The weapons of the Vikings in northern Europe included, on the one hand, an active armament with sword, knife, axe, mace, spear, bow and arrow and slingshots in the Viking Age (800-1050 AD) As passive armament, the Vikings used, on the other hand, helmet, brunette, doublet, leg protection and shield. Archaeological excavations, historical sources and also legends serve as sources to reconstruct the armament in the Viking Age.
In contrast to event history, source criticism plays only a minor role in the description of armament in the Viking Age (800-1050 AD).
This is because even the accounts of non-historical events, legends, and miracle reports are generally quite useful sources for the civilizational and cultural context in which the events are placed.
Investigating, for example, whether certain weapons described in the Laxdæla saga, written around 1250 and describing events from the 10th century, had already occurred at that time requires a more detailed classification of the Viking Age than can be accomplished here.
Here it is sufficient that both the author and the reader of the saga considered the account realistic and drew from a tradition that already knew the equipment.
Doubts about the value of the source are, however, appropriate where the protagonists of a story are attributed a particularly lavish armament.
This is especially true of ornamental decoration, such as extensive shield painting. The relatively slow development of civilization in the Scandinavian Middle Ages allows, with all caution and with the help of archaeological finds, to apply descriptions of armament from the 13th century to the Viking Age as well.
There were both single-edged and double-edged swords. The larger single-edged swords were called langsax or scramasax (the sword on the far left in the picture). The blade was usually 80 cm long. For the Holmgang (duel) the length was prescribed.
There were also short single-edged and double-edged swords: In the Flateyjarbók it is described in II, 85 that men hid their swords under their clothes; these cannot have been long swords.
According to archaeological findings, the oldest swords of the Iron Age were double-edged. The shape of the tip on the later single-edged swords suggests that they were used primarily for stabbing, which is why they were called lagvápn (from leggja, meaning "stab").
However, the reinforced back also gave the sword greater force when striking. While the handles of the double-edged swords were often elaborately decorated, this was less common with the single-edged ones.
In addition, a skalum (engl. "skalm") is often mentioned, which meant a short knife of the simplest kind. The skalm is not mentioned as a weapon in the Sagas, but it is in the Edda.
This suggests that the skalm had already fallen into disuse by the Viking Age. They are only mentioned as knives in the hands of giantesses and sorceresses.
A good sword was forged from several layers. Two types were common: either one had hard cutting edges on each side and softer material in the middle, or one had a continuous hard sword blade and a layer of softer iron on the top and bottom.
The double-edged swords were first developed in the Frankish Empire. Imported swords were in demand, especially from the Rhine valley. On a number of Scandinavian swords foreign trademarks are engraved, for example ULFBERTH or INGELRI.
There are so many swords with these two engravings that they could have been sword varieties. Charles the Bald did forbid the export of swords to the Vikings under penalty of death, but to no avail.
The import to Norway was mainly for the blades. The handles with pommels were made by local blacksmiths from resinous pine wood with elaborate native ornamentation, which also allows dating.
Very good swords were also given a name. Thus the sword of Þórálfur hinn sterki Skólmsson (Engl. "Þoralfur the Strong") was called Fetbreiður (Engl. "Broadfoot"), and the sword of King Olav the Good was called Kvernbit (Engl. "Millstone Biter").
No swords forged in the north are mentioned in the sagas. Also among the occupational titles the term sword smith does not appear, but only that of sword grinder (swerdhsliparar).
In the myths swords were forged mainly by dwarves. It is also often reported that good swords were acquired in foreign lands: Egill Skallagrímsson acquired his sword Naðr in Courland, Harald Hardrada had brought his excellent sword from Sicily.
The Welsh swords came either from England, Scotland or the Frankish Empire.
The pommel at the upper end was also sometimes hollow, and wound medicine or relics were inserted in it.
In the early times the swords were sharpened with a file, later they used the whetstone. Good swords could be polished shiny while sharpening.
This is indicated by the fact that from the word brúnn (meaning "shiny") the verb brýna (meaning "to sharpen") is derived. From England the use of whetstone (slípisteinn) was apparently adopted, as suggested by the expression mēcum mylenscearpum (Eng. "sharpened swords") in the song about the Battle of Brunanburh from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, line 24.
The sword scabbard consisted of two wooden logs covered with leather. It was studded with metal at the lower tip (Ortband) and originally also at the top of the hilt (Scheidenmundblech).
