Nordic Diet: What did the Vikings eat?
What did the Viking eat?
Reconstruction by Hands on History of food preparations for travel
Summary of The Viking diet:
- Cereals and seeds
- Dairy products,
- The meats
- Fish, cetaceans, crustaceans, shellfish
- Herbs and spices
- Fruits and nuts
- The beer
- the wine
Dishes and cutlery
- To eat
- To drink
The feeding of the Vikings
The Vikings' daily menu consisted mainly of oatmeal, based on cereals, bread and dairy products. Meat and fish remain exceptional dishes. Food was closely linked to the resources available in the vicinity of the habitat, although some of them were imported.
- Cereals and seeds
- Rye (Finland, Sweden and Denmark late),
- rice (imported from Italy),
- more rarely millet, buckwheat, wheat.
- flax, hemp and rapeseed
Bread flours were generally made from at least two types of cereals, one of which was almost always barley. The breads also frequently contained spelt, flax or pea flour, sometimes oats. Rye became the main bread cereal in southern Scandinavia during the Viking era.
The breads were small, thin and flat, similar to biscuits. They could be drilled in their center to be suspended from a rope or wooden bar.
The bread was probably baked on heated stones or on an iron plate placed above the fire. Bread ovens were not very common, and some researchers believe that baking sourdough bread developed with the growing cultivation of rye.
The seeds were used to produce oils (Jorvik, Dublin), such as linseed oil, hempseed oil and rapeseed oil.
Milk, most often cow's milk, but also goat's milk, was generally not consumed as such but rather considered as a raw material to create other dairy products that could be stored and consumed during the winter period (period during which there was no milk production):
the butter, buttermilk, whey, skyr (produced between yoghurt and very soft cheese),
cheese (which was generally very salty to keep it).
chicken, duck, goose,goat, sheep, lamb,beef, cow, calf,the pig,the horse,game, wild birdswhales, seals
Pig farming was predominant in settlements and densely populated sites because they allowed food waste to be recycled and could be kept parked.
The breeding of poultry (chicken, duck, goose) made it possible to provide eggs and meat all year round.
Cattle rearing was the most important, with some farm stables in the Viking Age capable of housing 80 to 100 head of cattle. Livestock was especially essential for the production of dairy products, which were even more prized than meat itself.
Meat was a seasonal product, as slaughter was mainly done at the end of the grazing season, for cattle and sheep in October, pigs in November-December, in order to avoid having to feed them during the winter, and to better manage the hay stock harvested during the summer.
Game meat (deer, elk, reindeer, hare, bear, wild boar, squirrel) was rarely consumed except in the northernmost regions of Norway and Sweden. The hunt also included wild birds (golden plover, grey plover, grouse, pigeon, pigeon, lapwing, wild goose), seals and whales.
The different methods of preserving meat were drying and smoking (the most common), fermentation (the unopened animal is most often placed in a pit, and left to ferment in the absence of air), pickling in whey, brining and salting.
Fish, cetaceans, crustaceans, shellfishcod, salmon, herring, haddock, ling, horse mackerel, smelt, saithe,porpoise,eel, bream, pike, roach, perch, rattan,oysters, shells, mussels, winkles, scallops, shrimps.
carrot, parsnip, turnip, celery, wild celery, radish
spinach, cabbage, endive (Isle of Funden)
beans, peas. And probably beets, angelica, mushrooms, leeks, onions and edible seaweed. Sabline and acorns were consumed in times of famine.
Vegetables are generally preserved by drying.
Herbs and spices
dill, coriander, hops, fennel, watercress, horseradish, livers, parsley, mint, thyme, marjoram,
poppy seeds, mustard, black mustard (or black mustard), cumin and meadow cumin, juniper berries,
Vikings also had access to exotic spices such as cumin, pepper, saffron, ginger, cardamom, maniguette, cloves, nutmeg, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, and bay leaves through the trading posts.
Vinegar and honey are to be added to the condiments.
