Myths and reality of Norse armour and weaponry.
By J. C. Duncan
You cannot watch a Viking film or TV show or see any pop culture reference to them without being bombarded with anachronisms. Books are generally better, but not always. I always believed myself to be fairly well educated on the subject and cynical of the wilder stories and claims. But in my research for my Norse era novels, I found I had a few misconceptions that I had not realised I had picked up from pop culture. So, let’s go through a few of the big ones I see, and some more obscure ones, and separate the myth from the reality.
The myth: Viking warriors wore ornate, ‘spectacled’ helmets into battle.
The Viking helmet! So iconic, so recognisable. The ‘Viking’ helmet is burned into the retina of anyone who has ever been near a television screen. And no! I am not speaking of the silly horned helmets of cartoons; I’m giving you all the benefit of the doubt that you know those were not real. I am speaking of the real thing, of which there are precisely two (relatively complete) in existence.
On the left is the Yarm helmet, discovered in its namesake town in northern England. It’s basic, workmanlike and practical, a simple, unadorned piece of armour. It was dated to a period where that part of the country was the ‘Danelaw’; the Norse ruled part of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is thus labelled as an Anglo-Scandinavian artefact rather than a confirmed ‘Viking’ helmet.
On the right is the Gjermundbu helmet. Dated to the Viking age and found in Norway, beautifully decorated and made, this is the famous face of the Viking warrior, replicated in every Viking reenactors event, and every Viking tv show and movie ever made.
But how real is it, and how common were they? Reenactor events, games and other media would have you believe they were ubiquitous amongst warriors.
The reality: Discovering two helmets in Scandinavia and Viking ruled lands, and a couple of fragments, does not extrapolate to demonstrating they were typical or common Norse helmets. Hundreds of swords have been found in Norse graves, hundreds more in rivers, ditches, fields and ships. If helmets were common, they would likely be there too. The reality is that sources of iron in Scandinavia at the time were poor and unsuited to the challenging work of hammering out thin helmet plates. The logic is that, like all their weapons and armour, the Vikings would have traded for or stolen foreign helmets whenever they could. Genuine, Scandinavian made helmets in this style were probably exceptionally rare, even at the time. The idea of boatloads of Viking warriors wearing spectacled helmets is false. Only the richest, or luckiest, of Viking warriors, would have owned a helmet, and most of those would have been foreign. Contemporary runestones depict some helmeted warriors, but most of those are wearing simple iron caps, some with a noseguard in the 11th-century European style. No ‘spectacled’ helmet appears in contemporary art to the best of my knowledge. Everyone else would have been bareheaded or have worn thick felt caps. I think most Norse people may never have even seen a helmet in the style that is so recognisable now.
The Myth: The Viking sword was the main weapon of the Viking warrior
The Viking sword! Hah, I am writing an entire series about a mythical Norse made sword. They must be real! Well… yes, they undoubtedly are, with caveats. What is thought of as the ‘Viking sword’ is really just the western/northern European sword. From the first Viking raids until the end of the Viking age, the Norse used the same sword blade designs as everyone else. These slowly evolved from a broad, round-ended cutting weapon into a slightly more tapered weapon with a spear style point, capable of defeating the typical armour of the time (maille), in the right conditions.
The reality is that the Vikings had almost nothing to do with the sword design, which was a continuing development of French (Carolingian) swords, themselves evolved from the Roman Spatha. Later, as the Norse were Christianised, they adopted the same Type X and later Type XI and XII swords that all the other western European countries adopted. What is commonly recognised now as the ‘knightly’ sword.
‘But what about the swords with Norse style hilts!’ I hear you scream. Well, yes, they existed and they are a beautiful art form. But they are, mostly, exactly that. Hilts. Most of those hilts were fitted to imported (or stolen) Frankish blades. The centre of swordsmithing at the time was in Frankia, in the Carolingian empire and its successor states, and their blades were used everywhere, including by the Norse.
‘Some’ (we will never know what proportion) sword blades were made in Scandinavia. But again, the lack of good iron and the lower population and less swordsmithing tradition made this forever the minority, and perhaps, on average, the lower quality blades too. The use of Frankish swords by the Vikings, even against their home country, was so prevalent that laws were passed in the empire specifically banning sale of swords to the Norse. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, the famous 10th century traveller, said that even in Russia, the Vikings carried ‘swords of the Frankish type’.
