Military Camp

Vikings for all occasions, no camp too wet

Manaraefan Herred

Comments on this site should be sent to Roger Barry




he military encampments of armies in Britain, or armies from our shores, did not change from the arrival of the Romans to the end of the Crimean War.  They were often squalid places where the soldier/warrior might even find himself in the minority, most of what is today called “support services” was carried out by civilians of various status’s.  Only after the scandals of the Crimea were these civilians systematically replaced by military personnel, despite this there are still civilian traders with official contracts, the NAAFI in the British Army and the PX in the US Army for example.  These organisations are at least regulated by contract and law but in earlier times this was not the case.

Military personnel

Warriors of all classes and ages from inexperienced youths to older veterans, the latter either as leaders or the retainers of leaders.  There may also be prisoners who were being kept for interrogation or ransom. All, unless specifically named in a historical text would appear to be male; there is a good deal of evidence in latter ages for women disguising themselves as men and fighting alongside them.  Most of these women joined the army to be close to a lover or because they believed in the cause being fought for.  There is a hint that women did do such things in that the Vikings could divorce their wife for wearing male clothes, there are accounts of women wearing male clothes to visit their lovers but none that suggest that they fought as men.  Fran Juucknowicz in her article “These Formidable Ladies” (Runestaff August 1996) presents a long list of women warriors, but even when they did wear men’s clothes they were still clearly women and fall into my first category of female warriors, that is those specifically named in a historical text.

Civilian personnel           

Men, women and children of various ages but fit enough to follow the army on foot.  Status would vary from free to slave, family members to traders.  The proportions of slaves, traders, families, freemen and women would depend upon where the army was and what its mission was.  A force newly arrived in Britain from Scandinavia with no spare room in the ships for anyone not a warrior would have no civilians.  The longer such a force stayed ashore and the further it ranged about the country the more civilians it would collect.  In this instance most would be prisoners and slaves.  Civilian prisoners would be held hostage for ransom or some political advantage.  Families would be there at the end of the armies existence, if they had decided to settle on the conquered land the warriors could have sent for their kinfolk or gone to fetch them.  In this instance they would be using the army as a safe staging point prior to taking up residence somewhere.  The more permanent the camp the more likely it is that C M O T Dibbler Thorolfsson will turn up selling his famous sausages inna bun.  Finally we come to the children, they can belong to any of the above mentioned categories and tend to appear as if by magic when soldiers and women are in the same place.  It’s a mystery that only the gods can answer!

Build shelters

Slaves and women helped or supervised by lower rank warriors that have no more urgent duties would be the first to establish the camp.  When there are no slaves or women available the lower class warriors would setup camp.  When all the warriors available are of the same rank all would do something but what they would do would depend on the “pecking order”.

Find fire wood

Children, women and trusted slaves would perform this duty the children would start while the camp is being built.  When not available the lower class warriors.  When all the warriors available are of the same rank it would depend on the “pecking order”.

Fetch water

Children, women and trusted slaves would perform this duty.  When not available the lower class warriors.  When all the warriors available are of the same rank it would depend on the “pecking order”.

Guard the camp

Warriors and in some circumstances the older boys .

Dig latrines

When done at all slaves and prisoners of either sex would perform this duty, it is entirely possible that in a camp where there are none the warriors will not bother.  Where we know that there were no women or slaves etc. in a camp disease was rife and this may have been one cause.  Another consideration is the site of the latrines and the point at which water is collected.  Today we would place latrines away from water collection points and would collect the water up stream of the latrines just in case.  In the past this was not done and dysentery and other diseases followed.

Prepare food

Women and slaves but also professional cooks, these latter may actually be warriors though probably of the lower ranks.  Having said that, as every man knows, he is the best cook in the world and is not above giving advice and assistance to the less gifted members of society, especially if they are an attractive young woman.

Eating and drinking

Meal times were different in the Viking age, the main meals being at the beginning and end of the day.  What is eaten will also depend on status, slaves are not going to be fed as well as warriors, prisoners may well be deliberately deprived of food and water in order to subdue them.  If the death of the prisoner is planned then there is little point in wasting food on them.

Forage for food in the surrounding area

Normally done before the camp is set up, but if it is a long term establishment this will be continued by the warriors.  Additional slaves may also be “recruited” during this activity.