Fruits and nuts
blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, cherries,
apples (Oseberg's grave)
rowan berries, sloes, elderberries, hawthorn berries,
hazelnuts and after import almonds, chestnuts.
fig seeds and grape seeds have also been found in specific contexts during archaeological excavations.
The fruits are generally preserved by drying, and sometimes in honey.
Alcoholic beverages had an important place in Viking culture, and beer was the most common drink. However, the Scandinavian peoples were acutely aware of the perils and dangers of drunkenness.
Mead (mjöðr in Old Norse) is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in Scandinavia. In the Sagas, mead is the drink of poets, of eloquence. The service of mead is illustrated in the literature as the duty and prerogative of kings.
Unlike modern hives, which are made of removable wooden frames, Viking Age hives were domes of rolled straw that are at the origin of our iconographic representation of the hive even today, and which required that bee colonies be decimated to remove wax and honey, either by choking by burning a blown wick or by drowning.
The staple cereal grown during the Viking era was barley, and it may even have been the only cereal grown in Iceland until the small ice age of the 14th century made it impossible to grow cereals. Barley was used to brew beer, which was the basic drink of all social classes. Even children drank beer on a daily basis, especially in the most densely populated areas.
While today's modern names "beer" and "ale" are almost interchangeable, at first the two drinks were very different. According to literary sources, the Old English name ealu and the Old Norse name ol are applied to a drink produced from malted cereals, while the Old English name beor and the Old Norse name björr are applied to a sweetened alcoholic drink.
Until very recently, philologists still thought that beor and björr were derivatives of the word for "barley", whereas the term probably refers to "cider" (whether apples or pears) during the Viking era.
The English translations of the Sagas translate the two terms öl and björr equally well by beer or ale, and are therefore not a good guide to the terminology used in the original texts in Old Norse.
To complete the confusion, a variety of Old Norse terms related to fermented drinks appear in verses 34 and 35 of the Eddaic poem Alvíssmál, and all are implicitly synonyms. The term mungát refers to a particularly strong beer.
The exact recipes and methods that Scandinavians of the Viking era used to produce beer are unknown. However, experts believe that some beer brewing practices in rural western Norway may have inherited Viking techniques.
In the remote rural region of Voss (Hordaland County, Norway), most farmers make their own beer. Jackson left with farmer Rivenes Svein to collect juniper branches.
Rivenes saws enough branches to fill the 700-litre bathtub-shaped tank in its cabin, which serves both as a container for the liquor and as a stirring tank.
He believes, just as the medieval monks [...] appreciated hops in their beer, and that the juniper branches, complete with berries, helped him both to make a better extract of his malt and to constitute a parade against infections.
Its water source - a current flowing down the hill upstream from its cabin - has a dual function. It is his brewing water and he therefore immerses bags of barley in the stream where the grain begins to germinate.
A neighbour has transformed his garage into an oven, powered by a domestic heating fan, and there the barley is transformed into malt. In the brewing process, when the water has been added to the malt, the must is filtered through several branches of juniper.
The berries give flavour to the must - as they do in gin and other distilled spirits - but Rivenes also adds hops when the must is cooked.
The yeast used in the Voss region has been passed down from generation to generation and Rivenes believes it can go back to the time of the Vikings. Brewer-farmers in the northern lands begin fermentation with a "totem stick" that transmits yeast cells from one brewing process to another.
The beer brewed by Rivenes Svein is, according to Jackson, about nine or ten percent alcohol, with a malty character, a syrupy body, a pronounced taste due to juniper and is particularly tasty.
Jackson studied a sample of the yeast when he returned to Great Britain... Fermentation yeast was classified as a traditional brewer's yeast, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae yeast, but it was different in several ways from a modern brewer's yeast. It has different taste characteristics.
It is multi-strain while more modern brewer's yeasts are single or double-strain. Modern yeasts have been carefully cultivated to attack different types of sugar in the wort and, when a beer is packaged in barrels, to encourage a powerful secondary fermentation...
