Viking warfare – downside risks and upside rewards from pillaging – 3/

Serious viking warrior in the attack, running along the shore with Drakkar on the background.Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

For description of the dangers of raiding and looting along with the upside rewards, we can look at comments in Norse Warfare: A Portrayal of Combat, Raids, and Plunder in the Viking Age by Martina Sprague. This post continues in a series of discussions of comments from the book.

Losses from sailing during the Viking era, let alone battle, could be severe. On the other hand there is substantial reward available from a successful raid. Book also provides a description of the common understanding of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok.

Losses in battle and at sea

Life was dangerous back then.

Imagine taking an arrow in a muscle or deep sword gash. If a Viking survived the wound, consider the risk of infection in a time when no one had any idea of germ theory and it would be 1000 years before antibiotics would be invented.

I would think that infection killed a huge number of the wounded a few days or week after the battle.

Book tells us of Earl Sigurd Eysteinsson, who somewhere around 872 killed Earl Melbridge Tooth in battle. As a trophy, Earl Sigurd cut off the head of the defeated and hung it on the strip of his saddle. Unfortunately… one of the teeth on the trophy somehow scratched the leg of Earl Sigurd. The scratch became infected. The infection killed him.

Sailing itself was dangerous.

In 985 there were 25 ships that left Iceland heading for Greenland. 14 arrived.

Fighting was even more dangerous.

In 1027, King Onund left Sweden with 350 ships and returned with under 100. Assuming exactly 350 and 100 ships and assuming 40 Vikings per ship, that means he left with 14,000 warriors and returned with 4,000. He not only lost 250 ships but suffered 10,000 deaths as well.

In 1066, King Harold Hardrada left Norway with 300 ships carrying about 11,000 Vikings, which would be about 37 per ship. After the English killed him and cut up his army, it only took 24 ships to carry the survivors back to Norway. In an evacuation I will guess the ships were probably packed tighter than usual due to injured warriors, so I will assume 50 per ship. That would mean about 1,200 Vikings returned to Norway out of the 11,000 who left, which is a loss of something in the range of around 10,000 deaths (point estimate 9,800 which you can revise up or down as you wish).


But when you got lucky…

In 845, Ragnar Lodbrok reportedly walked off with 7,000 pounds of silver from King Charles II after raiding Paris. He reportedly arrived with over 5,000 men.

Assume Ragnar kept half for himself, used to fund more ships and to have a ton of money (point estimate 1.5 tons of silver) to give nice gifts to his troops. That would leave about 3,500 pounds for the men, or about 11 ounces of silver a piece, or enough to buy several cows when they got home.

In 885, a fleet reportedly at 700 ships which would presumably have been caring something in the range of 35,000 Viking warriors laid siege to Paris again. That raid only netted 700 pounds of silver but the Vikings were given permission from the king to plunder the region of Sens.

Book points out the Vikings quickly learned it was easier to demand danegeld as payment to not plunder than it was to fight. It also resulted in far less casualties thus making it more lucrative. Also the Vikings could come back in a few years to extract more danegeld.

Speculation is that during the Viking age the Vikings extracted between 250,000 and 500,000 pounds of silver, according to the book.

Ragnar Lodbrok

Text cautions us to be careful in believing information about good ol’ Ragnar. The tales have undoubtedly been exaggerated. Book cautions us that he may or may not actually be a real person.

Book provides detail on Ragnar’s wives and sons:

  • Thora Borgarhjort – first wife
    • Erik
    • Agnar,
  • Kraka – second wife
    • Ivar Boneless
    • Bjorn Ironside
    • Hvitserk
    • Ragnvald
    • Sigurd Snake-Eye

Also mentioned in literature are sons:

    • Hingwar
    • Halfdan
    • Ubbe

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