The next nail in the ‘Viking sword’ coffin is that most warriors would not have owned swords at all during the era of the Viking raids in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Swords were a rich man’s weapon, and mostly as a sidearm after his spear was gone or broken. Your typical warrior would have used a spear or maybe an axe, and would have relied on a seax, scaramseax or longseax as his second weapon. Seaxes of one form or another would have outnumbered swords amongst the Viking raiders heavily in most cases.
Swords do appear to have become more common as time went on, and in the 10th and 11th century more warriors may have had them, although by that time the distinction between Norse warriors and those of other western European countries was pretty slim. They were mostly Christians by then, and armed in the same ways as other nearby Christian nations.
The reality: Most Viking swords were actually Frankish or other foreign-made blades, some hilted or re-hilted in Scandinavia, and most warriors didn’t own swords anyway. So true ‘Viking’ swords owned by Vikings would have been a rarity.
The Myth: The Vikings carried unique, huge battleaxes, fearsome weapons that could cleave a man in half!
Now. I’ve probably upset some people by killing the sacred cows of Viking swords and helmets, so… surely I’m not going to go after the Viking axe… am I?
There are two broad forms of fighting axe prevalent in Norse burials and sites from the Viking age in the west (There are additional forms prevalent in the east). The first is the handaxe, a single-handed weapon on a short shaft, with a wedge-shaped, sturdy blade that varied hugely over time and style in ways I can’t go into here, but Petersen has a typology for them as with other ‘Viking’ weapons.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, the handaxe would have been a much more common weapon for the Viking warrior than a sword. This is because because they required a lot less skill, time, and high-quality steel to make. The body could be made of wrought iron of a quality that would be useless for a sword-blade and any blacksmith in Scandinavia worth his salt would have been able to make them. The example above, the famous Mammen axe, is fairly typical of the main features of such an axe, although the fabulous decoration is not.
Like the almost ubiquitous seax, these axes would have been useful both as weapons and tools, essential in the very practical Norse society. Viking raiders spent much longer travelling and camping and surviving than they did fighting, and what they carried had to reflect that. These axes were not ‘perfect’ wood cutting tools, but unlike the big ‘Dane’ axes, they absolutely could be used for many everyday tasks.
The second type of axe is the famous ‘Dane’ axe, or battle axe. These fearsome-looking weapons were wielded with two hands, had a surprisingly light and thin blade, and could, in later versions, have a forge welded hardened steel blade edge that made them truly awesome cutting weapons.
These weapons were so feared and respected that many enemies of the Vikings adopted them, famously the Anglo-Saxons used them as the weapon for their elite huscarls 100 years after the Norse control of North and Eastern England had been revoked. The Bayeux tapestry depicts such an axe cutting the head clean off a horse. This weapon was so successful that it never truly went away, becoming adopted even as a knightly weapon and developing into the poleaxe, with more emphasis on spiked versions.
The famous gallowglass mercenaries still used Dane axes into the 15th and even 16th centuries.
There is some debate about ‘how’ they were used, and how effective they would be in different forms of combat, but there is no doubting how widespread they were, or who popularised them: The feared Viking raiders, specifically the Danes, whose widespread use of them appears to have given them their name.
The reality: The hand axe was indeed a typical weapon of a Viking warrior, and was a Scandinavian driven design. The battle axe or ‘Dane’ axe was indeed a fearsome weapon, carried by Vikings, mostly in the second half of the Viking age, and so respected and feared many enemies of the Vikings copied it and developed it, arguably a lineage that could be traced right up to the halberds of the 19th century.
All my gear shall be decorated
The Myth: A viking’s gear was all beautifully decorated with runes and pattern-welded steel and carvings and inlay.
It’s inescapable. In media, you can always tell who the Christian is and who the Viking is because the Viking has elaborately decorated and carved equipment, runes on his axe haft, beautiful inlay on his sword hilt, swirling patterns on his shield and helmet, even on his leather armour. The Christian’s kit will be plain and unadorned, except with an anachronistic cross.
The Mammen axe, lots of grave found Viking swords, they are beautifully decorated and all prove this myth is true… right! Right?
Well, there are three problems with this.
1: You are more likely to be buried with nice things. Grave goods are the choice pieces, the best things. They are an offering. Chucking that plain, battered old axe in your father’s burial will not impress any gods, or bring the favour of your relative from beyond the grave. Grave goods are meant to impress. So often, the things we dig up are the best examples.