It should be noted that it is unlikely that an authentic Viking beer was brewed with pale malt: until the Industrial Revolution and the commercial exploitation of coal, malt steamed on wood fires, browned and often reddened, often with a smoky character, although the custom in Scandinavia of drying malt in saunas may have made it pale (Protz, Roger. The Ale Trail: A celebration of the Revival of the World's Oldest Beer Style. Orpington, Kent, UK: Eric Dobby Publishing Ltd. 1995, p. 25-26)
An Irish beer recipe based on barley, heather and myrtle from the 8th century experimented by archaeologistsThe Germans and Scandinavians are known to add a variety of natural agents, such as juniper, or fruit (a mixture of plants) to their beer to produce bitterness or other flavours, kill bacteria and thus extend the "shelf life" of the product, or even add medicinal qualities to the drink in some cases (Protz, p. 20, The Thought, pp.128-144).
Hops was one of its additives used in Denmark from the Viking Age and in the 10th century in Jorvik (modern York, England) and probably elsewhere in Scandinavia during the Viking era (Hagen, pp 210, 211; Roesdahl, p. 119).
Hops, when boiled with the wort in the beer making process, release bitter acids, which both give a bitter taste and add antibiotic properties that allow a better preservation of the beer.
Other herbal additives include balsamite or alecost (Chrysanthemum balsamita), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), royal chilli or myrtle (Myrica gale) used mainly in Denmark, in North Germany and England, marrube (Marrubium vulgare, called Berghopfen or "mountain hops" in Germany where it was used as a substitute for hops), yarrow (Achilea millefolium) and others (La Pensée, pp.128-144, Hagen, p. 212).
Brewing was usually the work of women in medieval Iceland, and this was probably the case throughout Scandinavia during the Viking era. An archaeological study in Norway, covering a large number of cracked stones found on farms at the time, supports the hypothesis that the Vikings brewed their beer with heated stones (cf. The Vikings brewed their beer in stone according to an archaeological study).
Beer consumption had a ritual dimension, particularly on the occasion of several religious and seasonal holidays, including three celebrated by the Scandinavian Vikings: the first takes place after the harvest, the second around mid-winter, and the last in mid-summer. These celebrations continued to be celebrated after the introduction of Christianity, although under new names.
Historical sources reveal that beer consumption during these festivals, even in Christian times, remained very high: the law Gulaþing required that a group of at least three individuals be involved in brewing the beer that would be consumed at the famous banquets of All Saints (November 1), Christmas (December 25 -Yule), and on the feast of Saint John the Baptist (June 24). Those who had failed to brew beer for three consecutive years had to give half of their farm to the bishop and the other half to the king, and then leave the country. Only very small farms were exempt from this strict regulation.
More ordinary festivities or occasions, celebrated even today, are so closely associated with beer that they are known by names with the suffix "öl" ("beer") such as Gravöl (a wake, or "funeral-beer"), Barnöl (a baptism, or "child beer") and taklagsöl (a barn building, or "roof beer"). (Nylen, Anna-Maja. Swedish Handicraft. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1977. p. 57).
Wine is the most sought-after but most expensive fermented beverage in Scandinavia.
Grape wine was mainly imported from the Rhineland to Denmark, using the trading posts in Dorestad and Hedeby. As a result, wine was reserved for the rich and powerful.
Two late Iron Age and Viking Age grape seeds discovered in 2017 at the aristocratic site of Tissø (Seeland Island, Denmark) indicate that the Vikings probably cultivated vines locally. The conditions for wine production in the Viking Age, and perhaps even at the beginning of the Iron Age, were met:
The Vikings were able to acquire the knowledge necessary for viticulture during their travels in France and England.
The Vikings had a strong taste for alcoholic beverages.
The climate, with the medieval climatic optimum, made it similar to ours at that time in these latitudes,
A Viking notable had an obvious motivation to produce wine as an ostentatious symbol of his power.
