Viking Age arms and armour

Viking Age arms and armour

Our knowledge about arms and armour of the Viking age (8th to 11th centuries Europe) 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 at all times. 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 animal-skin coat, among various other arms and accoutrements of war. A less well-off man, however, could only afford a single weapon and perhaps a shield.

The spear and shield were the most basic arms and accoutrements of the Viking warrior. Most would probably also wear a knife of some description, commonly of the seax type which was common in Dark Ages' Europe. As an alternative, or perhaps in addition to the spear, a warrior might carry a bow or axe. The wealthiest Vikings would have worn a sword in addition to his main arms and have had access to body armour, such as a helmet and a mail hauberk.

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, 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.

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 earliest find of these relics were found in Denmark, seemingly belonging to the leading-warrior class, as per the graves in which they were discovered.

Spear

The spear was the most common weapon of the Viking warrior. Spears consisted of metal heads on wooden shafts of two to three meters in length. The 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" (barbed spear) in the sagas. Some larger-headed spears were called "hoggspjót" (hewing spear) and could also be used for cutting.

The spear was used both as a throwing weapon and as a thrusting weapon. Most evidence indicates that they were used in one hand. Limited evidence from a saga indicates that they may have been use in two hands, but not in battle.

Shield

The shield was the most common means of defence. The Viking shield was typically round, being a successor to earlier Germanic shields with a diameter of around 80–90 cm or more and a typically thickness of less than 10mm, made of planks of woods such as fir, pine, willow or linden. It usually had a central hole with a hand grip, the hand being protected by a metal boss. Shields were likely covered with rawhide or leather. 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. 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. Towards the end of the Viking age, the Norman kite shield came into fashion.

Knife

"See also: Seax"

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, they remain in frequent use in both England and Scandinavia throughout the Viking Age.

Sword

Owning a sword was a matter of high prestige. A sword mentioned in the Laxdæla saga was valued at half a crown, corresponding to the value of 16 milk-cows.

The Viking sword was for single-handed use to be combined with a shield, with a blade length of typically 60–80 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.

Axe

"See also: Danish axe"

Based on the everyday tool for splitting wood, axes specialized for use in battle evolved, with larger heads and longer shafts. 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 "breið-exi" (broad axe).

Atgeir

A polearm known as the "atgeir" is mentioned in several Norse sagas and other literature. Atgeir is usually translated as "halberd", but may have been more akin to a glaive.

Armour

Helmet

Helmets from the Viking Age are very rare - only one example is known to exist. [ [http://www.ukm.uio.no/utstilling/faste/forhistorie/index_eng.html] : "Picture: The world's only existing Viking Age helmet, from Gjermundbu in Ringerike"] This Viking helmet was made of iron and was in the shape of a rounded or peaked cap made from four plates after the spangenhelm pattern, and was excavated from Gjermundbu, Norway, and dated to the 10th century. This helmet has a rounded cap with no horns on top and has a "spectacle" guard around the eyes and nose, in addition to a possible mail aventail. The eyeguard in particular suggests a close affinity with the earlier Vendel period helmets. From runestones and other illustrations, we know the Vikings also wore simpler helmets, often peaked caps with a simple noseguard. Unlike what is often shown in popular culture, there are no sources that prove that Viking helmets had horns mounted on them.

Mail

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 Norway. Scandinavian Viking age burial customs seems to not favor burial with helmet or mail armour, in contrast to earlier extensive armor burials in Swedish Valsgärde.The mail shirt is currently interpreted as elbow-and-knee length. Probably worn over thick clothing, the mail shirt will protect the wearer from blows that get past his defence. Mail was very expensive in early medieval Europe, and would only have been worn by rich warriors. Mail armour of this type may also be known as a "byrnie".

Lamellar

More than thirty lamellae (individual plates for lamellar armour) were found in Birka, Sweden, in 1877, 1934 and 1998-2000. [Olausson, M. 2001. Krigarens resa och hemkomst. Olausson, M. (red.). Birkas krigare. Stockholm.] They were dated to the same approximate period as the Gjermundbu mailshirt (900-950AD) and may be evidence that some Vikings wore lamellar armour.

Archaeological finds

*Coppergate Helmet
*Gokstad Ship
*Oseberg
*Royal Mounds
*Sutton Hoo
*Thorsberg bog
*Valsgärde
*Vendel

aga accounts

Battles

*Battle of Hafrsfjord
*Battle of Hastings
*Battle of Hjörungavágr
*Battle of Svolder
*Battle of Nesjar
*Battle of Stiklestad

Duels

*Kormakssaga, holmgang of Kormak and Bersi


=

*Runestones
*Bayeux Tapestry
*Anglo-Saxon warfare
*Gothic and Vandal warfare
*Norman invasion
*Shieldmaidens

External links

* [http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/arms.htm Viking Age Arms and Armor] (hurstwic.org)
* [http://www.hurstwic.org/library/arms_in_sagas/ Arms and Combat in the Íslendingasögur]
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/weapons_03.shtml Viking Weapons and Warfare] (bbc.co.uk)
* [http://members.ozemail.com.au/%7echrisandpeter/shield/shield.html The 'Viking Shield' from Archaeology] by Peter Beatson

References


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