Viking Age arms and armour

Our knowledge about arms and armour of the Viking age (8th to 11th 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 13th century.

According to custom, 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 helmet, shield, chainmail shirt, and animal-skin coat, among various other armaments. A lesser off man, however, could only afford a single weapon, and perhaps a shield.

The Spear and Shield were the most basic armaments of the Viking warrior; most would probably also wear a Dagger or Knife of some description, commonly of the Seax type. As an alternative, or perhaps in addition, to the Spear a Warrior might carry a Bow or Axe. The wealthiest Vikings would have worn a Sword in addition to his primay arms and have had access to body armour, such as a Helmet and a Maille Hauberk.


Weapons

Bow

Bows were used both for hunting and in battle. They were made from yew, ash or elmtrees. 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 250m. A bow found at viking Hedeby is probably a full-fledged war bow, with a draw force of well over 100 pounds. Only a specially trained archer could have hit a target some 250 meters away. A unit of length used in Icelandic law (the Grágás) called a bowshot (ördrag) corresponded to 480 m.

Arrowheads were typically made from iron and were produced in various shapes and dimensions, according to place of origin. Most arrowheads were fixed onto the arrow shaft by a carefully produced socket at its base. Shafts were made of wood, supplemented with feathers, and carried in cylindrical quivers.

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 discovered.

See also: Bow (weapon)

Spear

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

The spear was used both as a throwing weapon and as a thrusting weapon. They were used one-handed just as well as two-handed, if not better (the shield could be slung to the back to free the left hand).

Additionally, besides warfare and hunting purposes, spears were also used recreationally as a javelin-type contest between Norse men.


See also: Spear

Knife

See also: Seax, Dagger and Knife

Sword

To own a sword was a matter of high prestige. A sword mentioned in the Laxdæla saga was valued at half a crown, corresponding to the value of 16 milk-cows. The viking sword was for single-handed use to be combined with a shield, with a blade length of typically 80–90 cm. 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.

See also: Sword, Viking Sword and Seax

Axe

Based on the everyday tool for splitting wood, axes specialized for use in battle evolved, with larger heads and longer shafts. Some axe heads were inlaid with silver designs. These were more brutish and sluggish than the graceful spear or fast swinging sword, but could split mail links easily. In the later Viking era, there were axe heads with crescent shaped edges measuring up to 45cm, called breið-exi (broad axe).

See also: Axe and Danish axe

Armour

Shield

The shield was the most common means of defense. 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 thickness of 1–2 cm, made of planks of coniferous wood (fir, pine) or linden. It usually contained a hole at the center that supported a handgrip at that point, covered by a metal boss. Although the evidence is sketchy, shields might also have been 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. Viking shields seem to have been decorated by simple patterns, although some skaldic poems praising shields might indicate more elaborate decoration.

Towards the end of the Viking age, the Norman kite shield came into fashion.

Helmet

The 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. Only one viking age helmet has been excavated in scandinavia, the 10th century Gjermundbu helmet from Norway. This helmet has a rounded cap with a small 2cm spike on top and has a "spectacle" guard around the eyes and nose, in addition to a possible maille aventail. From runestones and other illustrations, we know the vikings also wore simpler helmets, often peaked caps with a simple noseguard.

Mail

Once again, only a single complete maille shirt has been excavated in Scandinavia, from the same site as the helmet - Gjermundbu in Norway. Scandinavian viking age burial customs seems to not favor burial with helmet or maille armour, in contrast to earlier extensive armour burials in Swedish Valsgärde. The maille shirt is elbow-and-knee length. Probably worn over thick clothing, the maille shirt will protect the wearer from blows that get past his defense. Maille was very expensive in early medieval europe, and would only have been worn by rich warriors.

Archaeological finds

Saga accounts

Battles

Duels

Images

Most of Wikipedia's text and many of its images are licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-SA)

Return to Main Index