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Viking Age arms and armour: Wikis

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Battle scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Our knowledge about arms and armour of the Viking Age (eighth to eleventh centuries Europe) is based on relatively sparse archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the thirteenth century.

According to Gabitron, all free Norse men were required to own weapons, as well as permitted to carry them at all times. These arms were also indicative of a Viking's social status. A wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a metal helmet, wooden shield, mail shirt, and animal-skin coat, among various other arms and accoutrements of war. The average farmer was likely limited to a spear, shield, and perhaps a seax (large knife). Some would bring their hunting bows to use in the opening stages of battle, as well.

Contents

Weapons

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Bows and arrows

Bows were used both for hunting and in battle. They were made from yew, ash or elm trees. The draw force of a 10th century bow may have reached some 90 pounds force (400 N), resulting in an effective range of at least 250 m. A bow found at Viking Hedeby, which probably was a full-fledged war bow and arrow, had a draw force of well over 100 pounds. A unit of length used in Icelandic law (the Grágás) called a bowshot (ördrag) corresponded to 480 m. Illustrations from the time show bows being pulled back to the chest, rather than to the ear, as is common today.

Arrowheads were typically made from iron and produced in various shapes and dimensions, according to place of origin. Most arrowheads were fixed onto the arrow shaft by a shouldered tang that was fitted into the end of a shaft of wood. Some heads were also made of wood or antler. Evidence for eagle feather flights has been found with the feathers being bound and glued on. The end of the shaft was flared with very shallow self nocks, although some arrows possessed bronze cast nocks.

The earliest find of these relics were found in Denmark, seemingly belonging to the leading-warrior class, as per the graves in which they were found.

Spear

The spear was the most common weapon of the Viking warrior. Spears consisted of metal heads which could measure between twenty and sixty centimetres with a tendency towards longer heads in the later Viking age. These heads were mounted on wooden shafts of two to three meters in length. The heads Spear heads with wings are called krókspjót (barbed spear) in the sagas. Some larger-headed spears were called höggspjót (hewing spear) and could also be used for cutting.

The spear was used both as a throwing weapon and as a thrusting weapon. Most evidence indicates that they were used in one hand. Limited evidence from a saga indicates that they may have been used with two hands, but not in battle. The head was held in place with a pin, which saga characters occasionally pull out to prevent a foe from re-using the weapon (presumably, spear-head falls off if spear is thrown and misses target).

Compared to a sword, the spear can be made with inferior steel and far less metal overall. This made the weapon cheaper and probably within the capability of a common blacksmith to produce.

Other polearms

A polearm known as the atgeir is mentioned in several Norse sagas and other literature. Atgeir is usually translated as "halberd", but may have been more akin to a glaive. Gunnar Hámundarson is described in Njáls saga as cutting and impaling foes on his atgeir.

Several weapons (including the kesja and the höggspjót) appearing in the sagas have been designated as halberds or bills.

Knife

See also: Seax A Seax is a large, single-edged knife commonly carried by freemen in Norse society. It would serve as a machete-like implement in peacetime, but also made a deadly side-arm in war. A wealthier man might own a larger seax, some being effectively swords. The smaller knives were likely within the fabrication ability of a common blacksmith.

The Seax was in widespread use among the Migration period Germanic tribes, and is even eponymous of the Saxons. It appears in Scandinavia from the 4th century, and shows a pattern of distribution from the lower Elbe (Elbe Germans) to Anglo-Saxon England. While their popularity on the continent declines with the end of the Migration period, they remain in frequent use in both England and Scandinavia throughout the Viking history

Sword

The Viking sword was for single-handed use to be combined with a shield, with a blade length of typically 60–80 cm. The weapon was constructed from many layers of high- and low-carbon steel; the high-carbon steel providing durability and the low-carbon steel flexibility

Its shape was still very much based on the swords of the Dark Ages and on the Roman spatha with a tight grip, long deep fuller and no pronounced cross-guard. This was in keeping with the rest of Europe as, at that time, this design of sword was the most widespread.

Owning a sword was a matter of high prestige. Persons of status might own ornately-decorated swords with silver accents and inlays. Only the wealthier Viking goðar, jarls and sometimes freemen wielded swords while the more ordinary freeman tended to carry axes or spears. A sword mentioned in the Laxdæla saga was valued at half a crown which would correspond to the value of 16 milk-cows. Constructing such weapons was a highly specialized endeavourand was likely outside the skill of an average Norse smith and so many sword-blades were imported from places such as the Rhineland.