In the Viking Age, the metal fittings existed only at the lower tip.
The sword was worn on a hanger, a shoulder strap or belt. This is evidenced, for example, by the bog find from Vimose.
The sword was worn on the left side, but the right side, as was common among the Romans, apparently also occurred. Some also carried a sax as a second sword next to a longsword.
The King's Mirror even recommends a dagger knife in addition to two swords, one of which is hung around the neck, the second hanging from the saddle.
The larger, sword-like longaxes were mostly found in connection with Viking settlements in England and Ireland.
According to the sources, now and then the sword was wielded with both hands to increase the striking power (tvihenda sverðit).
In the process, the shield was thrown away, probably because it was already cut. But the expression höggva báðum höndum, which has the same meaning, is also used when the fighter quickly changes the sword from one hand to the other.
The exercise of both hands in the use of weapons is mentioned in the King's Mirror as an ancient custom.
The sword served not only as a weapon, but was also used in symbolic acts, such as the inauguration of a public official.
In Norway, it was first used for a coronation ceremony as a royal sword at the investiture of King Håkon Håkonsson. Also, when traveling with the future bride, the suitor placed a blank sword between himself and the bride.
The members of the royal entourage (Hirð) swore their oath of office embracing the ruler's sword pommel.
The King's Mirror manual recommends for the cavalry warrior, in addition to two swords, a good dagger (brynkníf góðan). The name brynkníf indicates that it was intended to stab into the armor joints of the enemy. This knife was usually single-edged and the handle was made of whale bone.
The more common knife was a rather simple, single-edged knife of normal design, called knifr. This knife was found in most tombs during excavations, because knifr was the only weapon allowed for all, even slaves. Weapon knives sometimes had decorative inlays on the knife blade.
The Erl goes through the more or less cylindrical handle. The knife played an important role in Scandinavia, where a large amount of knives were found in burial places of both men and women and children.
The other type was the sax, which was usually a bit heavier than the ordinary knife. The knife-like short saxes could be made by ordinary blacksmiths. Compared to the sword, this crude weapon was relatively easy to make and use.
From a purely technical point of view, the axe was a simple tool to manufacture and was also more versatile in its use. While axe finds are rare in Norwegian grave finds in the older Iron Age, they are as common as swords and spears in Viking Age graves.
The Frostathingslov, an old Norwegian law, specifies that an axe was considered proper only if it was sheathed. The axe apparently experienced a renaissance in the Viking Age, as there were several different types.
The battle axe was less suitable for work. The blade was often quite thin, but richly decorated with engravings and inlaid silver decoration. However, it is questionable whether these axes were used in combat. Usually a cutting edge of particularly hard steel was welded on.
But also vice versa, the working axe was not considered a battle axe. Thus, the introduction to the Frostathingslov states that injustice is done to the king by "men declaring wooden axes to be valid weapons ..."
Executions of the battle axe
The hand axe (handöx) was a light and handy weapon with a long thin handle. The axe could be grasped by the blade directly on the handle, so that the handle could serve as a support stick. The blade was wider than that of the wooden axe. The part at the other end of the shaft eye could be used as a hammer.
The broad axe (breiðöx), known outside Scandinavia as the "Danish axe", had a very broad blade that tapered toward the shaft eye. It was the common battle axe in Scandinavia.
The steel cutting edge was inserted into a groove in the blade and welded. In Norway, the fighter could choose between a broadaxe and a sword. This battle axe was often wielded with both hands.
The bearded axe (skeggöx) was extended downwards in a rectangular shape. It had a long shaft, and the rectangular extension was used to draw the opponent's ship in, as if with a hook.
There was also a double-edged axe, the Bryntroll. Often this double-axe was fitted with a sharp iron point.
The Anglo-Saxons also used throwing axes at the Battle of Hastings.
Axes, just like other Scandinavian weapons, were often given names. According to the Snorra Edda by Snorri Sturluson, axes were often named after trolls.
How the blade was attached to the handle cannot be determined with certainty. The handle may have been thickened at one end and pulled through the eye of the shaft, the thickening not fitting through the eye.
A nail at the lower end then prevented it from slipping on the shaft. Such methods of attachment have been found at Nydam Moor. Now and then it is also reported that the blade of the axe slipped out of the handle.
