Norway’s ancient sheep breed the villsau © Per Lande, 2014

Depending on the source consulted, sheep were first domesticated 8,000, 9,000, 10,000, or 11,000 years ago in either the ancient Levant, Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, or Southwest Asia. Testament perhaps to the difficulties of the accurate dating of prehistory, and the inherent dangers of applying anachronistic geopolitical terms to periods of the past. A danger that admittedly is difficult to avoid when trying to relate geographic locations in a manner that people will understand.

From their initial site of domestication in the Middle East (a mid nineteenth century term that gained traction after Mahan used it an article published in the National Review in 1902) sheep spread into Europe (a personal name that first appears in the form of Europa in Hesiod’s The Catalogues of Women c. 750-650 BC and as a geographical term shortly after) by at least 6,000 BC, and to Norway (a modern construct dating from the sixteenth century with linguistic roots that go back to the eighth century) by the end of the third millennium BC, though climatic changes from circa 500 BC to 500 AD saw farming, both arable and pastoral, suffer a setback as conditions that were unfavourable to arable crops prevailed.

As well as providing meat and milk, the ubiquitous sheep also provides hides and wool, making it a valuable commodity that can be used throughout the animal’s life. Interestingly wool may just have been the difference that allowed a people largely comprised of subsistence farmers and small time traders to embark upon one of the epic adventures of the northern world, the Viking Era.

Viking ships, or at least their longships, are world famous. The sleek lines of the clinker built hull, the sweep of the oars, the mighty tiller, the dragon’s head prow, and the square sail. Perhaps surprisingly to modern ears, this latter was made of wool rather than cloth. Less surprising perhaps when we remember that wool was the textile of Northern Europe for centuries, with linens and cottons an expensive luxury rather than a staple commodity.

Timbers and metal fittings from Viking boats have survived, often in good condition, but it was not until 1990, when the remains of a woollen sail were discovered between the roof and walls of a twelfth century church in Trondenes, that we had conclusive proof that Viking sails were made of wool. In 1991 Amy Lightfoot, head of the Tømmervik Textile Trust in Hitra, was commissioned with making a woollen sail for the replica boat, the Sara Kjerstine, being built by the Coastal Museum in Hitra. The facts of its construction provide an insight into the central role of wool and woollen cloth manufacture in Viking life.

The 85 metre square sail took 2,000 kilograms of wool to make, a year’s production from 700 sheep. Preparing the wool by separating the outer coarser hairs from the inner softer hairs by hand took six months, and spinning the 165,000 metres of yarn took another two and a half years. Lightfoot and her team were working without prior knowledge of woollen sail making which no doubt extended the time taken. Yet even with experience she estimated that it would take two skilled women a year to make a single sail. Since Lightfoot’s first experiments the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum has estimated that the Viking fleet, including longships, fishing boats, cargo ships, and coastal traders, would have carried somewhere in the region of one million meters square of sail, roughly the annual wool output from about two million sheep.

Without wool, its arguable that the Vikings western expansion may not have unfolded in quite the dramatic fashion it did. Not only did it clothe them and keep them warm even when wet, wool further provided the raw material for the sails that allowed them to reach Greenland and America to the West, and the Mediterranean to the South. Behind the men in their ships were the women tending hearth and home, and spending hours at the spindle and loom. And behind them were the small hardy sheep of the Viking world, the villsau, with its double fleece saturated with water repellent lanolin, ideal for making sails.

'Ottar', the Viking Ship Museum's reconstruction of the Skuldelev I vessel resplendent with woollen sail © Viking Ship Museum

‘Ottar’, the Viking Ship Museum’s reconstruction of the Skuldelev I vessel resplendent with woollen sail © Viking Ship Museum

Today’s recipe comes from Norway and is a simple oven top stew requiring minimal preparation that relies on the natural flavours of lamb and cabbage, and a little seasoning. Serve on it’s own or with boiled potatoes, flatbrød, and lingonberry jam.

Ingredients (serves 6)
2 ½ kilograms of  lamb, or mutton if preferred, on the bone cut into 3 cm slices
2 ½ kilograms of cabbage
500 millilitres of water
6 teaspoons of whole black peppercorns
Salt, to taste (about 3 teaspoons or so)

Cut the cabbage into quarters down the core and cut each quarter into 3-4 wedges (the idea is to keep part of the core on each segment, which will hold the leaves together and prevent the whole thing disintegrating while cooking).

Place alternating layers of lamb and cabbage into a large saucepan, seasoning each layer with salt and some of the whole peppercorns as you go. The final layer should be cabbage.

Cover with water, place a lid on the saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 2-3 hours until the lamb is tender, checking occasionally that the pan hasn’t gone dry. Add more water if necessary, bearing in mind you don’t want to dilute the end gravy product too much.

Serve with boiled potatoes, flatbrød, and homemade lingonberry jam.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London

Maxine Dodd art

Contemporary Artist, Leicestershire UK

Cycle Write Blog

My words, visions & trivia along the way

Cycling in a skirt

One life, some bicycles. A million possibilities, zero clue!

I Do Not Despair

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race. ~H.G. Wells


the man who goes alone can start today ...


A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.


Exploring Time Travel of Place

The Victorian Cyclist

A history blog on the joys and perils of cycling in Victorian Britain


Celebrating the bit players of history

Rhyl History Club

- a little look at the history of Rhyl

Cooking Without Limits

Food Photography & Recipes

%d bloggers like this: