Viking birth dates

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Viking birth and death dates are a problem.

The chief source of information on the Viking lines are the sagas - and in particular long lists of ancestors and children that occur in various sections, outside of the main discourse, and without any dates.

In fact, it's almost impossible to find a date in the sagas - most of them were written totally independently of the Christian calendar, and they seem to regard the count of passing years less interesting than the antics of the people the sagas are about.

Birth is only interesting when there are special circumstances; deaths are mostly interesting if they occur in battle - many people simply slip out of the saga once their part is done, never to be mentioned again.

Certain events have generally accepted dates - for instance, tradition shows the battle of Stiklestad, where Olav Haraldsson was killed, as occuring on June 29, 1030 (Julian calendar); the battle of Hafrsfjord is less certain - 872 is the most accepted date, but historians' estimates have ranged from that all the way to 900.

Nonetheless, nearly all saga-based entries have years on them - some based on estimates, some based on sheer guesswork - but few of them list their sources, so it's impossible to test them. It seems rude (and likely to increase confusion) to just delete them all, but it is also incredibly useless to start a discussion of which date is the "right" one.

Recommendations on dating

These guidelines are suggested for anyone who wishes to use time on dates on the Viking profiles.

  • Always use the "ca" marker!
  • If you put dates on the profiles, link to this page from the "about me" of the profile!
  • Put in dates as "ranges" - and don't be afraid to use a wide range!

Suggested guidelines for picking ranges

  • It's unlikely that a child is born less than 12 years after the birth of his parents. So the latest date for a father's birth should be >= 12 years before the latest date for the birth of his child.
  • It's unlikely that a father begets a child above the age of 65. If you think it happened, mark specially.
  • It's unlikely that a mother bears a child after the age of 45. (Remember - healthcare wasn't what it now is.)
  • The father must have been alive 9 months before the child was born. This means that his earliest possible death date is the year before his child's earliest possible birth date.
  • The mother must have been alive when the child was born - same considerations.
  • When a Viking is mentioned as a leader of men, it's likely that he's at least 16 years old. Probably quite a bit older, but sometimes nobles' sons get early command.
  • When a Viking fights a battle, it's likely that he's less than 50 years old.
  • Except for exceptional cases like Aun the Old, it's likely that people die before turning 100 years old. Note that this means their LATEST year of death is 100 years after their LATEST year of birth!

Implications on ranges

To get a feel for the consequences of this, let's turn to Olav Haraldsson. His year of birth is unknown, but he died in battle in 1030; in 1011 he was a leader of men - having been a viking since the age of 12. So we can make assumptions:

  • He was < 50 years old when he died in battle. So born 980 or later.
  • He was > 16 years old when he was a leader of men in 1011. So born 995 or earlier.

That's a fairly narrow range.

Now consider his father, Harald Grenske, who died before Olav's birth.

  • He died 980-995.
  • He was born no later than 12 years before the latest birth date for Olav - 983.
  • He was born no earlier than 65 years before the earliest birth date for Olav - 915.

Gudrød Bjørnsson, Harald's father, is just a name in the sagas, but we can use the same logic:

  • Born no later than 983 - 12 = 971
  • Born no earlier than 915 - 65 = 850

Bjørn Farmand, Gudrød's father:

  • No later than 971 - 12 = 959
  • No earlier than 85 - 65 = 838

Note how, in just 3 generations, the birth date range has widened to more than a hundred years.

But Bjørn Farmand's father was Harald Hårfagre, who's a very well known person:

  • Born ca 860
  • Died 933
  • (we probably can figure out limits for when he took Svanhild as wife too)

This limits Bjørn's earliest birth date to ~872, and his latest birth date to 933 - which in turn limits Gudrød's birth date to no earlier than 884 (also no later than 998, but we already know he was born before 959).

The point of this exercise: Birth date estimation is possible. But the resulting ranges are WIDE.

Document the anchor points for your assumptions!

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