Contrary to the popular assumptions of who the Vikings were, they weren’t simply brutes who only knew how to battle and raid monasteries. Not all Vikings were pirates they were a peace-loving community and highly skilled in various areas aside from combat. Among them were skilled traders, hunters, farmers, merchants, and of course seafarers.
Given that the Vikings were always known to embark on sea voyages to far-off lands, it should come as no surprise that fish was among their most traded commodities. Given that the Viking age was around the 8th century and earlier, one may wonder how they managed to fish, or the types of fish they caught. You may also ask yourself how they preserved the fish at that age. Not to worry, this post will focus on exploring all of these questions. We will look at why fishing was important to the Vikings, how they did it and the different gears they used in that age.
The Importance Of Fishing To The Vikings
When it came to the economy during the Viking age in parts of Scandinavia and especially the coastal areas in Norway, fish played a bigger and more significant role than agriculture. But you may wonder, why is it that fish was so important to the Vikings? It is because fish and other seafood as a primary meal in the Vikings’ diets, and there is significant archeological evidence to support this fact.
For starters, in Viking Age towns the heaps of waste discovered contained large numbers of fish bones and shells. There is also evidence that plenty of fish was caught in nearby rivers in Viking towns like Birka in Sweden. It is also well known that on Viking ships the staple food was fish that were preserved in barrels of salt. This was because fish was the easiest food for them to come by while they were on long voyages across the sea.
Fishing In Viking Age
The skill of catching fish was important during the Viking age, especially during periods of famine. That is because even then it was guaranteed that the marine fish would be available as a source of food. In Anglo-Saxon areas, especially, there was a great demand for fish among the rich and the monasteries. Even in illustrations, fish would be placed in front of individuals who were considered royalty or important figures.
There are many kinds of species that were caught and eaten during this age. Among them were the freshwater fishes like carp, sprats, minnows, pikes, and dace. There were also migratory fish, primarily the eels, as well as the flatfish, salmon, smelt, and trout. The marine fish caught included sturgeon, plaice, herring, and a marine family of fish called gadid. These included whiting, cod, pollock, and haddock which were mostly traded by Norwegians as stockfish. Salmon was especially popular in Finland. Even seals and walrus were caught especially since before the 13th century there was a high demand for walrus ivory. If shellfish especially oysters were common, as well as whales and porpoises, although the fishing of sea mammals was unclear to what extent it was done. This is mainly because of the danger that it entailed to fish for something as large as a whale.
The types of fish eaten in England can be divided into three main timelines from the Viking age. The first period is between the 7th to 10th centuries, where mostly fresh water and migratory fish were dominant. The second period between the 11th to 12th century, saw more marine fish being consumed as opposed to the fresh water and migratory fish. The last period was between the 13th to 16th century where most areas only ate marine fish.
When it came to preserving the fish, many different methods were used. Given the climate on the British Isles, open-air drying wasn’t as suitable, so the following methods were used instead:
- Salting – this was the most common and efficient method since the salt drew out the water and filled the fish with acid to prevent it from decaying. A combination of coarse bay salt and fine refined salt was used because the fine salt sealed the fish quickly and the coarse salt seeped through its meat. Also, because dry salting would have been expensive due to the amount of salt that would be needed, brine was what was mostly used.
- Pickling – this was another efficient preservation method. It involved soaking the meat in liquids like brine, vinegar, or honey. For fish, salty brine was the most suitable for pickling.
- Smoking – this was a complex method that included acid, alcohol, and other toxins to prevent decay and give the meat a characteristic flavor. The method worked best for fish like herring, which would be hung up in a smokehouse filled with smoke.
- Drying – while open-air drying was not suitable in some regions because of the climate, hanging fish on the front of the ships, helped the Vikings transport the fish to distant lands like Greenland. Other methods of drying involved using fire by placing the fish in an oven or kiln. This method was more suitable for the less fatty fish like cord or flounder.
Viking Fishing Gear
During the Viking age, there was no modern fishing equipment used today. Still, that did not stop them. They improvised, using the resources available to them. The following are the fishing gears they used at the time:
This involved rope or fishing line made from sheep or walrus intestines and hooks tied at the end or along the line. The line would be thrown into the water and pulled up by hand if a fish was caught. It was not suitable for small rowing boats on open water.
This is one of the oldest ways of fishing that fates very far back, even before the Viking Age. It involved a spear made with two or more prongs at the end. The method was more suitable for shallow waters. It was mostly used in Winter to catch eels that would be huddled up in the mud at the bottom of the estuaries.
This method involved the wicker baskets that were used to trap fish. The weirs were V-shaped and placed in rivers with wattle hurdles that helped funnel the fish into the basket and trap them. It was the best method to use in rivers as opposed to open water and sea.
This method was a form of hand fishing used to catch trout in shallow waters. It was based on the fact that when their bellies are rubbed, the trout go into a trance that makes it easy to take them out of water.
This is the oldest form of fishing that applies even today in some parts of the world. The method simply involves throwing the net into the water and dragging it along catching fish as you move. The nets twines are tightly done to ensure even the smallest fish gets trapped. It worked best for big ships as opposed to small boats.
As you have seen, fishing was not just an activity for Vikings but an important skill for them to have. It makes sense because most of them were always on the sea and so fish would be their staple food while on the sea. Also, because the fish was readily available, it became the main trading commodity that they could rely on even during a famine. But it does not mean that the Vikings survived on fish alone, they also had domestic animals like sheep, cows, goats, and other agricultural products they could depend on.