History Of The Vikings - Chapter 3

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History Of The Vikings

Art of Viking Warfare

War was the most prestigious activity during the Viking era. Adult male Vikings were always armed. Keeping their weapons close and within easy reach. Even hanging them by their beds at night. Different types of weapons were used in the Viking Age: swords, axes, bows and arrows, lances and spears. They also had several protective gears: shields, helmets and chain mail. And because iron was hard to dig out of the ground making weapons costly, they were often regarded as a relevant display of wealth and status in their social class. Nobility and professional warriors wore helmets and mail armor. For lesser warriors, several layers of thick woolen clothing maybe used as a suitable replacement. The average farmer, on the other hand, would most likely only have a spear and a shield or perhaps an axe or a seax (large knife). Slaves were not allowed to carry weapons of any type.

Viking Offense: Bow and Arrow

The bow and arrow were initially used for hunting but it was soon discovered to be an effective strategy in the battlefield. They were made from elm, yew or ash. Tenth century Viking bows may reach some 90 pounds force or more depending on the design. This resulted in an effective range of at least 200 meters (also depending on the weight and design of the arrow). Arrowheads were typically made from iron; however, some were also made of wood, bone or antler. They were produced in various shapes and dimensions mostly depending on their place of origin. In design, most arrowheads were fixed onto the arrow shaft by a shouldered tang. The tang was fitted into the end of a shaft of wood. The end of the shaft was flared with shallow self nocks and have been found to have eagle feathers bound and glued on. During battle, archers would release arrows to kill as many enemies as possible prior to close contact fighting. Skilled archers were known to be able to shoot an average of twelve arrows per minute with the strongest arrows penetrating even enemy shields.

Viking Offense: Crossbow

In the late eleventh century, the crossbow, perhaps because it was so easy to learn and use, became another popular weapon of choice especially in Norman hands. The Normans considered it an easier alternative to the 'self' bows. Crossbows should be wooden, with a wooden or composite wood/horn prod. It does not have a stirrup and may have either a rising pin or a rolling lock as a release mechanism. It was even suggested that the Norman's introduced the crossbow to England.   

Viking Offense: Spear

Perhaps the most common weapon of choice for the peasant class was the spear which came as a surprise as the spear was often Odin's primary weapon of choice. You could say this was because spears were made with lesser metal and thus were less expensive to produce. It was also the principal weapon of a Viking warrior, an apt fit for their formations and tactics. The spear was typically made of ash wood and consisted of a metal head with a blade and a hollow shaft which was then mounted on wooden shafts of two or three meters in length. Spear heads could measure between 20 and 60 centimeters; however, Viking spears had a tendency to have longer spear heads. The wings on spear heads were called the krókspjót (hooked spear). The larger headed spear heads, often used for cutting, were called höggspjót (chopping spear). Spears were used both as thrusting and throwing weapons. However, they preferred lighter and narrower spear heads for throwing and heavier and broader spear heads for thrusting.  

Viking Offense: Knife

The knife was another weapon used by the Vikings during war. They had two distinct classes of knives. The knifr and the seax. The knifr were plain, single edge knives. They were often times used for hunting or as an everyday utility tool. The seax, on the other hand, were usually a bit heavier than the knifr and would serve as a machete- or falchion-like arm. Vikings usually used broken-back style seax. As the seax had a single edge and a heavier blade, they were relatively easier to produce as compared to regular swords and were often produced in mass numbers.

Viking Offense: Sword

The sword was a mark of a warrior and was used for single hand combat often with a shield. Swords often had a double-edged blade with a length extending up to 90 cm. The sword's hilt and pommel provided the weight needed to balance the blade. They were mostly pattern-welded, wrought iron strips and steel twisted together and then hammered into a blade to form a hardened edge. Vikings carried them in scabbards and wore them over their shoulder always accessible by their right hand. Because swords were often made of iron, they were limited to nobility and elite warriors. Because of their value, blades were often prized heirlooms and passed on from one generation to another. Still, as evidence by many recovered burial grounds, "killing" of the swords was also a practice during the Viking period where the blade was bent to make it unusable. As warriors were often buried with their weapons, the "killing" of the sword presented both a ritualistic function and a practical one to avoid grave robbers from bothering the dead in search of expensive weapons.  

