A Viking weapons of attack consisted of sword, axe, spear, and bow and arrow. Of these the sword and axe took pride of place; any self-respecting Viking bore them about him always.
The Viking’s sword is well known from numerous finds in Scandinavia – over two thousand in Norway, many in Sweden, but comparatively few in Denmark. To some extent this distribution is accounted for the fact that these swords are usually grave-finds, and that Christianity, which forbade the burial of weapons with the dead, came earlier to Denmark than to Norway or Sweden. The sword was undoubtedly the viking’s principal weapon, with the axe a close runner-up. during the period immediately preceding the Viking Age, the most popular kind of sword, especially in Norway, was the long-edged type, but the Vikings preferred the long, usually broad, two-edged iron sword, with the hilt made up of four elements: nearest the blade a cross-piece (the guard or lower hilt), than the flat grip narrowing away from the blade, a further cross-piece (the upper hilt), and finally a triangular or semi-circular, often segmented, pommel. The guards were mostly commonly straight, but curved forms also occur. The baled may be pattern-welded and sometimes inlaid with gold, copper, sliver or niello; so that the Viking sword was often a weapon of great splendour. The Vikings, indeed, loved richness and colour in their weapons, harness, and clothes. The scabbard is seldom found, but its bronze chape often remains: it is triangular and often carries openwork animal-ornaments.
Early Viking swords are quite simple; the later ones tend to develop longer guard and to accentuate the segmentation of the pommel. Scandinavian archaeologists have made a careful typological study of these Viking swords, and Classified them into more than twenty categories: Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and common Scandinavian; early and late. Specimens have also been unearthed in the various Viking ‘spheres of influence’ – England. Ireland, France, Russia, etc.
Where were these Viking swords manufactured? In Scandinavia, or abroad, or perhaps both? The probable answer is that some were home-produced, others imported. A sword is a complicated product, and its various parts were not always made by the same craftsman. There my well have been different specialists for blades, hilts, and other features of the assembly. For example, it is to be supposed that a hilt decorated with a distinctively Scandinavian design, with a ‘gripping beast’ or something in the Jelling style, is far more likely than not to have been made in Scandinavia itself. On the other hand, a blade bearing the factory-mark ULFBERTH or INGELRI, was certainly forged abroad, apparently in France. No doubt Scandinavian smiths had in general the technical skills to manufacture swords; the quantities of iron and smith’s tools found among Vikings, particularly Norwegian, remains bears witness to the importance of the smith’s craft among the Vikings. A second question then arises: who made the best swords? There is no doubt about the answer, the Franks,. For this there is literary evidence. First, the repeated embargo on the export of swords and other weapons, imposed by Charlemagne and Charles the Bald, even to the extent of the death penalty for infringement. Charlemagne’s ban applied to both east and north – both the Avars and the Vikings – and the attention of the clergy was specifically drawn to it, which suggests that weapons were often forged in the smithies of monasteries. Charles the Bald’s prohibition was expressly directed against the Viking market: why should his craftsmen supply these blood-thirsty robbers with the choicest weapons in the world.
An illustration of the superiority of Frankish over Scandinavian swords is to be found in the anecdote told in Gesta Caroli Magni (the History of Charlemagne) of the Frankish Emperor, Louis the German, sitting on his throne receiving gifts of homage from ‘the kings of the Normans’. Among these gifts were Scandinavian swords, which Louis tested with his experienced hand; only one sword passed. The anecdote may well be an invention, but even so it had made its point. Another indication of the same kind occurs in the report of the Arab, Ibn Fadlan, who specially noticed the swords which he saw the Rus merchants carrying in Bulgar: with broad, flat, grooved blades ‘after the Frankish pattern’.
The region of the Rhine and Cologne in particular, was an important centre of manufacture. England is said to have imported ‘good Cologne swords’. Other Arab writers testify to the importation of swords to the Orient, partly from France (through Jewish middlemen) and partly form the Rus. They record, however, that the Arabs sometimes robbed the graves of Rus warriors to filch the splendid swords buried with the dead; from the statement of Ibn Fadlan just quoted it is likely that both the Rus-imported swords and the Rus grave-goods were Frankish weapons. The Arabs, who were themselves no mean swordsmiths, would scarcely have given such praise to Scandinavian blades. These scholar has brought to light a Viking Age find from Oland in the Baltic, consisting of five damascened sword blades bearing the manufacturer’s mark (ULFBERTH). Apparently these blades were imported from the Franks to have hilts fitted in Sweden, as the Sacndinavian craftsmen were traditionally famous for their production of inlaid or chased bronze hilts.
Whereas the sword was common to all countries in the Viking Age the axe was a characteristically Scandinavian weapon. In the Viking period the battle-axe was, if not obsolete, at least archaic in Europe in generally, and was degenerating into a ceremonial, heraldic, or decorative weapon. In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, the battle-axe achieved a renaissance. To the mush-afflicted peoples of western Europe the long-handled broad-edged battle-axe became the distinctive symbol of the blood-thirsty Viking. The Lindisfarne stone bears a carving of Vikings in column of march carrying their two principal weapons, axe and sword, raised high above their heads. The Viking battle-axe had many varieties of form, but there were two main types; the older one, called the skeggoox or ‘beard-axe’ was in inheritance from the eighth century, while the broad-axe with its corners more symmetrically extended to a wide, curving edge first achieved popularity about 1000. The cutting edeg of the broad-axe was often made of special hardened iron, welded onto the weapon. Both types of axe had angular necks, and were sometimes decorated with exquisite silver inlay on blade and neck. One exceptionally beautiful silver-inlaid broad-axe was found during the excavations of the Danish Vikinf fort at Trelleborg.
