The Vikings

The Vikings were Swedish and Danish/Norwegian.

Political Considerations

The Vikings were Swedish and Danish/Norwegian. Viking homelands were made up of kingdoms divided into districts. Farmers, merchants, the rich, and the king all theoretically had equal voices in the thing, a political assembly, and in the hearing of land disputes and criminal cases. In reality, wealth and power led to greater influence in gatherings with few formal procedures. Sometimes the only justice was the feud or trial by ordeal. When justice seemed impossible, slighted merchants could take matters into their own hands.VikingsSwedes;medievalDanish VikingsScandinavians;medievalVikingsSwedes;medievalDanish VikingsNorwegian VikingsScandinavians;medieval

Viken was an area located near Oslofjord, and the VikingarVikingar were merchants disgruntled by tariffs levied by their rulers on goods passing across Danish waters. Rather than acknowledge their subordinate status, they went to sea as traders. Swedes sailed to Russia, the Islamic Caliphate, and Byzantium. Danes and Norwegians sailed to Iceland, Greenland, North America, and Europe.

Despite CharlemagneCharlemagne (Frankish king)Charlemagne’s establishment of the Carolingian EmpireCarolingian Empire, European kingdoms were weak and disunited by feuds and rivalries–and ripe for exploitation. The modern nation-state was centuries away, and a kingdom often consisted of a town and however much of the hinterland the sovereign could hold. Besieged at Paris, Frankish king Charles III the SimpleCharles III the Simple (Frankish king)Charles III (the Simple) gave Normandy to the Viking RolloRollo (founder of Norman Dynasty)Rollo on condition that Rollo become Christian. The Scandinavians were absorbed by the dominant French culture.

Danish Vikings ruled half of England from late in the ninth century into the eleventh century. In the DanelawDanelaw, Scandinavian lords governed under Danish law. By 1014 England was virtually under Danish rule. Knud (also Knut or Canute), known as Canute I the GreatCanute I the GreatCanute the Great, became English king in 1016, marrying Ethelred IIEthelred II[Ethelred 02]Ethelred II’s widow as well. By 1033 Vikings controlled England, Normandy, southern Sweden, and Denmark, the lands surrounding the Baltic Sea that provided entry to the waterways that led to Europe and Arab lands. In 1066 the Norwegian king Harold III Hardrada was defeated at Stamford Bridge, leading to the Norwegian consolidation of their gains and the end of Viking expansion.

Vikings extorted and stole and became Normans and Irish and English and Byzantines. In the North Atlantic they extended the European frontier. They influenced languages, cultures, and political institutions. They revitalized towns and commerce, making commercial centers of York, Kiev, and other towns.

Military Achievement

The first Vikings;raidsViking raid in Britain was at Lindisfarne Viking raid (793 c.e.)Lindisfarne in 793. Within five years thereafter, the Vikings had raided in Northumbria, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Isle of Iona, and islands off France’s Aquitaine. Thus began a 250-year reign that terrorized Europeans, ending the period between the sixth and eighth centuries when Europeans experienced little external invasion and leaving Europe at the conclusion a more cohesive area with a broader awareness of a larger world.

Vikings had been for the most part farmers and traders. When they began trading in Europe they noticed that many European locations were wealthy and poorly defended, and by the eighth century trade was secondary for the Vikings, done only if the Europeans were too well armed for the Vikings to plunder with impunity. The eighth century was also a time of European disarray, a consequence of the Fall of Rome in the fifth century, and the Carolingian Empire;and Vikings[Vikings]Carolingian Empire was powerful in France and Germany but not in the rest of Europe, where Charlemagne lacked the numbers to resist the Vikings. Between 790 and 840 the Vikings used the advantage of the shallow draft of their longships to strike coastal towns and monasteries quickly, looting and departing before the locals could react. They hit coastal England and France first, moving along the rivers on later forays.

Viking Raids, 790-850

Between 841 and 875 the raids became more frequent, faster, larger, and more intense. From initial forays of three ships they grew to forays of more than three hundred ships at a time, and the Vikings plundered, killed, enslaved, and burned before departing. In 843 they wintered on foreign soil for the first time, settling in AquitaineAquitaine and never leaving it. The Danish Great Army (Vikings)Great Army in East Anglia established winter quarters in 873-874.

Attacks after 841 shifted to the Mediterranean. In 844 a Viking fleet hit Nantes, Toulouse, Gijon, Lisbon, and Seville before being defeated and forced back to Aquitaine. After that, another fleet hit North Africa, France, and Spain before being defeated in Italy. Vikings as permanent residents were a political threat, leading many rulers to attempt to bribe them to leave. The Vikings at this time established their Great Army, thousands organized into smaller bands that fought on their own, sometimes with each other.

