in the art of knife juggling as well.
Skiing and ice skating were the primary winter sports of the Vikings, although skiing was also used as everyday means of transport in winter time and in the colder regions of the north.
Horse fighting was practised for sport, although the rules are unclear. It appears to have involved two stallions pitted against each other, within smell and sight of fenced-off mares. Whatever the rules were, the fights often resulted in the death of one of the stallions.
Icelandic sources refer to the sport of knattleik. A ball game akin to hockey, knattleik involved a bat and a small hard ball and was usually played on a smooth field of ice. The rules are unclear, but it was popular with both adults and children, even though it often led to injuries. Knattleik appears to have been played only in Iceland, where it attracted many spectators, as did horse fighting.
Hunting, as a sport, was limited to Denmark, where it was not regarded as an important occupation. Birds, deer, hares and foxes were hunted with bow and spear, and later with crossbows. The techniques were stalking, snare and traps and par force hunting with dog packs.
Games and Entertainment
Both archaeological finds and written sources testify to the fact that the Vikings set aside time for social and festive gatherings.
Board games and dice games were played as a popular pastime, at all levels of society. Preserved gaming pieces and boards show game boards made of easily available materials like wood, with game pieces manufactured from stone, wood or bone, while other finds include elaborately carved boards and game pieces of glass, amber, antler or walrus tusk, together with materials of foreign origin, such as ivory. The Vikings played several types of tafl games; hnefatafl, nitavl (Nine Men's Morris) and the less common kvatrutafl. Chess also appeared at the end of the Viking Age. Hnefatafl is a war game, in which the object is to capture the king piece – a large hostile army threatens and the king's men have to protect the king. It was played on a board with squares using black and white pieces. The Ockelbo Runestone shows two men engaged in Hnefatafl, and the sagas suggest that money or valuables could have been involved in some dice games.
On festive occasions storytelling, skaldic poetry, music and alcoholic drinks, like beer and mead, contributed to the atmosphere. Music was considered an art form and music proficiency as fitting for a cultivated man. The Vikings are known to have played instruments including harps, fiddles, lyres and lutes.