Brutal Facts About Life in the Viking Age

16. The Vikings murdered so many infant girls they induced an imbalance in the gender ratios
The raids during the Viking Age, in which European women were abducted back to Scandinavia, are legendary. But recent historical inquiry has indicated that these were not mindless acts of savagery, rather a coordinated response to a self-inflicted lack of Viking women.
According to James Barrett of Cambridge University, “selective female infanticide was recorded as part of pagan Scandinavian practice in later medieval sources, such as the Icelandic sagas”, and resulted in a substantial decline in the ratio between men and women. This theory is supported by Soren Sindbaek, explaining the “social motivation behind the fact that a large number of young men chose to set out on extremely risky voyages” and “the wish of disadvantaged young men to acquire resources necessary to set up a family” is a plausible solution to this age-old question of why.
15. Viking medicine was immensely rudimentary, including the tasting of blood from a wound to determine the severity of the injury
The Vikings were legendary for their brutality and fearlessness in battle, but were nonetheless human and, thus, suffered injuries of varying degrees of significance in combat. After the fighting was over, these temporary treatments were replaced by Viking battlefield medicine. These practices were of dubious efficacy, typically carried out by women, with little scientific foundation to many of the more commonly applied treatments. One such method of determining a warrior’s prognosis was to feed the wounded soldier a broth made from leeks, onions, and herbs, before smelling the wound. If the healer could detect the broth’s odor emanating from within, the wound was fatal. In the aforementioned story of Thormod, he refused the broth when offered and instead commanded the attending woman to cut into his wound and locate the arrowhead within, using pincers. Thormod himself pulled the arrowhead from his chest and joked “see how well the king keeps his men. There is fat by my heart”.
Another similarly brutal medical practice was the use of blood from a wound to determine the nature of an injury. In the Eyrbyggja saga, Snorri goði, in pursuit of a wounded Bergþór, tastes the bloody snow marked by his prey. Identifying the blood was from a severe and fatal internal wound, Snorri forgoes the unnecessary hunt. Magic was also used to unscientifically heal wounds sustained in the course of a duel. The Kormáks saga details the sacrifice of a bull atop a hill and the offering of its butchered meat for elves who supposedly lived in the hills as a tribute in return for the healing of Þorvarðr.
14. Homosexual rape was commonplace in Viking culture, with defeated enemies typically becoming victims of sexual assault in a show of domination and humiliation
Unlike early Christianity, Viking culture did not regard homosexuality as innately evil or perverted. However, this does not mean that the Vikings did not attach certain stigmas to homosexual conduct, in particular, to those who received rather than gave. Symbolically seen as a surrendering of one’s independence in violation of the Viking ethic of self-reliance, a man who subjected himself to another sexually was perceived as likely to do so in other areas and thus untrustworthy and unmanly. Being used in a homosexual nature by another man was equally connected to the trait of cowardice, an immensely shameful description in Viking society, due to the historic custom of sexual violence against a defeated enemy. This was recorded in the Sturlunga saga, Guðmundr captures a man and a wife and intends to rape both as a form of domination over his new property.
This use of rape to solidify authority over an individual, not unique to the Vikings but rather a recurrent feature of many hyper-masculine early civilizations, was reinforced by the frequent practice of castration for defeated opponents. Whilst the klámhogg (“shame-stroke”) on the buttocks was ranked alongside penetrative wounds: a clear symbolic reference to forced anal sex. Due to this cultural connection of homosexual conduct with submission, dominance, and defeat, the engagement of same-sex consensual relations with a close friend was regarded as an immensely offensive and shameful deed. The act was viewed as a humiliation of the vanquished; to participate in intercourse with a friend was not seen as a loving gesture but instead to betray that friend and shame him.
13. The Holmgang was a ritualistic method of Viking dueling, which had to be outlawed after too many warriors used it as a means to legally kill and rob people
The Holmgang (“hólmganga” in Old Norse) was a formal duel used as a system to settle disputes in early medieval Scandinavia. Unlike later European institutions of dueling, in which social class played a particular and important role, any member of society regardless of their standing could challenge another to holmgang if they so chose. The reasons behind said challenge could be wide-ranging, including a legal disagreement, the payment of a debt, property disputes, or as a matter of questioned honor.
A holmgang was typically fought within 3-7 days after the challenge was issued. Should the challenged party fail to attend, they were considered to have forfeited and the justness of the claim proved. Should the challenger fail to attend, they were branded “Niðingr” – a derogatory term identifying the loss of honor – and could be sentenced to banishment or even death. Usually, the combatants were the two individuals involved in the challenge; however, on rare occasions, particularly if there was a considerable age or physical disadvantage, proxy champions might be used in their stead to ensure a fair contest. Due to the nature of the holmgang, the system was invariably abused as a form of legalized robbery, with berserkers in particular recorded as using it as a means to claim rights of land, property, or women from less proficient warriors. As a result of this abuse, the practice was outlawed in 1006 CE in Iceland and 1014 CE in Norway.
12. Likely adopted from the indigenous people of North America in the 10th century, Viking warriors would painfully file and dye their teeth
Recent archaeological discoveries have unearthed evidence of an immensely painful and bizarre cultural practice among Viking men: teeth filing. Discovered in Sweden, Denmark, and England, the modification of teeth appears to have been adopted around the 10th century CE. Achieved by the filing of horizontal parallel lines in the front two teeth, although some Vikings also modified their lateral incisors and canines, and subsequently dyed, often in red, to accentuate the carvings, the precise purpose of the excruciating procedure remains unknown. The origins of dental filing in Viking culture is uncertain, but the most common centers of similar practices were West Africa and the Americas, both places known to have been explored by early Vikings. Given that “African teeth modification was of a different sort, with teeth filed into points”, Fitzhugh has strongly asserted that it was likely adopted from “the area of the Great Lakes in America and the present states of Illinois, Arizona, and Georgia” and transposed back to Europe by the earliest Viking explorers of North America.
One theory behind these horrendously painful dental alterations is that they were for cosmetic purposes. Unearthed remains in England indicate that the front teeth of Viking remains were carefully filed in neat horizontal lines, strongly suggesting the procedure was committed by a skilled craftsman rather than the individual themselves. David Score has asserted that although “the purpose of filed teeth remains unclear” it may have been “to show their status as a great fighter”. An alternative suggestion is that, given the aggressive and warlike culture of the Vikings, that they served the purpose of striking fear into an enemy, making the “warriors look even more terrifying to Christian monks and villagers”.
11. Viking slaves, although capable of earning or buying their freedom, most commonly ended up being sacrificed in honor of their deceased masters
Viking society was divided into three primary classes of status: the nobleman (“jarl” or “eorl“), the freeman (“karl“, “ceorl“) and the thrall (“þræll”). The thrall was a slave or serf within the Viking hierarchy, existing as property belonging to their master. A hereditary condition, meaning that those born to enslaved parents were themselves automatically thralls from birth, others entered bondage through capture in war or the inability to repay debts; the trade of captured slaves formed a central component of the Viking economy, with an estimated 10 percent of the population of Viking Scandinavia believed to have been slaves and most households retained at least a couple of slaves, some as many as thirty.
The treatment of slaves naturally varied between masters, but general conditions were uniformly poor. In addition to being assigned the hardest of labors and facing daily sexual exploitation, research by Anna Kjellström of the graves of slaves in Scandinavia strongly indicates that most thralls did not die peacefully. In fact, many thralls were, willingly or otherwise, buried along with their deceased masters as a human sacrifice; one contemporary account of this ritual has survived from Arab explorer Ibn Fadlān, who detailed that “six men entered the pavilion and all had intercourse with the slavegirl. They laid her down beside her master and two of them took hold of her feet, two her hands. The crone called the ‘Angel of Death’ placed arope around her neck (…) She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs (…) while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.”