Viking Offense: Axe

The most common Viking weapon was the axe. Because it was easier to make than the sword, axes were more accessible to the middle and lower class. It often served the dual purpose of weapon and everyday tool. Axes were generally made from wrought iron with a steel edge. Held in place with a belt, axes gave the advantage of a longer reach as they were often thrown or swung with head splitting force. Axes have evolved over time with larger heads and longer shafts. Some of the different types of axes were the Dane Axe, Bearded Axes, Broad Axe, Francisa Axe and the Mammen.

The Dane Axe were the earliest form of axe used by the Vikings and had several other names: Danish Axe, English Long Axe and Hafted Axe. They were larger in form and longer as they were meant for men. They were an early type of polearm and were made to be used with both hands. Dane axes are usually sized at 8-12 inches with a thinly profile blade.

Axes then evolved to crescent shaped edges measuring up to 18 inches called the breiðöx (broadaxe). Broad axes could have crescent shaped edges between 9 and 18 inches long. The cutting edge of a large axe head was made from hardened steel that was welded to the iron head and came in at 9 inches long. It was pointed at the top and blunt at the bottom. Unlike if it were made with iron, steel allows the axe to hold a better edge. A common tactic Vikings used during battle which surprised a lot of their enemies would be to hook an enemy's left and drop them to the ground. From there it’s easy to deliver the killer blow. One of the most common types of axe used was the bearded axe otherwise known in Old Norse as skeggox. It got its namesake from the beard where the lower portion of the axe extends in a curve below the butt of the axehead. This provided the axe with a larger cutting surface all the while keeping the weight of the axe low enough to be viable during battle. It also allowed for warriors to hook and pull weapons out of enemy grasp or to pull down a shield allowing the wielder to strike.

Names after their Frankish origins, the Francisa axes appeared in the first few AD centuries. They were small weapons with 4-inch-long cutting edges. They weighed an average of 1.2 pounds and were used for close combat.

Named after the Danish village where it was recovered, the Mammen Axe is the most elegant of them all. It is made of iron with silver inlay and decorated in the "Mammen style". This is a mix of pagan and Christian patterns.

And while modern Viking art depicts of double bitted axes there is no record of its existence and were undoubtedly forged by the Norse.

Because of its smaller size the axe can easily be hidden which gave the wielder the element of surprise. An axe can be used for a variety of moves that could mean victory in battle. The head of the axe could be used to hook an opponent’s ankle to the ground. It could also be used to hook another part of the body like the neck forcing them to move to a different direction. Another move would be to hook the axe to the edge of the shield to disarm an opponent. The tips of the axe can also be used for offense creating nasty wounds when used for stabbing.  

Viking Defense: Shield

As wide a variety of offense weapons, the Vikings also had a variety of defensive weapons. Not surprisingly, as they were also difficult to make, a Viking's defense weapon can also be a determinant of his social class.

The most common means of defense is the Viking shield. There are two known types of shields: the round shield and the kite shield. Mostly made from linen wood, other shields also use timber, round shields are more commonly used. Unlike oak, timber and linen wood are not inclined to split. Timber also makes it easier to bind around blades preventing the blade from cutting any deeper unless there is added pressure. Shields were often reinforced with leather or iron around the rim. They varied in size from 45-120 cm in diameter but 75-90 is by far the most common measurement. Round shields were made with three iron bands and a handle fastened at the back side by iron nails. A leather sling was used to carry the shield over the right shoulder, this helped when warriors needed both hands to grab their weapon. The largest most preserved 9th century Viking ship recovered in Norway was the Gokstad ship. The ship had places for where Vikings hung their shields on the railings. These shields had holes along the rim for fastening non metalic rim protection. The shield lists were simple in pattern and decoration and they protected the crew from waves and wind. Kite shields, on the otherhand, were said to be more favored by the Normans. It was later that the Vikings introduced it to Europe. Kite shields helped protect a fighter while riding at the back of a horse. But as Vikings favored fighting on their feet, kite shields were often disregarded in preference for round shields.

Viking shields are very effective means of defense. It does not, though, absorb the blow per se but rather redistributes the shock over a larger area reducing the risk of injury. It can also be used to push the enemy away so that the attacker would no longer be a direct threat. During the heat of battle, it has been known that weapons sometimes gets stuck on the shield. A clever tactic warriors use would be to twist their shield either to unarm their enemy or break the weapon completely. The shield is meant to block many lines of attack. In a neutral position, the shield protects from the knees to the neck. Unfortunately, this leaves the head and the lower leg at a disadvantage which then becomes the target during battle. This is evident in majority of the recovered burial grounds where majority of the injuries are in the head and the legs.

