When it comes to the scope of Vikings, there has always been a tendency to mash up historicity with popular romanticizing of these Norsemen. And while few of these overlapping avenues have fueled further studies on the interesting medieval ambit of Scandinavia, there are also numerous misconceptions that still linger around in popular culture concerning the Vikings (beyond just their horned helmets). Fortunately, this time around YouTube Channel Military History Visualized has taken up the task of dispelling the persistent Viking myths that clash with the actual historical ‘modus operandi’ of these medieval raiders from the north.
And while the animated video does an impressive job of debunking some of the ‘core’ misconceptions about Viking warfare, there are other valid historical points that can be added when it comes to these Norsemen raiders. So here are some of the extra ‘things’ you should know about the Vikings and their warfare (compiled from articles previously covered by RealmofHistory and our sister site HEXAPOLIS) –
1) Shield Walls were more than just a defensive formation –
The Viking shield wall (or skjaldborg in Old Norse) was a pretty conventional tactic used by the Norsemen in land battles. It entailed a roughly phalanx-like formation of warriors who were up to five ranks deep. The front line was composed of the most well-armored troops, and their closely-held, upraised shields faced the enemy onslaught. Judging from this simplified description, one would be inclined to think that the Viking shield wall was a purely defensive maneuver.
Now while initially such a tight formation might have depended on the reactive charge of the enemy, there are other dynamic factors to take into account in a battlefield. For example, practical observations have proven that in hand-to-hand combat, an extra room (elbow length) could turn the tide of engagement, as it endows the warrior with space to swing his ax or melee weapon. So in the case of the shield-wall, the seasoned warriors in the front ranks probably overlapped their shields, and this interlocking ‘facade’ absorbed the first impact of the enemy charge. But once the charge ran out of steam, the Vikings generated their own momentum by pushing off the enemy forces with the help of their shields. This in turn automatically loosened their own formation, and allowed for the elbow-length room that was needed for a good-ole, lusty swing of their axes.
2) Penchant for ‘land battles’ even on water –
As the video explains it, the modus operandi of the Vikings intrinsically related their mobility. Simply put, while conducting their fast campaigns and raids, the Vikings didn’t make exceptions for land routes or for water routes – with the tactical advantage of mobility being enshrined in their military doctrine. In fact, their penchant for fast encounters sometimes involved arraying their ships like land-based army formations. So before the start of the battle, the Vikings arranged their fleets in lines, with the largest ships being roped together gunwale to gunwale – thus resulting in enormous floating platforms. In such a ‘formation’, the biggest and longest ships, commanded by the king and other warlords, were kept in the middle; and their prows extended beyond other ships. Suffice it to say, these prows (also called bardi in Norse) faced the thick of the battle, and were therefore reinforced with armor plates and even iron spikes known as skegg that were designed to puncture holes into enemy ships.
These huge floating platforms were obviously supported by smaller vessels on their flanks. They were tactically deployed for additional reinforcements and for pursuing the defeated enemy in flight. Now given the arrangement of the slightly wedge-shaped formation of the platforms, the main battle was conducted with the two naval forces (in their platforms) meeting almost head-on, and then trying to grapple and board their enemy ships. Before such a chaotic action commenced, the archers were handy in peppering the enemy with arrows, javelins and even stones. So simply put, the Vikings didn’t employ (at least intentionally) the classic naval tactic of ramming their prows into the enemy ship’s oars-section. Instead they mainly relied on the ferocity (and mobility) of their crew members for fighting the purely naval engagements – just like land battles.
3) The ‘Great Heathen Army’ was possibly exaggerated in terms of numbers –
As the renowned Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documented, the ‘Great Heathen Army’ (or ‘hæþen here’ in Old English) of the Vikings descended upon the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms starting in 865 AD. Unlike most Scandinavian raiders, these Vikings entailed a coalition of sorts, with the Norse warriors originating from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, fighting under a unified banner. According to some legends, they were commanded by the so-called sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (the very same character portrayed in The Vikings TV series). Now while the contemporary source talks about an army of a substantial size, they don’t really delve into the actual numbers of the invading forces.
However, some modern historians like Pete Sawyer have taken the etymological route in defining what actually constituted an ‘army’. In that regard, one of the law codes of King Ine of Wessex (issued in 694 AD), defines an here or army as consisting of only 35 men! Now historically, as the conflict dragged on – after joined by two other Viking invasion forces in the coming decades, the Heathen Army grew restless with various stalemates in the actual battlefields. Finally in 896 AD, most of their forces dispersed, with one major group making way for the profitable Seine in ships. According to accounts, this group traveled in only five vessels, and thus may have numbered less than 400 men. This once again alludes to the total number of men in the actual invasion force, which may have ranged between just 2,000 to 3,000 men – as opposed to their apparent ‘greatness’ in numbers.
