One of the most exciting things about ‘Living History’ is exploring the methods of making something using the tools and materials of the people we’re trying to represent. One of the most fulfilling things to do – mainly because it’s yummy – is cooking.
While there’s no surviving written recipes from the early medieval period, we do get information from remains of things like bread, and the cereal that was used to make it. Coupled with the finds of domestic ware like pots and pans, mill stones and threshing tools, we can build a picture, and make our own experiments.
For example, cereal husks have survived in the archaeological record, so we know that some breads were made of wheat, barley, rye and spelt, and some from pulses (peas and beans) mixed with oat flour. Bread has been found in the Viking world, such as in burials at Birka, Sweden. There’s a small biscuit-like bread full of protein that was found in a cremation burial in Jämtland, Sweden, and may have been mixed with blood (the protein) to make something akin to black-pudding.
Some breads were leavened (like modern fluffy bread that rises), but probably using a sourdough starter as domestically grown yeast hadn’t yet been adopted. Sourdough is made from a culture of flour, water, and wild yeast that lives on the flour or is blown around by the wind in the environment.
Leavened breads would require a large clay bread-oven to get an even heat for the loaf to raise. Ovens such as these are passively described in an 8th Century biography of the abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow called the Life of Ceolfrith.
Much simpler is a flat bread, or cake – kaka in Old Norse, and what Old English speakers would call cycel (pronounced ‘kytchel’) which is where we get the word ‘cake’ and ‘kitchen.’ It’s suggested in Sally Crawford’s Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England that these can be cooked on hot stones, the hot ash of a fire, or on a frying pan or skillet.
For our experiment, we used wheat, which needed to be ground into flour. There’s evidence of small hand-turned quern stones throughout the early medieval world, which suggests that grinding flour was a part of the daily routine of bread-making.
One thing to note here is that reproducing historical food is often full of ‘ifs.’ While we know certain ingredients existed, they certainly weren’t distributed evenly – it’s not like they could pop to Tesco. Without modern techniques, farmers in the north of England would have a tough time growing wheat, whereas the south has the perfect soil and weather conditions for that crop. People in areas of poor soil, or urban areas might make flour from garden crops such as beans and peas, or oats. Trading towns may have had access to a larger variety of grains with which to make bread, as well as ingredients to add to it. Contaminants might also be a factor in geography. There’s a fair bit of evidence that weeds such as corncockle got into the flour, so there may well have been plenty of upset tummies! So, with that in mind, ‘if they had access to wheat, they may have made…’
Viking Flat Bread – The Recipe
Start with flour and add a little water until you form a dough that isn’t super sticky. If you over do it, add more flour. Water is a interesting resource here – there’s plenty of myths surrounding potable water (that is, water that is safe to drink). Water precured from flowing streams or rivers that aren’t downstream from waste or latrines would be fine to use in cooking. Salt water could potentially be used to flavour the dough (there’s an experiment!)
Knead the dough until everything is mixed and you can form it into cakes. If you are cooking on an open fire, let it burn down to the embers – you don’t want ash and grit in your bread.
Use an iron pan or skillet. The pan is dry – not oiled – put it on the fire for a few minutes to warm up, then place to one side. The pan can’t be too hot else you’ll burn them or have them fire-welded onto the pan!
Pans like the one pictured have been found at Winchester and York (or bits of them anyway), but there’s loads of flat skillet-type pans from around the Viking world. The above isn’t too dissimilar from a wok.
The flatbreads take a couple of minutes on each side. Enjoy with butter, cheese, or salt. The Saxon Forager has a gorgeous recipe with oats and butter.
Banham, D. Faith, R. (2014). Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.
Crawford, S (2009). Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. p101-107
Hansson, A. (2002). Pre- and protohistoric bread in Sweden: a definition and a review. In Civilisations Vol 49.
Karg, S. (2007). Food:The Rest of Europe in Graham-Campbell, J. Valor, M eds (2007) The Archaeology of Medieval Europe Vol. 1.
Serra, D. (2013). An Early Meal-A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey.
One of our most popular displays at our viking reenactment events is our coin-strike, where you can make your own replica Viking coins. But what was money to an early-medieval person? What did they buy with it, and who did they pay?
A Bullion Economy
Before coinage was introduced, people often traded using the value of the material or goods they wanted to sell or buy. The value of a good milking cow, or an amount of butter or grain may have been their point of reference when bartering. However, if you wanted to trade your cow for some grain, but couldn’t find anyone who wanted a cow, then you’d need something else. In the Viking-age, valuable precious metals, usually silver but occasionally gold, could be used as a third unit of payment.
Unlike today’s money which represents an agreed face-value, coinage in the Viking-age was itself valuable. Silver coinage from far flung places such as Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey) could easily be used in places such as Dublin, Ireland, or in York, England. In fact, several Viking hoards in Britain have been found containing Islamic Dirhams, English Pennies and Frankish Deniers amongst other currencies made from precious metal.
Coins weren’t the only valuable silver trade good however. Many hoards contain silver bands of ‘hack silver’ where slivers of metal were cut from a bracelet to make the silver-weight value of a trade, and there are many examples of ingots – trade weighted bars – in Viking hoards. Similarly, silver and gold jewellery fragments have found to be deliberately broken for this reason, as have coins which are sometimes cut into halves, or quarters.
Silver was very valuable, so it’s unlikely that it was used to buy mundane things where a barter culture better served. A single coin of silver would be too much to buy a single loaf of bread for example – change would be an issue! It’s more likely that silver currency would be used for large purchases of animals, grain, weapons and land. And for paying taxes to the King, or tribute to a warlord for protection.
The primary precious metal found in Viking hoards is silver. Many items, particularly coins, bare marks of testing processes used by traders. Without the aid of modern science traders relied on knowing the feel of good silver, just in case an opportunistic criminal tried to counterfeit them. Cuts into the edge of coins called ‘nicks,’ and ‘pecks’ onto the surface of the coin test to see if the coin is merely gilded (plated) over a base metal such as lead. Bending the coin would also show if it was made from silver as it is considerably harder to do so than if the coin was made of an alloy of lead or tin.
Coins and the Law
One way the kingdoms of Europe tried to control money, and it’s silver-purity, was by licencing coin making to only a few mints. In Britain during the time of Alfred the Great there were few mints, mainly located in large population centres, or places of royal power like Winchester. The Vikings were getting in on the action too – the Scandinavian ruled city of Jorvik (York) were minting their own Viking coins in the 10th Century.
By the time Alfred’s grandson Athelstan became ‘Rex Totius Brittanae’ (King of all Britain) in 927AD there were numerous mints around the country, usually in fortified towns called burhs. There were eight mints in London alone! By the reign of Aethelred II (978 AD) there were around 90 mints in England. This shows just how the Wessex power base had spread into what became England and how much wealth was being generated in trade with the Viking settlers that had raided and stayed over the last hundred years, and with traders from the other parts of Europe. For matters concerning payments to the crown, this line of Anglo-Saxon kings had enough power to refuse foreign currency in internal affairs.
Making Coins: Ingots were heated up and beaten into thin sheets with a hammer. Coins were cut from it with tin snips, or perhaps with a specially made chisel (though none survive for us to know for definite). The coin dies were made of iron with the pattern punched into it. The coin is placed between the two dies and the pressure exerted by hammer blow causes enough friction to melt the silver for enough time to dip into the punched pattern and create a relief effect.
As well as showing the extent of kingly or national power, especially in the control of wealth generation and taxation, coins can show how money travelled. Certainly in the case of Islamic coins found in Britain and Scandinavia, they show how the trade routes through Russia and Eastern Europe reached Britain and Ireland, especially in the tenth century when Viking power was building.
The English silver penny was introduced around 765 AD and persisted until the 13th century. During the late 9th century, until the mid-late 10th century there was a round half-penny, but after currency reform by King Edgar in 973 AD people were required to cut the coin in half or quarters (usually following the design of a cross on the reverse). During King Edgar’s reign, the number of mints stabilised and the die patterns were controlled centrally at a master die cutting workshop. The last Viking coins minted at York disappeared with Eric Bloodaxe and Scandinavian rule in 954.
Minting official coins was heavily regulated. Coin dies were issued to the mints, and often replaced with new designs to stay current and project the power of the king. ater there were five such workshops. The Domesday Book mentions that owners of a Mint would have to travel to London and pay a Monetagium (tax), as well as buy new dies quando moneta vertebatur (‘when the coinage was changed’). And there were severe punishments for forgery, and clipping (stealing excess silver by reducing the size of a coin). A law by King Athelstan in the early 10th Century prescribes mutilation as punishment for this crime: the hand being cut off.
Some coins, such as those minted at York, (Viking kings Ragnald, Sihtric and Eric Bloodaxe etc.) show how the Vikings were embracing Christianity. Several Viking coins bare the symbol of St. Peter who was the patron saint of York Minster. Some even bear the inscription ‘SCIPE TRIIO’ which is abbreviated Latin for Sancti Petrus Moneta, Saint Peter’s Money. Included on the face of a few issues of ‘St. Peter’s Money’ is also the hammer of Thor, the Viking God of Thunder. Linking St. Peter to such a popular god in the Scandinavian pantheon was a sensible move in the conversion and assimilation of Vikings into Christian Europe.
Further Reading about Viking Coins and Trade
Ager, B & Williams, G (2010). Objects in Focus: The Vale of York Hoard
Graham-Campbell, J (2011). The Cuerdale Hoard and Related Viking-age Silver and Gold from Britain and Ireland in the British Museum
Graham-Campbell, J. Sindbæk, S.M. & Williams, G eds (2011). Silver Economies, Monetisation & Society in Scandinavia, AD 800-1100
Graham-Campbell, J & Williams, G eds (2006). Silver Economy in the Viking Age
Grierson, P (1986). Domesday Book, the Geld de Moneta and Monetagium: a Forgotten Minting Reform
Gullbekk, S.H. (2008). Coinage and Monetary Economies in Brink, S eds (2008) The Viking World
Mainman, A.J & Rogers, N.S.H (2000). Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York
Malmer, B (1972). King Canute’s Coinage in the Northern Countries
Naismith, R (2005). Islamic Coins from Early Medieval England
Skre, D (2009). Means of Exchange: Dealing with Silver in the Viking Age
Williams, G (2008). Shire Archaeology: Early Anglo-Saxon Coins
There’s few books on the Early Medieval world, and especially the ‘Vikings,’ that engage with my re-enactors brain (we’re rarely a target audience). Popular history books present the facts: what happened? when? who was involved? and why? But the ‘why’ is often focused on the political machinations of ‘great men’ and those lone characters who we tend to focus on in history. Archaeology books show the things, and where they were discovered: excellent for for reproducing artefacts, and gaining the geographic context, but they often lack a certain humanity when dealing with the people who used these objects a thousand years ago. Reading translated literature like Beowulf, The Prose Edda, The Saga of the Icelanders etc., allows us to connect with the people (or people far closer in time than us), but sometimes it’s hard to join the dots to the history and the things.
