The Northmen did not, however, spend all their lives in harrying and burning other countries. When the seas were quiet in the long, summer days, they would go off, as I have told you, on their wild expeditions. But when summer was over, and the seas began to grow rough and stormy, the viking bands would go home with their booty and stay there, to build their houses, reap their fields, and, when spring had come again, to sow their grain in the hope of a plenteous harvest.
There was thus much that the viking lad had to learn beyond the art of wielding the battle-axe, poising the spear, and shooting an arrow straight to its mark. Even a free-born yeoman’s son had to work, work as hard as had the slaves or thralls who were under him.
The old history books, or Sagas, as the Norseman called them, have, among other songs, this one about the duties of a well-born lad:
“He now learnt
To tame oxen
And till the ground,
To timber houses
And build barns,
To make carts
And form plows.”
Indeed, it would have surprised you to see the fierce warriors and mighty chiefs themselves laying aside their weapons and working in the fields side by side with their thralls, sowing, reaping, threshing. Yet this they did.
Even kings were often to be seen in the fields during the busy harvest season. They would help their men to cut the golden grain, and with their own royal hands help to fill the barn when the field was reaped. To king and yeomen alike, work, well done, was an honorable deed.
Long before the Sagas were written down, the stories of the heroes were sung in halls and on battle-fields by the poets of the nation. These poets were named skalds, and their rank among the Northmen was high.
Sometimes the Sagas were sung in prose, at other times in verse. Sometimes they were tales which had been handed down from father to son for so many years that it was hard to tell how much of them was history, how much fable. At other times the Sagas were true accounts of the deeds of the Norse kings. For the skalds were ofttimes to be seen on the battle-fields or battleships of the vikings, and then their songs were of the brave deeds which they had themselves seen done, of the victories and defeats at which they themselves had been present.
The battles which the vikings fought were fought on the sea more frequently than on the land.
Their warships were called long-ships and were half-decked The rowers sat in the center of the boat, which was low, so that their oars could reach the water. Sails were used, either red or painted in different stripes, red, blue, yellow, green. These square, brightly colored sails gave the boats a gay appearance which was increased by the round shields which were hung outside the gunwale and which were also painted red, black, or white. At the prow there was usually a beautifully carved and gorgeously painted figurehead. The stem and stern of the ships were high. In the stern there was an upper deck, but in the forepart of the vessel there was nothing but loose planks on which the sailors could step. When a storm was raging or a battle was being fought, the loose planks did not, as you may imagine, offer a very firm foothold.