The Viking economy was based on agriculture and local food products obtained from hunting, fishing, and collecting. Chieftains and members of the elite required luxury goods to set themselves off from the population at large. Such wares were obtained by trade, often from far-away locations. The chieftains offered furs, leather, honey, and slaves in return for grain, salt, gold, silver, copper alloys, velvet, silk, and spices. From Norway and Sweden they also got iron, and from Norway whetstones (to sharpen their swords and tools) as well.

Through trade with the Saami people in northernmost Norway, Sweden, and Finland, they obtained fine pelts and whale and seal products as well as reindeer antler for use in combs, and other small articles.

Agriculture was geared more to dairy farming and the raising of sheep and goats than to the production of cereal. North of southern Sweden and Denmark it is difficult to grow crops. The soils are not particularly good, and the growing season is short. Wheat cannot be grown successfully north of southern Norway and the province of Gästrikland in Sweden. Bread made from wheat and wheat porridge were therefore foods that only the rich could afford. The more common breads and porridges were made from oats and barley. In Europe barley is often referred to as ‘corn.’ This ‘corn’ is different from the corn or maize of the American continents. Maize was totally unknown to the Vikings as was rice, which has never grown in Scandinavia.

Livestock was economically more important than the growing of crops, and the Vikings were avid dairy farmers. They had large herds of cattle, sheep, and goats from which they got a variety of milk products: fresh milk and cream, butter, cheese, buttermilk, and a form of yogurt called skyr. The sheep were also kept for their wool. They favoured long-haired sheep of a kind still bred in Iceland and now known as ‘Icelandic’ sheep. They are hardy and can spend much of the winter out of doors. Their fleece is particularly long and rich. Cloth made from this wool became an important trading product in Iceland and Greenland. Beef, mutton, and lamb were favoured meats. A large farm could have up to a hundred cows and several hundred sheep. The average free farmer had only about a tenth of that and the small farms fewer yet.

Pigs were kept, and pork and ham were festive food. Pigs produce more offspring than cattle and sheep, so they are useful when one starts a farm from scratch as was done by the first generation of immigrants into Iceland and Greenland. In the long run it is hard to keep pigs thriving in cold climates, so they became increasingly rare in the Norse diet after the first few decades in a new location. The Norse also kept chickens, ducks, and geese (and they hunted the wild varieties), but not on a large scale.

Hunting played an important role in the economy. Beaver, ermine, sable, grey squirrels, marten, and fox were pursued for luxury furs for use in clothing and blankets. Whale and seals provided much desired oil and food. A strong type of leather could be made from seal skins, and whale bone was the plastic of the Viking Age. It was used for combs, needles, pins, and ornaments, board games, small tools, and ‘ironing’ boards. Deer were hunted in Denmark and Sweden as were boar; in Sweden and Norway also moose and, in the north and Greenland, reindeer (caribou), although in Scandinavia much of the reindeer were managed by the Saami people.

In northern Norway walrus were hunted for the great value of their teeth. Walrus tusks were rare and their hard shiny ivory made them the treasured material for small ornaments. Walrus ivory became the most important product Greenland chieftains used to obtain wares from Europe. Greenlanders established special hunting camps called Nordsetr, the Northern Shielings, far north of their settlements. They were probably on what is now known as Disko Island but may have been as far north as Upernavik. At the camps, blubber from the walrus was rendered into oil, and the skins were prepared into leather. Ropes made from walrus hides were the strongest ropes of their day.

Each chieftain also had seasonal fishing camps to which he sent some of his work force for short periods of time to lay up supplies of fish which could be used the rest of the year. The fish was either dried, smoked or cured to prevent it from rot.

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