The Vikings (from Old Norse víkingr) were the Norse explorers, warriors,
merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of
Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th
These Norsemen used their famed longships to travel as far east as
Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia, and as far west as Iceland,
Greenland, and Newfoundland, and as far south as Nekor. This period of Viking
expansion – known as the Viking Age – forms a major part of the medieval history
of Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland and the rest of Medieval Europe.
Popular conceptions of the Vikings often differ from the complex picture that
emerges from archaeology and written sources. A romanticised picture of Vikings
as Germanic noble savages began to take root in the 18th century, and this
developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival.
The received views of the Vikings as violent brutes or intrepid adventurers owe
much to the modern Viking myth which had taken shape by the early 20th century.
Current popular representations are typically highly clichéd, presenting the
Vikings as familiar caricatures.
The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition
overseas. It occurs in Viking Age runic inscriptions and in later medieval
writings in set expressions such as the phrasal verb fara í víking "to go on an
expedition". In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase "to go
viking" implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply
seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun
víkingr appears in Viking Age skaldic poetry and on several rune stones found in
Scandinavia, where it refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an
expedition overseas. The form also occurs as a personal name on some Swedish
rune stones. There is little indication of any negative connotation in the term
before the end of the Viking Age. Regardless of its possible origins, the word
was used to indicate an activity and those who participated in it, and it did
not belong to any ethnic or cultural group.
In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the Anglo-Saxon poem, "Widsith",
which probably dates from the 9th century. In Old English, and in the history of
the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen written by Adam of Bremen in about 1070, the
term is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian. As in the Old Norse usages,
the term is not employed as a name for any people or culture in general. The
word does not occur in any preserved Middle English texts.
There are several theories on the etymology of the word Viking. According to
recent research, the word dates from before the sail was taken into use by the
Germanic peoples of North-Western Europe, because the Old Frisian spelling shows
that the word was pronounced with a palatal k and thus in all probability
existed in North-Western Germanic before that palatalization happened, i.e. in
the 5th century or before (in the western branch). In that case the word can be
explained from the Old Scandinavian maritime distance unit, vika (f.), which
probably originally referred to the distance covered by one shift of rowers. The
Old Norse feminine víking (as in the phrase fara í víking) may originally have
been a sea journey characterized by the shifting of rowers, i.e. a long-distance
sea journey, because in the pre-sail era, the shifting of rowers would
distinguish long-distance sea journeys. A víkingr (the masculine) would then
originally have been a participant on a sea journey characterized by the
shifting of rowers. In that case, the word Viking was not originally connected
to Scandinavian seafarers but assumed this meaning when the Scandinavians begun
to dominate the seas. – The starting-point of the distance unit vika is the verb
that in Old Scandinavian had the form víka (Old Icelandic víkja) 'to recede,
turn to the side, give way, yield', and the idea behind it seems to be that the
tired rower moves aside for the rested rower on the thwart when he relieves him.
At the same time, vika is the same word as a week 'seven days'; in both cases
the real meaning is 'a shift, a rotation'. A sea week really means 'a rotation
(of rowers)', and seven days really is a rotation of week-day gods – Wednesday
is Wōdanaz's day, Thursday is Ţunaraz's day, Friday is Frijjō's day, etc.
The idea that the word Viking is connected to the maritime distance unit vika
has been put forward by at least four persons independently since the early
1980s, and has gained substantial support among scholars in recent years.
Traditionally, two other explanations have been favoured: 1. The word Viking
derives from the feminine that in Old Scandinavian had the form vík and which
means 'a bay'. The idea would then be that the Vikings would seek shelter in
bays and attack merchant ships from there, or make land raids from there. 2.
Viking derives from the name Vík(in) 'the Norwegian coast of the Skagerrak Sea'
(modern Viken). The idea would then be that Vikings originally was a term for
the peoples of this area, and secondarily assumed the meaning 'pirates, sea
raiders' because these peoples played a prominent role in the Viking raids. Both
these explanations are highly problematic. The first is contradicted by the fact
that all seafarers make for harbour in bays; that can hardly have distinguished
the Vikings. To the contrary, according to the sources, the Vikings rather made
camp on headlands and islands, which were more easily defendable from land-based
armies. The second explanation faces several problems: First, people from Vík(in)
are in Old Norse manuscripts referred to as víkverir 'Vík dwellers', never as
víkingar. Second, no medieval source, neither from Scandinavia nor the rest of
Europe, connects the Vikings with the Norwegian Skagerrak coast. Third, this
explanation runs into formal linguistic problems. In addition, these
explanations could only explain the masculine (Old Scandinavian víkingr) and
ignore the feminine (Old Scandinavian víking), which is a serious problem
because the masculine can easily be derived from the feminine but hardly vice
In the modern Scandinavian languages, the word Viking usually refers
specifically to those people who went on Viking expeditions.