In Danish bog finds, maces (kefli) were recovered in various shapes. They were made of thick wood, usually oak, and became thinner toward the handle. There were clubs with heavy heads and short handles, but also long pole-like clubs.
Some were shod with iron and had a head with iron nails at the end. According to tradition, clubs were mainly weapons of slaves and small farmers.
That a free fighter used a club instead of his sword is attested only in the case of opponents who were immune to sword, spear or arrow by magic power.
Saxo Grammaticus, in the 8th book of his Gesta danorum, also describes the regular use of iron-shod clubs in battle.
Another weapon, especially in naval combat, was the spear (spjót). There were three types of them: the hand spears (lagvápn) were used for thrusting, the throwing spears (skotvápn) were thrown, and the höggspjot, similar to a halberd, were used for hewing. Spears were also inlaid with gold.
The simplest type of thrusting weapon was a wooden pole, the tip of which was hardened in the fire. It was called svíða (meaning "to scorch"). This kind of spears are already mentioned by Tacitus.
Besides there was a light throwing spear (gaflak), which is rarely mentioned. This is a Celtic loanword. They must have been very small throwing spears, i.e. hand arrows, because it is reported of Olaf Tryggvason that he threw two spears at the same time, i.e. with both hands, in the battle of Svoldr.
The throwing spear with a wedge-shaped tip was the geirr. This is also the name of Odin's spear. There was also a light throwing spear called fleinn. It had a long thin flat metal tip.
In addition, there was the broddr or broddspjót, a light throwing spear similar to the fleinn, but whose tip was almost square. Both were probably used rather rarely in the Viking Age, as they are hardly mentioned in the sources.
The throwing spear was thrown from ship to ship, and one was apparently very accurate.
Throwing spears were often fitted with throwing loops or swinging belts, which gave them greater range or penetrating power.
Spearhead with cross iron
As a thrusting weapon is also called fjaðrspjót (engl. "spring spear"). It was a heavy spear with a broad leaf spring at the tip.
The heavy spears usually had a cross iron at the top of the metal tip. This was to prevent the pierced opponent from running against the spear and thus coming within range of the attacker with his slashing weapon.
The other type of spear was the höggspjót, which could be used as a stabbing and slashing weapon. The shaft was usually short.
The tip consisted of a double-edged sword-like blade, pointed at the front. The weapon is mentioned in the Ólafs saga helga.
The most common type of höggspjót was the kesja. There were light versions that could be hurled with both hands, and heavy ones that were even wielded with both hands.
There were also those with a long handle. Before the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harald Hardrada ordered his men in the front line of battle to hold the kesja in front of them so that the enemy could not get close to the battle line. It was still used later for bear hunting.
Furthermore, there were hook spears (krókaspjót), which are secured especially from the older Iron Age. They were also used for catching whales and walruses. Such a spear is mentioned in the second chapter of the Fóstbrœðra saga.
Another pole weapon called atgeir is mentioned in several Icelandic sagas. Atgeir is usually translated as "dagger staff," it is similar to a glefe.
Many weapons (including the kesja and the höggspjót) that appear in the sagas were called staff daggers or hippen.
However, such weapons have not been found in excavations of graves. These weapons were thus very rare or they were not part of the Viking burial customs.
Little is known about bows and arrows, as they are not found in excavations. The bows recovered in the Danish bog finds had a length of about 1.50 meters.
The bow is even used once as a measure of length: The distance for a kind of gauntlet for a thief is said to be nine bows of an adult man.
Long bows made of yew wood were found during excavations in Hedeby. The skald Guþorm Sindri used the kenning "elm sinew stretcher" for King Erik Bloodaxe, from which it can be inferred that bows were also made of elm wood.
Sometimes the ends were stiffened with metal or bone. The middle part was often strengthened by a base made of another layer of wood or horn. The horn bows were probably known only as foreign weapons and were sometimes called "Turkish bows". The arrows had barbs.
The longbows were not hunting weapons.
In addition, the crossbow (lásbbogi as opposed to handbogi) was also in use. The bow and arrow as well as the crossbow are recommended in the King's Mirror as armament in naval combat.
The bowstring was apparently originally made of animal gut or sinew, but in historical times was usually made of flax.
The arrows (Latin sagitta vel lancea brevis, Eng. "arrow or short lance") are often indistinguishable from short throwing spears (spiculum) in early literature.