From 876 to 911 the Vikings and the Great Army plundered but also began colonizing their English and French bases as well as establishing settlements in Ireland, Russia, Iceland, and other lands they raided from England and France. In 911 Charles III the SimpleCharles III the Simple (Frankish king)Charles the Simple ended the raids by giving the Vikings Normandy. The Viking RolloRollo (founder of Norman Dynasty)Rollo became a duke and Christianized, a vassal of the French king and the ruler of Normandy. Normans expanded to Italy and Sicily, pushing out Byzantines, Lombards, and Muslims. They established the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, friendly to the pope and a counter to other Italian nobles.

Vikings also raided Persia and North Africa. They were in Iceland and Greenland and touched North America. With only a handful of people (Scandinavia had a population of barely one million in all), they controlled territory with millions of inhabitants.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The most common Viking weapon was an Axes;Vikingax that could be thrown or swung. The Bearded ax“bearded ax” had a curved blade. An adept fighter could decapitate an ox with a single blow using this weapon.

Viking Spears;Vikingspears, which were either thrust or thrown, had iron blades on wooden shafts, usually ash; they ranged from six to ten feet long. The iron blades took various shapes, from long spikes to broad leaves. A skilled spearman could reportedly throw two spears at once or catch one in flight and throw it back on target.

Swords were expensive and represented high status. They were double-edged and about thirty-five inches long. Early Viking sabers were single-edged; strips of wrought iron and mild steel were twisted and forged together, and than a hardened edge was added. Scabbards;VikingScabbards were of wood bound in leather. Later swords had homogeneous steel blades. Because weapons symbolized wealth and status as well as battle-readiness, they were often decorated with twisted wire or inlays in copper, bronze, and silver.

Wealthy Viking warriors wore expensive Armor;VikingMail;VikingChain mail;Vikingchain-mail Hauberkshauberks or Byrniesbyrnies, tunics reaching below the waist; these were worn over heavy cloth padding. Average fighters wore leather armor, metal plates attached to leather or cloth backing, or padded leather shirts topped by iron breastplates. Reindeer hide was more effective than mail as armor.

The Helmets;Vikinghelmets Vikings wore were made of iron, some of a solid piece hammered into a cone or bowl shape, others of various pieces of iron riveted or tied together with leather. The nosepieces were of iron or leather, and some face guards protected the eyes. Cheek guards were uncommon. Helmets were most likely worn only by the leaders, because they were extremely hard to make; average fighters wore hide caps. Horned helmets were not part of the Viking armory because such headgear would be unbalanced and heavy in battle while offering no protection. Horned helmets probably were used ceremonially by pre-Viking chieftains.

The typicalShields;VikingViking shield was circular, about three feet across. It was wooden, with a central hole for an iron handgrip riveted to the back of the shield boards. An iron boss over the hole protected the hand. Leather covered the shield, and the rim was bound with either leather or metal. Some shields were painted in simple patterns or with scenes of heroes and moments from mythological stories. Around 1000, the continental kite-shaped shield, which better protected the bearer’s legs, came into use among the Vikings.

The Vikings’ Longships;Vikinglongships used sails and oars. The builders employed overlapping planks split from trees with mallet and wedge, riveted the planks with iron, and caulked them with tarred, twisted horsehair or other animal fur. The ships ranged in length from about 60 feet to 120 feet, and both bow and stern had the same shape, allowing them to change direction without turning around. Steering was accomplished through the use of a starboard oar, not a rudder. The average speed of the longships was 10-11 knots. With frightful figureheads and red-painted sails to intimidate foes, a longship with sixty armed Vikings aboard was a fearsome weapon.

Military Organization

The early Viking formation was the Hird (Viking formation)hird (a medieval term for hearth), the lord’s retinue or household or court, which consisted of the men who lived in the lord’s domicile and had sworn loyalty to him–in effect, his knights. They were often countrymen attracted by the reputation of the lord for generosity or bravery, but some were more mercenary, professionals in search of the best opportunity for gain. By the thirteenth century the hird developed ranks comparable to the continental squire, man-at-arms, and knight. The hird in time of war served as the core of the army.

The country was divided into units called Hafna (Viking unit)hafna, each of which had to provide a mark of gold toward the arming and manning of a ship. The ship would have a crew of forty to sixty Lithsmen (Viking sailors) lithsmen, each supplied with a spear, a helmet, and a shield. Each ship had a single mail shirt, and bows with arrows were provided at one per six benches. There may have been a rotation in service similar to that of the Saxon fyrd, because full-time duty would have been onerous on the estates, even with the professionals in the retinue.