The word Viking was introduced into Modern English during the 18th-century
Viking revival, at which point it acquired romanticised heroic overtones of
"barbarian warrior" or noble savage. During the 20th century, the meaning of the
term was expanded to refer not only to seaborne raiders from Scandinavia, but
secondarily to any Scandinavian who lived during the period from the late eighth
to the mid-11th centuries, or more loosely from c. 700 to as late as about 1100.
As an adjective, the word is used to refer to ideas, phenomena or artefacts
connected with Scandinavians and their cultural life in these centuries,
producing expressions like "Viking age", "Viking culture", "Viking art", "Viking
religion", "Viking ship", and so on. The people of medieval Scandinavia are also
referred to as Norse, although this term properly applies only to the
Old-Norse-speaking peoples of Scandinavia, and not to the Sami.
The most important primary sources for information on the Vikings are different
sorts of contemporary evidence from Scandinavia and the various regions in which
the Vikings were active. Writing in Latin letters was introduced to Scandinavia
with Christianity, so there are few native documentary sources from Scandinavia
before the late 11th and early 12th centuries. The Scandinavians did write
inscriptions in runes, but these are usually very short and formulaic. The
contemporary documentary sources upon which modern knowledge is based therefore
consist mostly of texts written in Christian and Islamic communities overseas,
that had often been negatively affected by Viking activity. These texts reflect
varying degrees of bias and reliability, but not more so than is usually the
case in early medieval writings, and they remain very important. Since the
mid-20th century, archaeological sources have helped build a more complete and
balanced picture. The archaeological record is particularly rich and varied,
and provides knowledge of rural and urban settlement, crafts and production,
ships and military equipment, and pagan and Christian religious artefacts and
practices. Archaeology also provides the main source of evidence for
circumstances in Scandinavia before the Viking Age.
Evidence from after the Viking Age can also be important for understanding the
Vikings, although it needs to be treated very cautiously. After the
consolidation of the church and the assimilation of Scandinavia and its colonies
into the mainstream of medieval Christian culture in the 11th and 12th
centuries, native written sources begin to appear, in Latin and Old Norse. In
the Viking colony of Iceland, an extraordinary vernacular literature blossomed
in the 12th to 14th centuries, and many traditions connected with the Viking Age
were written down for the first time in the Icelandic sagas. The reliability of
these medieval prose narratives about the Scandinavian past is often doubtful,
but some elements remain worthy of consideration, such as the great quantity of
skaldic poetry attributed to court poets of the 10th and 11th centuries that was
included in these writings. The linguistic evidence from medieval and later
records and Old Norse place-names in Scandinavia and elsewhere also provides a
vital source of information for the social history of Viking Age Scandinavia and
the Viking settlements overseas.
A consequence of the available written sources, which may have coloured how we
perceive the Viking Age as a historical period, is that we know a lot more of
the raids to western Europe than those to the East. One reason for this is that
the peoples living in north-eastern Europe at the time were illiterate. Another
reason is that the vast majority of the written sources from Scandinavia comes
from Iceland, a nation originally settled by Norwegian colonists. As a result
there is much more material from the Viking Age concerning Norway than for
instance Sweden, which, apart from Runic inscriptions, has almost no written
sources from the early Middle Ages.
Good-quality written historical sources for Scandinavia during the Viking Period
are scarce, but the archaeological record is rich.
The vast majority of runic inscriptions from the Viking period come from Sweden
and date from the 11th century. Many runestones in Scandinavia record the names
of participants in Viking expeditions, such as the Kjula runestone which tells
of extensive warfare in Western Europe and the Turinge Runestone which tells of
a warband in Eastern Europe. Other runestones mention men who died on Viking
expeditions. Among them are around 25 Ingvar runestones in the Mälardalen
district of Sweden, erected to commemorate members of a disastrous expedition
into present-day Russia in the early 11th century. The runestones are important
sources in the study of Norse society and early medieval Scandinavia, not only
of the 'Viking' segment of the population.
Runestones attest to voyages to locations such as Bath, Greece, Khwaresm,
Jerusalem, Italy (as Langobardland), London, Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world),
England, and various locations in Eastern Europe.
The word Viking appears on several runestones found in Scandinavia.
There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings throughout Europe—in
Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and other North Germanic regions. As well as
providing information on Viking religion, burial sites also provide information
on social structure. The items buried with the deceased give some indication as
to what was considered important to possess in the afterlife. Some examples
of notable burial sites include:
- Gettlinge gravfält, Öland, Sweden, ship outline.
- Jelling, Denmark, a World Heritage Site.
- The cemeteries of Birka, Sweden, a World Heritage Site. The Hemlanden cemetery
located here is the largest Viking Period cemetery in Scandinavia.
