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.
Book also provides an estimate on construction time for a ship.
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.
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.
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 Ageby 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.
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.
Great discussion of the Viking way of war can be found in Norse Warfare: A Portrayal of Combat, Raids, and Plunder in the Viking Ageby Martina Sprague. I will summarize a lot of comments in the book, starting with an explanation why even though they had the same weapons and essentially the same techniques as everyone else in Europe at the time they were so successful.
Lots of other interesting comments in the book that I want to mention and some intriguing observations I have not read elsewhere.
Please look at this series of posts as a book report. Unless otherwise noted, the comments are summaries of information provided by the author. I describe the ideas in my own words with my own perspective on the concept.
In a few places I have synthesized her comments with what I’ve read elsewhere.
Book has background on why Norwegians, Danes and Swedes went aviking and explains why summers were the raiding season.
From my other reading I am aware there is some debate whether population pressures forced Scandinavians to go aviking or to set sail to seek farmland overseas.
In recent years I have been exploring the Viking Era. You can see lots of posts on my blog about finances and technology of the time.
After looking at descriptions of life on the farm during the 1930s and in particular the economic activity we can see in my grandfather’s probate document I’ve been wondering about life on a South Dakota farm during the 1930s and 1940s.
Did that life look more like what it would have been living on a farm in Scandinavia during the Viking Age or does it look more like the life you and I live today anywhere in the United States?
Did my dad grow up in circumstances closer to the Viking age than to now?
Let’s consider the question from several directions.
Grandma and grandpa were born on this side of the discovery of germ theory of disease transmission. Penicillin was just coming into use as my aunts and uncles were growing up on the farm.
Essentially every vaccination we currently have has come into play since my aunts and uncles were born. That includes chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough, yellow fever, cholera, shingles, pneumonia, and now even Covid-19. Those crippling or life-threatening diseases can be prevented with a shot the cost a fraction of an hour earnings.
CAT scans, MRIs, minimally invasive surgery, and chemotherapy are things no one would have ever dreamt of in the 1930s.
If pills to control diabetes which are available today for pennies or maybe a dollar apiece had been available in the 1940s my grandfather would not have died of diabetes when he did, instead he would have lived another decade or three.
Like my grandfather in the 1930s, Vikings in the 900s would have known nothing of vaccinations or advanced medical treatment. Neither my grandfather nor a Viking era farmer would have known anything about medicine to control diabetes or high blood pressure or high cholesterol or any one of dozens of other diseases which were similarly untreatable.
Standard of living
A few things that arrived on the farm after my grandfather died:
Casting my CPA eye on the 1946 probate document for my grandfather’s estate led to a series of previous posts describing what we can learn about farming in the 1940s from a legal filing. Those posts have been combined into one section of my newest book: An Ulvog Journey.
The book also provides recollections of growing up a South Dakota farm in the 1930s and 1940s, written by my dad and his seven siblings.
One of my uncles, Carl Ulvog, was a captivating storyteller. His autobiographic tale of experiences in the South Pacific during World War II are also included.