Viking Age Iceland: Ewes and Dairy

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This is Part 28 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.

Ewes that are not milked produce more and better quality wool, the cash product of Iceland’s sheep-farming society. Because of the trade value of wool, dairy activity centred on the products of cows’ milk. Most important was skyr, a form of coagulated milk high in protein, which would keep over the winter. Skyr was curdled by introducing rennet, found in the membrane of calves’ stomachs. Skyr, which is still eaten today, had in the Middle Ages the consistency of a thick yoghurt. It was stored at the main farm in large, cool wooden vats of sour whey, which were partly buried in the ground. People drank skyr when it was mixed with additional whey. Because there was no fresh milk for much of the year, skyr was the major dairy food. Cows, which were smaller than today’s, were kept alive through the winter on the limited amount of hay each farm could produce, and their milk dried up until the spring.[i]

Dairy farming is extremely labour-intensive. Much time was spent during the summer milking the cows, preparing the skyr, and transporting it down from the sel. The production of wool and homespun, which paid for imports, was supported by the labour invested in skyr and in caring for the cattle. Much of the milking and skyr production was done by women. Men were more concerned with the care and herding of animals, the maintaining of turf buildings, fishing, the gathering of natural foods and driftage, and the transportation of the skyr down from the summer dairies.

[i] Páll Zóphóníasson 1914: 52-4.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

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