- Oseberg, Norway.
- Gokstad, Norway.
- Borrehaugene, Horten, Norway.
- Valsgärde, Sweden.
- Gamla Uppsala, Sweden.
- Hulterstad gravfält, near the villages of Alby and Hulterstad, Öland, Sweden,
ship outline of standing stones.
- Trulben, by Hornbach, in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.
- Port an Eilean Mhňir ship burial, Scotland.
- Scar boat burial, Orkney Islands, Scotland.
The discovery of two particular buried vessels at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway
provided information about the Viking ships. There were two distinct classes of
Viking ships: the 'longship' (sometimes erroneously called "drakkar", a
corruption of "dragon" in Norse) and the 'knarr'. The longship, intended for
warfare and exploration, was designed for speed and agility, and was equipped
with oars to complement the sail as well as making it able to navigate
independently of the wind. The longship had a long and narrow hull, as well as a
shallow draft, in order to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow
water. The knarr was a dedicated merchant vessel designed to carry cargo. It was
designed with a broader hull, deeper draft and limited number of oars (used
primarily to maneuver in harbors and similar situations). One Viking innovation
was the 'beitass', a spar mounted to the sail that allowed their ships to sail
effectively against the wind.
Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defence fleets.
The term "Viking ships" has entered common usage, however, possibly because of
its romantic associations (discussed below).
In Roskilde are the well-preserved remains of five ships, excavated from nearby
Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th
century to block a navigation channel, thus protecting the city, which was then
the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. These five ships represent the two
distinct classes of Viking ships, the longship and the knarr. The remains of
these ships can be found on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
Longships are not to be confused with later-period longboats. It was common for
Viking ships to tow or carry a smaller boat to transfer crews and cargo from the
ship to shore.
On 1 July 2007, the reconstructed Viking ship Skuldelev 2, renamed Sea Stallion,
began a journey from Roskilde, Denmark to Dublin, Ireland. The remains of that
ship and four others were discovered during a 1962 excavation in the Roskilde
Fjord. This multi-national experimental archeology project saw 70 crew members
sail the ship back to its home in Ireland. Tests of the original wood show that
it was made of Irish trees. The Sea Stallion arrived outside Dublin's Custom
House on 14 August 2007.
The purpose of the voyage was to test and document the seaworthiness, speed and
maneuverability of the ship on the rough open sea and in coastal waters with
treacherous currents. The crew tested how the long, narrow, flexible hull
withstood the tough ocean waves. The expedition also provided valuable new
information on Viking longships and society. The ship was built using Viking
tools, materials and much the same methods as the original ship.
The Viking Age
The period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman
conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian
history. Vikings used the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea for sea routes to the
south. The Normans were descended from Danish and Norwegian Vikings who were
given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France — the Duchy of Normandy —
in the 10th century. In that respect, descendants of the
Vikings continued to have an influence in northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold
Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, had Danish ancestors.
Geographically, a Viking Age may be assigned not only to Scandinavian lands
(modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), but also to territories under North
Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, including Scandinavian York, the
administrative centre of the remains of the Kingdom of Northumbria, parts of
Mercia, and East Anglia. Viking navigators opened the road to new lands to the
north, west and east, resulting in the foundation of independent settlements in
the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands; Iceland; Greenland; and L'Anse aux
Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000 A.D. Many of these
lands, specifically Greenland and Iceland, may have been originally discovered
by sailors blown off course. They also may well have been
deliberately sought out, perhaps on the basis of the accounts of sailors who had
seen land in the distance. The Greenland settlement eventually died out,
possibly due to climate change. Vikings also explored and settled in territories
in Slavic-dominated areas of Eastern Europe, particularly the Kievan Rus. By 950
AD these settlements were largely Slavicised.
As early as 839, when Swedish emissaries are first known to have visited
Byzantium, Scandinavians served as mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine
Empire. In the late 10th century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard was
formed which traditionally contained large numbers of Scandinavians. This was
known as the Varangian Guard. The word "Varangian" may have originated in Old
Norse, but in Slavic and Greek it could refer either to Scandinavians or Franks.
The most eminent Scandinavian to serve in the Varangian Guard was Harald
Hardrada, who subsequently established himself as king of Norway (1047–66).
Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik,
Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev.
There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, the
centre of the Islamic Empire. The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their
trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant and slaves. However, they
were far less successful in establishing settlements in the Middle East, due to
the more centralised Islamic power.
Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west to places such
as Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland; the Danes to England and France,
settling in the Danelaw (northern/eastern England) and Normandy; and the Swedes
to the east, founding the Kievan Rus, the original Russia. However, among the
Swedish runestones which mention expeditions overseas, almost half tell of raids
and travels to western Europe. Also, according to the Icelandic sagas, many
Norwegian Vikings went to eastern Europe. These nations, although distinct, were
similar in culture and language. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only
for the later part of the Viking Age. Only after the end of the Viking Age did
the separate kingdoms acquire distinct identities as nations, which went hand in
hand with their Christianization. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the
Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.
The Vikings sailed most of the North Atlantic, reaching south to North Africa
and east to Russia, Constantinople and the Middle East, as looters, traders,
colonists, and mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Eriksson, heir to Erik the Red,
reached North America, and set up a short-lived settlement in present-day L'Anse
aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
The motives driving the Viking expansion form a topic of much debate in Nordic
history. One common theory posits that Charlemagne "used force and terror to
Christianise all pagans", leading to "baptism, converting or death by iron and
blood", and as a result "Vikings and other pagans wanted to avenge". Professor
Rudolf Simek confirms that "it is not a coincidence if the early Viking activity
occurred during the reign of Charlemagne". Because of the penetration of
Christianity in Scandinavia, serious conflict divided Norway for almost a
Another common theory posits that the Norse population had outgrown the
agricultural potential of their Scandinavian homeland. For a coastal population
with superior naval technologies, it made sense to expand overseas in the face
of a youth bulge effect. Raiding by sea may have been easier than trying to
carve out new farms in their vast interior boreal forest, which is not highly
productive soil. No such rise in population or decline in agricultural
production has been definitively proven.
Another explanation is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the
surrounding regions. For instance, the Danish Vikings were aware of the internal
divisions within Charlemagne's empire that began in the 830s and resulted in
schism. England suffered from internal divisions, and was relatively easy prey
given the proximity of many towns to the sea or to navigable rivers. Lack of
organised naval opposition throughout Western Europe allowed Viking ships to
travel freely, raiding or trading as opportunity permitted.
The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a
role. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe
blow when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. The expansion of Islam in
the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe. Trade on the
Mediterranean was historically at its lowest level when the Vikings initiated
their expansion. By opening new trade routes in Arabic and Frankish lands, the
Vikings profited from international trade by expanding beyond their traditional
The end of the Viking Age
During the Viking Age, Scandinavian men and women travelled to many parts of
Europe and beyond, in a cultural diaspora that left its traces from Newfoundland
to Byzantium. But this period of energetic activity also had a pronounced effect
in the Scandinavian homelands, which were subject to a variety of new
influences. In the 300 years from the late 8th century, when contemporary
chroniclers first commented on the appearance of Viking raiders, to the end of
the 11th century, Scandinavia underwent profound cultural changes.
In the late 11th century, royal dynasties legitimised by the Church were
asserting their power with increasing authority and ambition, and the three
kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden had taken shape. Towns were appearing
which functioned as secular and ecclesiastical administrative centres as well as
market sites, and monetary economies were beginning to emerge based on English
and German models. By this time the influx of Islamic silver from the East had
been absent for more than a century, and the flow of English silver had come to
an end in the mid-11th century. Christianity had taken root in Denmark and
Norway with the establishment of dioceses during the 11th century, and the new
religion was beginning to organise and assert itself more effectively in Sweden.
Foreign churchmen and native elites were energetic in furthering the interests
of Christianity, which was now no longer operating simply on a missionary
footing, and old ideologies and lifestyles were transforming. It was not until
1103, however, that the first archbishopric was founded in Scandinavia, at Lund.
The assimilation of the nascent Scandinavian kingdoms into the cultural
mainstream of European Christendom altered the aspirations of Scandinavian
rulers and those Scandinavians able to travel overseas, and changed their
relations with their neighbours. One of the primary sources of profit for the
Vikings had been slave-taking. The medieval Church took the position that
Christians should not own fellow Christians as slaves, so chattel slavery
diminished as a practice throughout northern Europe. This took much of the
economic incentive out of raiding, though sporadic slaving activity continued in
the 11th century. Eventually, outright slavery was outlawed, and replaced with
serfdom at the bottom rung of medieval society.[dubious – discuss] Scandinavian
predation in Christian lands around the North Sea and the Irish Sea diminished
The kings of Norway continued to assert power in parts of northern Britain and
Ireland, and raids continued into the 12th century, but the military ambitions
of Scandinavian rulers were now directed toward new paths. In 1107, Sigurd I of
Norway sailed for the eastern Mediterranean with a host of Norwegian crusaders
to fight for the newly established Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Danes and
Swedes participated energetically in the Baltic Crusades of the 12th and 13th
Weapons and Warfare
Our knowledge about arms and armour of the Viking age is based on relatively
sparse archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the
accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the 13th century.
