Welcome to Day 1 of Norsevember’s Viking theme! Learn about the Viking warrior and the weapons they used.
Violence was a part of Viking life – at home and abroad with violence usually used to settle minor disputes and young men raised from a young age accustomed to physical battles – we can see this in Egil’s Saga with a 12 year old Egil encouraged to end an argument with brutal violence – eventually slaying Grim Heggson.
We can say with some confidence then that even the poor farmers and fisherman, the common soldiers, were still very accustomed to violence from an early age, and why any Viking force was a scary prospect to face.
The Vikings weren’t usually heavily armoured and preferred ease of movement for their raids and travels – heavy and expensive plate armour wasn’t ideal for sea voyages. They did however usually wear a helm (no horns, sorry!) and made use of their famous shields which were an essential part of their equipment list. They decorated these shields and used them for attacking as well as absorbing blows from enemy weapons. What good is a shield wall without good shields?
Types of Viking Warriors
As mentioned, Viking soldiers were often farmers or tradesmen back home. When raiding, they could still be ferocious warriors – and these Freemen made the majority of the Viking force.
Berserkers were ferocious, elite warriors who would go into a blood rage state. Sources put this down to a number of reasons, from drugs to mental illness. They seemed oblivious to injury and could not be harmed easily as they appeared to feel no pain. Once in an uncontrollable rage, anyone in the vicinity could be hacked to pieces, even after the berserker had sustained mortal wounds. Berserker translates to ‘Bear-shirt.’
The Ulfhednar was similar to the berserker – these were ‘wolf skin’ warriors as tough as wolves. It is also the name used to refer to the warriors of Valhalla. Their own skin was often died black and the literal skin of wolves worn into battle.
A Hersir was a local Viking military commander of about 100 men and owed allegiance to a jarl or king. They were also aspiring landowners, and, like the middle class in many feudal societies, supported the kings in their centralization of power.
Huscarls were well trained soldiers who usually formed the retinue of a King or chief’s bodyguard. As such, they were a higher class of warrior than many of the Viking soldiers and made use of the two handed longaxe.
The Jomsvikings were an order of Viking mercenaries or conquerors of the 10th century and 11th century. They were staunchly Pagan and dedicated to the worship of such deities as Odin and Thor. They reputedly would fight for any lord able to pay their substantial fees and occasionally fought alongside Christian rulers. Although they were Pagan, the institutions of the Jomsvikings in some ways foreshadowed those of the Christian Knightly Orders of the later Middle Ages.
You can read more about the Jomsvikings here!
The weapons found at Viking sites tend to be swords, axes, spears and bows – warriors were buried with their weapons. Interestingly, we have less evidence from Denmark because their earlier adoption of Christianity stopped this practice, which continued for a longer period in Sweden and Norway.
Viking swords were long, straight and double-edged (over 2,000 found in Scandinavia) Viking swords were not particularly sharp at the end as some varieties were, as they were used primarily for hacking and slashing, not for stabbing.
There were local variants of the longsword – the long-sax which was around 3 feet long and single edged.
Swords were very expensive and so poorer freemen would have an axe or spear. However, raiding was so lucrative for the Vikings that after one raid, anyone would have enough to afford their own sword. As such, most raiders in a Viking warband would carry their own sword. The wealth and status was then demonstrated not by owning a sword, but by how decorated it was – different metals inlaid on the pommel for example.
Aswell as swords, axes were decorated to reflect the status of its owner. As with most romanticised periods, there are some embellishments in popular culture and the huge two handed, double or wide bladed axe was not a common weapon through much of the period and was a specialised fighting implement. By the end of the Viking era though, they were a distinguishing mark of the Huscarls who would use them to fight against the mail-clad soldiers of their adversaries.
Tim Hodkinson, author of Odin’s Game shared this brilliant blog post he wrote on the use of spears and polearms, check it out here!
The bow was used by Vikings fairly commonly, though you don’t hear as much about them with the focus on their axes. Vikings utilised both long and shortbows, and they are mentioned in the sagas. If you look to the right on the below image (of the Bayeux Tapestry) you can see the anglo-saxon shieldwall, flanked by a bowman. This is generally the technique used by the Vikings too, as supporting troops to back up the shield wall. An arrow was often fired over the heads of the enemy troops on Viking battles to signify the start of the battle.
My acknowledgement to The Vikings – René Chartrand et al for the bulk of my research into Viking warriors and weapons.