Daily life for most men and women during the Viking Age revolved around subsistence-level farmwork. Almost everyone lived on rural farmsteads that produced most of the goods used by the people who lived there.
The work on a farmstead was divided by gender/sex. Women were customarily charged with the tasks that were performed “within the threshold” of the house, while men were charged with those tasks that lay outside of the house.
The two main tasks of women were producing clothing and preparing food. Women baked, cooked, made alcoholic drinks, and made dairy products such as milk, butter, and cheese. Milking sheep and cows were tasks that fell to women as part of this process, even though those activities were often performed outside of “the threshold.” In winter, the animals were in the homesteads’ longhouses, and so would have been inside a threshold, but in summer the animals were out grazing and were watched over by shepherds who could be either male or female.
Agricultural work, as opposed to food preparation, fell to men. This involved fertilizing, plowing, sowing, harvesting, and threshing. During the harvest, however, all members of the household would typically join in the work, since it was so laborious that all available hands were needed, be they male or female.
The first task of the agricultural cycle was plowing. In the Viking Age, plowing was usually done with an ard or scratch plow, an almost-vertical spike, which broke up the soil but left it unturned. To make up for this lack of turning the soil as much as possible, fields were typically cross-plowed – that is, they were plowed twice, the second row of lines intersecting with the first perpendicularly. The ard was made of wood – iron plows weren’t introduced until after the Viking Age – and would wear out every other day or so and have to be replaced. Plows were pulled by oxen or slaves, depending on which were available.
The fields were fertilized by crop rotation – alternating which fields were planted from year to year so that some could naturally rejuvenate – and by adding fertilizer in the form of animal and human dung. When the harvest came, the cutting was done by men with scythes, and the women raked the grain. Men threshed the grain with clubs and pokes. After this, women took over and made the grain into bread, beer, or other foods or drinks. Grain was usually ground by hand mills, but a few really wealthy and powerful people had begun using water mills during the Viking Age.
The most unpleasant and physically demanding chores – such as dunging fields, building buildings, and, as we’ve noted, pulling the plow – were typically done by slaves captured in battle or raiding.
More specialized crafts such as ironworking were often carried out on farmsteads on the limited scale necessary to meet the immediate needs of the household. Professional smiths and other craftspeople did exist in the few urban areas that punctuated the Scandinavian coastline during this period, however, and would sometimes trade their handiwork to farmers in exchange for surplus food.
While some people have a tendency to romanticize this “simpler” subsistence-centered life, the reality is that Viking Age farmwork was perilous, grueling drudgery that required incredible inputs of labor to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Famines, raids, and natural disasters were ever-present dangers that could rob the farming household of their crops and, ultimately, their lives.
Famine and disease were very common, and took their toll on the population. Something like 30-40% of children died before reaching adulthood, and skeletons from the period evidence significant disease, injury, and malnutrition. In the words of historian Anders Winroth, “The usual image of the Vikings as able-bodied, strong, and healthily virile men has an important corrective in the skeletons surviving from actual Viking Age Scandinavians.”