Repair weapons, equipment and clothes

This would be done by all categories depending on their skill, a slave may be a blacksmith, prisoners may have been taken for their skills.  Women would be the first choice for the mending of clothes and warriors could make minor “make do” repairs to their own weapons and equipment.

Interrogate military and civilian prisoners

Warriors with their leaders would carry out this essential intelligence function, however if there were a language barrier anyone from the other classes may be involved.

Guard prisoners

Warriors of course.


Prisoners would not require guarding if this was not one of the activities that they would consider.  Escape falls into two main types: the opportunist attempt, as soon as a chance occurs the prisoner is off and makes the best try he can using only his wits.  The second is the planned escape, the prisoner collects food and other tools or weapons he might need and makes his break at a predetermined time.  Which he tries depends on circumstances, he is likely to have his best chance soon after capture as once he is in the enemy camp he will soon weaken from starvation, dehydration and physical abuse.  The second option is only really open to prisoners of value who may be better treated.


A prisoner may awaiting ransom may be given the freedom of the camp.  In this case he will have given his parole, that is an undertaking not to attempt escape.  A prisoner or hostage on parole may even fight for his captors against a common enemy, at the Battle of Maldon one of the warriors who died alongside Byhrtnoth is described as “the hostage”.

Sort booty

Trusted warriors of lower rank would do the work supervised by their leaders.

Tend the wounded

Normally done by women, however some functions would be carried out by an appropriate man.  For instance, one highly rated skill of a leader was his ability to sew, this is related to his skill tending to the wounded and not his neatly repaired socks!

Tend the sick

Normally done by women but we must look at what Ibn Fadlan said.  When he met the Rus one of their chieftains was sick, he was placed in a shelter with food and drink to hand and left to recover or die with no human hand to help.  He died!  This is how the Rus dealt with seriously ill people, what they did with minor ailments or what other Viking did is not known by me.  The Saxons certainly had many remedies for illnesses, some of which I am sure only added to the suffering of the inflicted.

Wash the dead

Normally the duty of women, usually family members, but again religious practises of the race concerned would have to be taken into account.

Bury/burn the dead

This depends on the religion of those concerned and on the status of the corpse.  It could range from a slave digging a trench and kicking the body in, up to a state funeral.

Religious observances

Priests/Priestesses appropriate to the religion/deity would perform the rite, those in attendance would depend on the religion, Norse gods had a social class relationship with their worshippers.

Wash clothes

Women and slaves would perform this duty, if there were none then it didn’t get done.  Ambroise tells us that the largest casualties suffered on  the Third Crusade was from disease after the women were sent from the camp.  This was done in an attempt to purify the souls of the crusaders so that they would be worthy of God and therefore victorious!

Groom men, women and animals

Women would perform this function on men and other women.  Both sexes would work on animals, usually slaves and others of low rank, but a favoured animal may at times be tended by it’s owner in person.

Wash children

Even in the Viking age children must have been washed and bathed.  Hygiene standards may have been different but there is a limit to the amount of filth a mother will allow to accumulate on her darling offspring.

Search for lice

Carried out in conjunction with grooming, an essential task as Ambroise made clear in his work on the Third Crusade.  These little blood suckers are carriers of disease and must be removed regularly, there were no really effective methods of removing them other than a close personal search by hand with a comb. This continued to be an important aspect of military life right up to the First World War when lice were referred to by British Tommies as chats, naturally the soldiers talked to each other and having a chat and chatting now has a slightly modified meaning.

Personal Hygiene

Already dealt with to some extent however we cannot pass on without mentioning Ibn Fadlans observations of the Rus.  He describes them as dirty people who never perform and ablutions after relieving themselves.  He also describes how they wash each day, a slave brings a bowl of warm water to the headman who washes his hands, face and hair, he then blows his nose into the water and spits into it.  The bowl this then passed to the next man who repeats the actions of his chief and passes the bowl on!  I feel quite sick just writing this down!  Re-enact this if you must but please warn me first, I would like to be elsewhere. 


Most traders were men but there are accounts from shortly after our period when women took over the family business, this was unusual but there is no reason to suggest that it did not happen in our period of interest.  Traders in a military camp must have some sort of political protection or be the only source of an essential or valuable commodity, they must also be expected to return again.  If they do not have this value then what is to prevent the warriors from just taking what they want.

