Back in Viking times (between about 700 and 1100 AD) Denmark, Norway and Sweden didn’t exist. Instead, the land was occupied by various tribes who, for the most part, sent ships out on separate raids. And inter-tribal skirmishes were common when they weren’t plundering overseas.
Vikings would capture slaves (whom they called “thralls” - hence the term “in thrall to”) during raids in Britain and Eastern Europe. Then they’d sell them at Middle Eastern slave markets. You could look to spend about 24 cows on a strong man, but only eight cows for a woman.
Viking women ran households and commanded the thralls when the men were away. If a Viking man displayed too much chest hair, his wife could divorce him - and he was liable for alimony. Which seems like something we should maybe think about bringing back.
Although Viking raiders did plunder countries like Britain and Ireland, the majority of Viking settlers were farmers. Many married local women, grew barley, rye and oats and raised cattle, goats and sheep.
Others became metal traders, establishing trading posts in Turkey and the Middle East.
Vikings traded with people from Asia and the Middle East. Also, slaves kidnapped from Italy, Spain, Britain, Portugal, France and Russia would eventually become absorbed into Viking society. So Vikings weren’t as ethnically homogenous as you might expect.
Sadly, this is completely wrong. Archaeological finds show that Viking men stood about 5’7” (170cm) tall. They also had such feminine skulls - and female Viking skulls have such masculine features - that even now it can be difficult to tell the gender of a Viking skeleton.
Many British place naming customs - especially northern English ones - have Viking origins, including “thorpe” (Old Norse for “settlement”), “garth” (an enclosure), “thwaite” (land for pasture), “beck” (stream) “wick” (harbour), and “dale” (valley).
Grimsby was named because it was the home of a Viking called Grim. Kirkby is named for its church (“kirk”). Skipton used to be “Shipton” until the Vikings moved in and brought their “sk-” words, like “skim”, “scab” and “screech”.
And the northern greeting “‘Ey up”? Viking. No word of a lie.
Thanks to common trading and farming practices, the Viking diet was very varied. In addition to bread, fish and vegetables, you could expect to eat delicious seagull, horse, seal, moose, whale and walrus at the Viking table.
In the 1600s, a Danish physician called Ole Worm wrote that Danish warriors drank from horns. It’s thought that this was mistranslated in Latin as human skulls - no human skulls have ever been found in Viking excavations. Phew.
Rather than being mindless bloodthirsty morons, Vikings were actually expert ship-builders, carpenters and blacksmiths. The sculptors of the formidable figures on the prows of longboats were paid very handsomely.
Vikings also built ‘long houses’ designed to keep in the heat with special turf roofs.
Vikings were keen recreational skiers - they even had a god of skiing, called Ullr. They also enjoyed wrestling and blood sports like bear baiting and cock fighting.
Vikings even played board games, including a strategic Chess-like game called “Hnefatafl”. No, I can’t say it either.
Vikings enjoyed a meritocratic society with three main classes - Jarls (noblemen), Karls (free men), and Thralls (slaves).
Everyone would attend a regular meeting called “Althing”, which means “the thing”. The “law-speaker” would recite the society’s rules, and disputes would be settled (often by violent wrestling).
“Vikings had well-groomed beards and hair,” says Louise Kæmpe Henriksen, a curator at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. “Several archaeological finds have revealed tweezers, combs, nail cleaners, ear cleaners and toothpicks from the Viking Age.
“The men had long fringes and short hair on the back of the head. Further down on the neck, the skin was shaved.”
Women may have tied or braided their hair with coloured tape, and worn a bonnet or scarf.
Vikings used runes - supposedly magical drawn symbols that were meant to have come from the underworld when Odin sacrificed himself on Yggdrasil, the “world tree”.
Viking swords were handed down the generations, and inscribed with magical runes meant to increase the sword’s power.
Actually, 350 Viking ships sailed up the Thames and attacked London in 851 AD. Also, the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” is thought to be connected to the Viking Olaf the Stout pulling the bridge into the river using longships.