2: The Frankish stopped burying their dead with grave goods in about the 8th-9th centuries. This means the majority of the best-preserved Christian weapons disappear from the record in that time. Before that, however, Frankish sword hilts were just as beautifully decorated as any Viking find, if not more so, as were many Anglo-Saxon items. The truth is decorating your sword, axe or seax was a matter of wealth, not specific to any culture.
Also, only a tiny fraction of weapons from this period, Norse or Christian, were decorated on the blade. It was in fact vanishingly rare. The famous Seax of Beagnoth is fabulously decorated on its blade but this was an exception. Pattern welded blades also were a widespread technique, primarily Carolingian, and had no specific links to the Norse.
As to the carving of hilts, I used to believe it was unlikely, but some recent finds of remarkably preserved hilts from simple knives, of the kind a regular person would have carried, demonstrate this might have been more common than I expected.
Another aspect is that a rich man might have a ‘show sword’ and a battle sword. One to impress visitors in your hall, one to fight with.
The last problem is the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and Frankish of the time did not have developed art, or did not decorate their weapons. This myth is abundant as an idea in most media forms. However, this has no basis in the archaeological record from the 8th-9th centuries. The idea that Christians had undecorated weapons is mostly down to the 11th-12th century crusade era knightly swords, which were, indeed, very plain as was the culture for that era, and from staring at the blank stone walls of Cathederals and castles from those times. But many of those Cathederals and castles were once richly decorated and painted. Over time, the plaster, render and paint has fallen away, leaving the bare stone behind, with its false sense of visual austerity.
In any case, by the 11th century the Norse were mainly Christians, and generally armed in the same manner. Contemporary early Viking period Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon finds show examples of beautifully decorated items to rival anything found in Scandinavia.
The reality: Weapon and armour decoration was not specific to Vikings, nor is there evidence it was more prevalent. Viking weapon art was beautiful, but it was not unique to them.
Leather armour and clothes
The Myth: Vikings were early BDSM/leather proponents
The reality: No, they weren’t. There are ‘some’ finds of limited leather items of clothing or apparel from the time in Scandinavia, and a couple of references in the sagas to reindeer hide, but very limited. Vikings wore wool, linen and chainmail into battle, not fantasy leather bondage gear. Boiled leather armour was used in some quantities in the high middle ages in Europe but that is long after the Viking era. Ironically, it was commonly used as horse armour in the 13th-15th centuries and in tournaments, because plating an entire horse in steel was usually unaffordable and impractical.
Appearance and hygiene
The Myth: Vikings were wild-haired, filthy stinking pagans, who terrorised the clean living, neatly dressed and groomed Christians.
The reality: The Norse were particularly noted in contemporary sources for their cleanliness, the care they took over their hair and appearance. One of the most common finds in Viking warrior graves is fine hair combs, and contemporary art shows them with neat, well-cut hair. Beards were ubiquitous, and the sagas record that men who did not or could not grow them were mocked. But again they were typically neat and well kept. There was a specific law in Iceland with severe punishment for making a man dirty to shame him. They built many baths and hot springs for washing themselves.
If you believe the Vikings were wild, stinking, unkempt pagan animals, well done, you fell for 1100-year-old propaganda, and that is a lot more common than we like to admit!
There are many more worthy examples, but I will leave them for another time. The Norse ‘Vikings’ are one of the most famous and most misrepresented warrior cultures in human history. And although their modern mythology is fun, and hell, I employ a limited amount of it in my own books, it is important to recognise fiction and storytelling for what it is, know about the truth of their history, and be able to tell the bullshit from the battleaxes.
Alternate history – 1116 AD. Three hundred years of cruel Viking raids have finally united Christian Europe against the pagan Northlands. A great crusade has been called to pacify the wild Norse kingdoms. The banner of the cross has been raised against the north, and all the power and fury of the west rides under it.
Ordulf, a talented young German swordsmith, is ripped from his comfortable life and cast into the bloody chaos of the crusade. As fate deals him a cruel blow in the lands of his enemies, he will have to forge a new path through the chaos, or be consumed by it.
In the Northlands, three rival kingdoms must unite to survive the onslaught. But can any man, king or commoner, unite the bickering brotherhood of the Norse? Or is the time of the Vikings finally drawing to a violent end. Heroes will fail, kings will fall, and ordinary people will fight for the right to a future.
You can also find J. C. Duncan:
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Check out his twitter from 15-28th November for his making of series of a Viking sword replica.
Oh, and YOU CAN WIN IT!