More discussion of Viking era weapons, ships, money, and warfare: shields and armor

Vikings are go on the offensive. Vikings are dressed in chain, with swords, spears, axes, shields in the hands and helmets on their heads in winter time. Medieval Reenactment. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

In his book Viking Weapons & Warfare, author John Kim Siddorn looks at Viking weapons from the perspective of a long time reenactor. Having used shields and spears which he built in a shield wall provides a different, and informed, view that is a delight to read.

Posts in this series:

  • Spears, cost of iron
  • Shields, armor
  • Helmets, ships
  • Money

Shield

Shields typically measured between 2’ 7” and 3’ in diameter. They were flat with several planks next to each other. Often there would be some sort of rim going around the edge.

Author makes a point I have never seen before – there is no archaeological evidence that medieval armies used laminated shields.

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More discussion of Viking era weapons, ships, money, and warfare: spears, cost of iron.

The nails are what’s left of a burial coffin. Object from the exhibition We Call Them Vikings produced by the Swedish History Museum by The Swedish History Museum, Stockholm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Delightful book on Viking era weaponry takes a practical, hands-on look at use of weapons in combat. In Viking Weapons & Warfare, author John Kim Siddorn takes a very different perspective from the usual Viking book, since he is a reenactor with extensive experience actually carrying a shield and spear in a shield wall during reenactment battles. With his 25 years of reenacting experience, he can speak personally on protection provided by a shield, how quickly untrained people can be brought up to speed on using a spear, how difficult it is to use a sling, and the practicalities of maintaining integrity of a shield wall during close combat.

His book provides extensive discussion on construction techniques and practical usage of various weapons. I won’t go into a detail on that, because to do so would require essentially repeating entire chapters to get an appreciation for the issues involved.

Instead I will pull out tidbits of interest to me that I hope would be of interest to those who already enjoy this blog.

Posts in this series:

  • Spears, cost of iron
  • Shields, armor
  • Helmets, ships
  • Money

Cost of Iron

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Cancer and heart disease may have been more prevalent in ancient times than we’ve been told.

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The ancient, good ol’ days were not quite as good as modern romantics would like to think.

Two articles I’ve come across recently point out that there was a lot more illnesses that we consider to be modern disease than was previously thought.

4/29/21 – Medical Xpress – Cancer rates in medieval Britain around 10 times higher than previously thought, study suggests – Prior to a study which for the first time used x-rays and CT scans to look at skeletons of people who died in medieval England, the estimate was that less than 1% of people back then suffered from cancer.

The assumption was that without any modern chemicals or tobacco use people living in the medieval era just did not have cancer.

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Another guess at value of a sword and other defensive armament circa seventh century.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is viking-weapons-adobe.jpeg

Viking weapons and armors set. Viking warrior equipment. Sword, axe, spear, pike, bow, arrows helmet shield. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

A big part of what you see on this blog is me slowly putting together pieces of information about ancient finances. As I come across tidbits providing insight to ancient days, you can watch me gradually build my knowledge.

Several years ago I came across some references to prices of defensive armament back in the seventh century or so, but got stumped when trying to sort out the valuations expressed in terms of gold pieces. A reader explain why I was confused and got me back on track. So, I’ll take the next feeble step in my learning journey.

Think back to your high school algebra class when your teacher told you to show your work. That’s what I will do. This allows you to check my logic and math. You can also assess my assumptions for yourself. You can then modify my calculations if you have different assumptions, such as for the value of gold in the Middle Ages.

Ancient pricing

Mentioned in my post Cost of weapons in Northern Europe in mid 7th century the book Vikings at War book by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike provided some pricing information from the 7th-century Frankish legal text, Lex Ribuaria (or Ripuaria)

The lawbook provided the following prices when restitution was necessary:

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Viking warfare – overview of how women fared during and after the Viking Age – 7/

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The delightful book Norse Warfare: A Portrayal of Combat, Raids, and Plunder in the Viking Age by Martina Sprague briefly touches on how women got along during the Viking age and how their conditions generally deteriorated after that era ended.

Women in the Viking Age

Author points out at several places in the book that Norse women had more freedom and power in the Viking world than women did in the European world.

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Viking warfare – violence wasn’t limited to the Vikings – 6/

Alert Viking warrior armed with axe and shield.  Same weaponry used by most soldiers in the era. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

No doubt the Vikings were more violent than we can imagine. The book Norse Warfare: A Portrayal of Combat, Raids, and Plunder in the Viking Age by Martina Sprague explains they weren’t the only violent ones around at the time.

It was a violent time

Legend and popular stories claim the Vikings were particularly brutal and ruthless. If you listen to those reports you will think that they were unique in their time.

Not so, the book points out.

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Viking warfare – weapons – 5/

Slavic warriors reenactors on the seashore with weapons and shields training in fighting. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Survey of weapons used by Vikings and their opponents is described in Norse Warfare: A Portrayal of Combat, Raids, and Plunder in the Viking Age by Martina Sprague.

This is a continuation of a series of posts describing various aspects of warfare in the Viking era explained in the book.

Offensive weapons

Book provides interesting background on weapons of the time.

Swords were used for slashing or chopping and not thrusting. Thus they had a blunt tip.

They were typically 3 feet long and 4 inches wide.

Weight would be in the range of between 3 up to 4½ pounds.

That would make the Viking swords longer, wider, and heavier than a Roman Legionaire’s gladius.

Heavy two-hand battle axes were difficult to use at very close range. In addition, they required sufficient swinging room, so you could not use them in a shield wall. It had a longer reach than a sword or a light axe.

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Viking warfare – sails and ship construction– 4/

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

For some background on sailing ships, particularly the effort it would take to weave the sail we can look to Norse Warfare: A Portrayal of Combat, Raids, and Plunder in the Viking Age by Martina Sprague.

Book also provides an estimate on construction time for a ship.

Ships

Sails would typically have an aspect ratio of 3 to 1, in other words three times as wide as they were tall. Book again says typically these would be about 48 feet wide.

A small ship might have a sail about 600 ft.², which would be about 44 feet wide by 15 feet tall. A large ship might have a sale with area of 950 ft.², which would be about 53 feet wide and 18 feet tall.

Author says the larger sail would take something in the range of 80 miles of yarn. That is estimated to be as much as four women would be able to spin over the course of one winter.

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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.

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Viking warfare – why were they so successful? – 2/

You were about to have a bad day if that was your view through the morning mist if you had been alive in the 800s or 900s A.D. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock

Vikings did not have superior weapons, battle techniques, or leadership when compared to those they fought. Norse Warfare: A Portrayal of Combat, Raids, and Plunder in the Viking Age by Martina Sprague indicates it was primarily their tactics that give them an advantage. Fast, low-draw ships which could be rowed to shore then beached anywhere gave them an advantage which they constructed their tactics around. They also gained key intelligence information from trading so they know where the money was and what kingdoms were in distress.

Raid strategy

The Vikings did not have vastly superior weapons or better organized forces or better battlefield strategy or better leadership than their opponents. Why were they so successful as raiders and plunderers?

I am slowly realizing that their ships gave them the edge. They capitalized on their slight technological advantage, adapted their tactics accordingly, chose carefully when to engage and when to retreat, and therefore had a massive advantage when they chose to engage.

Book points out monasteries were usually poorly guarded, primarily because the organized armies that existed were usually fighting other armies. Most cities and most monasteries were close to a river or ocean.

With the nimble, low visibility ships they used, the Vikings could easily beach their ships on a shore and quickly get to their target. They could quickly make an escape after a raid or retreat if they encountered resistance.

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