The Viking Age crew
We don't know much about the crew on board the war ships in the Viking Age.
The written sources contain little evidence of organisation and hierarchy on board and only the Norwegian laws from the Middle Age contains detailed descriptions of the long ship crew.
The Norwegian Gulating law From the 1100 - 1200 includes several passages about the building process, manning the fleet, rules for the skipper, steersman and cook and war equipment.
Here you can read about the crew on the Viking long ships; what their responsibilties and assigments on board were.
Meet the crew
The Norwegian Gulating Law, which was written down in the 12th/13th century, contains several provisions concerning the responsibilities of the styrimaðr and his tasks on board the warship.
On larger warships the styrimaðr was often selected by the King and was responsible for the ship both before, during and after a voyage.
If the ship had not yet been built, the styrimaðr commanded the construction work on behalf of the King. In winter, it was the styrimaðr's job to take care of hauling the ship on land and to ensure the carrying out of all the necessary repairs. If the boat builders exceeded their deadline, or if the sail was not patched and ready for the spring, the styrimaðr could issue fines to those responsible.
When the King summoned to leding (war, i.e. assembly of ships and warriors), the styrimaðr selected his crew. Those who refused to go were issued with a fine. The styrimaðr himself could also risk a fine from the King if he refused to join the ship, or if he did not fulfil the requirements for its fitting out.
During a voyage
During a voyage the styrimaðr had to enforce observance of the ship’s rules, as written in Law.
He was to make sure that the men were at their posts, attended their duty and did not leave the ship without permission. He had to ensure that the ship did not sail longer than the supplies on board allowed and he was responsible for any passengers on board.
The styrimaðr had knowledge of navigation – he was able to determine the ship's distance, course and speed, and sail according to the signs provided by nature. If the styrimaðr lacked information for a voyage, or if he had to navigate in foreign waters, he hired a pilot with local knowledge who navigated and showed him the way in return for payment.
The styrimaðr had access to a kind of navigation council: the mót, which he could consult on sailing matters, such as large changes in course or in case of disciplinary punishment of the crew.
Fact: According to several written sources, the styrimaðr often had his seat by the mast so that he could make himself heard by the whole crew. Today, on the Sea Stallion, the coxswain is often found aft (at the stern) in the ship. He has, however, a middleman by the mast to relay his commands.
By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen
Unfortunately, we have no written source material describing how boat builders worked in Viking times. But in the sagas, law texts, and in Kongespejlet, an educational Norwegian text on good behaviour from a few hundred years later, we can read how the work of ship building was organised.
In Olav Trygvesons Saga, Snorre Sturlasson tells us about the building of the longship Ormen hin Lange in the 11th century:
Quote:“A lot of people were gathered for this work. Some felled trees, some dressed the timber, some made ship’s rivets, and others transported the timber.”
The distribution of work can be seen in Norwegian law texts, where it is clear that some craftsmen worked on the keel, the bow and the stern, and others with the planking.
The building of large and possibly royal ships, such as a longship like the Skuldelev 2, was led by a master shipbuilder called a Hofudsmidir. He was responsible for making sure that all the materials were on the building site or shipyard, and that the craftsmen got food and payment for their work.
The master builder could be fined if materials or tools went missing, if the shipbuilding was not completed on time or was not done correctly. The biggest fine, however, was for breaking up the old ship before the keel, bow and stern had been put together on the new ship.
The bow and stern smith (Stafnasmidir) was the most experienced boat builder on the site – the master shipbuilder’s right-hand man. He had the practical responsibility for the shape of the hull. As foreman on the building site, he received a higher wage than the ordinary boat builders, who were called Filungar.
The boat builder’s tools
The knowledge we have today about the tools of the boat builder is based on tools found in graves, archaeological excavations of towns and of shipyards where ships were built in Viking times, and pictures of boat builders with tools in their hands. One of these pictures is in the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered wall hanging from the 1070s in France. The picture shows a shipbuilding scene in which a man is dressing planks with a broad axe called a bredbil.
The largest find of tools is the Mästermyr box, which was excavated from a bog in Gotland, Sweden. The tools in the box suggest that the owner had been a metal craftsman and had worked in copper and iron. But the chest also contained a complete set of ship-building tools:
- 4 different kinds of axe
- 2 planes
- a drill
- a profile scraper
- a knife
- a chisel
- a hammer
- a rivet iron, for forging ship’s rivets.
