Warfare of the Vikings – A mix of myths and truths.

The view of the Viking warfare

The view of the Viking warfare is often the glorified romantic one. The mighty long-boats with big dragons in the front and the red and white sail. A real Viking man is a big and strong macho-man and he wears a horned-helmet in the battle, yielding his axe in the neck of some terrified English monk.

 

Vikings myths in popular culture.
Viking myth, the horned helmet did not exist according to archaeological evidence.

This picture is far from accurate, and some of the ideas about Vikings are TRASH. The view of the Viking with a horned helmet is CRAP. We now know that the Vikings did not wear horned helmets. Vikings who went abroad where not only plundering but also trading. Some “Vikings” were just peaceful traders and settlers in new lands. The term “Viking” means a “pirate”. Or just someone who plunders from the sea, what you and I would call a pirate. There are also some other theories about the etymology of the term but I will not focus further on that in this blog post. Blog posts about the Viking language and culture will come later.

On the Word Viking: https://books.google.se/books?id=wuN-AgAAQBAJ&pg=PA6&lpg=PA6&dq=wicingas+anglo+saxon+chronicles&source=bl&ots=4Ak5Si3JpJ&sig=kKzNtq4b-jOccFhR6lxHRsleulY&hl=sv&sa=X&sqi=2&ved=0ahUKEwi4zv2O86HRAhUEFywKHaz7CAgQ6AEIUTAH#v=onepage&q=wicingas%20anglo%20saxon%20chronicles&f=false

 

So you have now received the knowledge of the myth about the horn helmets. I guess that this was not new information to you. So, is everything in the romantic pictures just myths? NO, absolutely NOT, but some “truths” in the world are “modified”. The long-boats is not a myth but these ships were made for the long-distance travel on the ocean and was nothing of the ships that Swedish Vikings used on the rivers and lakes of Sweden. Our ships (I am Swedish, you can read more about me here), who was much smaller (7-12 meter) and just to be clear, these were made for travel on inland waters and the calm Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea is not an ocean rather more a big lake with a tiny strait connecting it to the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Viking ships and warfare.
The Oseberg Viking Ship from Norway. By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Le bateau viking d’Oseberg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24670667

 

Read more: Viking Helmet Myth: http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/did-vikings-really-wear-horned-helmets

 

The Danes and the Norwegians used the ships for longer journeys on the Atlantic. It is not know if the sails had a certain coloring or pattern. We do not know if the “movie Viking-ship sails” really existed in their “cinema-form”. The long distance ships of the Danes and the Norwegians was one of the main reason (perhaps the most important) to the success of the Norsemen raiding in the British Isles and elsewhere. Because of their low hull construction, they could go into low water and were easy to navigate swiftly. They would take the enemy by surprise in ambushes. Their swift movement could help them to get away easily before local forces could come and attack them. The Anglo-Saxons often came when the village or abbey was already looted.

Vikings england plundering and warfare
Vikings disembarking in England during the second wave of migration (vellum) by Scandinavian School, (10th century); Bymuseum, Oslo, Norway; Index; Scandinavian, out of copyright

The fact that the Danish ships combined a sail with oars was also to a good advantage but it was primarily due to the building technique that made the ships very light-weighted compared to English ships. The Viking ships were built with a special technique. It was achieved by heating up the planks with steam and bending them and nailing them together. The ships therefore became very swift and flexible.

The Norsemen did not have any real cavalry and they predominantly fought on foot during battle. They only used their horses to get to the battles and after that they mounted of the horses. Even in naval battles they preferred to fight pretty much like they did on land. They formed formations with their ships and “bound” them together. This forced the enemy to board the ships and fight sword to sword.

Icelandic horse, viking culture.
The Icelandic horse has not changed much since the Viking age because of restrictive laws on Iceland that prohibits import of horses to the Island nation. By Andreas Tille – Own work: http://fam-tille.de/sparetime.htmlImage with Information in EnglishBild mit Informationen auf Deutsch, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=472074

For defense the Vikings had forts, some famous example are the forts of Fyrkat (http://www.nordmus.dk/vikingecenter-fyrkat) and Aggersborg (Denmark) (http://www.visitvesthimmerland.com/ln-int/aggersborg-viking-fortress-gdk597454)

 

Warrior culture of the Vikings

The Vikings can be classified as a warrior culture and boys practiced with sports, hunting and weapon training begun from a very young age. Skeleton findings indicate that boys as young as 7 years train regular with sword.