Scientists are not yet in a position to determine whether viticulture was used to consume fresh grapes, to produce raisins as food for long sea voyages or to make wine. (cf. Denmark - The Vikings may have grown vines well)
A very small quantity of fruit wines was exclusively reserved for sacramental use.
Birch juice could also be used to make limited quantities of wine
Dishes and cutlery
The Vikings had bowls and plates very similar to ours, but most often made of wood and earth.
The knife was used both as a knife and a fork.
Spoons were made from wood, horn or animal bone.
A reconstruction of the Viking Centre in Ribe, Denmark, photo by Joëlle Delacroix
In the Viking era, the dish for individual consumption was of different types:
The most primitive consisted of simple cones made of birch bark or rolled rowan.
The oldest way to serve beer in particular was to offer it in a large container, often a cauldron where the beer was heated, or a bucket, from which everyone used to use small bird-shaped bowls called öl-gass.
Viking bowl or öl-gass
The most commonly used is domestic bovine horn or goat horn, as evidenced by the fragments of drinking horns found, most of which have a capacity of just under half a litre. In this sense, the significantly larger auroch horns of Sutton Hoo's grave would have been an exception. The horns used were carefully polished and often decorated with precious metals and/or silverware at the mouth and tip.
The most luxurious was made of glass containers imported into Scandinavian countries. The most imported glassware probably came from the Rhine region, including large cups and small jars and flanges made of blue, green or brown glass, which were often decorated with the application of filaments.
A unique glassware design that was produced for the Scandinavian market included glass drinking horns, clawed cups (drinking glasses with glass filaments applied to them on the claw-like sides), funnel-shaped cups, and bag-shaped cups (drinking glasses with a rounded bag-shaped bottom).
The glasses were known in Old Norse as hrimkaldar, or "cups of frost". Funnel glasses were the most common in the 10th century.
10th century funnel glass found in a tomb in Birka, SwedenToday, the drinking horn is known to be the only dishware with which the Vikings drank; however, it has been proven that the horns were reserved for special occasions, used for rituals, seasonal celebrations and various beer festivals such as the solemn sumbel beer festival:
"It seems that the alcohol offered in a horn was a mark of social status, although - apart from the many references to drinking horns in heroic literature - the clearest evidence comes from later sources including the English novel "King Horn".
At her wedding, a king's daughter carries a ceremonial drinking horn for all guests, but while she is accosted by a man she thinks is a beggar, she offers him to drink instead in a large bowl more suitable for his condition..... The horns therefore had a ceremonial dimension for those of high social status throughout this period" (Hagen, Ann. "A second Handbook of Anglo-Sason Food and Drink". Hockwold cum Wilton, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books. 1995., p. 243).
Many refined drinking pieces have been found in women's graves in all pagan Germanic societies, starting in the Germanic Roman Iron Age and spanning a millennium, up to the Viking Age.
Gallehus Gold Horn from the 5th century, DenmarkIt is possible that horns were cut with simple incised lines. Researchers' comments on the highly sculpted horns of the late Middle Ages in Scandinavia note that in rural Norway, an ancient tradition of ornamental drinking horns persisted:
"Most of the preserved Norwegian drinking horns of the Middle Ages are goldsmith's art, since most of the various ornamentations are made on metal mounts, while the horns themselves are smooth and unadorned.
The known sculptures are relatively late and almost all have a simple incised decoration that classifies them as folk art. They have, in fact, been engraved in Norwegian rural areas and the style of engraving is so simplistic that it is difficult to establish whether the horns are actually from the Middle Ages.
The ornamentation is dominated by the representation of Romanesque style, intertwined stems and leaves" (Magerøy, Ellen Marie. "Carving: Bone, Horn, and Walrus Tusk." Medieval Scandinavia: an Encyclopedia. Phillip Pulsiano et al., eds. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 934. New York: Garland.1993. p. 70).