The most interesting find from a dig in Denmark is from Over Hornbæk, near Randers, where a master shipbuilder lay buried with a broad axe inlaid with silver. Moreover, near Dejbjerg in West Jutland, a set of tools was found which is assumed to be what every shipbuilder would have had, consisting of two axes, a drill, and smithy equipment.
Did the boat builder actually sail with the ship?
It is difficult to say whether the boat builder was part of the crew on board Viking warships. In Kongespejlet there is a list of equipment that a warship should have, and here the boat builder’s tools are mentioned: an ordinary craftsman’s axe, a gouge, a drill, and other tools which are not specified in detail. These tools could certainly be used for minor repairs on board ship, for example, a split in the planking.
By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen
One of the very few mentions of a ship’s cook is in the Orkney sagas. Here the story is told of how, when none of his other men will obey, Hakon orders his journeyman cook to murder his cousin Magnus. Apparently the journeyman cook was not in a position to refuse his master’s orders in the way a warrior could.
Eyrbyggerne's saga from 11th century Iceland says lots were often drawn for who was to prepare food on the ship. “In those days it was not the custom for traders to have journeyman cooks, but those who ate together cast lots every single day as to which of them should prepare food.”
But later in the 11th century, the job was given to one man, who received wages for his work, and from then on the written sources mention the journeyman cook more often as a member of the crew on both warships and trading ships.
Since there was no fireplace on Viking Age warships, it was unlikely that the cook could prepare hot meals on board. But Norwegian legal texts contain regulations about three daily trips ashore for the cook: one to collect water, and two to prepare meals. So many landings were possible because, as far as they could, warships took their bearings from points along coasts.
The actual food eaten on board ship was called nest, farnest or hafnest, and consisted of porridge made in a large riveted pot. This kind of pot has been found in the ship graves, Tune and Oseberg.
Magnus Erlingssøn’s saga says that besides porridge ship provisions also included flour and butter. Sometimes they took dried slices of the fattiest pieces of halibut, dried cod and bread on board. Boiled or roasted meat was seldom a part of the provisions and only in special situations where the slaughter of farm animals was permitted.
By law, the amount of food for 12 men for 14 days was one ship’s pound of barley meal and three trepundslaupar with butter. This is equivalent to a daily ration of 880 grams of flour and 285 grams of butter. That is just over a kilogram of food per person, which can only be viewed as quite a lot; about what a man needs for considerable physical activity.
They drank water, brought on board in barrels or troughs. In the Norwegian ship graves, Oseberg and Gokstad, large troughs were found that could hold 500 litres and 750 litres, and several sources mention that there had to be a minimum of 4 litres per person per day.
A smaller, 125-litre barrel was also found in the Oseberg ship. These smaller barrels were probably easier to pack on a narrow longship like Skuldelev 2.
Eyrbyggerne's saga tells us:
Quote:“The whole crew also drank together; there had to be a lidded trough in which the drink was kept, but drink was also stored in smaller barrels, from which the trough was filled when it was empty.”
Beer was only found on the nobles’ or King’s warships.
Often several ships shared supplies, or there were actual supply ships as part of the fleet. This is described by the Icelandic saga poet, Snorre Sturlasson, who writes that the Norwegian king had 200 ships outfitted, as well as supply ships and transport ships.
By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen
There are no sources or law texts that mention actual medical care on board Viking ships. The closest we can get to a picture of Viking ill-health and hygiene is in the archaeological finds and the observations of the travelling Arab author, Ibn Fadlan.
Treatment of wounds and diseases
Finds of Iron Age surgical instruments in bogs, placed there as war-booty sacrifices, show the existence at that time of so-called barber-surgeons responsible for the medical treatment of war wounds.
The oldest artefacts from the site in Illerup Ådal date back to around AD 200. The site yielded surgical knives for cleaning wounds, knives to cut away dead tissue, bone saws as well as pins and thorns, which were used for holding together the wound so that it could heal.
In Nydam bog, several pairs of tweezers were found, which were used in connection with personal hygiene, such as in the removal of unwanted hair, but others were for holding the edges of a wound together during treatment.
It is likely that there were barber-surgeons in the Viking Age and that they numbered among the crew on the Viking warships.
Illness at sea
Apart from wounds and injuries from battle, we do not know what illnesses that could occur on board a Viking ship. But the medical log from the ship Freya’s voyage to the Danish West Indies in the 1700s tells us a little about illnesses during long sea voyages:
The ship had a crew of 322, mainly young men. In the period from 1795–97 they suffered from dysentery, diarrhoea, vomiting of blood, gall-fever, serious wounds and injuries, scurvy and infectious venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea.
