Staying Alive: Health and diet in the Viking Age
May 2, 2020 — How did the Vikings manage to be almost always combat-ready when they drank A LOT and ate plenty of meat? Well, to start with, they only drank mead and ale. Some Jarls could afford wine if they had the trading connections to continental Europe or Kievan Rus’.
The Vikings drank mostly brewed drinks such as mead, which was actually much safer than drinking water because the brewing process gets rid of some really nasty bacteria. In fact, lousy drinking water was a major problem for much of the Viking Age and also in earlier times, and up until the late medieval period; even kings died of dysentery!
As for the meat — modern nutritionists and vegetarians have managed to convince many of us that meat is somehow bad. It is most certainly not. The Arctic people eat almost nothing but meat or did until the early 2000s. Men and women that perform hard work need protein to build muscle. They also need calories, of course, and fatty meat is a good place to get them. Vikings also needed strength and stamina to be able to row their ships through the complex riverways of ancient Russia and Ukraine. Also, Vikings and Varangians crossing the Atlantic or the Baltic seas had to be prepared to row at all times, the winds were far from favorable for most sailors. Hence, protein and fat were precisely what the Vikings needed to get around in the world. No meat, no fun.
In this day and age, tourists who’ve visited Iceland to find out more about its culinary traditions and eating habits have sometimes been surprised as they’ve unknowingly ordered horse meat, which is considered a delicacy in Iceland. Horsemeat is lean and a bit lighter than beef, and also much tenderer — in the Viking Age, only the upper classes of society, the Jarls, could afford to eat horse meat. Since the Æsir of Norse myth is closely related to their horses — I believe that is one key reason why horse meat is so popular in Iceland.
The consumption of horse meat in Iceland has a fascinating story that I would like to share with you: When Iceland was Christened in the year 1000 CE, one of the conditions put forward to accept the new religion was that the Icelanders would still be allowed to eat their beloved horses. Another interesting “request” related to the formal Christianization of Iceland’s was put forward by the Icelandic “Viking priests” known as Guþi (“Gothi”). The Guþi demanded that the veneration of Æsir gods such as Óðinn, Þórr, and Freyr must not be forbidden, to which the church had to agree since the heathen culture of the Viking Age was so deeply rooted in most people they were prepared to die to protect their way of life — on the terms heathen worship could not be carried out in public.
Also, don’t get the idea Vikings were chowing down on big steaks every night. They sure had cattle as the Fé rune ᚠ indicates, but they needed them mostly for milk, which they could make into cheese that could keep through the winter. Their other source of red meat was reindeer, but reindeer aren’t like beef cattle; they don’t have a ton of meat on them. When out on the sea, Vikings relied heavily on smoked and dried reindeer meat and fish, cheese, and rye crispbread (being dry, it’s a “bread” that doesn’t mold.)
A modern nutritionist would freak out if you adopted a Viking diet, but it makes sense if you choose a Viking way of life: hard physical labor every day, and even some nights. Meat and fat and fish provide human muscle all the energy and protein it needs to grow strong and remain fit. That said, vegetables are equally important, of course, especially to avoid diseases and make sure your body is stacked up correctly on vitamins and minerals.