The Medieval period is generally counted from around the end of the Western Roman Empire, sort of 500-600ish, to the end of the Eastern Roman Empire with the fall of Constantinople. One of the major dividing lines within this period comes when all of the Germanic tribes had converted to Christianity. The period of Christian conversion stretches from about 300 (Goths and Visigoths) to 1100 (Swedes). The Franks converted by 500, the Anglo-Saxons between 600 and 700, and the Saxons on the continent by 800 (defeated in war by the Franks, forced to convert or die). The Norwegian king converted around 900, and by 1000, Iceland was Christian. The Swedes were the last hold-outs, being most remote and most deeply devoted to the cult of Odin.
The Northern tribes had a strong tradition of funeral pyres that lasted right up to their conversion dates. They believed that the dead person’s spirit was freed to fly upward in the flames. We don’t know how they determined when to use pyres and when to bury, but there was another tradition of burying bodies in the ground or under a cairn (pile of large stones).
The Southern tribes seemed to bury bodies in the ground from earlier times, so archeologists have thousands of examples of grave goods from all over Europe. Typically, women wore a string of amber or bone beads and had their spindle and a comb tucked in nearby. Men were buried with a spear or, if they were aristocrats, a sword.
Best of all were the ship burials. In these royal burials, the king’s ship was lowered into a pit and then filled with provisions and treasures. The king’s body was laid out in the center, and sometimes servants or concubines were executed and laid out with him. Then they made a tent roof out of timbers and began to cover the whole thing with dirt and stones. When they were finished, the mound grew grass and became part of the landscape.
Ship burials were certainly the most exciting sort for the people of the time, and they remain the most exciting archeological finds. Sutton Hoo, in Kent, England, was the biggest ship burial ever found, but smaller ship burials continue to turn up.
The epic of Beowulf begins with a very unusual burial that combined a ship with a pyre. In this incident, the king is placed on a ship with grave goods, and then after the ship is set on fire, they push it off into the sea. We can’t know if this was ever actually done, but it appears to be a fabulous tale even for its time. The story may have been included simply because it was so different from typical burials.