Although the ship’s doctor could treat venereal disease with mercury, it was difficult to stop these diseases from spreading quickly among the crew, because they lived so closely together on board ship.
Ibn Fadlan also mentions Viking hygiene in his narrative, describing them as the filthiest of Allah’s creatures. “They never wash themselves after they have defecated, urinated or had sexual intercourse, and neither do they wash their hands after they have eaten”.
When they did wash, it took place, according to Ibn Fadlan, in the same water:
Quote: “Every day, early in the morning, one of the slave girls brings in a large dish of water and gives it to her master, who washes his hands, face and hair in it. Then he combs his hair over the dish with a comb, blows his nose and spits in it. No dirt is removed from the water. When the first has finished, the slave girl carries it to the next, who does the same, after which she carries it from one to another until it has been all the way round. Every one of them blows his nose and spits in it and washes his face and hair in it.”
Seen in relation to the Muslims, who were obliged to wash the face, hands and feet before each of the day’s five prayers, Viking washing habits seem most unclean. Conversely, the people of the British Isles found the Vikings to be vain, and bemoaned the fact that they also attracted the attention of the local women. What is seen depends on the eye that sees ..!
But several archaeological finds do suggest that the Vikings thought about hygiene and were interested in how they looked.
In Kaupang in Norway, a bowl has been found which it is thought Vikings used to wash their hands before meals, because the runes engraved on the dish say: ‘I Muntlauki’ (hand-washing bowl).
It is also quite normal to find combs of various sizes, pairs of tweezers of iron or bronze, and ear picks (aural scoops) among items in graves. In the Treasure of Terslev from the 900s, a toilette requisite in silver was found that was probably used to clean the fingernails. Grooves on teeth found on skeletons also show that it was customary to use toothpicks. A Bronze Age razor has also been found, and even though nothing is known of similar finds from the Viking Age, there are several pictures, statuettes and carved wooden figures which show the Viking with well-groomed hair and a well-trimmed beard.
Did you know
That the Vikings isolated their sick?
If a warrior became sick, they put up a tnet and left him there. He would only receive bread and water and nobody was allowed inside the tent.
When he recovered he could join the group again. If he died, they would burn and burrie him.
By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen
In the Viking Age there was something called a Scald. This was a man often close to the king or chief. His job was to create and tell dramatical stories - poems - about the heroic actions of his master.
Fact: The word scald derives from the old Nordic word Skáld, which dates from the Early Viking Age. The stories were told in kvad (verses), and the oldest, preserved scaldic verses date from the 9th century. Even though the verses were communicated orally, a few of the most popular ones were written down. An entire scaldic epic is preserved on the runic stone Karlevi on Öland, dating from the 11th century, and today many verses, written down during the 12th/13th century, survive in the Icelandic sagas.
The scald's task
Because the scald oftenformed part of the king's or the chieftain's group of housecarls, his metres or verses were called Dróttkvætt, the metres of the housecarls.
The most important task of the scald was to maintain or enhance his master's reputation. His verses had to praise the King, create a good reputation for him by relating his brave exploits on the battlefield and make sure that the stories were remembered after his death. The Viking Egil Skallagrimsson, who was also a skilful scald, is known from the sagas. When he won a battle he described his actions in verse:
“I rushed around with bloody blade and ringing spear
the raven followed me, the Vikings surged forward
enraged we fought
fire blazed over men's dwellings
we let the bloody bodies lie lifeless".
In addition to entertaining guests in the King's hall the scald probably also took part in longer expeditions. It was therefore important for him to be able to improvise and conjure up verses about heroes and battles won whenever the King or the chieftain wished – for example before an important battle: In AD 1230 Snorre Sturlasson wrote in Olav the Holy's Saga that early one morning, just before the battle of Stiklestad in AD 1030, scald Thormod Kolbrunsskjald narrated the Eddic poem Bjarkemål. The poem was about the brave, legendary king Rolf Krake and his men's many battles, and it was intended to give courage to Olav's warriors before the battle.
and tear open chests".
The contents of the poems
Several poems contain kenninger, which gave them their exciting and dramatic style, often by supplying bloody details. Kenninger consist of two words: a main word and a qualifying word. Some examples of kenninger are: "the wound's sea" or "the sword's sweat", which refer to the blood flowing from a battle wound, "horse of the waves" where horse means a ship, and "flame of the Rhine" which means the Rhine's gold.
