Being a European in the Early Middle Ages was rough. “Barbarians,” such as the Franks and Vandals that destroyed the Roman Empire were settling into kingdoms in their own right. Dynasties like the Carolingians and Merovingians dominated Western Europe. Diseases, poverty, and starvation were rampant. However, the Early Middle Ages had another looming threat: Vikings.
All over Europe, stories circulated of fearsome bands of raiders who would appear over the horizon, sail to Europe’s shores and pillage monasteries and towns. These raiders came from the Scandinavian countries, and were known at the time as Norsemen (literally men from the North). Their fighting prowess was the stuff of legend — so much so that the Byzantine Emperor all the way in Istanbul hired them as his closest bodyguards (Graffiti carved into the railings of the Hagia Sophia still bears the name of one of these Viking guards). These fierce warriors terrorized Europe for hundreds of years, and to Europeans it seemed as though nothing could stop the mysterious men from the North.
What did the Vikings have that allowed them to strike anywhere in Europe with impunity? What was it that made them so effective at attacking European coastal towns, raiding the local monasteries or villages, and fleeing before the king could rally his troops to fend off the raiders?
One reason is the unique and advanced vessels known as longships. The longship was the preferred warship of the Vikings. It was not armed, but it could easily carry 75 or more troops. The ship was advanced for its time for a number of reasons. First, it had a sail that allowed the ship to travel close to the wind direction, and maintain a heading even as winds shifted. It also had oars that allowed the ship to move even in the absence of wind. The Viking longship’s keel was shallow, and it only needed a meter of water to sail effectively. This allowed it sail to shore and disembark its raiders quickly. It also allowed the ships to sail up the mouths of rivers like the Danube and Volga.
The boat was able to bear the ferocious storms of the North Atlantic through some engineering that was ahead of its time. The longships’ construction intentionally included significant allowances, making the entire hull flexible. It could bend with the rock and pitch of the waves. Unlike rigid-hull ships, which risked coming apart under their own weight in a storm, the longship could easily handle the journey from Scandinavia to Italy or Constantinople. The final feature that made a longship so advanced was its long, narrow hull. The sleek design allowed it cut through waves. Viking longships could arrive at shore as little as 60 minutes after appearing on the horizon, leaving unready villagers at their mercy. Reconstructed longships have reached speeds of nearly 25 knots.
The Vikings were also cunning strategists, and their tactics exploited the military asymmetries of the day. The Carolingians’ armies were pre-feudal, meaning that the decentralized nature of the vassal system had not yet permeated the continent, and armies were still poorly trained and relied on mass. Small groups like the Vikings were able to hit targets and run off before the slow-moving bureaucracy of the kingdoms was able to react. The Vikings also relied on their fearsome reputation to keep them out of fights entirely.
Thanks to a justified reputation for brutality and ferociousness, Vikings would often land at a prospective raiding site, only to find the locals unwilling to engage them at all, preferring to surrender their goods instead of their lives. The raiders will also willing to forego many of the rules of chivalrous warfare that existed among kings of the day. Vikings, when engaging in combat, ambushed, fought in closed terrain, and generally made every effort to ensure that more powerful forces were unable to bring their superior combat power to bear on a Viking raiding party.
The Vikings had another advantage on their side, a powerful drink deeply integrated into their religious and cultural life: mead. According to Viking legend, mead originated when two warring factions of gods signed a peace treaty and spit into a bowl to seal the agreement. From the bowl was born Kvasir, the wisest of all men. Kvasir met his death at the hands of a pair of dwarves, who collected his blood, also known as the “Mead of Poetry.” The mead passed from the dwarves to a giant. When Odin, the Norse god, learned that a giant held the mead, he ventured down to the giant’s lair, seduced his wife, and obtained the mead by transforming into an eagle and swallowing it. Norse legend also states that when warriors arrive at Valhalla in the afterlife, they are rewarded with a draught of mead served by beautiful maidens. Our modern term “honeymoon” refers to the Nordic practice of giving newlywed couples 28 days’ worth (literally one lunar cycle) of mead.
Mead was also a prominent cultural fixture. The Norse served mead during their three largest feasts: the celebration of the harvest, mid-winter, and mid-summer. Feasts were also held to commemorate life events such as a wake, christening, or even a barn-raising. The celebration and consumption of mead was a way to both commune with the gods and build bonds among the community. The serving of mead itself was highly ritualized, with the wife of the king or chieftain serving mead first to the king, and then to the rest of his war party in order of social rank and precedence. Norse drank their mead from intricate drinking horns or in elaborately decorated silver cups.
Mead is a simple beverage brewed with honey, water, and yeast. Many regard it as the oldest alcoholic drink known to man, and it has also gone by the names honey wine, ambrosia, or nectar. The drink is ancient in origin, and unique recipes can be found in Poland, Nepal, Croatia, England, the Scandinavian countries, Ethiopia, Greece and Mexico.
Mead, while thought of today as being beer-like, is usually 16-percent alcohol, though it can get up to 18 percent if fermented with modern methods. The balance of honey affects the sweetness — additives greatly alter the flavor. These additives range from hops and malt to fruit, spices, and even egg whites. Mead’s flavor can elicit comparisons ranging from beer to dessert wine.
Mead’s brewing process is relatively easy — so easy, in fact, that you can probably get everything you need to brew it at your local super store. Mead ferments in as little as a few weeks, or it may take as long as a year. For Vikings, mead represented an easy, potent, and delicious brew that facilitated closely knit communities and tradition in a way few other things at the time could match.
The age of the Vikings lasted until around 1066 AD. The cause of their decline is the subject of considerable debate, but a few common theories emerge. The first is the rise of Christianity, which for obvious reasons opposed the pillaging, looting, and killing inherent in raiding. Christian authorities also forbade raids against monasteries. Another reason was the increasing inequality in Viking society. Wealth in the society consolidated as fewer Norsemen held land, and more and more were landless serfs laboring to pay rent and survive. This left few Vikings available to go raiding. In continental Europe, the formalization of the feudal system meant that small localities and principalities were able to raise reasonably well-trained fighting forces to meet Viking incursions effectively.
The Viking tradition remains alive today, in everything from TV shows to T-shirts. The Viking code of bravery and sacrifice resonates with many, particularly the small, tight-knit military community. Today’s world could also benefit from remembering the Viking society’s deep sense of community and mutual support.
Mead is a simple recipe that even an amateur home brewer can make with relative ease. Below is a simple one, courtesy of LoveBeerLoveFood.com:
- 1 Gallon glass carboy
- Enough sterile water to fill the carboy with honey added
- 1 TspYeast Nutrient
- Dry yeast (1/3 packet rehydrated per batch) — we usedLalvin D-47 Yeast and Lalvin RC-212
- Anairlock filled with sanitizing solution
Start with a large pot of boiling water. Boil the water for 10 minutes to ensure it is sterile, and then chill it with an ice bath (immerse the pot in ice water). Sanitize a funnel and the carboys prior to adding in the warmed honey, and just enough sterile water to nearly fill the carboy. Each batch then gets one third of the contents of a rehydrated yeast packet and 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient. Seal in your carboy, and place somewhere with a cool, consistent temperature. Test the taste periodically after a month or two, but be prepared for it to take up to a year to fully ferment.
And remember, the first toast of any feast is always: To Odin!
Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.