legend and tradition has left us with an image of the Vikings as a group of
Northern barbarians that practiced piracy and spread their fury throughout
They are displayed as
hordes of blood-thristy warriors crowned with horned helmets, sword in hand,
moving around in their characteristic boats, willing to destroy anything
that crossed their path. Nevertheless, this vision of Viking life is not
without topics that history and the passing of time have helped to
consolidate. Today, thanks to historical studies based essentially on
archealogical sources, that take cultural material as reference (swords,
shields and jewellery...), a great part of the history of these Northern
tribes has been unravelled, and it has been discovered that they were in
fact fascinating people.
Viking sword with the typical short guard (the part that protects
Vikings are known as the inhabitants of the present
Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Inhabitants of these lands shared common
features such as language, religion, customs and character, something that
made them a common ethnic reality defined as the Scandinavian people. The
domination of the so-called Viking Age began at the end of the eight century
AD with the looting of the Lindisfarne Monastery on the East coast of
England and continued to spread for the next three hundred years. This time
was a period of constant stuggles to survive, but also became an era of
great discoveries and adventures.
'Viking' could have been derived from the Nordic term vik, whose
significance is creek or small bay, which could refer to the fact that they
would settle in bays. It is also possible that it is derived from the word
Viken, a term which is refers to the Norwegian fjords.
Nevertheless, in spite of that fact that nowadays this term
has been generalised and is
commonly accpeted, the sources of the Middle Ages show that they were
referred at that time as Magus (infidels), Gall
(foreigners) or as far as the Oriental and Arabic sources are concerned,
they were called the Rus, a term which seems to have been derived
from the Swiss word Ruotsi (rowers).
The Vikings enjoyed superiority in the sea, above all due
to the egineering of their boats. With their ships they began to expand, not
only in Europe but they also arrived as far as the Orient and to what
we now know as North America. In their expanision they seeked above all to
expand trade with the opening of new markets and the acquisition of new
lands to exploit agriculturally; which was all to increase their power and
The Vikings extended their territory throughout Eastern and
beginning of their territorial expansion the Vikings arrived first to
England, Scotland and Ireland, the area where they founded the settlement
Dyfflin, today known as Dublin. They continued their adventure landing in
France where they settled along the lower course of the river Seine. It was
then that the King of France signed a treaty with Rollo, the Viking chief,
giving them the territory of Nostri, subsequently known as Normandy. The
Vikings also made their way to Southern Europe, with presence in the Italian
and the Iberian Peninsula.
east, along the river courses, they succeed in crossing the Russian steppes
where they founded a new kingdom. They also made their way up the East by
establishing long-distance trade routes between northern Europe and eastern
lands. In the East they achieved to sieze Constantinople, the capital of the
Byzantine Empire, and they established trade relations with the city of
west they reached as far as Iceland, which was only inhabited by a number of
Irish hermits before the Viking arrival in the early ninth century AD. From
there, a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red came to land in what is now
known as Greenland. But the Viking's westward expanision did not end there,
their discoveries continued, converting their people into the first
"discoverers" of American territories, five hundred years before the arrival
of Columbus. It would be the son of Erik the Red, accompanied by thirty or
so Vikings, who at the end of the tenth century AD who would arrive at the
Labrador Peninsula and go down the American East Coast.
Landing of Viking warriors armed with axes,
shields, spears and swords.
The Vikings have passed through history as exceptional
warriors of great courage, even Christian sources reflect the admiration
felt for the strength and courage that the Scandinavians showed in combat.
It must be said that the Viking people were not only a warrior people as,
like the rest of the population living in Europe at that time, many of its
people were engaged in agriculture and livestock in order to survive. The
increasing population and the lack of land forced them to look to new
territories. Moreover, the Vikings were outstanding sailors, something that
led them to sea on many occasions in search of new horizons and more riches,
be it either by looting, or through the collection of taxes and trade.
people called the Vikings "The Curse of the Dark Ages", as they spread east
and west showing the great severity that has earned them their reputation.
Certainly the Vikings, as indicated, were very brave warriors and for them
war was an honorable activity. So much so that according to religious Viking
tradition, the soldiers who died with a sword in their hand had a guaranteed
place in Valhalla, a type of heavenly paradise. The Vikings extended their
power through war, which they carried out with their swords and axes.
'Sverd i fjell' or 'Swords in Rock' monument, with three 10
metre long Viking swords commemorating the unification of Norway under
Harald I in the ninth century.
