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How tall were the Vikings?

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

How tall were the Vikings?

(signed) Wondering If I Measure Up

Gentle Reader:

When medieval writers from Europe and other lands wrote about the frightning Norse raiders, they frequently mentioned that the invading Vikings were very tall.

In 921, an Arab, Ibn Fadlan was sent by the Caliph of Bagdad to accompany an embassy to the King of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga. Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of his journeys with the embassy, called a Risala. During the course of his journey, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, a group of Swedish origin, acting as traders in the Bulgar capital. Ibn Fadlan tells us:

"I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy..."

European observers made similar observations. The Annals of Fulda record that, in 884, the Franks defeated a party of attacking Vikings in a battle in Saxony, mentioning their great size:

Quales numquam antea in gente Francorum visi fuissent, in pulchritudine videlicet ac proceritate corporum.

[In that battle such men are said to have been killed among the Northmen as had never been seen before among the Frankish people, namely in their beauty and the size of their bodies]. (Coupland, pp. 188-189)

The question is, do these anecdotal reports reflect reality? To answer this question, archaeologists turn to studies of bones from Viking graves. A study by Richard H. Steckel, Health and Nutrition in the Preindustrial Era: Insights from a Millennium of Average Heights in Northern Europe, presents a convenient summary of height data from Northern Europe:

Average Heights in Northern Europe Estimated from Adult Male Skeletons

Era Location Avg.
Height
(cm)
Avg.
Height
(in)
Sample
Size
Source
9-11th C Iceland 172.3 67.8" 22 Steffensen, Jon. Stature as a Criterion of the Nutritional Level of Viking Age Icelanders. Arbok hins islenzka fornleifafelags, fylgirit. 1958.
9-17th C Iceland 172.2 67.8" 71 Steffensen (1958)
10-11th C Sweden 176.0 69.3" 8 Gilberg, Rolf. "Stengade-vikingernes skeletter." In: Stengade II: en langelandsk Gravplads med grave fra romerskjernalder og vikingetid. Jorgen Skaarup, ed. Rudkobing: Langelands Museum, 1976. Pp. 220-27.
11-12th C Iceland 172.0 67.7" 27 Steffensen (1958)
11-17th C Iceland 171.0 67.3" 16 Steffensen (1958)
12th C Norway 170.2 67.0" 42 Hanson, C. "Population-Specific Stature Reconstruction for Medieval Trondheim, Norway." International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 2 (1992), pp. 289-95.
12th C Britain 168.4 66.3" 233 Munter, A. Heinrich. "A study of the lengths of the long bones of the arms and legs in man, with special reference to Anglo-Saxon Skeletons." Biometrika XXVIII (1928), pp. 258-294.
12-13th C Norway 172.2 67.8" * Huber, Neil M., "The Problem of Stature Increase: Looking from the Past to the Present". In: The Skeletal Biology of Earlier Human Populations. D.R. Brothwell, ed. Pegamon Press, Oxford, 1968. Pp. 67-102.
12-16th C Iceland 175.2 69.0" 6 Steffensen (1958)
13th C Denmark 172.2 67.8" 31 Boldsen, Jesper. "A statistical evaluation of the basis for predicting stature from lengths of long bones in European populations." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 65 (1984), pp. 305-311.
13th C Sweden 174.3 68.6" 66 Gejvall, Nils Gustaf. Westerhus; Medieval Population and Church in the Light of Skeletal Remains. Lund: H. Ohlssons boktr. 1960.
13-14th C England 171.8 67.6" * Huber (1968)

Average Heights in Northern Europe Estimated from Adult Male Skeletons

Bar Chart Showing Average Heights in Northern Europe

Similar heights are reported by Else Roesdahl:

"The examination of skeletons from different localities in Scandinavia reveals that the average height of the Vikings was a little less than that of today: men were about 5 ft 7-3/4 in. tall and women 5 ft 2-1/2 in. The most extensive recent anthropological study was carried out in Denmark, but the situation must have been similar elsewhere. Skeletons of people as tall as 6 ft 1/2 in. have been found, and those in richly furnished Viking graves - belonging to high- ranking people - were on average considerably taller than those in the more ordinary graves, undoubtedly because of better living conditions. A double grave on Langeland in Denmark contained two adult males, typically, the smaller one had been decapitated, and had probably had his hands tied behind his back, while the other was interred with his spear in the normal fashion - obviously a case of a slave (measuring 5 ft 7-1/4 in.) who had to accompany his master (5 ft 9-3/4 in.) in death. However, the skeleton found in Jelling church, thought to be that of King Gorm of Denmark (later known as Gorm the Old), was only of average height. This man was 5 ft 7-3/4 in. tall, with heavy, robust features, but not heavily built." (Else Roesdahl, The Vikings, p. 31).

Heights in Scandinavia and Denmark Reported by Roesdahl

Bar Chart Sshowing average heights as cited by Else Roesdahl

It is still within the realm of normal variation that there would have been some individuals who were taller than these averages, as well as some shorter. Still, on the average, the Vikings would have been slightly shorter than average people today.




Bibliography

  • Coupland, Simon. "The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History." History 88:290 (April 2003) pp. 186-203.

  • Montgomery, James E. "Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah." Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, vol. 3 (2000) pp. 1-25.

  • Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1987.
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  • Smyser, H.M. "Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus with Some Commentary and Some Allusions to Beowulf." Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. eds. Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York University Press. 1965. pp 92-119.

  • Steckel, Richard H. Health and Nutrition in the Preindustrial Era: Insights from a Millennium of Average Heights in Northern Europe. NBER Working Paper Series 8542. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. October 2001.

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