Whenever we delve into the past, we seem to be focused on the visual. When it comes to the Viking Age, most of the discussion and controversy seem to concern how they dressed, how their houses and ships looked like and so on. But how did it sound? What did life in the Viking Age sound like? Lately, I have looked at my research with a more audial approach. And I have tried to imagine how daily life sounded back then.
First of all, I think it’s safe to say that silence was everywhere. These days, something is always making a sound and we don’t even notice. There are cars, ventilation systems, airplanes up in the sky. Everywhere, there is a sound. But for anyone living a thousand years ago, silence was the normal state of things. Of course, you would have the sound of the wind in the leaves, the waves down at the beach, your footsteps in the grass. But in between those sounds, you would have silence. To modern people, the sound of silence can actually be annoying. We hear the blood rushing, our heart pounding and we’re not used to that. But our ancestors were, and I think that is one of the most important differences between us and them.
Some sounds that we find uncommon and exotic, would have been almost boring to them. When you woke up, you would hear either the sound of flint against steel or someone blowing into the embers of last night’s fire. Due to the lung diseases that seems to have been common back then because of the smoke from the fireplaces, you would hear caughing as people woke up. The sound of the axe processing firewood would also have been well known to you. If the animals were kept in one half of the longhouse, you’d hear the sheep and the horses telling you to get up and feed them.
And what about the music? We know that the Viking culture was a rich one. Life in the longhouse was not gloomy and depressing, far from it. The Norse had their tradition of «kvad», which is basicly poetry performed in front of an audience. Sometimes, this was improvised. They had songs and on their beautiful instruments, they played some of the most haunting tunes the world has ever heard. Flutes, drums and the lyre seems to have been the most common instruments, with the addition of the taglharpe, a horse hair harp played with a bow.
The sounds surrounding you in the Viking Age were more organic, and in my opinion much more exciting than our present noise polluted society. I believe the Norse would have been shocked by the amount of noise that surrounds us, and they would not have had our tolerance towards loud noises either. I never liked loud sounds myself, and I must say the decibel level they use in bars, in concerts etc is extreme — it is one of those things in our modern society that is totally crazy, yet nobody seems to think much about it. But it is often like that. We’re always quick to judge when it comes to those who lived in the past. Yet we fail to see ourselves.
-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen
My friend Thomas’ Viking instruments
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