10. The Varangian Guard was an elite bodyguard for the Byzantine Emperors composed of Viking mercenaries

Although one commonly imagines the Vikings as solely inhabiting Scandinavia, they were among the most adventurous and far-reaching peoples in medieval history. Due to this fascination with travel, it is perhaps unsurprising that the warrior race appears in the background of history in several distant lands; of particular note, the Norsemen served as the primary members of the Varangian Guard: the elite personal bodyguard to the Byzantine Emperors.

Formed as early as 874 CE, the Varangian Guard was formally instituted in 988 under Emperor Basil II; sent 6,000 Varangian warriors from Vladimir of Kiev, the Byzantine Emperor employed them due to his distrust of native guardsmen and the famed loyalty of the foreign warriors, who were bound by blood oath in allegiance to their employers. Of special note, the legendary Viking ruler Harald Sigurdsson III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Hardrada, was a member of the Varangian Guard between 1035 and 1043; according to the Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Hardrada fought in as many as eighteen battles against the Arabs in modern-day Turkey, Jerusalem, and Sicily, as well as in Bulgaria and southern Italy. Hardrada’s grandson, Sigurd I of Norway, would later follow in his grandfather’s footsteps in the Norwegian Crusade, in the course of which the majority of his force elected to enter the Varangian Guard rather than return home to Scandinavia in 1110.

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