Several poems also contained myths and legends about the Nordic gods, as the Vikings were of the opinion that the gods had a great influence on the outcome of a battle.
By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen
» Egil Skallagrimson's " The Head Ransom"
The ordinary crew members on board warships in the Viking Age were called holumenn and their most important task was to sail the ship.
The Norwegian Gulating Law, dating from the 12th and 13th century, relates that the King would appoint a coxswain. The coxswain would then select the crew – as a rule these were young, unmarried men. If they did not turn up, of if they refused to sail with the ship, they were issued with a fine. In cases where there were not enough young farm hands, the farmers who employed the workmen had to join the ship for the voyage. Everybody was paid and, according to the Norwegian law text, the payment was 1 øre per month.
Watches on board
The crew formed watches. The watchs Bergvordr by the oars, Rávordr by the sail, Festavordr by the mooring on land and Strengvordr by the cable when the ship lay at anchor. All of the watches were to be manned day and night.
The tasks were to trim the sail, to keep the ship empty of water, to keep watch and steer the rudder. The helmsman was also called Stjórnari.
There was also a lookout in the bow section of the vessel. In Viking times he was called Stafnbúaror Sundvordr. Together with the skipper and the coxswains the lookout had a responsible position on board, especially when sailing along the coast where it was important to keep an eye out for distinctive landmarks. The lookout had to have a strong voice so that he could shout his observations to the rest of the ship and to the skipper, who stood either by the mast or at the stern of the ship. According to Helge Hundingsbane's story warships had a special watch for looking out for the enemy.
Icelandic sources indicate that the crew brought along some kind of sleeping bag. There were no berths – instead the spaces between each thwart constituted their sleeping places. The sleeping bag was called a Húdfat; it was a large hide stitched together along the sides and with room for two persons.
Sea chests were part of the general equipment on warships and these could probably be moved around. Eyrbyggernes Saga relates that the men occupying a rum (or section of the ship) had to share a chest for storing their supplies, clothes and weapons.
Women on board
Normally there were no women on board ships in the Viking Age. But sometimes there were women slaves or prisoners of war on board, or women of high rank were carried as passengers. The fact that the presence on the ships of women was quite exceptional is evident from a few written sources. These recount that the women had to be protected against various dangers and from rain.
Fact: The Icelandic Flateyjarbok from the 14th century relates how Leif and his men, during a voyage to Østerø on the Faroe Islands, all were soaked because they had to make sure that Thora remained dry.
Life on board
Today it is hard to tell what the crew did on board the ships when not on duty. In the rich ship burial of Oseberg and on a reused deck plank found in Aarhus a gaming board has been found which could be used for the games of morris and nefatavl. Many graves also contain gaming pieces and dice made of glass, bone, antler, tooth or horn. On the Isle of Lewis 93 chessmen mede of walrus ivory were found in 1831. The sagas speak of games such as halatavl, nefatavl and chess. Though not stating the rules of the games the sagas indicate that the ability to play, for example, chess was part of a noble education. For example a certain man Grymer who was courting a beautiful maid had to prove his worth through weapons exercises, climbing of icebergs, performing trials of strength, play chess well, interpret the stars and other sports.
By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen
In the Viking Age, the weapons to be carried on board a warship were decreed by law. Norwegian laws relates that it was the crew’s task to provide weapons for the ship.
On board the smaller warships each free man of age was to present a broad-axe, a sword, a spear and a shield, and he would be fined 3 øre for each missing weapon.
The farmers were to bring two quivers of arrows and a bow for each thwart in the ship, and they also paid 3 øre per missing bow.
Helmets and chain mail are not mentioned.
Fact: The law texts also recount that it was the coxswain’s job to bring the ship’s rudder.
For chieftains’ ships, such as Skuldelev 2 with a crew of 60-70 men, the equipment was more comprehensive and more defensive/protective equipment was taken along.
A ship of Skuldelev 2’s size would presumably have had:
- 34 bows, with 48 arrows per bow
- 80 swords
- 60 light axes
- 30 battle axes
- 160 spears
- as well as throwing stones and slings.
Further to this, the warriors protected themselves with:
- 20 sets of chain mail
- 20 helmets
- 60 sets of leather armour
- 60 leather hoods
- 80 round shields
- as well as shin and wrist guards.
By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen