The longhouse, a ubiquitous structure that symbolizes the Viking Age, serves as a significant cultural and historical icon in Northern European history. In this article, we’ll explore the definition for longhouse, who built them, their use, and general longhouses info. Stay tuned!
Definition for Longhouse
So, what are longhouses? A longhouse, especially in the context of the Viking Age (793 AD to 1066 AD), is a type of dwelling widespread across Northern Europe’s cultures, particularly the Norse or Vikings. A defining feature of the Viking longhouse is its length, often significantly longer than wide, hence its name. They were generally built from wooden logs and were large, rectangular structures that could be up to 250 feet in length. However, a typical longhouse was usually between 15 to 75 feet long and 15 to 20 feet wide.
Construction and Architecture of Longhouses
Now, who built longhouses? The Viking people themselves constructed the Viking longhouses. The Viking society, while often portrayed as solely warriors and raiders, were also skilled artisans and builders. Men, women, and sometimes even children would have taken part in constructing these dwellings.
The longhouses had a simple yet effective architecture. The structure was often made of wooden logs filled with clay to insulate against the cold weather. The roof, typically pitched and covered with thatch, turf, or wooden shingles, was supported by a pair of sturdy, longitudinal trestles running through the length of the house, creating a loft space. The longhouse also featured a central hearth used for cooking and heating. The smoke from the hearth would escape through a hole in the roof, as chimneys were not yet in use.
How Many People Lived in a Longhouse?
The number of people living in a Viking longhouse varied significantly based on the structure’s size and the household’s societal status. A typical longhouse could accommodate anywhere from 10 to 50 people. This figure included not only the immediate family but also extended relatives, servants, and in some cases, farmhands or laborers who worked for the family. The longhouse’s design, with its central hearth and shared living space, was conducive to communal living, fostering strong social bonds.
During harsh winter months, livestock could also be housed in a section of the longhouse, adding to the number of inhabitants, albeit non-human. This was practical for the animals’ protection and their added warmth.
In essence, a Viking longhouse functioned as a small, tight-knit community, reflecting the broader Viking society’s values of familial ties, communal living, and shared responsibilities. Despite the potential for overcrowding and the loss of privacy, the social and survival advantages of longhouse living were deemed worthwhile by the Vikings.
What Were Longhouses Used For?
The usage of longhouses was multifaceted. Firstly, they served as residential structures for the Vikings. These dwellings accommodated the nuclear family and extended family members, servants, and sometimes livestock, especially during the harshest winter months. Living in close quarters fostered a strong sense of community and familial ties among the Vikings.
Secondly, longhouses often functioned as community centers. Feasts, ceremonies, and other social gatherings were held in these large, communal structures, fostering the socio-cultural aspects of Viking society.
Finally, some longhouses had economic functions, with parts of the longhouse used as a workshop for crafting tools, clothing, or preserved foods. This multipurpose nature of the longhouse made it a vital part of the Viking community.
Did Viking Longhouses Have Doors?
Indeed, Viking longhouses had doors, typically located at one or both ends of the long structure. Unlike modern doors, these would often be simple, heavy wooden or hide-covered portals that could be drawn aside or lifted. The purpose of these doors was to retain heat within the house, considering the often cold, Nordic climate.
There were generally no internal doors inside the longhouse, allowing free movement within the space and heat from the central hearth to circulate more effectively. This design further highlights the communal living nature of Viking society.
Interestingly, the positioning of the doors was symbolic of Viking culture. For instance, the main entrance often faced east to greet the rising sun, while the back door faced west. This design has been interpreted as the Vikings’ way of respecting nature and celestial bodies, revealing a deep spiritual aspect of their culture.
Additional Longhouses Info
While the Viking longhouse is one of the most well-known examples, the concept of a longhouse is not exclusive to the Vikings. Similar architectural forms were employed by various cultures worldwide, including the Iroquois in North America and several indigenous tribes in Borneo. However, each culture’s longhouse reflected its unique adaptation to the local climate, available materials, and cultural practices.
In recent years, longhouses’ historical and cultural significance has been recognized and preserved in many ways. For instance, historical reenactments, museums, and archaeological sites often feature reconstructed longhouses, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience a slice of Viking life.
Do Any Viking Longhouses Still Exist?
Given the materials used to build Viking longhouses — primarily wood, clay, and turf — the physical structures have not survived into the modern era due to natural decay. Yet, what remains are the archaeological footprints of these once-significant dwellings.
These footprints, often identified as discolored patches of soil or distinct patterns on the landscape, reveal the longhouses’ outlines. They have been unearthed across Scandinavia and regions where Vikings settled, including Britain and Iceland. Some well-preserved sites include the longhouse remains at Borg in Norway, where a 272-foot longhouse – the largest ever found – was discovered.
Despite the lack of original structures, modern reconstructions of Viking longhouses have been erected at numerous historical and educational sites. These reconstructions are based on archaeological findings, historical documents, and cultural artifacts. Examples include the Lofotr Viking Museum in Norway and the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England.
These reconstructions serve as immersive educational tools, providing insight into the daily life, societal structure, and cultural practices of the Vikings. The legacy of Viking longhouses and the rich tapestry of Viking history continues to endure through them.
The Viking longhouse, a fundamental component of Norse culture, was not just a dwelling but a multifaceted structure that catered to the Vikings’ domestic, societal, and economic needs. Understanding the longhouse brings us closer to comprehending the richness and complexity of Viking society. From construction to usage, every aspect of the longhouse represents the Vikings’ adaptability and tenacity in forging a life in often harsh and challenging environments.