Viking Defense: Helmets

One form of defense used during the Viking era were helmets made of iron. Vikings wore simpler helmets, often caps with a simple nose guard. While many Viking drawings display their helmets with horns, there are no real evidence that this was the case. While there are only a few recovered helmets in good condition, none of them have horns. Majority of discoveries were from burial grounds and while warriors were often buried with their swords as was the practice, helmets and armor were not a requirement.

Viking Defense: Chain Mail

Another form of defense used during the Viking era was the chain mail. Worn over thick clothing, a mail shirt protected the wearer from being cut, however, was no defense for stabbing attacks from that of a spear or a sword. While there is possibly a complete mail shirt recovered in Scandinavia, researchers believe that due to the complexity of the construction of the chain mail they were seldom available for use. The chain mail required thousands of interlinked iron rings, each one had to be individually reverted together with hand. As this was expensive and time consuming, it is perceived to only be used by nobility and the elite.

Viking Defense: Lamella

The Lamella is another weapon of defense. It is a type of body armor made from small rectangular plates of iron, rawhide, or bronze laced into horizontal rows. They were very popular over a wide range of time in Central and East Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This kind of armor consists of small platelets known as lames which are punches and laced together, typically in horizontal rows.

From Odin came the words: "Don't leave your weapons lying about behind your back in a field; you never know when you may need all of sudden your spear." The Vikings took these words to heart.

The Berserker

Berserkers were known to be an elite group of Viking warriors who went into battle almost naked, wearing only bear skins, and often showed signs of violent fits of anger. Derived from the English word berserk meaning furiously violent or out of control and combining this with the Midding English word serk, meaning shirt, comes the Old Norse form of the word berserkr (plural berserkir) meaning "bear shirt".

At the start of the Viking age, in 800, they had no king. Over time alliances were formed and as they progressed further into civilization they developed into a kingdom under the govern of one king. The foremost institution was a retinue, they were a brotherhood of warriors devoted to one common king. This brotherhood evolved to become the noble elite warriors of the Middle Ages sworn to protect their king. However, there was talk, too, of a darker brotherhood thriving on the border between life and death, fueled by war and driven by fury. This brotherhood was referred to as the brotherhood of berserkers.

Like traditional shamanic secret societies, berserkers acquired their powers through ritualistic practices. They were said to spend extreme periods of isolation. During this time, they would fast and expose themselves to extreme heat, cold and pain. This helped to prepare them for battle. They would perform pre-battle rituals that would induce a trancelike collective state of mind. Witnesses claimed that berserkers would be shivering and experiencing chills accompanied by chattering teeth. Their face would swell and change color. Together with these physical effects, they would experience great bursts of anger and rage which led them to howling like animals and cutting down anything and everything they met along the way. And while there is no definitive proof, the hypothesis is that they digested a combination of alcohol and Amanita muscaria, a psychedelic mushroom containing bufotenine. Combined they have shown to cause hallucinations and psychophysiological effects consistent with what was described.

While in battle, the goal of the berserkers was to transform themselves mentally to the mind of a predator. While in isolation, they would observe the bears and wolves in their natural habitat, paying particular attention to their hunting skills. During battle, they would become the predators they studied and emulating these animals would serve as their final transformation. Due to the heavy physical and mental toll it took to become this way, they are often left drained and exhausted after every battle.

Because they were an elite troop of warriors, the berserkers were often placed in front of the military formation to take on the impact of an attack, however, due to their mental state of frenzy they were often difficult to control and could sometimes cause more harm than good. In the year 1030, during the battle of Stiklestad, Olav Haraldsson (St Olav) used this strategy and placed the berserkers in front of his own phalanx. This did not go well in his favor, instead of holding the line, the berserkers attacked and left his troops open to enemy attack. Other times, their reputation alone was enough to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. There are tales of Bödvar Bjarki, a berserker under the service of King Hrólfr Kraki. In the stories, he never left his king's side but even then, was able to strike down more men than that any five of the king's champions.

Because of their unpredictable nature, they were officially outlawed by 1015. Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed the berserkers under Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code. And by the 12th century berserkers were no more.

To quote the earliest surviving reference to the term "berserker" in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honor of King Harald Fairhair:

I'll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,

Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,

Those who wade out into battle?

Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle

They bear bloody shields.

Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.

They form a closed group.

The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men

Who hack through enemy shields.

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