lofotr viking museum

Lesson 15.a - The Settlements at Home, Part I: The Longhouse and the Village.

Note: [If you have not done so already, check out last week’s lesson. Visit “Viking History” on my blog to view all of the lessons.]

Komiði sæl og blessuð, vinir, 

For today’s lesson, we will be discussing the nature of settlements in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. This period actually represents one of change, as Scandinavia goes from a very rural, spread out place, to developing sophisticated trading towns. However, before the Viking Age really began to take off, settlement was rarely organized. Towns did not even exist until those Vikings returned to their homes having been exposed to the towns of England and Francia. As for this lesson, we will begin this discussion by talking about the basic elements of early Viking Age settlements in Scandinavia - longhouses and villages.

Contents:
1. The Longhouse
2. Life in the Longhouse
3. Large Longhouses: Aristocratic Manors
4. Villages


The Longhouse

The Longhouse was predominant since the Bronze Age (ca. 1700–500 BC). They are definitely an iconic elements of “Viking life,” but their history runs far deeper than the age alone. Of course, they improved as time drew forward, but rather slowly. Everyone built and lived in them, but the quality and size varied based on a family’s wealth. Here are two diagrams of a the typical longhouse layout and design, using Gerlutótt as an example:

These longhouses were usually 15-50m long and 5-7m wide. They were multi-functional and sometimes divided into rooms (if you were wealthier). They would be based around a farm, which could vary greatly in size (depending again on wealth and land amounts). Most settlement was centered around farms. Sometimes they would be small with only a few buildings. Other times they could be large with large main buildings and various other buildings. 

For most people, these houses were generally dark, because there were not often many windows or openings (it can get rather cold). There would be a central hearth to keep the house warm, but no chimney. The roof was designed to have small openings to allow smoke to escape naturally. Floors would be as simple as packed earth or even hay. People generally sat on the floor, perhaps logs or simple benches. Most people also slept on rugs. Beds would be rare, because they took up a lot of space.

Life in the Longhouse

You can actually get a good idea of longhouse life from Skyrim (pardon my informal inclusion of a game reference). All household activities and functions were in the same place. Most households did not have the wealth or the space to divide their home into rooms, so there was little privacy. Most often, there was just one large room for everything. In this room would be the cooking, the talking, the textile production, even the farm animals sometimes, and also the sleeping, and yes, that also includes what some of you might be thinking. The people of medieval Scandinavia did not have much sense for “privacy” as we do today. If you wanted privacy, you’d have to leave the house. Everything was out in the open for all of the family to deal with.

Large Longhouses: Aristocratic Manors

The largest longhouse we have discovered so far is Borg. Even as the biggest, it only have 5 partitions of space. It had benches and many items of both luxury and craft. It was even strategically placed in a location that mad wit stand out. It was on full display. Here is an image of this longhouse:

These types of longhouses would have been considered aristocratic manors. They were the homes of chieftains and jarls. As a result, the were not just for living. They had many functions: cultic (religious), craft, trade, and even season-markets. Before towns, these longhouses functioned to stimulate trade and provide central locations for gathering and crafting. Still, they were not as organized as towns were.

An archaeological site in Sweden, called uppäkra, contained evidence for trade and even metal-working. It also showed evidence of imported raw materials for crafting new goods. They also found votives and unusual structures that were likely used for religious purposes. This site was occupied from the Iron Age up until ca. 990 AD. It was likely only “abandoned” due to the formation of the Bishopric of Lund 4km north of this site.

Villages

Villages existed during the Viking Age, but there were very rare to find as being regularly plotted. They were more organic, usually spread out and irregularly formed. Houses could have been anywhere between 50 and 200m apart from one another. Each home generally had a small field for farming, but not as big as standalone farmsteads could have acquired. The land was not always fertile in these villages, so there might have been a good amount of cattle grazing taking place. 

Another aspect of villages would be their grave fields. This reveals that, in villages, land was inherited and passed down. Families stayed in the area and kept their dead close by. There are many fascinating records about villages and their graves, but to sum them up: the dead continue to have a function in the village. Just keep them happy and all will be well.


Wrap-up

In general, the Viking Age was very rural. When towns show up, only 1-2% of the entire population actually lived in them. It took quite a while before people came together in such a way. The major towns that begin to pop up were a result of growing trade and centralized production. We will be talking about these towns and their development next week, especially Birka, Ribe, Kaupang, and Hedeby. Towns were foundations in the development of laws, organized trade, and even kingdoms.

Skál og ferð vel,
— Steven T. Dunn.

Next Week’s Lesson: Lesson 15.b - The Settlements at Home, Part II: The Development of Early Towns.


Sources:
1. Jennifer Dukes-Knight, “Settlement and Trade,” Lecture, Viking History, University of South Florida, 2015.

Images:
1. Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland. (Penguin Books, 2001), 360-61.
2. Borg - Reconstructed longhouse at Lofotr Viking Museum.