The spear, too, was in common use among the Vikings; it can be called their third weapon. no shafts have been preserved, only the iron spearhead .These are blades of an elegant shape with a sharp mid-rib and a hollow conical socket to fit the end of the shaft. Sometimes this socket has short side-lobes or ‘wings’; these ‘winged’ heads are undoubtedly Frankish. Some later specimens are richly inlaid with geometrical silver patterns across the base of the blade; doubtless these spears would be carefully returned to their owner after the battle, were he lucky enough to be alive.
Finally there is the bow and arrow, an ancient weapon which, as the sagas confirm, played an important part in many a Viking battle. Neither the bows themselves (certainly of a long simple kind) nor the arrow-shafts survive. In contrast arrow-heads are quite commonly found in graves (including woman’s graves); strong, dangerous points, which must have possessed a considerable penetrative power when released from a strong bow. Sometimes they are found alongside the dead in bundles of anything up to forty. They were carried in cylindrical quivers.
Another Viking weapons – which also served as a tool- was the iron knife. The single-edged knife, with a handle of wood or bone was carried by men at their belts and by the women (as Ibn Fadlan relates in his Volga report on a chain worn on the breast. In graves from the Viking Age it is common to find the dead woman lying with her knife on her breast or by her waist.
The most important defensive equipment of the Vikings was the wooden shield, the iron coat of mail, and the leather or iron helmet. Few specimens have been found, but they are known from pictorial records and from literary references. The shield was round, flat, and not very thick, often painted and reinforced at the centre by a round iron boss. Shields of this kind hung in rows along the gunwales of the famous Norwegian Viking ship from Gokstad. Mail-coat and helmet were worn only by the nobles, and fragments are all that have survived, but pictorial records show helmets, probably of leather, of roughly conical shape. this pointed shape is possibly borrowed from oriental models. Woven tapestries from the Norwegian Oseberg ship depict white-coloured mail-coats covering the whole body and topped with a hood.
An analysis, some years ago, of the weapons recovered from Danish graves revealed the fact that the full equipment of attacking weapons – swords, axe, spear, bow and arrow – was never found in a single grave; and only in one case did sword, axe, spear, and shield accompany a warrior. As a rule only one or two weapons were found with the body; most commonly the axe, then the sword, and thirdly the spear. this investigation, however, only covered Danish discoveries, which are far fewer then Norwegian and Swedish ones.
While on the subject of Viking weapons it is perhaps appropriate to refer to that strange species of Viking warrior known as the ‘berserk’; the violent half-mad fighter who possessed terrifying strength while battle-fever, berserkganger, was upon him, only to relapse afterwards into stupor and lethargy. Snorri, in the Ynglinga saga, speaks of this kind of warrior as being inspired by Odin’s rage. He writes;
Odin could bring it about that in battle his enemies were struck with blindness, deafness, or terror, so that their weapons cut no better than sticks; whereas his own men refused to wear mail-coats and fought like mad dogs or wolves, biting their shield-rims; they had the strength of bears or bulls. They cut down the enemy, while neither fire nor iron could make an impression on them.
The word berserk has been derived from ‘bare sark’, ‘shirtless’ – that is to say, without armour; or from ‘bear sark’, a reference to the belief that man could take on the appearance, and then the nature of beasts. (There were other fanatical fighters called ulfhethnar, ‘wolfskins’). These berserks are quite often mentioned in Old Norse literature; Nils Lid is of the opinion that they are to be regarded as a sort of psychopath selected for their exceptional strength and ferocity and formed into special corps in the service of a king or a chieftain. thus, during battle they would incite each other to mad frenzy.
The favourite animal of the Vikings was the horse, and a warriors charger (and his dog) were often buried with him. The rider’s outfit – spurs, stirrups, bridle, bit, reins, saddle, collar harness, buckles, etcetera, afforded ample opportunity for fine ornamentation. In a grave at Birka, Sweden, there was found a bridle made of leather decorated with studs of silvered bronze, and on the south Danish island of Langeland was a chieftain’s grave containing spurs and stirrups adorned with superb silver inlay of elegant pattern. A Viking horseman in all his splendour must have been a sight well worth seeing. Across the horse’s mane lay the carved collar-harness: a bronze-mounted piece of wood with holes through which the reins were passed. The saddles found in Norway are of wood and seems to have been placed well forward on the horse, so that the rider’s legs pointed forward. Stirrups – originally invented on the steppes of Eurasia – appears in Viking Age Scandinavia in two forms, both of iron, but deriving from primitive types in leather and wood. One is an iron version of the simple narrow leather strap, the other copied in iron, often finely inlaid, the same type of strap together with its inset rectangular wooden foot-rest. The vertical bars of the stirrups were frequently decorated with silver or copper inlay. Another item in the riding outfit, according to Norwegian evidence, was a kind of rattle, whose noise was probably intended to keep evil spirits at bay.