During the eleventh century, the Viking military became more professional. In 1012, during the attack of Sweyn ISweyn I[Sweyn 01]Sweyn I and Canute against England, forty-five ships separated from Sweyn’s fleet and promised to defend ÆthelredÆthelred (king of Wessex)[Aethelred]Æthelred’s (Ethelred’s) land in return for food and clothing. After disbanding the army, Canute maintained a standing army of forty ships. The lithsmen were professionals, unlike the draftees of the earlier age. Lithsmen received eight marks a year per oar. The system lasted until the reign of Edward, when the Danish influence faded. The Danish ships sailed away with their wealth.

Canute established the Tinglithtinglith, or Huscarls huscarl, which formalized the hird. The difference between the tinglith and the hird was that the tinglith was supported only by the king through taxes and fees on towns, which sometimes provided Mercenaries;butsecarles Butsecarles (mercenaries) butsecarles in lieu of fyrd service. The butsecarles were mercenaries who served in garrison to safeguard a town while its men were on the fyrd.

Viking armies consisted of Drengs (Viking warriors)drengs, or young warriors, and Thegns thegns, or older crewmen. The Merkismathrs merkismathr was standard-bearer (an important post because the standard was believed to have magical properties). The king’s deputy was the Stallari (marshal) stallari, or marshal. The king’s retinue in the eleventh century consisted of about ninety men along with associated hangers-on and menials. The retinue broke out into Hirdmenn hirdmenn, those who shared the hearth, and gestir, guests who received half hirdmenn pay. Gestir lived apart from the household with their own leader. They were the king’s police, tax collectors, and enforcers of justice. Hirdmenn were the handpicked elite, loyal to king and the other hirdmenn–Viking knights, in a sense.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Vikings had no standing army for most of the period, and their discipline was slight. There were no set fighting formations, but loyalty to the lord helped the force remain cohesive. Weapons training began with hunting, games, and raiding at an early age. The ambitious would-be warrior sought the best retinue, there to earn wealth, weapons, and fame. War became necessary as a way of keeping the retinue satisfied and keeping the warriors from shifting to rival retinues.

The principal battle method was the strong blow that could break through the enemy’s armor and crush bone and flesh. Where space permitted, theAxes;Vikingbattle-ax was commonly used. The broad axes of the late tenth and eleventh centuries required two hands to wield, so warriors carrying these weapons were shieldless; they would hide behind the front line of fighters until, at the opportune moment, they raced into the open and attacked enemy fighters.

An artist’s depiction of a tenth century Viking raid carried out in Norse longboats.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Through the eleventh century Vikings were foot soldiers. Their Horses and horse riding;Vikinghorses were small and inferior to those of the lands they attacked. Leaders sometimes had horses for rapid movement to the battle, where they dismounted to fight.

Vikings preferred to hit and run, but when forced to stand and fight they formed a shield-fort, the Skjaldborgsskjaldborg, preferably on a hill or with marshes on the flanks. A bodyguard stood close by the commander. The Vikings’ foes drank ale or mead to fortify their courage before taking on the skjaldborg.

The battle began with the Vikings throwing a spear across the enemy line to dedicate the soon-to-be-slain foe to Odin, the chief Norse god. A rain of spears, arrows, and other missiles followed. If the two sides still were not ready to quit, one attacked the other. A wedge of twenty to thirty warriors, the Svinfylking (boar formation)svinfylking (boar formation), charged and either broke the enemy or initiated a general melee. When the two sides collided with thrusting spears, swinging axes, and ramming shields, neither wanted to back off. The side that broke away and turned to run left itself open to slaughter by the pursuers.

The maniacal warriors known as Berserkersberserkers may have worn the skins of wolves or bears and may have fought in groups. Berserkers believed themselves protected and given supernatural powers by Odin; they drank ale infused with hallucinogenic mushrooms and attacked with no regard for any wounds they received. They often bit the edges of their shields in battle. Some scholars have speculated that berserkers tended to be psychopaths.

It was uncommon for Vikings to engage in Naval battles;Vikingsea battles, and those they fought took place close to shore. Ropes tied the Longships;Vikinglongships in a line facing the opposing fleet. After an exchange of arrows and other missiles, hand-to-hand fighting ensued as each crew sought to board the opposing ship. The goal was to capture, not destroy, the opposing ship, as it represented a significant investment in money, time, and resources.

Medieval Sources

Medieval Scandinavia lacked the literary tradition of the Islamic and Christian areas. Contemporary sources on the Vikings are mostly Anglo-Saxon or Frankish cautionary tales written between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. They include chronicles, sagas, skaldic epics, laws, and Runic inscriptionsrunic inscriptions. Runic inscriptions are the exception, being written at the time of events they describe. They are normally only a few lines long, and they are scattered both geographically and chronologically. Runic sticks are few, but rune stones are more common, with 140 in Denmark.

