One of my goals in writing the Strongbow Saga, besides trying to tell an engaging and moving story, is to try to present a picture of the Vikings’ culture and society that is as historically accurate as possible. The Vikings have, for the most part, been badly misrepresented in fiction, both written and especially in film. The Vikings are too often portrayed as having a crude, barbaric culture, as being violent killers and rapists, and going about dressed in animal skins and wearing helmets with horns on them. None of these things are true.
Take clothing: the typical garb for a male would have been wool or linen trousers, leather shoes or boots, and a wool or linen tunic. Silk was known to the Vikings, and fragments of that cloth have been found in the graves of wealthy Vikings—a fact which reflects not only on the types of clothing wealthy Vikings wore, but also on how extensive their trading networks were, for silk was produced only in China, many thousands of miles away from the Viking homelands in Scandinavia. A female would typically wear a long underdress or shift, usually of linen, and over it a colored sleeveless dress, often secured by large decorative brooches. A long cloak, typically of heavy wool due to its warmth and water-shedding qualities, would be the most common outer garment worn in winter or inclement weather, when outdoors.
I have a companion website to this one, at www.strongbowsaga.com, which contains an article about Viking clothing with some photos of examples. The site was down for a long time due to being hacked, its original homepage has still not been restored, and it has been far too long since I’ve added new content—I have good intentions but poor follow-through on that. But the articles that are there now do provide some background into several areas of the Vikings’ culture, and offer bibliographies of sources where those subjects can be studied in greater depth.
The Vikings’ culture and society, rather than being crude and barbaric, was actually highly refined and developed—I find it quite similar, in many ways, to that of the ancient Mycenaean Greeks back around the time of the conquest of Troy, who were so vividly described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For instance, they had a highly developed system of laws, and a legal system which is the ancestor of the British and American justice systems. Disputes could be settled by bringing lawsuits at the Things, or regional assemblies, and even kings were subject to the law—a contrast to most medieval societies, in which the king was the source of the law. Of course, it was violent time, and both kings and commoners not infrequently settled matters with blood and steel, outside of legal channels. But in Viking society at least the theory and ideal of law and justice existed, and have carried forward to modern times.
In historical fiction, it is often the little details that affect how accurately a time and people are being portrayed. I thought I’d share just a few of the kinds of details I’ve been wrestling with as I’ve been writing book 4.
I most often look for small details about the Vikings’ culture and society in the old Viking sagas. Many modern historians discount the sagas as historical sources, arguing that because they were not written until the 1200s or later, after the end of the Viking era, they could not accurately reflect the Viking times. However, I think those skeptics missing a major point. The Vikings had a very strong oral literature traditions—one of their primary forms of entertainment was storytelling and poetry reciting. The popular stories and poems, most of which recounted actual events, were memorized and told again and again, through the years and centuries, until eventually they were written down, after the use of written languages became more prevalent (the runes, the simple written alphabet used by the Vikings during the Viking era, did not lend itself to lengthy documents). The Viking sagas are, in fact, much like Homer’s Iliad: for centuries they existed only in oral form, until finally they were written down, but they are filled with accurate data about the period when they were originally created as works of oral literature.
A large section of book 4 involves a journey by sea through the Danish islands and across the Baltic Sea. One of the first questions I found myself wondering was what did the Vikings call the Baltic Sea? That little fact actually took a lot of research to root out, but eventually I found some references to passages in various sagas, including the Ynglinga Saga by Snorre Sturlason, a prolific 13th century Icelandic writer who put many of the old sagas into written form. The Vikings apparently called the Baltic the Eastway, the Eastern Lake, or—the one I’ve chosen to use in the Strongbow Saga—the Austmarr, or Eastern Sea.
A quirky fact about the Baltic that I discovered in my recent research, which forced me to rewrite some descriptions in one scene in book 4, is that it has no tides.
I’ve wrestled with numerous issues about the Viking ships in this section of book 4. How fast could they travel, by sail or by oars? How long would it take to sail from one location to another? How large were their crews? How did they carry provisions and other supplies aboard ship?
There were various types and sizes of ships used by the Vikings (and someday I do hope to add a detailed article, with lots of illustrations, about their ships on the strongbow saga website), but for the purposes of book 4, I am concerned primarily with the “typical” longship as was used during the 9th century. Based on two very well preserved examples, the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, found during the late 1800s in excavated Viking-era graves in Scandinavia, the typical general purpose longship would have had fifteen or sixteen pairs of oars (some much larger longships were built latter in the Viking era, as very specialized warships). They did not have any kind of a hold, like later-era ships did, but merely a large flat main deck, and often very small raised decks in the bow and stern. There were no seats or built-in benches for rowers, but archeological evidence suggests that crew members would store their personal possessions in large wooden chests or trunks, the height and length of which allowed them to also be used as seats for rowing, when needed. All cargo would therefore have had to have been carried in the open, on the main deck, which means it would have had to have been stored in something that would protect it from exposure to water and the elements—most likely wooden barrels.
A longship with fifteen pairs of oars, like Hastein’s ship, the Gull, would obviously require at least thirty men to man its oars. But how many crew members above that number would such a ship typically carry? In part, I think that would depend on the length of a voyage. On longer voyages, when the limited deck space would be significantly filled with barrels of provisions and cargo, there would be much less room for a large crew. But on shorter trips, when large amounts of stores did not have to be carried, a larger crew could be fit aboard. Some historians have suggested that a ship the size of the Gull might typically carry a crew of fifty, but I believe such estimates totally fail to take into account how limited a longship’s deck space would be, if the ship was carrying any amount of cargo at all.
The website for the Danish Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde on the island of Sjaelland (http://www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/en/) provides a wonderful amount of information about Viking ships, and has been very helpful as I’ve been writing the sea voyage section of book 4. The museum has built full-size reproductions of a number of different sizes and types of ships, and based on sailing them on journeys of various distances and under various conditions, has developed data about sailing and rowing speeds, as well as probable crew sizes. The website has many photos of their ships, which I highly recommend if any readers of the Strongbow Saga are not already familiar with their appearance.
In this post, I’m barely touching the surface of the kinds of details that I research while trying to bring the world of the Strongbow Saga accurately into being for its readers. But if this post makes any readers think of questions they’ve wondered about—little details of the culture, etc.—I’d love to answer them. I suggest that any such posts be made on the Discussions page of this website, so we can hopefully start there an ongoing, shared discussion about the historical facts behind the story.