Think of the Viking Age and images of sword-wielding brutes pillaging settlements up and down Europe probably spring to mind. But the Vikings didn’t spend all their time engaged in bloody combat, in fact many of them weren’t inclined towards violent raiding at all. The day-to-day life of most Vikings was more likely to be spent farming than fighting.
As in most feudal societies, Vikings farmed their land, growing crops and raising animals to provide for their family. Though their farms were generally small, it is thought that most Viking families would have eaten pretty well, though the seasonality of their diets may have meant that times of plenty were counterbalanced by periods of relative scarcity.
The Viking diet would inevitably vary quite a bit depending on factors like location. Naturally, coastal settlements would have eaten more fish while those with access to woodland were doubtless more likely to hunt for wild game.
When did the Vikings eat?
The Vikings ate twice a day. Their day meal, or dagmal, was effectively breakfast, served about an hour after rising. Nattmal was served in the evening at the end of the working day.
At night, the Vikings would have typically dined on stewed meat or fish with vegetables and perhaps some dried fruit and honey – all washed down with ale or mead, a strong alcoholic drink made using honey, which was the only sweetener know to the Vikings.
Dagmal would have most likely been composed of leftovers from the previous night’s stew, with bread and fruit or porridge and dried fruit.
Feasts occurred throughout the year to celebrate seasonal and religious festivals like Jól (an old Norse winter celebration), or Mabon (the autumn equinox), as well as celebratory events like weddings and births.
Though the size and splendour of feasts would depend on the wealth of the host, the Vikings generally didn’t hold back on such occasions. Roasted and boiled meats and rich stews accompanied by buttered root vegetables and sweet fruits would have been typical fare.
Ale and mead would also have been in generous supply along with fruit wine if the host was wealthy enough to offer it.
Meat was widely available at all levels of society. Farmed animals would have included cows, horses, oxen, goats, pigs, sheep, chickens and ducks, of which pigs were likely the most common. Animals were slaughtered in November, so it wasn’t necessary to feed them over winter, then preserved.
Game animals included hares, boars, wild birds, squirrels and deer, while especially northern settlements in places like Greenland ate seal, caribou and even polar bear.
The Vikings enjoyed a wide variety of fish – both freshwater, such as salmon, trout and eels, and saltwater, like herring, shellfish and cod. They also preserved fish using a number of techniques, including smoking, salting, drying and pickling, and were even known to ferment fish in whey.
The Vikings not only ate eggs from domestic animals like chickens, ducks and geese, but they also enjoyed wild eggs. They considered gulls’ eggs, which were collected from clifftops, a particular delicacy.
The northern climate was best suited to growing barley, rye and oats, which would be used to make numerous staples, including beer, bread, stews and porridge.
The day-to-day bread of choice was a simple flatbread but the Vikings were resourceful bakers and made a wide variety of breads, utilising wild yeasts and raising agents such as buttermilk and sour milk.
Sourdough-style bread was created by leaving flour and water starters to ferment.
Fruit and nuts
Fruit was widely enjoyed thanks to apple orchards and numerous fruit trees, including cherry and pear. Wild berries, including sloe berries, lingon berries, strawberries, bilberries and cloudberries, also played an important part in the Viking diet. Hazelnuts grew wild and were often eaten.
The Vikings kept dairy cows and enjoyed drinking milk, buttermilk and whey as well as making cheese, curds and butter.