In this essay, I am going to look at the Norsemen of Scandinavia. I will speculate on the way people may have lived in the three countries which spawned the distinctive Viking culture – Norway, Sweden and Denmark. I will focus on social hierarchy, social games, arms and armour, paganism, settlements, craftsmanship and burials. I will attempt to look at the Norse way of life in more detail than what is usually given, and leave the reader to decide whether they think the conventional views of the Norsemen are justified.
I think there is an important distinction to be made with the term "Viking". Although the word was invented and used during the Viking Age, it had a more specific meaning than what it carries today. It was first used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to describe those Scandinavian peoples who came in their longships and raided the coasts of Britain. It was also used in Scandinavian runes, in a very specific context – "Let us go a-Viking!" as in "let us go raiding".
I will refer to the "Vikings" as the Norsemen, meaning the people of the Old Norse language group, which at the time entailed Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Initially, the Norsemen thought of themselves as inhabitants of particular regions, such as Jutland, Vestfold and Hordaland. Each region would have had the same fundamental concepts, with slight variations, and their loyalties would lie with the leader of that particular region, rather than a king or government of a nation.
In terms of the social hierarchy of the Nordic regions, when compared to most other parts of Europe, it is much less rigid and set in stone. Chiefs were not seen as sacred or special, rather as exceptionally able. There seems to have been three main classes: The Karls – who formed the vast majority of Norse society. They formed the middle-class, free men and land owners. They were the humble farmers and smiths of a region, and often lived in clusters of two or more longhouses, supplemented by barns and workshops.
The Jarls – these were the noble class. Jarls were distinguished by their wealth in terms of followers, treasure, ships and estates. There seems to have been an emphasis on the relation of power with how many followers you had, rather than who your father was. Stories indicate that Jarls lived in huge halls of the finest wood, decorated with engravings of scenes from Norse folklore. However, there has been little archaeological evidence as of yet to support these details.
Finally, below both of these classes were the Praell. They were often slaves, usually taken as booty from a raid, and used as bondsmen to their owners. However, it was possible for any person within the existing Norse class system to fall to the status of Praell. This would generally occur if a man could not pay his debts – he would become tied to his debter until the price was paid. These people would have been given the harshest of jobs, and most likely would have had little armour and only the scraps of...