4) Vikings were better traders, ‘later’ plunderers –
Following up on the aforementioned quote, a recent research suggests that the Vikings (or at least Norsemen) already had substantial trade networks connecting Denmark and Norway before the conventional start of the Viking Age in 793 AD (when an English island was raided). According to archaeologists from University of York, the marine-based trade networks were already established by 725 AD, and the nexus was probably centered around Ribe, a bustling center of commerce on the west coast of Denmark. To that end, one of the major economic activities of the zone related to the peaceful trading of handcrafted combs made out of reindeer antlers (the animals were possibly brought to Denmark by Norwegian Vikings).
As Steve Ashby, a lecturer of medieval archaeology at the University of York, makes it clear –
This shows us that merchants and other travelers from the north were visiting Ribe long before the start of the Viking Age as we know it. Even in its early stages, the town was attracting visitors from afar. We have long wondered whether Ribe, and places like it, kick-started the Viking expansion in trade, travel and warfare, but it has been difficult to prove [until now].
5) Hygiene was important to most Vikings –
Our popular notion of filthy, barbaric Vikings (or for that matter, most medieval Norsemen) takes a back seat when it comes to actual archaeological evidences complemented by various medieval sources. To that end, the most common artifacts found from Viking Age graves pertain to combs. The combs were accompanied by other personal grooming items like razors, tweezers and even ear spoons. And if these objects are not enough, the Vikings were also known to use a very strong lye-based soap. However these soaps possibly had greater socio-cultural purposes beyond just cleanliness – since the lye was used for bleaching their beards. In other words, Vikings preferred to be blonds with lighter complexioned facial hair.
As for literary sources, in chapter 18 of Víglundar saga, the titular character asks one Ketilríður to cut and wash his hair before he lives for Norway. After it is done, he promises her to permit no one else to cut and wash his hair as long as she is alive. This affectionate tradition of a woman washing a man’s hair is mirrored in other sagas too – like in Heiðarvíga Saga, a character named Odd is prepared to ride to an adventurous trip with his horse saddled and weapons furnished. Still the final preparation for his journey is completed only when his wife washes his hair as a cleansing ritual.
6) Fondness for skiing –
In terms of chronology, Scandinavians have a history of skiing that goes back to at least 6,000 years. Suffice it to say, Vikings also had a knack for skiing, mostly due to the practical reasons that made this mode of transportation easier over vast expanses of snow and ice. As a matter of fact, depictions (like a Viking archer carved on a rune stone in Sweden) and even evidences of ancient skis had been found in the so-called Fennoscandic territory.
One such discovery entails a decorated ski from Kinnula, Finland, which was found to be dated from the early Viking Age. Quite interestingly, the extant specimen had width of 12.5 cm while its length was only 101 cm – which suggested that it may have used by shorter people. There is also the probability that such short skis were specifically used for hunting in grounds that were covered with thick vegetation and deep snow. As for the Viking fondness for skiing, the outdoor activity was perhaps given the status of personification through Ullr – a Norse god who is an excellent archer, hunter, skater, and skier.
7) Vikings pioneered one-to-one storage on their ships –
While modern air transportation, with its shambolic overhead bin system, is a seat of confusion and disorder, Vikings, of the late 8th to 11th centuries, had already conceived a way of implementing one-to-one storage on board their ships. There was a practical side to this – when 30 stout Vikings sat themselves down on deck, there was hardly ever any place left for luggage. Consequently, they devised an innovative on board storage system, in which their chests actually doubled as seats. With their unique multipurpose, space-saving credentials, these Viking crates made the job of sailing (and raiding) with supplies far easier.
Interestingly, these oak crates originated as trunks that were carried by the Vikings, and then nailed in their respective positions along the ship. Furthermore, the storage boxes followed a certain design protocol whereby their top edges were slanted – so as to push off the undulating waves of intrusive sea water. The top portions were also finished with minimalist polish, thus imparting a smooth surface that made sitting easier.
8) Berserkers and paranoia –
A big chunk of the Viking Age coincided with paganism among the Vikings, and during these centuries, the berserkir or berserkers were seen as humans who possessed supernatural powers by the blessing of Odin himself. In that regard, much had been said about their so-called berserk fury which allowed such men to forgo pain and demonstrate fanatical levels of strength, like killing well-armored enemies in just a single stroke. However, in reality, going ‘berserk’ was probably just a form of delusion/paranoia also known as lycanthropy. In medical terms, lycanthropy is defined as rare psychiatric syndrome that encompasses a delusion that the affected person can transform (or has transformed) into a non-human animal. Literary evidences do point to such cases of lycanthropy – like in the example of the Volsunga Saga where Sigmund wears wolf skins, howls when aggravated, and even goes on to use the speech of wolves.
Other possibilities of going berserk might have entailed hereditary conditions and even epileptic seizures. There may also have been some pretty simple reasons of taking up the role of a berserker – with some vagabond outlaws preferring the theatrics that would have intimidated the passers-by. Some researchers have also put forth the hypothesis that berserk fury may have been induced by ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties. In any case, berserkers did project an aura of awe and fear even during Viking times – as is evident from their frequent postings as high level bodyguards of pagan Viking chieftains (as described in Hrafnsmal and Harald Fairhair’s Saga).
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