The krokör was a barbed arrow. Furthermore, there were arrows that had a hole in the tip, which made it difficult to pull the arrow out because the flesh of the wound pressed into the opening.
This type of arrow was probably also tipped with burning tinder and used as fire arrows. Bíldör was an arrow with sharply ground blade tip. With such an arrow Finnr shot Einar's bow right through in the naval battle of Svold.
The broddr was an arrow with a very sharp polished metal point, either with a three-edged or four-edged rhombic cross-section.
The arrows were feathered at the end, with the feathers glued on with resin. Hunting arrows also had an ownership mark so that it could be determined who had killed which animal.
The arrow also had ritual significance. It was sent from farm to farm during the war campaign.
Slings are not mentioned in contemporary Norse literature about Scandinavian events. Only Saxo Grammaticus, in the 8th book of his Gesta Danorumm, describes the use of hand slings and throwing machines.
The King's Mirror recommends keeping staff slingers and throwing stones on hand for ship combat. The loading of ships with throwing stones and their use is described in the Sverris saga in connection with the Battle of Fimreite.
Whether larger stationary throwing machines were used is not certain. They are mentioned sporadically in the Formanna sögur, but then with the indication that there was a foreigner who knew how to build them.
They are attested for the 12th century. Mentions of such machines in the period before 1100 are considered implausible.
There is no evidence of bruns or helmets in the grave goods of the Viking population. From this, some researchers conclude that they were not used and that the conical headgear depicted in the pictures were not helmets.
Although the grave goods were not based on use, but on the property of the deceased, they did not represent all of his property. Therefore, the conical headdresses depicted would not necessarily have been found.
They can be seen on the wood carvings of the stave church of Hyllestad (Sweden), which are in the National Museum in Stockholm, and on the Bayeux carpet.
Under the Cologne Cathedral, under the floor of the Merovingian chapel built there earlier, a boy's tomb from the first half of the 6th century has been found, containing a clasp helmet made of 12 narrow bronze clasps, the segments of which were made of carved horn plates, as were the cheek flaps.
Thus, if helmets were made of horn plates, they are unlikely to have been preserved. A grave find in Derbyshire includes a helmet with two iron ribs crossing on the crest, attached to a circular headband.
The spaces between them were originally filled with horn plates. On the top was an iron plate with an iron boar figure with bronze eyes.
Such helmets made of horn could also be the cause of the modern depiction of bull horns on Viking helmets due to later misunderstanding.
Another source for the idea of horned helmets among Vikings are depictions of warriors with horned helmets on bronze press plates, apparently representing initiation rites associated with berserkers.
In any case, the many popular depictions of Vikings and Normans wearing horned helmets are false. They are popularly used by the Scandinavian tourist industry and the media. Horned helmets were not worn in battle by Viking, Germanic or Celtic warriors.
It is also possible that a simple head protection was not counted among the grave goods at all, since it did not say anything about the prestige of the wearer like clothes, weapons and shield. There were also differences in the quality of helmets, as it is particularly emphasized that Olav the Saint's men wore "welsh" helmets in the battle of Nesjar.
This is also supported by the fact that axe (sword), spear, shield and bow and arrow were part of the standard equipment, but rarely all these weapons were found together in the graves.
In Nordfjord, 177 weapon graves from the Merovingian and Viking periods are recorded. In 92 of these, only one weapon was found. 42 of them were an axe, 28 were a sword and 22 were a spear. In the rest lay combinations of weapons.
In the Egils saga, set in the late 9th century, it says: "When Kveldulf returned to the rear deck, he raised the battle axe and struck it through Halvard's helmet and head so that it penetrated to the shaft."
In the Gunnlaugr Ormstungas saga, a duel is reported at the end in which, during a pause in the fight, one of the combatants fetches water in his helmet.
The ancient helmets had the shape of a hemisphere. There were also helmets with a pointed cone shape, like the one depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. They had a forged iron band covering the nose.
This is not only recognizable in the illustrations, it is also mentioned in writing: "King Olav cut Þorgeir of Kvistað ... across the face, and he smashed the nose cap (nefbjörg á hjálminum) of the helmet ...".
This was sometimes joined by cheek pieces and a neck guard. The complete covering of the whole head with eye and breathing holes appeared only in the 13th century.
