In the early medieval period, the Vikings were one of the most feared groups of people. Raids and wars were nothing new during the Middle Ages, but a fear of the Vikings was felt throughout Europe after the Roman Occupation.
The Nature of Viking Warfare
Much of what is known of Viking weapons is evidence gathered from excavations of Viking settlements and graves. Important Vikings were buried with their prized weapons before Christianity reached Europe, and so burial sites have been an important source of information on Viking weaponry.
The nature of a Viking raid was the element of surprise, with Vikings arriving before the alarm could be raised, carrying out their raid and leaving. When they did fight, it was usually at close quarters.
Unlike most of their medieval counterparts, the Vikings didn’t make use of horses in battle. Viking horses were small and sturdy, more suited to carrying goods than operating on a battlefield where speed and strength were required. Most of the weapons that a Viking warrior carried were for use in face-to-face combat.
The Weapons That Vikings Used
A Viking sword was doubled edged, making it dangerous at all angles. The blade was made of iron and the base was often decorated with elaborate patterns and runes, which some believed gave the weapon magical qualities.
A particularly feared weapon was the axe. There were two types; one used for fighting at close quarters and another which could be thrown over long distances. Although an axe wielded by an expert fighter could be powerful enough to behead a horse, it had to be swung with two hands. This left the person wielding the axe unable to defend himself with a shield and so he would often be protected by other fighters.
The spear was used for one-on-one combat, but could also be thrown into the field of battle. To protect himself, a Viking warrior would carry a shield, which could again be decorated with symbols. Vikings didn’t wear a uniform, most fighting forces were made up of men who carried out non-military occupations when they weren’t needed in battle. They did wear helmets, but the horned helmets sometimes seen in illustrations seem to be a myth.
The Viking Longboat
The longboat is a recognized symbol of the Viking age and, as with so much of Viking warfare, its effectiveness was psychological as well as physical. Just the sight of a huge Viking longboat, full of chanting warriors, shields hung menacingly along the sides of the ship could cause fear and panic. The longboat was often decorated with a fearsome carved face at its head.
Because the longboat was narrow and shallow-based, it was not only fast on the sea, but could reach far inland via rivers. Inland, it could be rowed with oars and on the open seas, relied mainly on its sails. The longboat was so shallow it didn’t need a harbor, but could just land on a beach if necessary, making a raid even easier to perform and harder to detect.
Coastal monasteries were particularly at risk from Viking raids and religious houses on the east coast of England were often targeted. A monastery would often have valuable goods, in the form of religious gold and silverware and, due to the peaceful nature of the community, wasn’t heavily guarded.
Fear by Reputation – Viking Myths and Legends
The Viking people had a strong culture of storytelling. Stories of the brave and fearsome deed of Viking warriors not only gave motivation in battle to Viking warriors, they also struck fear into all who heard the legends outside Viking territories. Just like the tales of knights and their heroic deeds, the Viking legends would live on for centuries.
Sawyer, Peter, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings [Oxford University Press,2001]
Siddorn, J Kim, Viking Weapons and Warfare [Tempus Publishing,2003]