Another thing that shows the importance of battle was the different war-bands that young men could join to try to gain honour. To keep these bands alive, the leader need to continue carrying out new raids and attacks. The plundering was the way to get that fame and to keep up the motivation in the group, since the war waging was the purpose with the band.

One of the famous groups are the Joms Vikings at Jomsborg. How ever there are some uncertainties about their existence.

 

About the Joms Vikings and other parts of Viking Warfare: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2015/11/25/10-things-show-know-vikings-warfare/ (Realm of History)

 

The Berserks

A “berserker” was someone who wore bearskins. These famous fighter men are believed to have put themselves in to frenzy (almost to the brink of hallucination) before heading into battle, perhaps they used some sort of drugs to that. There is strong evidence that Viking women who were “magicians” used hallucinating spices to get into ecstasy/trance. These were called völvor the findings of the spice are from graves identified as these women. Because of this it seems more likely that the Berserks also used some “drug” from the nature, in my opinion.

The Berserkers belonged to warrior-bands who had a cult of the god Odin, a God popular in the Viking aristocracy and military environments. It is said that in battle the berserkers would not feel the pain of a wound and that they were wild and put their teeth in their shields.

Carl Larsson, viking painting, Voluspa.
Volvan from Voluspa. National Romantic illustration, Carl Larsson.
Public Domain.

 

 

Viking Helmets

 

A little recap, the idea about the horned helmets is a modern myth. There are no archaological findings of Viking Age helmets and nothing in written sources that indicates this. However there is a finding of a horned Bronze age helmet from Denmark that were probably for ceremonial use and not for battle.

The real helmets of the Vikings were often made of iron but also bronze  have been found.  Some of the findings had been produced locally with the similar technique that the Romans used to do their helmets. They were often decorated with Nordic mythology symbolism, for example snakes that were a protecting symbol and heads, like the head of the warrior god Odin according to interpretation.

Viking helmet norway.
Viking helmet from Norway.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/vitenskapsmuseet/4361571039/

Viking Shields

The Vikings used circular-shaped shields made of wood and in the center, they had a hole for the iron hand grip. To protect the hand, they placed a part over the hole so you could hold the shield with your hand unexposed. In the late Viking age though they are changing to the continental shields that was kite-shaped.  To protect the legs better.

 

Viking body armour

To have a mail shirt was very expensive and it is believed that reindeer hide was used and might even have been more resistant to arrows and sword cuts than the mail shirts. The mail shirt is believed to have been used predominantly by the leaders of the Vikings. Therefore it was very expensive to buy.

Even though they never used plate armour, there is some occasional findings of scale or lamellar armour. They got it from the trading with the east. Findings of this come from Birka, a Viking age Swedish trading town that had a lot of international contact with the Eastern World. The Swedes traded a lot in the bigger settlements along the Russian rivers of Volga and Dnepr. A lot of goods and ideas from Constantinople meet them here and some Viking traders went all the way to present-day Baghdad. Some of them became mercenaries in the Byzantine emperor army. They were part of his life guards. The Viking regiment was referred to as the “Varingian Guard”.

Viking Weapons

 

We have a lot of law texts from the Middle Ages in Sweden and Scandinavia (1100 AD – 1500 AD). But even better, we have some law texts from the late Viking Age. The laws speak about free men and not the slaves who did not have rights. These texts tell us that every man should own weapons.  Your lord should provide one for you and all other of his men.

The most common offensive weapons were the sword, battle-axe and the spear. Arrows were used far less common. Weapons had other meaning than just being a tool to kill someone with, they showed the social status of the owner. Finely decorated inlays and adornments in silver, bronze as well as copper shows this. Some swords was not made for battle use but for showing the huge wealth and might of the bearer, often a powerful lord.

