Viking Society - A Self-Regulated Society
Viking society was self-regulated. Law and order was based upon the Thing system, which had already been established via common-meetings dating to least 600 AD. The Thing had legislative and judiciary powers. Every free man had a duty to meet at the Thingís common-meetings, except men who farmed alone and were unable to leave their farm unattended. Also, women and handicapped people could attend the Thing. Among other items, the Vikings elected their King at the Thing. These common-meetings might last several days, therefore the Thing was also an occasion for a large marketplace and festival.

The Vikings had no written laws. However, a man referred to as a "lovsigemann" - in English this means "law reader man" - opened the Thing by reading the laws, which he had memorized by heart. This was done to ensure that no one changed the laws. Every free man had to respect the law , including chieftains and the king. The Thing was a democratic constitution. Compared with the democracy of ancient Athens, which included only 10% of the inhabitants as citizens, the Viking system was more democratic. It included everybody as citizens, except the slaves and those exiled from society - the outlaws.

Viking society was permeated by their religion, although the Vikings had no word for "religion". Instead they used the word "siðr", which means custom or practice. However, the moral code in Viking society was not directly tied to having a belief in the gods. Social behavior was based upon an unwritten system of honor or code of ethics. Right and wrong, gender roles, sexual morality, daily life, the timing of festivals; in all these circumstances the free man was evaluated by standards of honor.
A man of honor was a principled man. He was given to moderation, was hospitable and generous and offered a helping hand to friends in need. (Including aligning himself against his friendís enemies). A man of honor also never forgot to be the foe of his enemy. This he did with all his heart.
The opposite of honor was disgrace, and because every man lived his life as a member of an extended family-circle, he could easily bring disgrace to his entire family - including his forefathers. Therefore, it was intolerable for a free man to live in such a fallen state. If he was disgraced, he could only restore balance in his social system by confronting the source of his fall from an honorable status. Thus, revenge was an key component of this social system, a system which placed great importance upon maintaining personal honor.

The typical view of revenge was present in the old adage: "A slave takes revenge at once, a fool never takes revenge" . A good man, however, simply waited. He left his victim unaccosted for a long time, up to several years. Then, just as retaliation seemed to be forgotten, one day he would suddenly attack his enemy with a masterful stroke - hard and inexorable.

Through the ordeal of waiting the good man showed his strong character. This long waiting and the coolness of the fulfilment of the revenge may appear to us as cruel and heartless, but we have to remember that the threat of blood vengeance was the Viking society's only effective punishment. It was only through the good man's composed way of enforcing the revenge, that revenge became an genuine judicial authority, and not merely a primitive and vindictive act. There was, in other words, an ethical societal code in the private claim of a delayed and resolute revenge.

The explanation for the frequent in-fighting within Viking society lies not with a lack of respect for the law among its members. Rather, the basis was provided by the tension of living in a society which placed a premium upon maintaining personal honor. Men therefore took the requisite action to maintain honor or ward off dishonor. Revenge was a mechanism employed by individuals or families to maintain a positive balance in their own lives. This is the background for the many bloody fights written about in the family-sagas and history books.

By virtue of the conservative power of the family-circles who regulated the Thing system, its moral and ethics, Viking society was a self regulated society which was independent of the authority of a state. For example, in 800 AD approximately 30 chieftains (small kingdoms) resided within the boundaries of what is modern day Norway.


Materials found in tombs have shown us that there were class distinctions in the Viking period. The class your family-circle belonged to dictated the class you belonged to for your entire life. It was very rare that a person could transcend class distinctions. A personís individual life mattered little, as it was the class of the ancient lineage of his family which gave him his position and his rights and duties in society. It was the family who gave him this status. The family-circle was the center of his life.

In the Viking society it was very important to ones self-esteem to be a free man. However, this was dependent upon the class you belonged to.