As a re-enactor, I want to give an audience an impression of the people of the past, their lives, their personalities and motives. Our performances are informed by the historical events, and the things they used, and the stories they left behind – so it’s exciting when a book comes along that examines and contextualises these three things.
Men of Terror, by William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson , examines the mindset of the ‘Viking’ and how the tools, the stories and points in history reflect and inform it. The authors pull in a vast wealth of sources, plus data from their own tests to build a holistic picture of early medieval Scandinavian society (and Germanic society more broadly in some cases).
The text starts from first principles, stating the scientific methodology, and working their way through the weapons found in archaeology, linking to testing from reconstructed historical martial arts, literary references, language use, and more. They never stray from the purpose of trying to work out what makes a ‘Viking’ tick.
The book asks the why and how of living in a society that seems so alien to us. The different mindset of violent actions that are seen as acceptable or not seemingly on a whim, but wrapped up in complex societal rules and laws that hardly make sense to a modern reader, but is beautifully explained in plain language in the book.
This is essential for re-enactors trying to get to the bottom of the warrior impression – it should inform why weapons are designed that way, and how they are likely to be used and why. The idea of early medieval masculinity is examined, and how it interacts with the institutions of the ages, whether they are familial ties, or loyalties owed to lords and masters, vagabonds or brigands. The latter is a lot of fun – when is it acceptable steal? (Hint: when you confront them!)
So, this is a good book, with great discussion and scholarly discipline. I can’t recommend it enough.
Nothing says Christmas like being given a glut of books to keep you occupied during the long nights of winter. Taking a lovely, pristine book, gently curling back the first page while sitting in front of the warm glow of a wood fire, snow pitter-pattering outside… Ah bliss.
Ok, not many people actually get to curl up in front of a roaring fire in their houses these days, and we barely have snow in England, but we get points for trying right? Luckily, there are many great books about Vikings and Saxons to keep us occupied, many which only came out in the last couple of years. So even without the idyllic setting, there’s still plenty to read.
In no particular order, here are our favourite current books about Vikings and the Early Middle Ages in general that will be a great addition to your 2022 reading list.
1. River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the SilkRoads by Cat Jarman. Now a Sunday Times best seller, this book manages to tread the fine line between being a well-written, easy to digest popular history book, and a book about modern archaeology. It explores the Viking world through the lens of an object found in Britain that can trace its origin across the North Sea, along the great rivers of Russia, up to the shores of the Black Sea and beyond. It forges a wonderfully detailed narrative, while supporting it with up to date thinking about trade networks, daily life and behaviour.
2. The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price. This is basically the bible on the state of ‘Viking’ stuides within popular history. It takes everything we know about the world of Early-Medieval Europe and filters the guff. It tackles all the problematic projections of modern culture that has piled on the legend of the ‘Vikings’ and distils it into a neat, enjoyable volume that even well-read history enthusiasts will find illuminating.
3. Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World by Jóhanna Karín Friðriksdóttir. Since the incredible re-examination of a grave at Birka, Sweden with the possible burial of a female warrior, the Viking-nerds of the world have cried out for a serious look at the evidence and Jóhanna has done a great job. Not since Judith Jesch’s amazing ‘Viking Women’ book back in the early 90s has a clearer picture of early-medieval women’s lives from birth to death been so clearly illustrated. It does what it says on the cover – this is one of the best books about Viking women.
4. The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris. Ok, it’s not all books about Vikings. We can’t have Vikings without Anglo-Saxons! Or should we say terms like ‘Viking’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ makes things easier to understand for us, but in reality the complexity of the relationships between people, lords, kings, the church and the invading Dane means that neither of those terms actually apply to the age? Thankfully, Marc Morris sweeps aside all the inventions of our Victorian ancestors where our ideas of Englishness tend to come from, and embelishes our understanding of the period in a fantastic tome that covers the retreat of the Romans, to the era of England brought by the Norman conquest.
5. The Viking Great Army and the Making of England by Dawn M. Hadley and Julian D. Richards. There’s been a few books about the ‘making of England’ in the last few years (including the excellent ‘Never Greater Slaughter’ by Michael Livingstone which narrowly avoided this list). Perhaps it’s an identity crisis in our post-Brexit psyche or a reaction against groups that seek to co-opt Early Medieval iconography to forward their own hateful purposes. Or, hopefully, it’s just bloody good scholary publishing, like this book, that explores the formative epoch of early-English history – the invasion of the Great Heathen Army, and the fight back that, while affecting the ordinary people of the British Isles greatly, was really a dynastic struggle between powerful families.
6. DK Findout Vikings by Phillip Steele. Full disclosure, we’re in this one, including adorable pictures of our (now not so little) Viking baby! It’s a wonderfully assembled book for children full of pictures of real and reproduction objects (not all of them our ours, but the ones that are are georgiously presented!) It focuses on many different aspects of the era: daily life, religion, warfare and so on, and it’s all very accessible for 5-7 year old readers, and still relevant for older kids.
7. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Even word for word translations as well written, researched and presented as Jackson Crawford’s ‘The Poetic Edda’ are difficult for casual readers to digest. That’s where this comes in. Those same mythological stories from Norse literature are filtered through the imaginative brain of Neil Gaiman, and coerced (as they are living, breathing things, and thus must be convinced) into a beautifully realised compilation of stories. I love this book.
8. Eat like a Viking! Volume 2: A Guide to Anglo Saxon & Viking Age Food & Drink by Craig Brooks. We loved the first book by the Saxon-Forager Craig Brooks and we are so glad that he wrote a second one! Step into the culinary world of the Viking age with this new volume. Created as a book of ideas for using the ingredients that were available to our ancestors for cooking at re-enactment events (like the ones we do), it has loads of amazing recipes that are just down-right delicious for any table.
9. Thraldom: A History of Slavery in the Viking Age by Stefan Brink. A little more at the scholarly end of things, this book covers something that is often avoided when talking about Vikings, or at best, sped over: slavery. The taking of men, women and children by force, then relocating them and selling them. This book demystifies the Viking-age practice throughout Europe, which has always been somewhat ambiguous to us as modern people, as our idea of slavery comes from the horrific exploitation of African peoples and the societal implications still felt today.
10. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead. Well, it wasn’t just Scandinavian women who were using every opportunity afforded to them by a patriachal society to better the lives of themselves and their families. In Britain, women such as Æthelflæd and Emma of Normandy were forging incredible paths worthy of the chronicles they were mostly edited out of… This excellent book explores the lives of women who are oft forgotten and had to fight for eery scrap in the power-dynamics of early medieval Britain.
It is very difficult for people in the 21st Century to fully comprehend the rudimentary state of medicine and healing of a thousand years ago. Steeped in ancient superstition, people then believed that ill-health had more to do with God (or Gods) and worship than any other factor. In an age where the existence of germs was unknown and the circulation of the blood as yet undiscovered, many so-called ‘cures’ and remedies belonged to the world of quackery, old wives’ tales and a gullible populace.
The Anglo-Saxon word for doctor was Lach, from whence derives the word leech; hence the common title of collections of remedies – ‘A Booke of Leechdoms.’ That universal panacea for all ills, the humble leech, so beloved of the Middle Ages and ‘Blackadder’ alike, takes its name from this early word rather than the other way round. There are those, however, who, quite cruelly suggest that this epithet, as applied to modern private practitioners of the art, is not entirely inappropriate! Many early lachs were monks, and other learned people.
Despite the perceived wisdom of these ‘doctors’, our ancestors knew little of the workings of the human body. Indeed, in the few remaining texts dealing with Anglo-Saxon medical procedure, magical remedies and charms are used as treatments, often in conjunction with holy days and solar or luna events on the calendar – but not on one of the ‘Egyptian Days’ where a healer must not let neither man’s nor beast’s blood be diminished.
One such charm used to remove a fever is unbelievable to modern eyes and would act as a placebo at best:
“For fever: One shall take several little wafers such as are offered [at the Mass], and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Canstantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards one shall sing the charm which is named hereafter, first in the left ear, then in the right ear, then over the top of the man’s head; and then let a virgin go up to him and hang it on his neck, and let this be done thus for three days. He will soon be better.“
Here came stalking in an (inspiden) creature, Had his (haman) in his hand, Said that you were his steed. I Lay for thee his (teage) on the neck. They began to move from the land. As soon as they came for the land. Then his limbs began to cool. then came stalking in the animal’s sister. Then she made an end and swore oaths That never this should do harm to the sick one Nor to the one who might get this charm Or who knew how to sing this charm. Amen, so be it.
Despite these superstitions, there were still practical procedures to deal with ailments. Much of our understanding of Anglo-Saxon medicine comes from only a few texts, and extrapolations from the earlier Roman period. While there is the odd bit of evidence of surgery performed on a broken bone, there has been no archaeological discoveries of tools, or salves, or medicine. However, we can build a picture of a number of procedures and cures from the combined texts of the Venerable Bede, Bald’s Leechbook, the Lacnunga, latin texts translated into Old English and others such as the Roman Celsus. The Viking Sagas also occasionally describe cures and techniques for healing. It is likely that many remedies were simply passed down through the generations; but as we know from the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this is hardly going to lead to the consistent application of medicine!
Some Anglo-Saxon remedies could work, even if their effectiveness is questionable when put up against modern medicine, or the severity of the ailment.
A compound of leek and garlic (antibiotics) mixed with wine in a brass or copper container released cytotoxic properties – literally salt in the wounds. It would be painful, but useful against infection. Bald’s Leechbook describes this for a remedy against a stye on the eyelid.
Honey was also used as an antiseptic – it’s high sugar content draws out water from bacteria cells, dehydrating and killing them. While the Viking Age Lachs’ would not know this, the effects could be seen as a wound heals rather than festers, turns septic or gangrenous.
The use of the herb marrubium vulgare, or horehound, as a treatment for a cough is still used today in lozenges – the Roman, Celsus and the author of Bald’s Leechbook certainly knew that it worked:
“For a cough: boil a good deal of horehound in water, sweeten and give the man a cupful to drink.”
