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 versa.
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:
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 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 century.
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 boundaries.
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 markedly.
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 centuries.
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 atgeir.
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 blacksmith.
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 Scandinavia.
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 became.
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 blacksmiths, historically.
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 19th-century Romanticism.
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.