The other types of source are all foreign. Most of them are written in Latin in the context of a military or religious conflict with the Vikings. Annals are the chronological yearbooks written by a country’s clerics about internal and foreign policy. Among them are the Annals of the Frankish Empire Annals of the Frankish Empire, which reports that in 808 Godfred, king of the Danes, fortified his southern border in defense against Emperor Charlemagne of the Frankish Empire. The Annals of Ulster Annála Uladh (entries from 431 to 1540; Annals of Ulster, 1895) of January, 840, mention the first foray by the Vikings: They plundered and took bishops, priests, and scholars captive, putting others to death. These annals date from the fifteenth century, but scholars regard them as reliable reports of the Viking activity in the Christian world during their era.

Also important is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle[Anglo Saxon chronicle] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of documents on Anglo-Saxon England to 1154. Some are secondary sources based on legend, but there are also firsthand accounts of Viking conquest and plundering not covered elsewhere. Russian Primary Chronicle, The Povest vremennykh let (The Russian Primary Chronicle, 1930) dates from the eleventh century to the twelfth century.

Travelogues and biographies usually mention the Vikings only in passing. Chronicon Roskildense Chronicon Roskildense (c. 1138-1140; Roskilde chronicle) and Gesta Danorum Gesta Danorum (1514; The History of the Danes, 1894, 1980-1981), the latter by History of the Danes, The (Saxo Grammaticus) Saxo GrammaticusSaxo Grammaticus Saxo Grammaticus, are the two oldest histories of Denmark. Both are modeled on the work of Adam of BremenAdam of Bremen Adam of Bremen, whose History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (Adam of Bremen) Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (c. 1075; History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 1959) contains, in its fourth book, Description of the Islands in the North, an account from Danish king Sweyn IISweyn II[Sweyn 02] Sweyn II, making it an important source for the period from 870 to 1080. The biography of Ansgar, SaintAnsgar, Saint Saint Ansgar deals with his missionary work in Denmark and Sweden in the ninth century. Arab travelogues include that of Ahmad ibn FadlanAhmad ibn Fadlan Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who met the Vikings on the Volga River in the tenth century. The Spanish Arab Ibn-RustahIbn-Rustah[Ibn Rustah] Ibn-Rustah recorded a tenth century visit to Hedeby in Kitāb al-a’lāq al-nafisah (c. 903-913; French translation, Ibn Rusteh: Les Atours précieux, 1955). Other travelers who wrote about the Vikings include Ohtere and Wulfstan.

Sagas are high medieval Icelandic tales about Norse notables. They provide information about ships, fleet sizes, and other elements of Viking society. Snorri SturlusonSnorri SturlusonSnorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (Snorri) Heimskringla (c. 1230-1235; English translation, 1844) is the progenitor of the Scandinavian skaldic (bardic) epics.

Occasional medieval legal texts have laws traceable back to the Viking era. Among them is the Gulatinglov (Icelandic law) Gulatinglov, the model for Icelandic law. It dates from before 930 but was written in the twelfth or thirteenth century.VikingsSwedes;medievalDanish VikingsNorwegian VikingsScandinavians;medieval

Books and Articles

  • Durham, Keith. Viking Longship. New York: Osprey, 2002.
  • Durham, Keith, Mark Harrison, and Magnus Magnusson. The Vikings: Voyagers of Discovery and Plunder. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • Heath, Ian. The Vikings. New York: Osprey, 1985.
  • Santosuosso, Antonio. Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels: The Ways of Medieval Warfare. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004.
  • Siddom, J. K. Viking Weapons and Warfare. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Tempus, 2003.
  • Sprague, Martina. Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings.

Films and Other Media

  • Erik the Viking. Feature film. KB Erik the Viking, 1989.
  • Ivanhoe. Feature film. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.
  • The Long Ships. Feature film. Avala Film, 1964.
  • The Norseman. Feature film. Charles B. Pierce Film Productions, 1978.
  • Prince Valiant. Feature film. Constantin Film Produktion, 1997.
  • Prince Valiant. Feature film. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1954.
  • The Thirteenth Warrior. Feature film. Touchstone, 1999.
  • The Vikings. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service/WGBH, 2000.
  • The Vikings. Feature film. Brynaprod, 1958.
  • The War Lord. Feature film. Court Productions, 1965.
  • Warrior Challenge: Vikings. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service/Thirteen/WNET New York, 2003.


The Franks and the Holy Roman Empire

The Anglo-Saxons

The Lombards

The Magyars

Armies of Christendom and the Age of Chivalry

Crusading Armies of the West