Primary History

Vikings: Family life

  • Men and women

    Most Viking men were all-round handymen, but some had special skills. There were boat-builders, for example and potters, leather-workers and smiths. Most Viking men knew how to handle a boat. And most could fight if they had to, to protect the family or to support their chieftain.

    Women baked bread. They did spinning and weaving to turn sheep wool into cloth. They looked after the children, made the family's clothes and cooked the two meals a day most families ate. On the farm, women milked the cows and made cheese.

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  • Children

    Babies were given little Thor's-hammer charms, to protect them from evil spirits and sickness. A boy usually took his father's name too - so Eric, son of Karl, became Eric Karlsson. Girls often took the same name as their mother or grandmother.

    Viking children did not go to school. They helped their parents at work, and learned Viking history, religion and law from spoken stories and songs, not from books. By 15 or 16 they were adult. It was common for a girl's father to choose her husband.

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  • Roving and trading

    A young Viking man might go off on a trading voyage, or become a raider. He hoped to come home rich so he could buy a farm. Vikings met at markets, like the markets at Hedeby in Denmark and Jorvik in England. They traded by exchanging goods (a wolf skin for a pair of shoes, perhaps) but also used gold and silver coins. Traders valued coins by weight, and carried small folding scales to weigh a customer's coins.

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  • Slaves

    Not everyone was free to come and go as he or she liked. Some people were slaves or 'thralls'. Slaves did the hardest, dirtiest jobs. People could be born slaves. The child of a slave mother and father was a slave too, but the child of a slave mother and a free father was free. Many slaves were people captured in a Viking raid. Viking traders sold slaves in markets, but slave-trading in England was stopped in 1102.

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  • Toys and Pastimes

    Viking men enjoyed swimming, wrestling and horse racing. In winter, people skated on frozen rivers, and used skis over the snow. A favourite board game was hnefatafl ('king's table'). Players moved pieces around a board, like in draughts or chess. There were lots of versions of this game.

    Most children's toys were home-made - whistles made from leg bones of geese, for instance. Children had wooden dolls, played football, and sailed model boats. Pig bones found at Viking sites might be toy 'hummers' - the bones were threaded on a twisted cord which you pulled to make a humming noise.

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Fun Facts
  • Viking men showed off by running along the side of a ship, jumping from one oar to the next.

  • Sports competitions like wrestling, athletics, fencing or archery were sometimes held at feasts.

  • Good exercise for young men was throwing heavy rocks.

  • Viking ice skates were cow or horse bones tied on the feet with leather cords.

  • Vikings ate breakfast and dinner, but usually skipped lunch.

  • Children's jobs included weeding vegetable patches and scaring away hungry birds.

  • Women combed sheep wool, to get rid of the tangles, before they started spinning.

  • Vikings liked horse-fights between two male horses or stallions.

  • They also liked horse races. Viking horses were quite small - like ponies today.

  • A slave could buy his freedom - if he could scrape together enough money.

  • Vikings had three main festivals: Vetrarblot (October), Jolablot (January) and Sigrblot (April).

  • Even old horses had their uses - Vikings ate them.

  • Slaves were sometimes sacrificed during the funeral of their owner.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

ale
A strong drink made from barley.
amber
Hardened tree sap, used to make jewellery.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A history of England begun in the 800s.
archaeologist
A person who finds out about the past by looking at old objects or buildingsthat are buried under the ground.
blacksmith
Another name for a smith. A worker who makes things of metal, usually iron.
blood-feud
An argument between two families that involves fighting or killings.
brooch
Ornament used to fasten clothing.
buttermilk
Watery liquid left over when butter is made from milk.
carving
A design cut out of wood.
charm
A magical object or words, to protect a person from harm.
chieftain
The leader of a village or small group of people.
Christian
A person who follows the religion taught by Jesus Christ.
colonize
A settlement founded in one country by people from another country.
compass
A device for finding direction (east, west, north, south).
conquer
To beat an enemy and control them using force.
Danelaw
The area of England ruled by the Vikings.
descendants
People who are related to earlier people, in a direct line.
dragon-ship
Another name for a longship.

E to G

explorer
Someone who travels to unfamiliar places to discover new things.
feast
A special meal for a large group of people.
figurehead
A carved wooden piece at the front of a ship.
Freeman
A person who is not a slave and free to choose who he or she worked for.

H to L

helmet
Hat made of leather or iron worn by a soldier to protect his head.
hoard
A hidden treasure, usually buried in the soil.
jet
A kind of black stone used to make jewellery.
keel
Long wooden bottom part of a ship, that gives it strength.
invaders
People who try to take over land from other people.
landmark
A natural feature that helps a traveller find his way, such as a mountain, a rock, an island, or a group of trees.
launch
To put a new ship in the water.
longship
A Viking ship with a sail and oars. Sometimes called dragon-ship. A Viking ship with a sail and oars. Sometimes called dragon-ship.

M to O

mail coat
Armour made from chain mail (metal rings), worn like a shirt.
manure
Animal waste such as dung put on soil to make it fertile for crops.
mast
Tall wooden pole from which a ship's sail is hung.
merchant
A trader, someone who buys and sells things.
monastery
The building where monks live.
norse myths
Stories told by the Vikings about gods and goddesses, giants and strange creatures.

P to S

pagan
A person who believed in many gods.
raven
A large black bird of the crow family.
rivets
Bits of metal hammered into holes to join ship planks or metal sheets together.
runes
The name given to the Viking alphabet.
settlement
An area where people live.
shield
A large piece of wood or metal held in one arm for protection in battle.
sickle
A curved knife used for cutting grain stalks at harvest time.
slave
A person who is not free but is treated as someone else's property.
smith
A worker who makes things of metal, usually iron.
spices
Plants such as pepper which can be used to flavour and preserve foods.
spinning
Twisting and drawing out sheep wool into long thin thread.
spit
In cooking, a rod or stick on which meat is stuck to roast over a fire.

T to Z

thatched
A roof covered in straw.
Thing
An open-air meeting where Vikings gathered to discuss the law.
trader
A person who sells goods.
turf
A layer of grass cut with roots and soil, that can be used to roof a house.
walrus ivory
The tusk, or sticking-out tooth, of a walrus (a large sea mammal), which can be carved.
weaving
Making cloth on a machine called a loom.