The Surprising Diet of the Vikings

Kamie Berry | October 18th, 2017

The Vikings are well-known for their warlike nature. It is no wonder then that images of a Viking feast often contain large platters of roasted meat and mugs of some strong alcoholic beverage, with little else as an accompaniment besides perhaps some type of bread.

You might be astonished to learn, then, that the Viking diet was actually quite varied and healthy for that time period. Even poor Vikings typically ate well, much better than many of their European counterparts, in fact.

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So, what did these almost mythical warrior people eat?

They did eat a lot of meat. The difference between Vikings and other societies, though, is that pretty much everyone had access to meat, including the poor. While poor peasants in the rest of Europe were living off barley and peas, Viking peasants were chowing down on pork, beef, goats, mutton, and even horses as often as once a day.

They also consumed other sources of protein, besides red meat. Since they were a seafaring people, they ate a lot of fish. They would often preserve their seafood by pickling or smoking, and some popular Scandinavian fish dishes today make use of these fish preservation methods. They also ate whales that had beached themselves and died, though this sounds really unappetizing.

In addition to this, they ate all kinds of fowl, both domestic and wild. The eggs of domestic birds would also be eaten. They also hunted for such game as elk, bear, wild pig, and squirrel.

The biggest difference between the Viking diet and that of other Europeans was their inclusion of vegetables. In many other countries at that time, vegetables were not eaten much, especially by the wealthy. The poor often had to eat them because they didn’t have access to much else. The Vikings ate lots of vegetables and fruits, though.

They ate a lot of wild vegetables and fruits, like wild carrots, apples, and berries. But they also had farms where they grew things like beans, cabbages, spinach, onions, and even endive. One of their most popular meals, skause, was a type of stew made with meat and a variety of vegetables. To have access to fruits and vegetables year-round, the Vikings preserved their produce by drying it.

Their food wasn’t totally bland, either, as they made use of a number of spices and herbs that were available to them. For example, they regularly used wild horseradish to spice up their dishes. They also coriander, poppy seeds, mustard, mint, thyme, and cumin to give their food some flavor. What they couldn’t get locally, they sometimes traded for, especially during the Middle Ages. International trade gave the Vikings access to such spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper, which they used often.

While their diet was much better than one would expect, this does not mean that the Vikings were a completely healthy people. Examination of Viking cesspits (basically ancient toilets), archeologists have found that many of them suffered from intestinal parasites. These would have caused illness and even early death in some cases. These parasites could have resulted from poor hygiene or improper food preparation. They also used wild plants that are known to be poisonous to humans, and used their seeds in baking bread.

Had modern medicine been available, though, and had proper handwashing and food preparation techniques been known, the Vikings probably would have been a very healthy group of people. This may explain why their modern descendants, the Scandinavians, have such a high life expectancy today, since many of their eating habits are similar to those of their warrior ancestors.

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