In § 185 in the Gulating law (which addresses violence) , we find seven classes of free men: Løysing, son of løysing, farmer, hauld, lendmann, earl and king. In Rigstula, a poem in Edda, we can read about how Rig (the god Heimdal ) visits families belonging to three classes during the Viking period. Rig stayed with each of the families for three days, sleeping with all three wives, and in this way became the father to all the classes of man. Below I will employ this poem to describe the daily life of some of these classes:

The slave - or "trell", as the Vikings called him, is not mentioned in the law because they were not protected by the law. The slave was owned by his owner in the same way the owner owned his domestic animals. Slaves were looked upon as the ownerís property. The owner could buy and sell a slave, and he could treat his slave as he liked. If the owner killed one of his slaves, it was not considered as murder. If a free man killed another manís slave, the murderer only had to pay for a new slave. The price was nearly the same as that of a domestic animal.

When a female slave bore a child, her child automatically became the property of her owner. If a pregnant slave was sold, her unborn child became the new ownerís property as well. Rigstula tells us that the slaves worked all the time. They collected wood, fertilized the fields, made fences, dug turf, bred pigs and made bast ropes. The slave family ate unwholesome and unappetizing food. According to the law, the only thing a slave was allowed to own was a knife.

Slaves were often captured during Viking raids upon British islands, but a free Norwegian man could also become a slave, either by free will or by force. He might be forced into slavery if he wasnít able to pay the mulct ordained by the Thing or if he couldnít feed himself and his family. Some Vikings became rich by selling slaves to other tribes in Europe.

The løysing , or bondsman, was a slave who had been set free by his owner, but who was still dependent upon and still owed duties to his former owner. A bondsman was allowed to purchase his freedom by hard work.

The løysingís son represented a separate class, according to the Gulating law.

The farmer was a free man with all available rights and duties in the Viking society. Rigstula tells that the farmers made looms, spun thread, plowed the fields, built houses and made fences and carts. Most people in the Viking society belonged to the farmer class. This class is described further below under the heading - «The farmerís life in the Viking Period»

The Leiding, or tenant, was a man who rented or leased a farm. Payment for use of the farm involved giving some of the food to the owner. The tenant could be anyone from a former farm worker to a chieftain. However, as a free man he had all the pertinent societal rights and duties.

A hauld was a freeholder. A man could not become a freeholder until his family had owned the farm as freemen for six generations.

The Chieftain, Rigstula tells us, lived his life in luxury and owned 18 farms. The father made strings for the bow, while the mother adorned herself with jewels and dresses with blue ornaments. The son used the bow and arrow, sword, spear and shield. He rode horses, swam, trained dogs, learned the art of runes, went out in battles and conquered land. They also learned the songs of birds, played board games, tamed horses and made arrows and shields.

The king and his men, the lendmann and earls, were classes which were added later in the Viking period. (The other classes mentioned above existed during the entire Viking period). Rigstula tells us that the king was a clever hunter and clever with weapons as well. But more importantly - he had magical abilities. He could save lives, stop storms, understand the birds, ease sorrows, give peace to the mind, stop fires, and was a rune master. The king could also ride a horse and draw the sword, vanquish enemies and travel out in Viking raids. The Viking raids were only organized by rich people, such as the chieftainís family, the kingís family or a very rich farming family. However, warriors might be recruited from the entire area.


Only a few Vikings lived in towns. Most Vikings were farmers and lived in hall-like houses in small countryside villages near fjords or in valleys further inland. The Viking farm was very often placed on a hilltop with a very good view of the surrounding area. In this way they were able to quickly see friends or enemies who had arrived.

The hall-like houses could be 10 to 100 feet long. (3 to 30 meters). The largest were sometimes up to 250 feet long. (83 meters). Often, the Viking house had only one room, but it could also be divided into a living quarters and a stable for the animals. In Norway, the Viking houses often were built of wood. When they used stave-construction technology, the walls would consist of upright planks, timber or staves standing side by side, with their ends sunk into the ground. However, in areas where little wood was available they also would use stone, earth and turf as buildings materials.
Along the walls inside the house there were sitting and sleeping benches covered with fur or cloth. Beds were only used in rich families. A fireplace located in the middle of the room was the main source of light and heat. The smoke was vented through a hole in the roof. If they needed extra light they might use a lamp such as that shown to the right. These types of lamps were fueled with wax or blubber.

Some Viking houses also had running water in them. They directed water from a river or a pond into a small channel which ran underneath the house. Inside the house the channel was covered by slabs of rock. When they needed water they just lifted up one of the rocks.

Most Viking farms had a separate bath house which they used every Saturday - the Vikingís bath day. If they lived near the sea they also had a ship-house, called "naust" in Norwegian, for their ships and small boats.

The Vikings lived in collective or extended families. Children, parents and grandparents all lived together. If the farmer kept workers, servants or slaves, they also usually lived in the family house. When the oldest son in the family took over the farm, he became the chief of the family and it became his duty to run the farm. On his farm he could have cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and maybe chickens. Most Viking farms also had a dog and, from at least from approx. 1000 AD., they could also have cats.

The Vikings were able to have a varied diet, but they would periodically have problems meeting their needs. (There is good reason for the Vikings referring to February as the hunger month.) Their diet might consist of bread, porridge, fish, shellfish, seals and whales. Also, they might have meat from cows, sheep, goats, horses, chickens, pigs and wild animals in the area. Further, they would have access to milk, cheese, butter, apples, mushrooms, onions , berries, nuts, leek, seaweed and other sea herbs. The diet also included wild herbs such as (using botanical terminology), Cetraria islandica, Elymus arenarius, Rhodymenia plamata, Epilobium angustifolium, Sedum roseum, Potentilla anserina, Oxyria digyna and Cochlearia officnalis.

The Viking brewed beer and mead, and some of the rich Vikings could also have access to wine, which they procured while on trading tours or raids in Europe. The Vikings also used mushrooms, such as Psilocybe semilanceata and Amanita muscaria as intoxicants.

vikingkvinne The duty of the wife was to run the house in such a way that the family had enough food during the long and dark winter. She made butter, cheese, dried fish and meat and smoked fish and meat as well. She would also have knowledge about herbs in order to make medicine for ill or wounded family members. She was also the leader when the family held private religious rites inside the house.

She had the duty to run the farm when her husband was out on trading tours, raids or went out to fish or hunt. If she was of a rich family she had slaves and servants to help her . As a visible sign of her power, she received the keys to the houseís supply chests during her wedding. She carried the keys in a belt around her waist.

The division between a womanís and man's domain was established at the door step. The outside work belonged to the man and the inside work belonged to the woman. However, especially fit women could take on the cloth of armaments and be a warrior in the same way as the (Viking) men. These women were called «skjoldmø», which means "shieldgirl" - female warrior.

Viking girls were married away when they where 12 to 15 years old. It was then expected that she would be able to run the housekeeping and do the work belonging to women at/on the farm. The arrangement of the wedding (to find who their son or daughter should marry) was the duty of the family chief. The Vikings looked at the marriage as an assurance of common help and protection between them. Normally the girl had no right to choose her husband according to her own desire.

The girl brought with her bedclothes made of wool and linen, a loom and a bed as her contribution to the marriage agreement. Women from richer families could also bring with them jewelry of silver and gold, domestic animals and sometimes even a farm or a part of a farm. All the goods the woman brought with her into the marriage continued to be her personal belongings. The womanís marriage dowry later became her childrenís inheritance after her death.

The Vikings considered the married woman as belonging to her childhood family. In this way she never became a complete member of her husbandís family. If her husband treated her or the children badly or was too lazy to run the farm well, she could divorce from her husband. To get a divorce she would have to call a couple of witnesses and proclaim to them that she was divorced from her husband. First outside the threshold of the home and later beside the coupleís bed. After this the divorce was a fact.

If the woman left her husband without good reason, the husband kept her property and her belongings. However, with the right to property, inheritance and divorce, the Viking woman had more rights than most women in the remainder of Europe during this period.

Babies and small children automatically became the custody of the mother following a divorce. Older children were usually divided between their parentsí families - all according to the status of the respective families and how rich they were. The children were looked upon as legal members of the family and were protected by the law. In this way they had rights to their part of the inheritance after a divorce.

On small farms there was less of a division between a manís and a womanís work. Without the ability to pay workers, buy slaves or pay servants, all the members of the family had to contribute as needed. This approach was necessary in order for the family to survive in the harsh Scandinavian climate.

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Norwegian Text

Created by Arild Hauge © Denmark, Aarhus 2002

Last updated 21.10.2002