Under such helmets was worn a hood connected to the harness and made of the same material. Under it was a soft padded cap.
Ordinary metal hoods also occurred, as shown in the illustration about the death of Olav the Saint from 1130. They were lined with leather inside. Metal hoods with wide rims came into use only under King Sverre.
Therefore, the illustration of the initial of the Flateyjarbók is anachronistic, but it shows the usual steel hood in the period of writing.
The same anachronism is found in the Laxdæla saga, where Húnbogi inn sterki (Eng. "Hunbogi the Strong") is described (11th century): "... and had a steel hood on his head, and the brim was a hand's breadth."
Helmets like Sutton Hoo's were worn by leaders in battle. Eyvind the Skald Corrupter writes about a battle of Håkon the Good with the Sons of Erich.
It is further said that the king's helmet was actually gilded. This is evident from the fact that it flashed far recognizable in the sun and thus attracted the enemies, so that a warrior put a hat on his helmet.
Another form of protection was the chainmail also known as brynne. Small rings of iron wire were inserted into each other, four into one. They had different lengths. Usually they still covered the abdomen, some went to mid-thigh. However, they were not universally used in the beginning.
Thus, in the battle of Nesjar, it is pointed out that Olav's men were hardly wounded because of these breasts, unlike the men of his opponent Jarl Sveinn. Like all weapons, excellently crafted bridles could also bear names.
Foreign bruns could be worked in several layers (Middle Latin bilix, trilix lorica). There is a report of a double ring brynne found in southern Iceland.
Over the brynne, people often wore a garment to protect it against the weather. Sometimes one even had cloaks or other finery, in the case of the king in some representations made of silk.
To protect the legs, the fighter also wore chain mail pants. They covered only the front of the leg. In the back they were held together by straps.
Over them they often wore linen trousers. Leg guards do not seem to have existed, but metal knee protection did.
The shield of the Viking Age was circular. As the simplest shield, the Landslov of King Magnus lagabætir mentions a shield made of lime wood (linda skjold) Falk considers the six 'peasant shields' in a Norwegian estate inventory from 1350 to be such shields.
For a shield to be recognized at the muster of arms, it had to be held together with at least three metal cross bands. Such a shield is partially shown in the illustration on the right.
They were usually unpainted and therefore called "white shields". They were not considered particularly warlike. For example, a bishop was expected to carry 30 men and twelve white shields on his visitations.
The pinning of a white shield was considered a sign of peace. War shields were generally red.
The contrast between white peace shields and red war shields is expressed in the saga of Erich the Red at the encounter with the Skrälingers.
A red shield also served as a court sign, at least on ships.
The red shield belonged to the compulsory armament of a warrior who possessed more than at least six weighed marks of silver. This shield also had to have a second layer of boards (tvibyrðr skjöldr).
A special version had a rim shod with iron.
It is also passed down that there were shields with a cross inlaid of gold. This is said not only for the warriors on the ship Mannshaupt in the battle of Nesja, but also of King Olav's shield in the battle of Stiklestad.
There were shields fully or partially gilded, and there were even gems inlaid. However, here, as with accounts of extensive carving, the source value is doubtful. Many accounts of images on the shields are also implausible, as when, according to the Laxdæla saga, Ólafur pái (c. 955) is said to have possessed a shield with a gilded lion.
At his time, the appearance of a lion was probably not so well known in Scandinavia that the image could have made an impression on the enemy fighters.
The especially decorated splendor shields were probably not intended for combat, but served as ornamentation on festive occasions.
The shield of the sea warrior could be attached to the outside of the railing.
Another type of shield was the buckler. It is mentioned in the King's Mirror as the armament of the foot warrior during the exercise of arms.
It was a very simple shield, which can be seen from the price differences. The shield maker received three Øre for a red battle shield, and only half a Øre for a buckler without the hump.
The Hirðskrá prescribes a buckler in addition to a good shield for the armament of a retainer.
Another type was the curved long shield, first oval, later more and more pointed at the bottom. Later, a flat variant also appeared. These shields were also common in Iceland, as the Icelandic Grettis saga shows in a very drastic scene.
This form of shields allowed covering the legs. The tip of the rather heavy shield could also be stuck into the ground. That they were widely used is shown by the many places where dead and wounded were carried away on the shields, which would not have been possible with the smaller round shields.
The long shields depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry also document their widespread use.