The ferocity of Viking warriors is what made the Old Norse famous — or rather, infamous — and the entire reason there was a Viking Age at all. While it may not take a well-equipped army to knock over a monastery and roll a few monks, the Vikings faced formidable enemies on the battlefields of foreign lands and sometimes even from rivals within their own or other Old Norse communities. Hence, it’s time to take a look at the historical and cultural significance of Viking armour and weaponry.
Ahh yes, the mighty sword. It’s probably the first weapon that comes to mind when you think about hand-to-hand combat on the medieval battlefield. Granted, a quality sword came with a hefty price, so swords were not available to every would-be warrior, but they weren’t exactly rare, either.
Viking Age swords are generally “typed” according to pommel shape. The Petersen sword typology seems to be the most commonly cited, but Wheeler’s sword typology distills Petersen’s 26 types down to 9.
Given that swords were something of a status symbol, it might not be too surprising to learn that at least some of the swords buried with Old Norse elites were probably decorative and not fit for battle. Additionally, quite a few Viking swords were produced by the Franks, who were known for their skill with steel.
The sagas and other written sources provide insights into the animistic beliefs of the Old Norse, including the idea that weapons possessed some sort of life or natural force that may need to be extinguished before it can be buried. The article “Charisma, Violence and Weapons: The Broken Swords of the Vikings” provides an overview of how Viking weapons swords appear to have been treated upon the death of the owner.
A common Viking Age technique for producing a sturdy weapon from iron of varying quality is pattern welding. The videos below show blacksmiths recreating pattern-welded blades, albeit with modern tools.
Axes and seaxes and spears, oh my
Good steel was incredibly expensive, but a good investment for everyday items that could double as weapons, such as axes and seaxes. These were basic tools that every household required.
Axes can be typed according to size, shape, use, and time period, and once again, the Petersen types are the standard. A single-handed (short-hafted) axe was a versatile weapon, especially “bearded” axes, which could be used to hook your opponent or their shield. The two-handed dane axe was a dedicated weapon and absolutely terrifying to face down. (I have fought in reenacted combat against someone wielding a dane axe, and Jesus H Murphy, I would not want to face that in actual life-or-death combat.) Some axes even had decorative inlay and engraving.
The seax (often pronounced “sax”) was a single-edged knife with an angled or “humped” back that was typically worn in a sheath suspended horizontally from the belt. It was just the sort of utensil/tool/weapon that every Viking man — and undoubtedly many women — used in their daily lives. The langseax (“long seax”) was commonly used for hunting and fighting, while shorter versions were more commonly used for household tasks.
Spears were not household tools, but if you were going to spend your silver on a dedicated weapon, a spear was a solid bet. The spear was one of the most common Viking arms, in part because of its relative cost-effectiveness and in part because of its versatility. Depending on the design, it could be thrown effectively, but of course throwing your weapon leaves you with one less weapon, which is bad news, especially if you only had one weapon to begin with. Worse, if you miss in one-on-one combat or are battling through a melee situation, your enemy can use it against you.
The more common spearhead types were fairly long and had two sharpened edges, so they made better stabbing and slicing weapons. Shorter spears could be used one-handed, leaving the fighter a free hand to hold a shield.
Bows and arrows weren’t necessarily the Vikings’ first choice of battle weapon, but there is evidence they were used. However, archery skills were probably more useful for hunting.
Viking warriors were generally not well armoured by today’s standards — again, iron was pricey, so protective items such as helmets and chainmail were likely only available to the wealthy. Indeed, archaeologists have found relatively few examples in the western Viking world. However, move eastward toward the land of the Rus and armour appears more often, albeit with distinctive characteristics.
Shields would have been commonly used, as they were typically made of readily accessible materials, namely wood and hide. There is some evidence that shields may actually have been used for both defensive and offensive purposes (see here for some recreated techniques), but with little hard evidence as to how Old Norse warriors fought, opinions on the matter can vary widely. When it comes to tactical formations, however, some experimental archaelogists have come to believe that the Viking shield wall is more myth than method.
More links about the Vikings:
- Link Roundup #1: Going A-Viking
- Link Roundup #2: Life and Death in the Viking Age
- Link Roundup #3.1: Viking Women — Daily Life
- Link Roundup #3.2: Viking Women — Witchcraft and Warfare
- Link Roundup #4: Vikings — The Ultimate Immigrants
- Link Roundup #5: Trade in the Viking Age
- Link Roundup #6: Viking Weapons and Armour