In modern stories of the Vikings, Norse warriors tend to be presented as enormous and towering over their European neighbors. But were the Vikings really taller and stronger than other people living in Europe at that time? The short answer is actually yes! When the Vikings first landed in England at the end of the 8th century, the locals probably would have been intimidated by the size and strength of the raiders.
How Tall Were the Vikings?
We actually know quite a bit about the average height of the Vikings thanks to skeletal remains from the period. While full skeletons give the most accurate measurements, pathologists can fairly accurately estimate the height of a person from the size of their femur bone, which is about a quarter of a person’s total height.
Skeletal remains suggest that, while the Vikings were short by modern standards, they were certainly taller than many of their contemporaries.
Viking men living in Iceland and Norway in the height of the Viking period, from the 8th to the 11th centuries, appear to have had an average height of 172cm (5.6 ft), and women were shorter with an average height of 158cm (5.1 ft).
Vikings living in Sweden during the same period were even taller, with men averaging around 176cm.
While this is about 8-10cm than the average height of most people today, they do appear to have been taller than their contemporaries.
Skeletal remains suggest that the average Anglo-Saxon living in England at the time were only 168cm tall. And they seem to have been a bit taller than the French and German neighbors. While this might not seem like a big difference, the locals themselves seem to have noticed. In 884 a Frankish text known as the Annals of Fulda comments on the enormous size of the Vikings raiding in England and France. Later in 921, the Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan also commented on the height and physique of the Vikings, commenting that they were as tall as date palms.
How Heavy Were the Vikings?
It is much more difficult to determine the likely weight and strength of the Vikings from the physical remains. But since contemporary observers were right about the height of the Vikings, we should probably trust their observations that they were also large and strong.
The weapons that were wielded by the Vikings would also have required a lot of strength to wield. Just as an example, a 10th century Viking bow survives that has a pull weight of 100 pounds. If you were to go to an archery range today, they would suggest a 40-pound bow for a 160-pound man.
Obviously, there would have been a lot of training and skill involved in learning to wield such a weapon, but it does suggest that the Vikings were strong, and that they prioritized building their strength. Today they would probably be gym rats and cross-fit fanatics.
Why Were the Vikings Bigger Than Their Neighbours?
Why were the Vikings so much bigger than other Europeans at the time? Well, height can generally be attributed about 60-80% to genetics and 20-40% environment, in which the most important factor is nutrition. Protein levels in childhood are particularly important.
Diet is probably a big factor in why the Vikings were so tall. While most Europeans were living in agricultural societies, and therefore ate a lot of carbohydrates, the Vikings prioritized animal husbandry and fishing, which meant that they had more protein in their diet.
Scandinavian territories were also relatively sparsely populated when compared to other parts of Europe, so they were less effected by famine and disease.
This theory is also supported by the fact that the Vikings began to shrink after they adopted Christianity and Christian ways of life, including farming. By the 13th century, most Vikings were only around 167cm tall. You can read more about the Viking diet here.
What Do You Think?
Do you think that the Vikings were the gym rats of the first millennium?