Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 8

Vikings checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode. 

Season 2, Episode 8:  Boneless

Question: How difficult was childbirth for Viking women?

Justin Pollard: We don’t know a huge amount about childbirth in this period simply because the sources we have are rather reticent when it comes to talking about it. If we consider that most chroniclers of this date are Christian monks, that might explain it. There were herbal remedies to deal with the pain which we know about from Anglo-Saxon sources and, so, were probably also known to Vikings. Childbirth pain was treated (where available) with wolf’s milk mixed with wine and honey. The English herbal “Bald’s Leechbook” recommends brooklime and hollyhock boiled in ale if contractions stop.

Giving birth was an entirely female event. There were no men present. The mother-to-be would be assisted by “helping women,” who were effectively midwives and probably those female members of the community with the most experience of childbirth. The normal birth position was to kneel on the floor supported by the helping women. As well as practical assistance, the helping women could provide supernatural support. Charms and chants were offered up, particularly if the birth wasn’t going well. In the Lay of Sigrdrifa tale, it suggests cutting magical runes on the palms and pressing these on the joints whilst asking the goddess for help.

In an age before antibiotics, childbirth was obviously dangerous as infection was poorly understood and many women and children must have died in the process. However, we have few descriptions of difficult births and children’s remains seem underrepresented in cemeteries, so it’s difficult to know what the mortality rate was.

Q: We see Bjorn and Rollo in battle training. At around what age did Vikings begin training for battle? How often did they train?

JP: The age at which children began training for battle varied depending on the class of the child. In law, children could be considered “adult” from the age of 12 and, hence, boys might be expected to spend much of their time from then on honing their battle skills. Yet in sagas, we hear of 15 years old boys who accompany others to battle, but do not fight themselves as they are still children. Equally, we have boys becoming king at very young ages and taking on the mantle of adulthood then. According to the Heimskringla, Rolf Krake is said to have been eight years old when he became king. Regardless of the age, children, and particularly boys, practiced martial skills from a young age. Initially, this was probably just the typical sort of rough and tumble you’d still find today–in the Ynglinga saga it describes how six year old boys:

“… amused themselves with child’s play, in which each should be leading on his army.”

The intensity of this would increase with age as play gave way to training. Slightly older children of freemen were often sent away to live with adoptive parents (usually relatives), where they would learn to serve in the household and bear arms. Eventually, the boy would leave childhood behind to enter a new phase of life as a Drengir, a time when a young man could accumulate the wealth and prestige needed before entering into a good marriage.


Q: We see the Vikings preparing to go out on the ship. What was their pre-travel ritual like?

JP: The most important thing for any Viking heading out of a dangerous voyage was to have some intimation of what fate held for them. Most importantly there was fret. There’s not much evidence in early works for how this was done, but we have a few clues. Part of it was simply looking for omens—demanding to know what would happen and then looking for signs that the Gods favored it, like ravens flying overhead. When the Icelandic chieftain Thorkel the Tall invoked the god Frey for vengeance upon his enemy Viga-Glum, he demanded a signal that the God had heard his prayer. He regarded it as a favorable response of Frey when the ox, which he had led out as an offering, immediately fell with loud bellowing upon the ground and died. Divination (spá) is also mentioned in the Sagas, by means of sacred leaves or slips (blótspánn) and by prophetic lots (hlotar or hlutar), both basically lot-casting.

How this was technically done is not clear. Tacitus says that Germanic peoples during the Roman Empire practiced divination by marking sticks with magical signs and randomly picking one, but that’s a bit before our time, although the Viking equivalent probably descends from this. Tacitus says a bough cut from a fruit tree is divided into small slips or chips (surculos), which are marked, each with its sign, and cast out at random upon a white cloth. Thereupon the diviner makes a prayer to the gods, takes up every twig three times, and explains them according to the marks set beforehand upon them.

In chapter 38 of Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga, Granmar, the king of Södermanland, travels to the Temple at Uppsala for the seasonal blót: “There, the chips fell in a way that said that he would not live long.”

Q: How long would the journey take by boat? What supplies for the journey would they Vikings have on hand? What did they eat?

JP: We know of many Viking sea voyages that would have taken them out of sight of land for many days, so they must have been well prepared for these voyages. There was plenty of room in the type of ship used for these voyages—merchant knarrs, rather than the drakaar warships, so there was space to stock plenty of food provided you could keep it from going bad. To this end, we’d expect them to carry substantial supplies of salt fish and smoked meats, which would not quickly rot. Live animals—everything from horses to birds—are also known to have been taken on many long voyages, so some of these could have been killed for meat. En route, the crew could also fish for fresh fish and attempt to catch sea birds. We don’t have any evidence for stoves aboard ship, indeed the risk of fire may have precluded cooking, so rations were probably eaten cold (or raw) unless ashore. Fresh water would be more of a problem, as you can survive far less time without water than food. Sweet (fresh) water would have been kept in barrels. Rain could also be collected during the voyage. Beer, which lasted longer due to its alcohol content and the fact that it had been boiled as part of the production process, was also drunk, as was sour milk.

It’s worth noting that whilst extensive preparations could be made for long voyages, Vikings tried not to be out of sight of land for too long if at all possible. Due to the vagaries of navigation and weather, Vikings on long trips, such as from Scandinavia to Iceland, Greenland or North America, would travel up or down the coast until they reached a latitude where they could make a straight crossing to their destination. Many still were blown off course and plenty must have sailed over the horizon never to be seen again. These losses were an expected part of ocean travel. According to the Icelandic Landnámabók, of the 25 ships that set out one summer from Iceland carrying settlers to Greenland, only 14 arrived.

Life on board was harsh. There was no real cover, so the crew were exposed to the elements. This is one reason why Vikings limited long sea voyages to the summer months. Rowers usually sat on a cargo box and at night might have been able to rig a tent or the main sail over the hull to provide some cover. They slept in sleeping bags made of animal skin.

In terms of performance, the main type of ship used for these voyages was the knarr, a merchant ship with fore and aft decks, up to about 16 meters in length and capable of carrying perhaps 24 tons of cargo. Under sail, these might reach speeds of ten knots or about half that, if just being rowed. How long voyages took is rarely mentioned in the sources and must have varied wildly due to wind, sea condition, currents, weather and tides. According to the Bandamanna saga, Odd Ofeigsson sailed from Iceland to Norway and back again in seven weeks.


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