According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons, as well as
permitted to carry them all the time. These arms were also indicative of a
Viking's social status: a wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a
helmet, shield, chainmail shirt, and sword. A typical bóndi (freeman) was more
likely to fight with a spear and shield, and most also carried a seax as a
utility knife and side-arm. Bows were used in the opening stages of land
battles, and at sea, but tended to be considered less "honourable" than a hand
weapon. Vikings were relatively unusual for the time in their use of axes as a
main battle weapon. The Húscarls, the elite guard of King Cnut (and later King
Harold II) were armed with two-handed axes which could split shields or metal
helmets with ease.
Bows and arrows
Bows were used both for hunting and in battle. They were made from yew, ash or
elm trees. The draw force of a 10th-century bow may have reached some 90 pounds
force (400 N), resulting in an effective range of at least 250 m. A bow found at
Viking Hedeby, which probably was a full-fledged war bow and arrow, had a draw
force of well over 100 pounds. A unit of length used in Icelandic law (the
Grágás) called a bowshot (ördrag) corresponded to 480 m. Illustrations from the
time show bows being pulled back to the chest, rather than to the corner of the
mouth or under the chin, as is common today.
Arrowheads were typically made from iron and produced in various shapes and
dimensions, according to place of origin. Most arrowheads were fixed onto the
arrow shaft by a shouldered tang that was fitted into the end of a shaft of
wood. Some heads were also made of wood or antler. Evidence for eagle feather
flights has been found with the feathers being bound and glued on. The end of
the shaft was flared with very shallow self nocks, although some arrows
possessed bronze cast nocks. The historical record also indicates that Vikings
may have used barbed arrows, however, the archaeological evidence for such
technology is limited.
The earliest find of these relics were found in Denmark, seemingly belonging to
the leading-warrior class, as per the graves in which they were found.
The spear was the most common weapon of the Viking warrior. They consisted of
metal heads with a blade and a hollow shaft, mounted on wooden shafts of two to
three metres in length, and were typically made from ash wood. The spear heads
could measure between twenty and sixty centimetres with a tendency towards
longer heads in the later Viking age. Spear heads with wings are called
krókspjót (hooked spear) in the sagas. Some larger-headed spears were called
höggspjót (hewing spear) and could also be used for cutting. The barbed throwing
spears were often less decorated than the ostentatious thrusting spears, as the
throwing spears were often lost in battle.
The spear was used both as a throwing weapon and as a thrusting weapon, although
there was some specialization in design. Lighter, narrower spearheads were made
for throwing; heavier broader ones, for stabbing. Most evidence indicates that
they were used in one hand. Limited evidence from a saga
indicates that they may have been used with two hands, but not in battle. The
head was held in place with a pin, which saga characters occasionally pull out
to prevent a foe from re-using the weapon.
Compared to a sword, the spear can be made with inferior steel and far less
metal overall. This made the weapon cheaper and probably within the capability
of a common blacksmith to produce. Despite this, the spear held great cultural
significance to the Viking warrior, as the primary weapon of Odin, the king of
the Norse gods and the god of warfare, was the spear Gungnir. The Eyrbyggja Saga
alludes that a customary start to a battle included throwing a spear right over
the enemy army to claim it for Odin. Possibly due to its cultural significance,
pattern-welded blades are common in spear heads, and the sockets of were often
decorated with silver inlaid patterns.
A polearm known as the atgeir is mentioned in several icelandic sagas and other
literature. Atgeir is usually translated as "halberd", akin to a glaive. Gunnar
Hámundarson is described in Njáls saga as cutting and impaling foes on his
Several weapons (including the kesja and the höggspjót) appearing in the sagas
have been designated as halberds or bills. No weapon matching the description
have been found in graves. These weapons may have been rare, or may not have
been part of the funerary customs of the Vikings.
Two distinct classes of knives were in use by Vikings. The more common one was a
rather plain, single edge knife of normal construction, called a knifr. These
are found in most graves, being the only weapon allowed for all, even slaves.
Smaller versions served as the everyday utility tool, while longer versions were
likely meant for hunting or combat or both. Weapon knives sometimes had
ornamental inlays on the blade. The construction was similar to traditional
Scandinavian knives. The tang ran through a more or less cylindrical handle, the
blade was straight with the edge sweeping upward at the tip to meet the back of
the blade in a point. The knife apparently played an important role for all
Scandinavians. This is represented by the large number of burial sites of not
only men, but women and children that contained knives.
