Today Linnea Hartsuyker stops by Fantasy Literature to share some interesting facts about Vikings, which she heavily researched for her debut novel, The Half-Drowned King (which I loved). This novel brings to life the figures and circumstances surrounding Harald Fairhair, the ruler who unified the lesser kingdoms or Norway, and who happens to be a great-great-etc. ancestor of Mr. Hartsuyker herself! We have three copies of The Half-Drowned King to give away, so please comment below for a chance to win!
Five Surprising Things I Learned About Vikings
When I set out to write The Half-Drowned King, a historical novel about Viking Age Norway, I had been hearing about Vikings and reading Norse legends for my whole life. I thought I was pretty well-informed about them. The Vikings went out and raided, right? The law of hospitality was sacred. They believed in Thor and Odin, they wrote in runes. They must have valued strong women because Odin is accompanied by his Valkyries into battle.
I already knew about some of the major misconceptions, for instance, horned (or winged) helmets were not a thing — why would you want a helmet that could easily be pulled from your head? The Blood Eagle sacrifice (look it up if you’re in the mood for something gruesome) is also almost certainly an invention. But there was a lot I did not know about Vikings and the Viking Age until I began my research.
1. Vikings were no more violent than other people at the time
Not to say Vikings were not violent — they certainly were, but they were no more violent than any other group of people living in the 9th to 11th centuries. What made them different from local raiders in Christian countries was the fact that they attacked churches and monasteries. These were sacred to Christians, but to pagan Viking raiders, they were attractive because they were poorly guarded and often full of precious artifacts. Vikings also attacked swiftly, coming from the sea, and departing again just as fast. Christian scribes recorded their exploits, in one of the few instances of history being written by the victims rather than the victors. Vikings also did not kill large numbers of people, being more focused on raiding and enslaving those they attacked.
2. Vikings were farmers, fishermen, hunters, and settlers
Most raiders were not full-time pirates, but farmers who made raids during the summer while their crops were growing, then returned in the fall to harvest. While no one knows exactly what initiated the Viking Age, many people believe that population pressures pushed younger sons away from their hereditary farmlands to seek better lands across the sea. Norway particularly is a very difficult place to farm, with harsh winters and steep slopes. England may be cold and rainy but looked like paradise in comparison.
Another pressure may have been the political consolidation of Norway and other Scandinavian countries. As countries became united under one king, that king required loyalty and levied higher taxes than the elite had been used to in the past. Finally, there is growing evidence that Viking exploration of Greenland and the New World was driven by the pursuit of walrus ivory.
3. The Viking-Age Scandinavian kingdoms did not have towns
A staple setting of any medieval novel (or medieval flavored fantasy novel) is the town with its guilds and taverns, but these came after the Viking Age, and were more prevalent in mainland Europe than Scandinavia. The unit of social organization in Viking-Age Norway was the family farm, where a hundred people or more would live and work. One long wooden hall, chinked with mud and turf-roofed to keep out the cold, housed this population. Often livestock would live at one end of the hall and people in the middle, with the kitchen at the far end.
Viking Age kings did establish a few towns as trading centers to exchange goods from Norway: slaves, furs, and walrus ivory, with merchants from the rest of Europe and beyond. These trading centers sometimes boasted craftspeople and artisans as well. These towns were profit centers for kings who protected them and taxed the commerce. However most Scandinavians continued to live on farms through and well past the Viking Age.
4. The Vikings traveled quickly and widely
Most people know about Lief Erikson’s voyage to North America, the first known voyage by a European. Fewer know of the Swedish Vikings, known as the Rus, who traveled through Russia’s river system and settled in what is now Kiev, Ukraine, giving their name to the Russian country. Their ships, with no keel and with a shallow draft, also allowed them to sail deep into France, where they sacked Paris twice. They sailed around Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, even terrorizing Constantinople.
They also traveled very quickly. In the Icelandic Sagas, one of our few written sources of information about the Viking Age, characters frequently hear news from one another far quicker than one might suppose for the distances it must travel. In good weather, Iceland was only a three-week sail from Norway, and the coast of Norway could be navigated in little more than a week. The fjords and seas were their roads, while the inland mountains and forests were difficult to traverse.
5. Viking men were very attractive to European women and assimilated into local culture quickly
Readers of romance novels probably know this one already! Still, during the Viking Age, European men were not known for frequent bathing. The Church frowned upon the decadent, pagan habit, and many Europeans bathed only twice a year. In comparison, Viking men bathed weekly. The Norse word for Saturday means “bathing day”. They tended to be taller than Europeans because of superior nutrition. They also bleached their hair — which may have been to make them look more fearsome, but blond hair was unusual and possibly attractive.
Because many of the settling parties were primarily men, who, when they settled married local woman, their children tended to be brought up in the local culture. This meant that while Viking place-names endured, and some Norse words entered the local language, the local culture tended to prevail. In places like the Faroe Islands, words for weapons and outdoor activities have Norse roots, while household items have Irish roots, illustrating the divide between the sexes. Rollo, the son of the Norse king Ragnvald, founded the powerful kingdom of Normandy with a band of Viking followers, but within a few generations, Normans thought of themselves as French and spoke French when Rollo’s great grand-son William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, and effectively ended the Viking Age.
Bonus: Not All Vikings were Scandinavian
Slavs from the Baltic countries also used long-ships, raided one another, and were known as excellent sailors and dangerous warriors.
Thanks for your time and insight, Ms. Hartsuyker! Readers, comment below for a chance to win one of three finished copies of The Half-Drowned King. U.S.-based or Canadian mailing addresses only, please.