A few days ago, we talked about how the Viking colonizers also included women (mostly family members) in their ranks, as is evident from the study of mitochondrial DNA. And now, Davide Zori, the field director for the Mosfell Archaeological Project, has shed new light into the intrinsic relationship between a Viking chieftain and consumed alcohol. His study points to a perspective that the Icelandic Vikings took part in those grand beer-and-beef feasts not just because of their propensity to drink, but also to cement their political footing in captured lands and colonies.
In essence, the feasts were intended part of a political economy in which the chieftains took part to further their image of being the dominating ‘big man’ of the Scandinavian society. In other words, these grandiose affairs demonstrated the political power of the said patron to both his allies and opponents. Moreover, the investigation further suggests that loss of alcohol-making capacity negatively affected the warlord’s influence, and as such the names of many such chieftains gradually disappeared from the Viking sagas.
The study was fueled by a farmstead excavation in Iceland’s Mosfell Valley, currently carried out Zori and his team. This so-called Hrísbrú farmstead’s main 100-ft long house was started in late 9th century, but was abandoned by 11th century. The historians matched up their findings from the site with the accounts and texts left by the Vikings themselves (from that period). On closer inspection, they found out that the North Atlantic region suffered devastating wintry conditions during the epoch that severely limited the production of grain (for alcohol) and cattle grazing. And, as scope of manufacturing beer and acquiring beef got stunted, the Hrísbrú chiefs were literally written off from the historical records.
Moreover, as the economy continued to fail, the lords had to opt for sheep herding. The extant findings only partly relate to this deteriorating state of affairs, while the text sources significantly allude (and provide context) to the loss of prestige among Vikings due to lack of booze. This is what Zori had to say about the study –
You wonder what came first for the chieftains at Hrísbrú. Were they no longer powerful and didn’t need barley and beef? Or could they just not keep it up and so they lost power? I favor the second explanation.
Zori also pointed out that the later Viking warlords desperately tried to produce expensive beef and beer, thus focusing on their (eroding) political influence, as opposed to the economic well-being of the society –
Maybe we don’t need the Vikings to prove this, but it shows you that politics can become more important than creating a productive society.
So, in essence, the political power game of the medieval world was intrinsically related to the ‘show of power’, as opposed to the actual living conditions of the regular populace. And this system might have been more pronounced in warrior cultures like that of the Vikings – given their reliance on the military strata which took part in the major overseas expeditions (which in turn brought more wealth to the chieftains).
Image Credit: Francesca Baerald