The other type was the seax. The type associated with Vikings is the so-called
broken-back style seax. It was usually a bit heavier than the regular knife and
would serve as a machete- or falchion-like arm. A wealthier man might own a
larger seax, some being effectively swords. With the single edge and heavy
blade, this somewhat crude weapon would be relatively simple to use and produce,
compared to the regular sword. A rather long tang is fitted to many examples,
indicating they may have had a longer handle for two-handed use. The smaller
knife-like seaxes were likely within the fabrication ability of a common
The Seax was in widespread use among the Migration period Germanic tribes, and
is even eponymous of the Saxons. It appears in Scandinavia from the 4th century,
and shows a pattern of distribution from the lower Elbe (Elbe Germans) to
Anglo-Saxon England. While their popularity on the continent declines with the
end of the Migration period, though they remained in Scandinavia and the British
Isles. The large, sword-like seaxes are primarily found in connection with
Viking settlements in England and Ireland, but appear not very common in
The Viking sword was for single-handed use to be combined with a shield, with a
double edged blade length of typically around 90 cm. Its shape was still very
much based on the swords of the Dark Ages and on the Roman spatha with a tight
grip, long deep fuller and no pronounced cross-guard. This was in keeping with
the rest of Europe as, at that time, this design of sword was the most
widespread. The double-edged blade design hints toward combat based on thrusting
as opposed to hacking.
Swords were very costly to make, and a sign of high status. Like Roman spathae
they were worn in leather-bound wooden scabbards suspended from a strap across
the right shoulder. Early blades were pattern-welded, a technique in which
strips of wrought iron and mild steel were twisted and forged together, with the
addition of a hardened edge. Later blades of homogeneous steel, imported
probably from the Rhineland, bore inlaid makers' marks and inscriptions, such as
INGELRII or ULFBERHT. Viking craftsmen often added their own elaborately
decorated hilts, and many swords were given names, such as Leg-biter and
Gold-hilt. Swords with pattern-welded cores gave greater strength and
flexibility. The sword grip was usually made of an organic material such as
wood, horn, or antler (which does not often survive for archeological
uncovering) and may well have been wound around with textile.
Owning a sword was a matter of high prestige. Persons of status might own
ornately-decorated swords with silver accents and inlays. Only the wealthier
Viking gođar, jarls and sometimes freemen could afford swords. The rest of the
adult male population carried axes or spears into battle. One sword mentioned in
the Laxdćla saga was valued at half a crown, which would correspond to the value
of 16 milk-cows. Constructing such weapons was a highly specialized endeavour,
and was likely outside the skill of an average Norse smith; many sword-blades
were imported from foreign lands such as the Rhineland. Swords could take up to
a month to forge and were of such high value that they were passed on from
generation to generation. Often, the older the sword, the more valuable it
A distinct class of early single edged swords is known from Eastern Norway at
the time. These had grips similar to the double edged swords, and blades of
comparable length. The blades varied from long and slim, like the more common
two edged swords, to somewhat heavy, giving the weapon a more cleaver-like
balance. Confusingly the same finds are sometimes classified as "sabres" or "seaxes"
in English literature.
As mentioned above, a sword was so valued in Norse society that good blades were
prized by successive generations of warriors. There is even some evidence from
Viking burials for the deliberate and possibly ritual "killing" of swords, which
involved the blade being bent so that it was unusable. Because Vikings were
often buried with their weapons, the "killing" of swords may have served two
functions. A ritualistic function in retiring a weapon with a warrior, and a
practical function in deterring any grave robbers from disturbing the burial in
order to get one of these costly weapons. Indeed, archeological finds of the
bent and brittle pieces of metal sword remains testify to the regular burial of
Vikings with weapons, as well as the habitual "killing of swords.
Perhaps the most common hand weapon among Vikings was the axe. However, the
prevailence of axes in archeological sites can be attributed to its role as not
just a weapon, but also a common tool. This is supported by the large number of
grave sites of female Scandinavians containing axes. Several types of larger
axes specialized for use in battle evolved, with larger heads and longer shafts.
The larger forms were as long as a man and made to be used with both hands,
called the Daneaxe. Some axe heads were inlaid with silver designs. In the later
Viking era, there were axe heads with crescent shaped edges measuring up to 45
cm, called breiđöx (broad axe). The limitations of the weapon are limited reach
and a slow recovery time after striking a blow. The double-bitted axes depicted
in modern "Viking" art are likely pure fantasy.
Vikings most commonly carried sturdy axes that could be thrown or swung with
head-splitting force. The Mammen Axe is a famous example of such battle-axes,
ideally suited for throwing and melee combat.
An axe head was mostly wrought iron, with a steel cutting edge. This made the
weapon less expensive than a sword, and was a standard item produced by
Like most other Scandinavian weaponry, axes were often given names. According to
Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, axes were often named after she-trolls.
Today there is only one known example of a complete Viking helmet in
existence.This Viking helmet was excavated on a farm called Gjermundbu in
Ringerike in central Norway. Gjermundbu is located in Haugsbygda, a village in
northeast of Hřnefoss, in Buskerud, Norway. The helmet dates to the 10th
century. This helmet was made of iron and was in the shape of a rounded or
peaked cap made from four plates after the spangenhelm pattern. This helmet has
a rounded cap and has a "spectacle" guard around the eyes and nose which formed
a sort of mask, in addition to a possible mail aventail. The eye guard in
particular suggests a close affinity with the earlier Vendel period helmets.