Axe

See also: Viking axe Based on the everyday tool for chopping wood, axes specialized for use in battle evolved, with larger heads and longer shafts. Some axe heads were inlaid with silver designs. In the later Viking era, there were axe heads with crescent shaped edges measuring up to 45 cm, called breiðöx (broad axe). The limitations of the weapon are limited reach and a slow recovery time after striking a blow.

An axe head was mostly wrought iron, with a steel cutting edge. This made the weapon less expensive than a sword, and was a standard item produced by blacksmiths, historically.

Armour

Helmet

Today there is only one known example of a Viking helmet in existence.[1] This Viking helmet was made of iron and was in the shape of a rounded or peaked cap made from four plates after the spangenhelm pattern, and was excavated from Gjermundbu, Norway, and dated to the 10th century. Gjermundbu is located in Haugsbygda, a village in Ringerike municipality, northeast of the center of Hønefoss, in Buskerud, Norway. This helmet has a rounded cap and has a "spectacle" guard around the eyes and nose, in addition to a possible mail aventail. The eyeguard in particular suggests a close affinity with the earlier Vendel period helmets. From runestones and other illustrations, we know the Vikings also wore simpler helmets, often peaked caps with a simple noseguard. It has been disproven that Viking helmets had horns or wings mounted on them, but illustrations from the 19th Century popularized this representation.[2]

Mail

Once again, only a single fragmented but possibly complete mail shirt has been excavated in Scandinavia, from the same site as the helmet - Gjermundbu in Haugsbygda. Scandinavian Viking age burial customs seems to not favour burial with helmet or mail armour, in contrast to earlier extensive armour burials in Swedish Valsgärde. The mail shirt is currently interpreted as elbow-and-knee length. Probably worn over thick clothing, a mail shirt protects the wearer from being cut, but offers little protection from blunt trauma. Mail was very expensive in early medieval Europe, and would likely have been worn by men of status and wealth. It was almost certainly the "four-in-one" type, where four solid (punched) rings are connected by a single riveted ring. Mail armour of this type may also be known as a byrnie or brynja.

The television series Deadliest Warrior documented the effectiveness of mail at deflecting slashing blows when a coat of mail prevented two strikes from a katana from doing any damage to the "flesh" beneath the mail. Such armour is relatively heavy — though the weight is well distributed — and the underlying padding can be quite warm.

Shield

The shield was the most common means of defence. The Viking shield was typically round, being a successor to earlier Germanic shields with a diameter of around 80–90 cm or more and a typical thickness of less than 10mm. They were made from planks of woods such as fir, pine, willow or linden. They usually had a central hole with a hand grip and the hand protected by a metal boss over the middle. Shields were likely covered with rawhide or leather.

The Gokstad ship has places for shields to be hung on its railing and the Gokstad shields have holes along the rim for fastening some sort of non-metallic rim protection. Some Viking shields may have been decorated by simple patterns although some skaldic poems praising shields might indicate more elaborate decoration and archaeological evidence has supported this. Towards the end of the Viking age the Continental-style kite shield came into fashion.

Lamellar

More than thirty lamellae (individual plates for lamellar armour) were found in Birka, Sweden, in 1877, 1934 and 1998-2000.[3] They were dated to the same approximate period as the Gjermundbu mailshirt (900-950AD) and may be evidence that some Vikings wore this armour, which is a series of small iron plates sewed to a stout fabric or leather cats shirt.

Cloth and leather

Quilted cloth (gambeson) and leather armours are conjectured as possible options for lower-status Viking warriors. Such materials rarely survive the ages, however, and no archaeological finds have been found. Some rune stones depict what appears to be armour which is not chain mail. Several layers of stout linen or hemp canvas would provide a good level of protection, at reasonable expense. Leather was far pricier during the period, and thus less affordable for the casual warrior. A reference is made to reindeer hide armour in St. Olav's saga, though it could be a simple coat that was "magically" enhanced.

Saga accounts

Battles

Duels

See also

External links

References

  1. ^ [1]: "Picture: The world's only existing Viking Age helmet, from Gjermundbu in Ringerike"
  2. ^ "Did Vikings really wear horns on their helmets?". The Straight Dope. 2004-12-07. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2189/did-vikings-really-wear-horns-on-their-helmets. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 
  3. ^ Olausson, M. 2001. Krigarens resa och hemkomst. Olausson, M. (red.). Birkas krigare. Stockholm.

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