The spears were often made from ash tree and they were 2-3 meters long and could be both thrusted and thrown at the enemy. It is believed that the very skilled spear fighters could throw two spears (one with each hand) at the very same time. mMybe even catch a spear in its flight and then hurl it back on the unlucky and probably very frightened opponent.

By Ulfberht.jpg: Toranaderivative work: Martin Kraft - This file was derived from  Ulfberht.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20676545
Sword from Germany imported to Viking Norway.
By Ulfberht.jpg: Toranaderivative work: Martin Kraft – This file was derived from  Ulfberht.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20676545

The offensive idea of the Shield Walls

The shield wall tactic is called “skjaldborg” in Old Norse language. It was not an unusual tactic of the Vikings but a very common one in battles on at least land. One might think that the shield wall was very defensive because the most armored soldiers went in the front-line of the rectangular-shaped formation. They were also protecting the rest of the group with their shields.

But it was far more than just a purely defensive tactic. When the enemy formation charged on the Viking shield wall they had to get through the big shields of the front rank. This was of course not the easiest thing to do and it takes a lot of energy to charge in an offensive. When the enemy ran out steam the Vikings loosened the grip of their shield wall formation and the rank behind the front-line charged with axes. The tired enemy was now exposed and vulnerable to the swift attack.

 

The biggest warships

 

The ship of king Olaf Tryggvasson of Norway (he ruled from 995 to 1000 AD). He had a ship called the Long Serpent. The legends say that it carried “eight men per half-room at the naval Battle of Svolder”.  There are estimations about how many men it can take. 68 rowers + an additional crew.

How big was the huge Viking armies that went plundering in 9th century England?

In the 9th century the Vikings were very into plundering in England, of course they did so in other parts of the Viking age (800-1100 AD) but the late 9th seem to be a very active period if one looks at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles written by English monks.

A big invasion started around 865 according to the chronicles and York was conquered by the Danes in 866 (a strong Viking heritage there today) but there have been a lot of thought about how big the army really was and if ideas of ten thousands of men are exaggerated. Well they most likely are.

The historian Pete Sawyer wanted to define what an army was (called here in Older English) in Viking Age England. There was a King Ine of Wessex in the 694 that stated in a law that a here consists of 35 men. When the pagan armies left England around 896 there are accounts of 5 ships leaving for France. If you compare that to how many armies that seem to have come in from Scandinavia that were probably at its height an army of 2000-3000 men according to Realm of History (http://www.realmofhistory.com/) who are referring to Sawyer in their article. http://www.realmofhistory.com/2015/11/25/10-things-show-know-vikings-warfare/

 

The Vikings and the raven

The Viking warriors are not only symbolized by their long ships but also their use of banners. The war-flags called gunnesfannes in Old Norse had great depictions ranging from monsters with wings and serpents and dragons.

But depictions of ravens were the most common of all. The bird had a special status within the pagan religion of Scandinavia, the Raven had the power to help you win the battle. The raven is in general connected to warfare and to the warrior god Odin. They are the “eaters of the fallen men”. Because of the mythological connection the Vikings believed that the raven had a magical energy concentrated to them.

Raven bird.
Raven bird. By Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6806927

More about The Joms Vikings

 

The members of a warrior band where often member of an “extended family” or “artificial tribe as Realm of History likes to call it. These are bands that are not based on blood-ties within some kin. It is thought that these groups were created by people without land, Viking men longer out on the fringe of the social ladder who dreamed of a better life and a more honorable reputation and probably a sense of brotherhood. So because they did not have any land they instead got their wealth from pillaging and waging war.

These Vikings were not only seen as a social problem but also an military advantage occasionally. When Viking lords and kings wanted to go plundering they hired Viking bands like the Joms Vikings (if they existed) to plunder with them, as mercenaries. So the Joms Vikings are very famous but did they after all exist?

According to sources it was founded by no other than Harald Bluetooth, the Danish king who states that he made the Danes Christian. He also stated that he was the king of Norway.  The sources that we have about the Joms Vikings are not contemporary but were written down by later accounts from Danmark in the Joms Vikings Saga. According to these sources they had a fortress at Wolin by the river Oder, this is in present day Northwest Poland.

 

 

10 things you should know about Vikings and their warfare

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/weapons_01.shtml#two

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/weapons_01.shtml