From runestones and other illustrations, it is known that the Vikings also wore
simpler helmets, often peaked caps with a simple noseguard.
Viking helmets have been excavated from only three sites: Gjermundbu, Norway,
Tjele Municipality in Denmark and Lokrume parish on Gotland Island, Sweden. The
one from Tjele consists of nothing more than rusted remains of a helmet similar
to the Gjermundbu helmet, the same goes for the one from Gotland. It is possible
that many of the Viking helmets were made from hardened leather and ironstrips,
since many Icelandic stories and Scandinavian picture stones tell and show
warriors with helmets. It is also possible that helmets were inherited, instead
of buried with the deceased, and went from father to son, and therefore stayed
in a family for generations before eventually being turned into scrap metal or
something else, like an axe.
There is no evidence that Vikings used horned helmets in battle, although it is
possible that they were used in a ritual fashion. The horned and winged helmets
associated with the Vikings in popular mythology were the invention of
Once again, only a single fragmented but possibly complete mail shirt has been
excavated in Scandinavia, from the same site as the helmet - Gjermundbu in
Haugsbygda. Scandinavian Viking age burial customs seems to not favour burial
with helmet or mail armour, in contrast to earlier extensive armour burials in
Sweden Valsgärde. Probably worn over thick clothing, a mail shirt protects the
wearer from being cut, but offers little protection from blunt trauma. The
difficulty of obtaining mail armour resided in the fact that it required
thousands of interlinked iron rings, each one of which had to be individually
riveted together by hand. As a result, mail was very expensive in early medieval
Europe, and would likely have been worn by men of status and wealth. It was
almost certainly the "four-in-one" type, where four solid (punched) rings are
connected by a single riveted ring. Mail armour of this type was also known as a
byrnie or brynja. Rings welded together were also a common technique to make the
mail, as well as to rivet or weld every other ring, while the other rings were
left unriveted. A mail without riveted rings or with the rings not being welded
together, the mail would give poor protection in battle. No such mail is known
from finds, making its use dubious. Expensive mail armour was also seen as
cumbersome and uncomfortable in battle. Traditionally, Vikings have been thought
to have opted for leather body armour -- or none at all -- as it was both more
flexible and cheaper. However, there is no archeological evidence to support
this. Given that Vikings on a raid tried to avoid pitched battles, it's possible
that mail was primarily worn more for invasion scenarios such as the Great
Heathen Army of the mid-9th century in England or Harald Hardrada's invasion of
Northumbria in 1066.
The shield was the most common means of defence. The sagas specifically mention
linden wood for shield construction, although finds from graves shows mostly
other timbers, such as fir, alder and poplar. These timbers are not very dense
and are light in the hand. They are also not inclined to split, unlike oak.
Also, the fibres of the timber bind around blades preventing the blade from
cutting any deeper unless a lot more pressure is applied. In conjunction with
stronger wood, Vikings often reinforced their shields with leather or,
occasionally, iron around the rim. Round shields seem to have varied in size
from around 45 – 120 cm (18" - 48") in diameter but the smaller and more
manageable 75 – 90 cm (30" - 36") is by far the most common.
The smaller shield sizes came from the pagan period for the Saxons and the
larger sizes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Most shields are shown in
illuminations as being painted a single colour although some have a design
painted onto them; the commonest designs are simple crosses or derivations of
sun wheels or segments. The few round shields that survived have much more
complicated designs painted on them and sometimes very ornate silver and gold
work applied around the boss and the strap anchors.
The Gokstad ship has places for shields to be hung on its railing and the
Gokstad shields have holes along the rim for fastening some sort of non-metallic
rim protection. These were called shield lists and they protected ship crews
from waves and the wind. Some Viking shields may have been decorated by simple
patterns although some skaldic poems praising shields might indicate more
elaborate decoration and archaeological evidence has supported this. In fact,
there is a complete subgenre of Skaldic poetry dedicated to shields, known as
"shield poems," that describe scenes painted on shields. For example, the
late-9th-century skaldic poem, Ragnarsdrapa, describes some shields painted with
mythological scenes. Viking shields were also heavily used in formations. The
shield fort, or skjaldborg, was a main formation in which accomplished Viking
warriors would create a line of interlocked shields and thrust spears at
adversaries. Other notable tactics included swine order, or svinfylking, in
which warriors would create a wedge configuration and attempt to burst through
the front line of nearby foes.
