“I can hear the grass growing in the field and the wool on the sheep” Heimdal, Snorri's Gylfaginning
While little is mentioned of sheep in Norse mythology, we know sheep played an important role on the viking homestead. The settlement of Wetherby in Yorkshire was a Viking settlement which literally means 'Sheep's town' in old Danish. In fact the word wether is still sometimes used by farmers of the region in reference to a castrated ram. A sheep tax levied in Iceland called the sauðakvöð is mentioned several times in the Sturlunga Saga as a means for the ruling class to quickly gain funds for raiding. In fact as Viking settlements became more established in Iceland the ratio of sheep to other livestock was as high as 24:1.
Wool was as much, if not more the key to the success of the Vikings as their ships. Without wool they would not have had sails for their ships, clothing to keep their sailors both warm and dry, and a product with which to trade.
This is the first part in a series of posts which explore wool in the Viking Era, and where better to start than at the source; sheep.
Sheep breeds in the Viking Era differ from modern sheep breeds which have been cross-bread to optimise their various qualities. We can however get a good idea of the breeds that were around during the Viking age both from archaeological evidence such as the sheep bones found at Haibuthu, but also from the survival of ancient sheep in pockets of Europe.
The Gammelnorsk Spælsau (Norwegian), along with the Icelandic sheep (directly descended from the Spælsau), date back to the 1000's AD and are a close descendent to the oldest sheep breeds in the world dating back to 1000BC in Europe. Along with the Spælsau, there are several other breeds which have survived within areas known to be in Viking occupation. These include the Gutefår (Gotlandic sheep) known for their curly fleece, the Pomeranian from the Southern Baltic regions, the Soay & Hebredian from North West Scotland, and the extremely rare Manx Loaghtan on the Isle of Man believed to have been brought to the island by the Vikings.
All these breeds tend to be smaller and stockier than modern commercial sheep and are hardy to survive the harsh environments. They are excellent foragers requiring little in the way of tending, and can live almost all year round on coastal heathland feeding on a variety of wild grasses, heathers and even seaweed. However Fljótsdæla Saga mentions that Sveinungr þorrisson kept his sheep in his boathouse only when there was a bad storm.
The fleeces of these sheep come in a variety of natural colours including black, brown, grey, blue and white, although the Soay and Hebredian are predominantly brown. The fleeces are dual-coated, consisting of the tog – a thick outer layer of coarse wavy or crimped fibres, and the þel – a finer undercoat. The tog is long, water repellent and breathable and is well suited to combing and the production of worsted wool yarns.
Viking sheep breeds have a complete or partial tendency to shed their current year’s fleece in the late spring and summer, and as such it is believed the Vikings rooed their sheep rather than sheared. Rooing is the removal of the fleece by plucking the loose portions of fleece from the sheep. While rooing is time consuming it allows the previous year’s growth to be removed at exactly the point where next years growth can rise cleanly on the sheep. There is a consistent staple length and no creation of shorter fibres, as would occur if the sheep was sheared. This is of benefit in spinning worsted wools.
Jennbert, K., Sheep and goats in Norse paganism
Ryder, M.L., 1981, A survey of European primitive breeds of sheep, Edinburgh