The Viking soldier would prepare himself for battle by
covering his body in leather or chain mail. In turn, he would cover his head
with a cone shaped metal helmet that would usually have metal or leather
protectors for the nose and the cheeks. It is interesting to note that when
we tend to imagine a Viking warrior with a helmet adorned with two horns on
the sides, this is an image that is in fact far from reality, as the Vikings
did not wear horned helmets. As the last, defensive weapon of a Viking
warrior he would carry a circular shield that was made of wood and used to
be covered with iron sheets.
the offensive weapons that the Vikings used, four stand out in particular.
The first of them is a long-handled axe, a fierce
effective weapon, used
mainly by the more humble warriors as the axes were always cheaper than the
viking swords. Nevertheless, the efficiency of the axe was indisputable as
it could kill a horse, split a shield in two or cut an enemy only with one
stroke. Another essential weapon was the bow and arrow with which the
Vikings used to begin their battles. They were bows of medium length, made
nearly always out of yew wood and reinforced by leather. The bowstrings, as
in Viking tales, were made from braided women's hair. Another frequently
used offensive weapon, above all by the free men (farmers without socail
status) was the spear. The spear consisted of a handle of approximately two
metres that ended in an elongated steel point of about twenty centimetres.
Historical Viking swords found in archaelogical
by no means least, the Viking sword was one of the most popular weapons used
during the Viking Age. The Viking sword was a very effective weapon in the
battle field; this has been demonstrated thanks to recent studies of the
remains from the conflicts found in Northern lands such as those from the
battle of Visby in Sweden. Skulls have been found in this area
which show that more than half of those who died at
the hands of the Vikings did so after receiving a single, clean cut on the
head with a sword.
Viking sword was designed to cut, thanks to its double-edged blade, and not
so much for stabbing. This is confirmed by the fact that the equilibrium
point of the sword is placed at quite a distance from the hand guard,
towards the tip, which helped to boost energy and strength of the blows, but
hindered the recovery of the weapon after a strike. This sword was designed
to be operated with one hand, because the handle was very short, and with
the other hand the Vikings would hold a shield. The Viking sword was topped
off with a handle that would usually have lobed or triangular forms at the
end that were often hollow.
Equipment that a Viking warrior would use: sword,
axe, spear, helmet, chain mail and shield.
swords evolved towards new models, adapting to the changing war strategies,
developing small changes in form over the three centuries of the development
of the Viking civilization. Some authors understand that the Viking
sword as an evolution of something between the Roman gladium or
spatha up until Medieval times, when it developed into the traditional
medieval sword. Authors such as
R. E. Oakeshott, in the 60s, or J. Petersen, at the beginning of the last
and investigated thoroughly Viking swords and
have developed lists of types which provide proof of the development of
Viking swords on the basis of distinguishing features between them.
This series of features that changed progressively can be
summarised generally in the following characteristics: the Viking sword
blade got longer and longer as the years passed and therefore the weight
also increased (although the weight never passed one and a half kilos). Over
time the blade also got wider towards the hilt and tapered more towards the
tip of the blade. In addition, the tip was made progressively more obtuse,
reinforcing the utility of the Viking sword for chopping rather than
stabbing. The crossguard of the Viking sword got shorter and narrower. A
feature that did not change was the groove of the blade, on both sides.
It is not strange to find Viking swords with one face of
the blade decorated and the end closest to the handle. The most popular
decorative motifs were runic symbols or writing. Runes writing was used by
all the Germanic peoples and it had its moment of greatest glory between IX
and XI AD. On some occasions, the name of the craftsman who made the sword
could be found engraved on the sword too.
Viking swords with the Ulfberth signature. Some theories have
pointed out that this signature could have referred to a metal workshop that
made this type of sword.
It is worth mentioning one of the most important
revolutions of the Viking swords that displays the basic features that would
eventually lead to the Medieval sword. It is a Norman sword, developed
during the X to the XII century AD. This sword demonstrates a narrower and
longer blade than the Viking sword. Moreover, the sharp edge becomes
sharper, not so blunt, allowing it to be used both to cut and to the stab.
It also has a wider guard to protect the hand wielding the sword.
We can conclude by saying that the Viking
sword was the favourite weapon of the Scandinavian warriors, so much so that
the Vikings trusted their lives to this bellicose object, as mentioned by
Esaias Tegner's poem of the nineteenth century, entitled The Saga of
Frithiof, referring to the status of the Viking: "Make no tent on thy
ship, never sleep in a house, for a foe within doors you may view; On this
shield sleeps the viking; his sword in his hand, and his tent is the
is an evolution of the Viking sword.
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