In the 8th century most Vikings lived by farming, grazing animals, hunting and fishing 

The Viking societies were peasant communities. Owning land was very important; it determined your social position, history and destiny. The large family was the basic community on the farm. Being a person meant first and foremost that you belonged to a family collective, with responsibility for the family’s actions. An individual’s social status was dependent on his/her position within the family. Women ruled the household on the farm, the men would plough the fields and represent the family at the Thing. (see below) They would settle disputes, conflicts and trade with others. Both men and women could be rich and powerful.

Viking township. Image: ANMM Education Collection EC000238
Viking township. Image: ANMM Education Collection EC000238

Viking society comprised three levels: nobles, Jarls, free people Karls and slaves or peasants thralls. In the 8th century most Vikings lived by farming, grazing animals, hunting and fishing, whether in villages, isolated farms or on large estates. The whole family tended the farm and the entire household ate and slept together. Large estates included outbuildings for cooking, brewing, and craftwork. It was later in the Viking age that towns developed.

The greatest divide was between those who were free and those who were not free. A free person was allowed to carry weapons and talk at the ‘Thing’. An unfree person had, according to the wording of the law from the early Middle Ages, no rights at all.

Viking societies were governed by local assemblies called Things. They discussed important political matters, made laws and decided on punishments if laws were broken. Free Vikings were all allowed to attend and speak at these. They were usually held once a year.

The site Thingvellir in Iceland means ‘parliament plains’. The Althing is Iceland’s parliament today and believed to be the world’s oldest surviving law-making assembly on record. (It met from 930 until 1800 and from 1843 until today). Every 5 July a Thing is held on Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man, where they have been meeting for over one thousand years. Because few people could read it was the custom at the governing assembly for the Law Speaker to recite all the existing laws once a year. 

Think about:
- Today personal items can influence a person’s status in society. In the Viking Age men and women could achieve high status by owning weapons (men) or keys (women). What kind of personal items can give higher status for men and women today?

- Imagine yourself living in the Viking Age. What kind of life would you have lived? What kind of position would they have had in society? What role would you liked to have had?

- Research and think about the different roles that women and men could have in the Viking Age. Make a comparison to our present-day society. What has changed? Is anything unchanged?

Viking runes (Language)
Mainly an oral society, not everyone could read. Knowledge of the Vikings is pieced together, however, since they did not leave written histories. They only left short inscriptions engraved on stones or wooden or metal objects, using letters called runes. Most of what we know comes from accounts written by others, often centuries later, or from archaeological finds, and from the study of things like language, place names, and art.

Runes example

Activity: Use the rune key above to practice using runes. Start by writing your name in runes, then try writing a simple message. If there's no equivalent for an English letter you need to use write that letter using our normal Roman alphabet.

Viking Music