Each year Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday in October, the day that Christopher Columbus discovered America.  But there’s a good deal of controversy about the event these days, since evidence is growing that it wasn’t Columbus, but the Vikings that discovered our country, evidence reported more than once in magazines like Archaeology Magazine and The Smithsonian.

Part of the controversy comes from the fact that few people liked the Vikings much.  Didn’t they roam the oceans in their long ships, ravaging the shores of England and Scotland, bringing murder and mayhem to the African and Asian coasts, pillaging monasteries for their gold and silver, and putting any protesting priests to the sword?  Yes, they did – at least a few of them.

But what about the vast majority of Vikings?  What did they do for a living?  How did they survive through history, and on their journeys to the American coast?  The bulk were farmers just like you, ordinary farmers who worked from daylight to well past dark, and lived a life little different from our own ancestors and early pioneers, and little different too, from modern day Amish.  Which makes the folk who probably discovered our country interesting indeed.

Many readers doubtless know that these seafaring people lived in Scandinavia, basically Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.  That’s cold country with a short growing season, and most of those hardy folk farmed on small pockets of fertile land dotted here and there in vast reaches of forest.  Nearly all lived, not in small houses, but in crofters, large homes with many outbuildings, ran by a single warrior with his wife, children, slaves, relatives, and ordinary workers.  All lived a hard life, and the weak died young, so Vikings grew up hardy, tough, and willing to take on any of life’s challenges, especially the one devoted to finding new land to build new crofts and start their own homes.

So, the long ships with their dragons heads, oars, and square sails, went forth in all directions, beginning around 800 AD.  They settled Iceland, then Greenland (which lasted only 400 years), then reached the coast of North America around New Brunswick, according to the archaeologists.  They called that new settlement, Vinland or the Land of Grapes, and apparently settled there for awhile before being driven off by “skraelings”, or native Americans who didn’t care for their heavy handed presence.

But enough of history.  How did the Vikings of North America and elsewhere live?  What did they eat?  How did they farm as compared to our own ancestors?  Again, very little different.  Since growing seasons were short, the Vikings depended mostly on livestock and cereal grains.  They grew oats, rye, and barley, along with a little wheat and millet in more southern areas, and followed crop rotation practices. 

Typically, a field would be plowed with a wooden plow at first pulled by horses, oxen, or cattle, and later by a plow tipped with iron as they learned blacksmithing.  Rye would be planted one year, then next year barley or whatever, then the field would lie fallow for a year, and be worked and manured before the next crop.    They used barley to make a thin, flat bread, oats for bread and porridge, and rye for a thick, heavy bread.

Since Vikings were famous for their periodic drinking sprees,  a fair amount of barley went to make beer, and bees were kept for a potent drink called honey mead.  Hops and bog myrtle flavored their ale, and a fair amount of fruit went to make wine. 

Living further north they possibly worked even harder than our pioneer ancestors, with nearly every waking minute spent getting food for the long winters.  The women and younger people gave time to caring for gardens that held root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, beets, onions and turnips that could be stored underground for later use.  And they also planted leeks, peas, celery, fava beans, and cabbage.

The men and older boys cared for a variety of livestock that included sheep and goats, cattle and horses (they favored horse meat), pigs that were fattened on forest mast like acorns and beech nuts, and chickens, geese, and ducks.  Each October they slaughtered the weaker cattle and sheep, and each November they killed excess pigs, keeping the strongest and best for breeding, and either drying or smoking the meat for winter use.  Only occasionally did they salt excess meat since salt was precious and expensive. 

Farming and raising livestock might sound like enough for anyone’s lengthy day, but with up to 20 people, even more, in each croft, they needed every morsel they could get, so when time permitted the men hunted deer, elk, reindeer, hares, bear, wild boar, even squirrels which were favored as much for their fur as their meat.  Other days some would be assigned to fish with home-made iron looks and usually made good catches of cod, coalfish, salmon, herring, haddock, and freshwater smelt, pike, and perch.  Nearly all of any catch was dried and stored for winter. 

Most of the kids leisure minutes, if any, were spent gathering hazelnuts (a favorite food), or plums, apples, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, strawberries, and rosehips for tea (Vitamin C).  Most of this produce was dried, too.  Short days and long nights, but they thrived for many years on their rigorous life.

Would you like to sample real Viking food?  One of their daily food staples was porridge, and according to an ancient recipe it’s made from 10 – 12 cups of water, salt, two cups of chopped barley kernels soaked overnight in cold water, a handful of whole grain wheat flour, a handful of crushed hazelnuts, and 3-4 tablespoons of honey.  The mixture was cooked till soft and started the day of many an early riser.

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