Bald’s Leechbook, Volume III
While they didn’t know the roots of families of plants (sometimes using a plant because its name sounds like it should work on a body part, or against an affliction), experimentation and results were at least noteworthy. It is clear that an awful lot of trial and error led to workable cures.
Just as today, the Viking Age doctors could perform operations on wounded men and women. The tools are broadly the same as today, but larger and less precise: scalpels, knives, tweezers, pincers, saws. It’s unlikely that a surgeon’s tools would belong to a specialised kit. It’s more likely that should a limb need to be amputated, the surgeon would call on the carpenter for his saw; or a seamstress for her needles and silk thread to suture a cut. Other tools might include irons to cauterise a wound, the preferred method of closing a wound, and probably the most devastating to the patient – although he might not have to worry about infection from a dirty needle!
The irons are placed into a fire until red hot, the wound is held closed with pincers and the hot iron is placed upon the wound, searing the flesh shut. Without anaesthetic, the pain would be unbearable. The patient may have been given strong alcoholic drinks, or small amounts of the poisonous hemlock or belladonna – both methods dangerous during surgery as they thin the blood. Simply knocking him unconscious wouldn’t be without risk either with one wrong move inadvertently ending his life. The screams emanating from the lach’s ‘surgery’ must have sounded absolutely horrendous. Perhaps the patient was given something to clench between his teeth, but more often than not, mercifully, he probably passed out.
Even with the risks, these surgeries must have had a degree of success. A simple procedure, like draining an abscess is described by Bede:
…the physician Cynifrid, who was present at both her death and exhumation. Cynifrid used to relate that during her last illness she had a large tumour under the jaw. “I was asked,” he said, “to open the tumour and drain away the poisonous matter in it. I did this, and for two days she seemed somewhat easier…
Ecclesiastical History of the English People
There are also much more dangerous procedures. A stomach wound, perhaps from battle, comes up in many texts.
If someone’s bowels be out […] put the bowel back into the man, sew it together with silk
Celsus also describes the treatment of a stomach wound where the intestines have fallen out, and a similar procedure seems to have been used on Thormod after the Battle of Stiklestad, described in Heimskringla, a saga about the Kings of Norway.
Sometimes the abdomen is penetrated by a stab of some sort, and it follows that intestines roll out. When this happens we must first examine whether they are uninjured, and then whether their proper colour persists. If the smaller intestine has been penetrated, no good can be done, as I have already said. The larger intestine can be sutured, not with any certain assurance, but because a doubtful hope is preferable to certain despair; for occasionally it heals up. Then if either intestine is livid or pallid or black, in which case there is necessarily no sensation, all medical aid is vain. But if intestines have still their proper colour, aid should be given with all speed, for they undergo change from moment to moment when exposed to the external air, to which they are unaccustomed. The patient is to be laid on his back with his hips raised; and if the wound is too narrow for the intestines to be easily replaced, it is to be cut until sufficiently wide. If the intestines have already become too dry, they are to be bathed with water to which a small quantity of oil has been added. Next the assistant should gently separate the margins of the wound by means of his hands, or even by two hooks inserted into the inner membrane: the surgeon always returns first the intestines which have prolapsed the later, in such a way as to preserve the order of the several coils. When all have been returned, the patient is to be shaken gently: so that of their own accord the various coils are brought into their proper places and settle there. This done, the omentum too must be examined, and any part that is black is to be cut away with shears; what is sound is returned gently into place in front of the intestines. Now stitching of the surface skin only or of the inner membrane only is not enough, but both must be stitched…
..The signs when the small intestine and the stomach have been wounded are the same; for food and drink come out through the wound;
Celsus, De Medicina
In Heimskringla the wound is diagnosed by ingesting a soup with a strong odour:
The girl said, “Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it.” Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of leek.
The probing, diagnosis, surgical procedure are what you would expect in today’s hospitals; a learned doctor with years of evidence using the best tools he or she has at their disposal. As a patient, you’d probably just hope the ‘magic’ would work.
Hnefatafl is classified as a war game by board game scholars. There are many variants of hnefatafl, which often fall under the category of ‘tafl’ games. Hnefatafl is a game that is played with unequal sides or forces: the smaller force (the defenders) has a king piece whose aim is to escape to a corner square of the lattice board. The larger forces (attackers) task is to capture the king to stop it from escaping. The rules were not written down contemporarily with the origins of the game, however this it is most likely Hnefatafl was played in its most basic rule set in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland. Early 20th Century scholar Harold Murray recognised a game recorded by 18th Century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus called tablut as a ‘tafl’ game.
Linnaeus noted tablut in his diary in July 1732 during a tour of Lapland, he commented that it superficially resembled chess, played on a board of 9×9 cells with two forces: the white or Swedish with eight defenders and a king piece, and the dark opposing side or Muscovites with sixteen attackers. The aims are as described above, each piece moves the same, orthogonally, and all are captured by being sandwiched between two opposing pieces in the same row or column.
It is not disputed by academics that tablut is hnefatafl because it matches both archaeological and literary evidence. The Norse sagas give references to playing board games, but most do not describe the rules as this was not the purpose of the story, it was assumed people knew the rules already. If a character in a story written today is playing chess the rules are not described because the assumption is made that the reader knows how to play.
Hervarar saga contains two riddles that relate to gaming. The riddle goes :
‘Who are the maidens who fight around their defenceless lord? The darker ones defend all the time, the fairer ones advance’.
The second riddle goes:
‘What is that beast all girdled with iron which kills the flocks? It has eight horns but no head’
The first riddle’s answer is hnefatafl, the second answer is the hnefi (the king piece is often referred to at the hnefi, although it means ‘fist’ in old Norse). These riddles share elements of the tablut game described by Linnaeus with two sides, one involving a king piece, one side attacks and the other defends. Fridthjof’s Saga gives reference to a double-attack being possible, which supports tablut, as a double attack suggests to surround a piece on two sides to take it out of the game. The archaeological finds of gaming pieces particularly from Scandinavia support Murrays claim as elaborate hnefi pieces are found alongside game pieces that are designed for uneven sides.
For example the image below shows the game pieces from Birka grave 523 has one anthropomorphic king piece, fourteen decorated with spirals and five plain dark glass.
There are numerous lead gaming pieces from the Viking winter camps in Lincolnshire, along with copper alloy pieces in a similar style. Glass gaming pieces from Lindesfarne, Northumberland and Dundurn Hill Fort in Scotland have similar qualities, suggesting a wide distribution of fashion.
There is evidence for different sized variations of hnefatafl throughout Britain and Ireland. In Ireland the Gaelic terms Brandubh and Fidcheall are mentioned. Brandubh means black raven and could signify the shape of the king piece, although no archaeological evidence supports this so far. Fidcheall means ‘wood sense’ and could be the equivalent to the term for table being used as the name of the game in old English. The old Irish poem Scela Cano mac Gartnain tells of King Cano and his retinue sailing to Ireland in AD 668 with ‘fifty well armed warriors, fifty well-dressed ladies and fifty liveried gillies each with the silver leads of two greyhounds in his right hand, a musical instrument in his left and a fidcheall board on his back along with the silver and gold playing men.’
The Ballinderry board found in Ballinderry, Co. Westmeath, Ireland in 1932, supports this. It was found broken in two parts 8ft apart and has been dated to the 10th century. What is interesting about this board is that it is built with the intention to be travelled with. It is a pegged board so the pieces stay in place when played on a rocking boat or carriage. It also has two decorated projecting heads, one human one animal that can be used as handles on unstable terrain. Both fidcheall and brandubh are listed in Irish laws of the 7th and 8th centuries.
The game tawlbwrdd occurs frequently in ancient laws of Wales, however, it was not described until 1587 by Robert ap Ifan. He provides a drawing of an 11×11 board and includes a description of the rules that are very similar to Linnaeus’ tablut. Ifan, includes extra rules, including moving one of your pieces between two of the oppositions pieces and not being captured, you have to say ‘I am your liegeman’ for your piece to safely move into that space though!
Tawlbwrdd means throw board and could suggest the use of dice with the game, however there is limited evidence of dice in conjunction with a ‘tafl’ game. One example was found at Keythorpe Hall in Leicestershire where two dice were excavated with forty-six bone playing pieces. The majority of gaming sets that could be a ‘tafl’ game include no dice. This does not mean dice were not used as there have been games known to use dice that have been found archaeologically missing their dice, such as the Gloucester Tables Set, a late 11th century backgammon board.
The etymology of the name tawlbwrdd may possibly answer the question about dice. Tawlbwrdd is possibly a misunderstanding for the name of the original game by borrowing and confusing taefl in old English and tafl in old Norse meaning board with the welsh tawl. Thus making tawlbwrdd mean board-board and therefore not indicating the use of dice within the game. Ifan’s account supports this, he states that when a piece is captured it is thrown from the board ‘ai daflu or gwarau’ [and he is thrown from the game]. Taflu is the lenited or softening form of daflu .
The Anglo-Saxon evidence for ‘tafl’ games comes from an Irish gospel manuscript of the 11th century and can be seen below. It is played on an 18×18 lattice board with forty-eight attackers and twenty-four defenders and is called alea evangelii or ‘game of gospels.’ It was known in English court during the reign of Athelstan AD 925-39. Here the game has taken on Christian symbolism: there are seventy-two men because the number of items in the harmony is seventy-two and it is played on an 18×18 board because, four evangelists, four gospels and ten canons equals eighteen.
The earliest date for hnefatafl is from evidence of the 5th century AD board fragment found in a grave from Wimose, Denmark. Murray states that it was played by Scandinavian people from 400 AD and brought by the Norsemen to Iceland, Britain and Ireland, where it then spread to Wales. However, there is limited evidence of hnefatafl being played earlier. This evidence is that of conical playing pieces that were not used in the Roman period except for one exception, dating from 1st to 4th centuries AD found amongst an assemblage of Roman gaming pieces in Spain. An excavation at Cnip has a conical piece that dates from first century BC to the first century AD. Pieces from the Shetland isles have also been found, however, because they are all pre-Viking in date (before 6th century) a hnefatafl identification has been avoided.
When we look back at Anglo-Saxon and Viking medicine in the early medieval period, we often think of it as inept at best, lethal at worst. We see a reliance on magic and religion over science and are glad we were born when we were. However, the reality is a little more complex and interesting than it first appears.
While the Anglo-Saxons believed that afflictions were just that, afflictions from God, they were the first people north of the Alps to create medical texts in their own language. This suggests that they took medicine seriously. Similarly, the Icelandic Sagas tell us of astute healers who employed fairly effective methods of healing.
To understand the medicine and society at the time we must look at the way people lived. If you were at the top of the social hierarchy the chances were, you would be well fed and have the possibility of a balanced diet. However, if you were at the other end of the scale in the winter months you would rarely have enough food and be unlikely to ever see a balanced diet. For most of society, malnutrition coupled with living in cold, dank hovels did not make for the best start to a healthy world.
Into this world strode the lǣċe, (pronounced leech or larch), which was the common term for a healer of any kind in Old English, in Old Norse it was læknir. Both words come from a similar Proto-Germanic origin and arguably derive from either the term to bleed or a term for an enchanter. Either of these origins would fit given the nature of the work they did.
Healers in Saxon England ranged from local healers often known as cunning women/men who had knowledge passed down through the ages in a verbal tradition, to monks who were specifically trained. Interspersed between the two, were secular, educated physicians of varying abilities who earnt their livelihood through their medical skills.
A lot of the book learned healing and monastic training came from old Latin and Greek texts. Some of these texts were translated such as the Herbarium, passing Mediterranean medicine into the Saxon tradition. This meant that bleeding, the four humours and Roman treatments were still being practiced in Saxon England to one degree or another.
One of the best sets of medical texts of the time were Bald’s Leechbooks. It still has elements of faith, superstition and magic but goes about critically looking at the body and its working, literally from head to foot. It often gives sound advice such as pregnant women should avoid salty foods, alcoholic drinks and vigorous exercise.
The Lacnunga by comparison is an erratically written collection of ‘knowledge’, often haphazardly put down. This may have not been the best for the patient but gives us an excellent look at beliefs that common people had that even Bald stayed away from. The best example of this is:
“157. Against when a man cannot sleep: take henbane’s seed and gardens mint juice; stir together and smear the head with it; better will come to him. 158. When a man first tells you that your cattle are lost, say then, before you say anything else “Bethlehem was that city called in which Christ was born…”
Here we can see that in the Saxon mind a purely herbal remedy held the same weight as a purely magical cure. Many cures, especially for things that were incurable at the time, were a mixture of both. This blending often meant that any success gained by the herbs, poultices and broths would also be giving credit to the more magical elements such as incantations, Luna phases and holy relics.
Vikings by comparison had none of these written traditions, to draw from or contribute to. Our evidence comes from the saga’s written generations after the events described and archaeological remains. Undoubtedly healing went on, and at the very beginning of the Viking period this was at a local level.
The use of runes and charms are often cited in the sagas and the belief in their power was just as strong as the Saxon belief in Christian religion. In Egil’s saga chapter 73 for example a young woman was first harmed by the improper use of runes and then healed by the correct use of runes.
Given the violent, dangerous world they lived in the Saxons and the Vikings often became proficient in first aid and surgery. The tools of their trade were in many ways not dissimilar to our own, if a little cruder. Many would come from everyday life such as a needle or sharp knife. Others would be closer to workmen’s tools such as a saw, mallet or given some of Bald’s descriptions, a sledgehammer.
Germs and infections undoubtedly killed a large percentage of patients. Surprisingly, many people survived these procedures. There is evidence that people even survived trepanning from skulls that have subsequently healed. More interestingly, some of the science they employed seemed far in advance of their age. Bald recommends an early variant of biodegrading stitches, while in Heimskringla we see a clever diagnostic technique.
The girl said, “Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it.” Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of leek.
Many cures worked and are still supported by science today. Horehound was a treatment for coughs and is still used in lozenges. Honey was used as an antiseptic, and we know that its high sugar content draws out the water from bacteria, dehydrating and killing them. At one end of the scale there was often science behind the medicine, so genuine healing took place, even if the science wasn’t known to the practitioner. Just as often we have magical and (some) herbal cures that offer nothing more than hope and a placebo effect. At the other end, there were a number of lethal treatments which became more dangerous than the ailment they were trying to treat. All of these treatments combine into a lucky dip, that few in the modern age would be brave enough to try.
History is something most people read in books or watch on TV. But there is another way to experience history. Viking Re-enactment, or in a more general sense “living history,” is a unique pastime that gives us the opportunity to recreate parts of history. It could be using copies of ancient tools to craft goods or to create art, or the thrill of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your team in a mock battle.
I had to be dragged along to a weekly training session for ‘the Viking group.’ I had no idea what I was in for. To be honest, it sounded pretty lame: people dressing up as Vikings and pretending to hit each other with blunt swords. That was 20 years ago.
At first, I enjoyed the fighting. It’s a system of combat that is designed to entertain a crowd. A mixture of historical European martial arts principles, with performing arts. The first time I had a crowd cheering me on by name is indelibly marked on my brain. Sadly, I was cut down soon after. It was awesome. It’s a lot of fun, and training scales remarkably well for different levels of fitness and body type. Axes, spears, swords and huge two-handed ‘Dane axes’ are used as you progress as a warrior.
But fighting is only a small part of the experience. I didn’t know anything about the Vikings when I joined – except that they wore horned helmets and sailed in longships. Turns out, one of those things was wrong! At my first Viking re-enactment event I dressed up as an Anglo-Saxon peasant – the shame – but playing a plucky underdog definitely appealed. Other members helped me learn all about the different crafts and displays, filling in my knowledge as I went on.
The aim of the group is to put on public displays to educate and entertain. In doing it, I was also being educated and entertained, and I didn’t even know it. As well as history, I learned how to make things, how to chop wood and cook over an open fire. Being part of a group, working together for a shared goal and sharing stories around the campfire gave me valuable life experience.
The Vikings became my extended family over the years. In fact, many would bring their children who’d have the run of beautiful historic venues: castles and woods and country parks. A giant playground. Sometimes the kids would know more about the Vikings than me, and they are always better at archery! Years later, I’m bringing my own son to events with his ‘aunts and uncles’ and friends. I’m going to enjoy watching him grow up and earn those life skills and have those experiences.
The years have passed, I’m a bit slower, a bit (a lot) fatter and as interested in researching Viking-age life and crafts as I am hitting people with swords, but my enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. I’ve since started a family with someone I met through the group and I have a massive extended family of awesome people. I haven’t ever regretted it.
I can’t imagine what my life would have been like If I hadn’t joined a Viking re-enactment society. It’s a fantastic activity, and a great place to meet people. You don’t need to know anything (I didn’t) or be TV-Vikings fit (I wasn’t) to get started. Why not try it out?
~ Alan ‘Kael’ Ball, Deputy Leader, Vikings of Middle England. To find out more, visit vikingsof.me or contact email@example.com
I am constantly being told that the road to
hell is paved with good intentions. So, I decided to do some digging just in
case I have been misinformed. This is what I found.
Hel in the Eddas
was a little bit different to the similar sounding Hell of Christianity. For a
start Hel was ruled over by Hel the daughter of Loki. To me that could get
mightily confusing on the to day administration of the place. For a start does
being told to go to Hel mean person or place? Does the person want us to report
to the boss or just go to a place usually reserved for the dead? I guess the
only way to find out is to go there. The question is how do we get there?
Not wanting to die, the best way to find out is to look for directions from the Prose Edda, especially concerning the death of Baldur and his time in Hel (the place not the person…). This is not a ramble blog about Baldur, so I will keep it light and promise to talk about him and his misfortunes at a later date. Right now, it is about going to Hel and the best person for that was Hermóðr who volunteers to ride to Hel (the place, not the being) to get Baldur out.
Riding on Slipnirr, Odin’s 8 legged steed, he
rides the Helvegr or hell road. Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Edda, almost
certainly got this from earlier poetry, as Hermóðr has to ride through more
alliteration than a one eyed Aseir could shake a stick at. He has to ride nine
nights through deep and dark valleys which looks something like this in written
form: Døkkva dala ok djúpa
Riding through all the alliteration he comes to the river Gjǫll spanned by a bridge Gjallabrú which is covered by a roof of gold. Here he was met by a young woman called Móguðr who asks him why he is riding to Hel. A reasonable question as he was not dead.
She comments that 5
groups of warriors passed that way yesterday which is interesting as it sounds
like this was the default destination for people at the time. This is probably
based on an earlier belief system where everyone goes to Hel. Being a coward
and incredibly lazy this works for me as I have to put no extra effort into the
Hermóðr who was not a
coward asked Móguðr if she had seen Baldur, to which she says she had. He had
ridden there earlier. This ties in with the fact Baldur was cremated with his
horse, which is incredibly useful if you are Baldur, not so good if you are his
horse. With stories like these it is not so good for any horse. The amount of
Danish horse burials is quite staggering…
So, if you want to go
to Hel, while avoiding the whole dying thing, head to the river Gjǫll and look
out for a bridge with a gold roof. After that go down and north. While this is
not quite Google Maps it is a good start for a time when maps were a bit thin
on the ground. It is also the start of a phrase that lasted hundreds of years.
Being told to go down and north was for hundreds of years like being told to go
Just like Rome, there appears to be many roads to Hel, just in case there is congestion. It also suggests it is more like a physical place than a conceptual one. In the poem Helreið Brynhildar in the Poetic Edda, Brynhildar rides to Hel after her cremation on a wagon. Again, not so good for the wagon, not so good for the horse.
Instead of finding a
bridge of gold she rides through the farm of a giant woman whose name we are
not given. Which is not that helpful, but just adds to the idea that this is a
place where you journey to and where you can meet fairly normal things (for the
The thing with both
of these directions is that there is very much a physical road you can ride,
which is part of your transitioning across. It also seems mundane compared to
other concepts of the dead. Okay, a gold roof is pretty swish, but we are
riding on a bridge over a river, or on a road past a farm… Hel itself does not
seem to bad either, there are no tortured souls, roasting sinners or other
unpleasantness. Baldur even got a feast, which has got to be better than
turning up hungry.
My takeaway from the
road to Hel is that it is not paved with good intentions, the chances are it is
not even paved at all. No matter the state of the road it leads to a place,
underground or not, it is a place, not some mystical state. You don’t find Hel
at the centre of the earth just by digging and you don’t wake up there after
falling badly off your horse. You can (if you are insane or a hero like
Hermóðr) go there before you die, but my advice is that Miami is probably nicer
this time of year. Should you wait until the end of your life there are no real
entry requirements and you are likely to find some interesting people and the
occasional Valkyrie, so it’s not all bad.