Tuesday 15 December 2015

Norse-Style Ploughing

by Marie-Louise Jensen

I always get excited when I learn something new about one of the eras I write about. Of course there's masses I don't know, but some things reshape your view of the past more than others.
I've written three books about Vikings and am beginning a fourth for younger readers at present. I haven't researched agriculture in huge detail. I know which animals were domesticated and taken to Iceland during the era of settlement and I know which crops were grown across Scandinavia. But a chance reference of mine to a plough threw up a query from my editors and I discovered I knew very little about the agricultural methods of the Viking age.  
I discovered a wealth of rather contradictory information. Firstly, that the Vikings were known for using horses for ploughing rather than strong but slow oxen. It got the job done faster and left more time for raiding during the summer. However, the modern-style collar which enables horses to pull the plough safely had not yet been invented. So horses used for ploughing often became injured. Oxen were less prone to injury.
It appears to possibly be the case that while the Vikings used horses (and ploughs) for ploughing in the European countries they settled, they continued to use oxen in Scandinavia.
I was also fascinated to read that throughout the Norse era, the archaeological evidence points to the fact that ploughs weren't used in the Viking home countries - there they were still using a forerunner of the plough known as an ard (arðr) which scratched furrows into the soil rather than turning it as a plough does. A field near the Viking settlement of Lindholm Høje in Denmark was uncovered from a 900-year-old sand drift recently and found preserved as it had been when the sand blew over it - recently furrowed by an ard for planting.
The evidence points to the same tools and methods being used throughout Scandinavia in the Norse era, certainly in Icelamd. And an ox was used with an ard - the field worker walking beside the ox as he drew it.
So, given that my story is set in Iceland, I probably need to mention an ox, not a horse and almost certainly an ard not a plough.
I also learned two other fascinating facts. Viking-age sheep were tiny and horses were the only animals the Vikings selectively bred on Iceland.
Research really is an education.


Lydia Syson said...

Really enjoyed this. Sometimes the compulsion to get precisely right a detail that you know only one reader in a million will be thrown by or annoyed if you get it wrong feels a slightly crazed mission, but I do agree that it's crucial to know yourself that the world you are creating is as accurate as it can be. And it's just so interesting finding those details out. Now picturing charming mini-sheep in those longboats. Much more convenient for travelling, I imagine.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Thank you, Lydia! They only took baby animals with them when they moved countries. They took up even less space!

Susan Price said...

Getting it right does matter! Just the other day I was skimming through the newspaper taken by my partner and came on one of those seasonal articles urging us to have a goose for Christmas instead of turkey. It began, "Geese were only introduced into England in the seventeenth century..."

My yell of, 'WHAT?' made my partner choke on his tea.

Whereas I know I can relax and trust your oxen, ards and mini-sheep.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Ha! Did they have a goose no-fly zone over the UK before the 17th century? :)