Imagine being a child in Viking Age Scandinavia. Have you wondered what it would have been like? I often do. In fact, in order to understand a culture and a society, I find that studying those childhood years makes me able to understand the whole culture far better. After all, we all start out as children.
When it comes to the Vikings, or more correctly the Norse, how you spent your childhood would have been dependent on two factors: 1, if you’re a boy or a girl and 2, the social status of your parents.
In the Norse society, you were either a slave, a free man/woman or some kind of nobleman or -woman. These were not necessarily constants. A slave could become a free man or -woman. And a free man, even a noble, could become enslaved. But for most people, I think it’s safe to say that they stayed in their social group their entire life.
Some time before 1000 AD, the Norse society became dependent on slave labour. It has been estimated that between 1/4 and 1/3 of the population was slaves, or thralls as they were called back then. It has been said that even the slaves had some legal protection, but you should think of that as owner’s insurance. A murdered slave had to be paid for, but that was all. A slave was property, and so was their children. A boy or a girl who was born from enslaved parents was automatically also a slave. (A slave woman who gave birth to the child of a free man or noble, was not.) So if your parents were slaves, your childhood would have been dictated by your owner. Yes, if your owner was sensible, he would let you stay with your parents, as they would teach you the skills you needed, but if your owner wanted to sell you and send you away, he could. I have a feeling the girls had a worse childhood than the boys — the brutal truth is that if a free man or noble wanted to rape his slave, he could. Even if she was just a child. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this was the rule and that it happened all the time. Viking culture was not without compassion (contrary to popular belief). My guess is that most slaves lived and worked alongside the free men and -women and that they got along quite well. That said, the childhood of a slave in the Viking Age meant a lot of hard work. A slave who wasn’t a good worker was worthless, and every enslaved parent knew that very well.
Free men and -women:
Most people in Viking Age Scandinavia were free men and -women and my guess is that they had quite a happy childhood. You would spend your days either playing, practicing hunting skills or at your dad’s or mom’s side, learning by doing. If your father was a craftsman, you would learn his craft — if you were a boy. You would also learn to fish, hunt, tend to your farm animals and crops, build shelters etc. If you were a girl, you would learn all the skills traditionally done by women, but you would also spend time with the boys, doing sports. Yes, in pre-Christian Scandinavia, both girls and boys practiced sports.
Your childhood would be spent in the company of our siblings, your parents and the other people on the farm. Your diet was quite varied, and if you stayed away from heavily populated areas, you would have a good chance to avoid getting those internal parasites that probably made life miserable for many people back then.
At the age of 14, you would have been considered old enough to be called a man, but I think we can assume that nobody kicked their son or daughter out of the house at that age. In fact, you would probably stay with your parents until you married. If you had a say on that matter, we simply do not know for sure. Yes, I have noticed that many believe that the sons and daughters were married off, but we’re talking about freemen now, not nobles. I believe marriage was arranged to build alliances even among freemen, but my guess is that so was not always the case. And even in those cases where the marriage was arranged, a husband could leave his wife to live with someone else, who would then be known as a «frille», a mistress. For women, leaving an arranged marriage was much more difficult and possibly dangerous, but we do know that it happened in some cases.
Our perception of the Viking Age has been distorted by the fact that most of our knowledge is based on the tales and traces of the nobles. They had their life stories (sagas) written, and they were the ones who were buried in mounds, which makes them easier to find. Most people were not nobles, but those who were, had an upbringing that separated them from the rest from the day they were born. The nobleman’s son would learn skills like horseriding, fighting with weapons of war, poetry and diplomacy. A nobleman’s daughter was a valuable asset that could forget about the idea of true love — she would most likely be married off by her parents to strengthen alliances. She could even be married off by her brother, as was the case with Olaf Tryggvason and his sister Astrid.
Fostering was quite popular among the nobles and even some of the more ambitious freemen; the concept was that you sent your child to be brought up by someone else, hoping that would increase your child’s social status and/or give him skills that you yourself could not teach him. I write «him», because it seems like this was mostly done with boys.
So there you have it — your Viking Age childhood. For me as a novelist, the fate of the slaves obviously stands out as extremely fascinating. The focus has been on the nobles, which I think is a shame, but that is a matter for another blogpost…
-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen (copyright)
Read more: Adopting a Viking Mentality – is it for you? Part II
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