Towards the end of the Viking age the kite shield appears on the continent. This
shield is shown used by cavalry on the Bayeux tapestry, and may have evolved as
a shield for mounted fighting. However, these shields were not ideally suited to
Viking-style infantry combat tactics, given its poor protection of an
infantryman's legs. No remains of kite shields are known Scandinavia from the
Viking period. It is debatable whether or not these bosses were used in the same
fashion as round shields; i.e. centre gripped. The tendency in re-enactment is
to wear them crossbraced, as if you were still riding. This is because if the
shield is held near the boss, the lower section acts like a pendulum making it
difficult to operate.
There is evidence for both flat and curved kite shields, with the curved being
more common, and most having bosses. The Kite shield seems to vary between 1.0 -
1.5m (3'6" - 5') in length with about 1.2m (4') being the commonest.
Contemporary depictions like the Bayeux tapestry show them with various designs,
including geometric patterns.
More than thirty lamellae (individual plates for lamellar armour) were found in
Birka, Sweden, in 1877, 1934 and 1998-2000. They were dated to the same
approximate period as the Gjermundbu mailshirt (900-950) and may be evidence
that some Vikings wore this armour, which is a series of small iron plates laced
together or sewed to a stout fabric or leather cats shirt. There is considerable
debate however as to whether the lamellae in question were in the possession of
a Scandinavian resident or a foreign mercenary.
Cloth and leather
Quilted cloth (a gambeson) is conjectured as possible options for lower-status
Viking warriors, though no reference to such are known from the sagas. Such
materials survive poorly in graves, and no archaeological finds have been made.
Some rune stones depict what appears to be armour which is likely not chain
mail. The armour in question may have been the lamellar armour mentioned above,
or may not have been armour at all. Several layers of stout linen or hemp canvas
would provide a good level of protection, at reasonable expense, as would winter
clothing made from thick woolen cloth. Practical experience with mail also
suggests an undergarment of some sort would have been worn between the mail and
the regular tunic, to protect the latter from dirt and excessive wear, but the
descriptions of the effect of axes in the Sagas indicate such garments were
lightly padded if at all.
Leather was far pricier during the period than today, and thus less affordable
for the casual warrior. In St. Olav's saga, the kings bane Thorir Hund is said
to have worn a tunic made from reindeer fur, enchanted by "Finns" (Sami),
defending him from sword blows. The tunic is described as "magically" enhanced
which may indicate that it may not represent a typical example of such a
garment. Leather clothing does, however, occasionally turn up in archaeological
finds, and would have offered some degree of protection in combat.
All in all, the case for non-metal forms of armour remains inconclusive. It is
likely that the average Viking fought with regular clothing, with the shield as
the only form of protection.
Foreign Origins of Vikings Arms and Armor
Foreign made weapons and armor played a special role in Norse society. They were
either attained through trade (an extension of gift giving in Norse society) or
plunder. Therefore, their possession and display by any individual would signify
their station in the social hierarchy and any political allegiances they had.
One example of weapons being exchanged between the Franks and the Vikings
occurred in 795 when Charlemagne exchanged weapons with the Norse king King Offa.
Scandinavian affinity towards foreign arms and armor during the Viking Age was
also a practical decision. Norse weapon designs were obsolete and iron found
within Scandinavia was of poor quality. Frankish swords like the ULFBERHT had a
higher carbon content making them more durable and their design was much more
maneuverable compared to Scandinavian produced swords. However, smaller weapons
like daggers, knives, and arrowheads could be manufactured in Scandinavia, yet
the best swords and spearheads were undoubtedly imported.
Many of the most important Viking weapons were highly ornate—decorated lavishly
with gold and silver. Weapons adorned as such served large religious and social
functions. These precious metals were not produced in Scandinavia and they too
would have been imported. Once in Scandinavia, the precious metals would have
been inlayed in the pommels and blades of weapons creating geometric patterns,
depictions of animals, and later Christian symbols.
The Vikings also used foreign armor. According to Heimskringla one hundred
Vikings were adorned “in coats of ring-mail, and in foreign helmets” at the
Battle of Nesjar.
During the mid-9th century, there was an influx of these high quality weapons
into Scandinavia, and Frankish arms became the standard for all Vikings. As
Ahmad ibn Fadlan observed in his writing Journey to Russia, every Viking carried
a “sword of the Frankish type." The Franks attempted to quell the use of weapons
and armor produced in Francia being used by the Vikings. The Franks feared that
they would eventually be facing equally armed opponents. Chapter 10 of the
Capitulare Bononiense, made it illegal for any leader of a church to sell
weapons or armor to non-Frankish individuals. Laws like this were enacted
throughout Francia. Ultimately in 864 Charles the Bald made the practice
punishable by death.
Some scholars have proposed that theses laws were so effective at stemming the
flow of Frankish weapons, that it initiated the practice of raiding for which
the Vikings are now famous.