Negotiable sex

Women have plied the oldest profession in every military camp throughout time, they are less blatant in British military camps today but it still goes on.  Unless the Vikings were a bit odd then they had prostitutes too, payment probably wasn’t in cash but in gifts or favours, these professional ladies were probably slaves or lower class women trying to improve their lot.  As with traders these women must have had some value or protection that prevents the warrior simply using and discarding them, whether this protection extends as far as what today we would call a “pimp” is open for debate.


Often the fate of female slaves and prisoners, in some circumstances we are talking about gang rape of a newly enslaved prisoner, what better way of cowing a spirited woman and making sure she understands her new status!  Ibn Fadlan, an Arab that met Rus Vikings in the tenth century, says that warriors would “disport themselves” with female slaves anywhere anytime.  He says that they did this in public and that their friends would often watch and give advice or applaud!  Ibn Fadlan was no prude by Arab standards, he started his chronicle with an account of his adultery with a married woman, but he preyed to Allah for forgiveness when he witnessed this and similar events.  These acts described by Ibn Fadlan are not violent rapes but as the women subjected to these attentions would not be able to refuse they would be considered as such in a modern court. 

Romantic sex

If a woman has protection, status and is not for sale then romance may well be the final resort of the frustrated warrior.  The fact that this may not be socially acceptable, especially with fathers and husbands, has never stopped people.  Ibn Fadlan suggests that a blind eye would be turned to such affairs if the warrior was away from home for some time, he would not make any enquiry on the subject.  It must be remembered that Ibn Fadlan only met Pagan Rus Vikings, if we accept every word as true we can only say that it is true of those he met.  The attitude of modern Swedes to nudity is different to that of modern Norwegians, it is dangerous to generalize, you should remember what, where and when you are portraying.

Child rearing

Women’s work of course.  No doubt there will be some contact with the warriors but this can range from friendly interest in the antics of the young, to a beating for some minor infringement of a warriors peace.


The fate of all bored warriors/soldiers throughout history, this may well get them into trouble with their leaders.


Well if there is no alcohol to be consumed, they are bored with the women and the prisoners are unconscious then I suppose that they might actually done some.  Young warriors often need to let off a bit of steam and the older warriors need to show off their skills, training therefore, might not be what we would consider by the word, it may well be a bit more chaotic and disorganised.  The exception is when the leader is bored and thinks that the shield wall could be better, this would probably cause some grumbling but as the leader is the meanest so and so in the camp it will be done.


Worn out by the sex, beatings and training, relaxing warriors may well play a board game, such as Hnefetafl, before becoming too drunk!  If they do have the energy they may play more active games such as Kubb, an old game that involves throwing bits of wood at other bits of wood and may have been played by the Vikings.  Another game involves sticks or paddles and a leather ball, Egils saga has warriors playing the “stick and ball game”.

The subjects listed above can provide a wide variety of activities for a military encampment, some are of course out of the question, what English Heritage would say about simulated gang rape would probably not be pleasant.  Possibly the sight of a woman curled up in a ball and weeping could be done but when asked what is wrong the answer alone may be too much for the public.  The beating of a child for spilling water on a warriors shoe is also unlikely to go down well.  On the other hand searching for lice and other bodily infestations could be entertaining, trying to wash a corpse without tickling him might also be fun for some!

Basically there should be a lot more going on in a military camp other than warriors lounging about, each person taking part in such a display must have a clear idea of their role, not only their station in this micro society but what their current objective is.  Washing clothes is an all day job, as is the tending to the needs of the sick or wounded.  A characters objective may be to make a profit or get through the day without a beating, a prisoner would wish to escape and in the right circumstances a slave may wish to run away.  When considering escape or running away it is important to consider where the camp is, is it on an island, is it in a clearing in a wolf and bear infested forest.  There are a great many factors that must be considered when planning what role and objective you will be taking for the day.  A good deal of your surrounding will be imaginary as you have to take your twentieth century environment and look at it with tenth century eyes.

This article is intended to encourage people to do more in the “Living History” than the market or village scene, I hope that I have shown that there is a lot of potential scope in the military encampment.


Though this article is primarily about the Early Middle Ages, with specific reference to the Viking Age, the activities performed by the various classes of people did not begin to change until the Crimean War.  Even today an individual’s activities within the military encampment, whether civilian or military, is strongly gender related.  Regardless of legislation and cultural changes this will continue to be the case at least in our life times.

The questions I intend to attempt to answer are: who would be found in the camp?  What did people do?  And who did what?