A relatively small number of archaeological finds coupled with accounts scattered in contemporary records and a wealth of lore and legend in Norse sagas are used to try and gain an understanding of enlightenment on the issue.
Join us as we try to distinguish our seaxes from our swords and find out which type of sword had an export ban to Vikings placed on it.
A violent society?
Life in early medieval Europe was a violent affair. The Vikings have gained a reputation for being a rapacious and bloodthirsty lot.
However, the remainder of their society – the men, women, and children who did not participate in daring raids, sacking monasteries, or carving up helpless monks – were employed in small tenant agricultural work.
Not every single person that lived in the Viking "homeland" (what constitutes the modern Nordic countries) was a bloodthirsty warrior who could master an axe.
The Vikings were no doubt so feared because they were so successful. Their outward expansion, from the late 8th century CE, saw them terrorize, colonize and establish trade networks from Iceland to the Black Sea, from Sevilla to the Russian steppes.
However, though Vikings lived in a society that promoted violence, a warrior death cult, and other such bloody endeavors, their violence was not dissimilar from other early medieval European societies and cultures.
They just happened to be more successful in their military, economic, and cultural expansion.
Societal law and custom
So, if the society that the Vikings lived in wasn't "inherently" violent, where did they get their deadly martial proficiency from?
Well, most males living in Viking societies had some form of military training. This was not only mandated by law but by custom; all free men were allowed to not only own weapons but were legally allowed to always have them by their side.
This fact was later parroted in one of the later Norse sagas (Havamal), where Odin urges a warrior not to "leave your weapons lying about behind your back...you never know when all of a sudden you may need your spear..." Furthermore, we know of combat exercises which were said to be an annual occurrence, taking place at the community's local thing.
At the beginning of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE), the main way for men (and it was always men, this was a highly patriarchal society) to sharpen their military prowess was by being part of a hird.
This was the personal guard of a local elite or ruler, often a Jarl. Dexterity, strength, and coordination training, as well as small arms combat, were all given.
Towards the latter stages of the "Viking Age," a class of warriors arose, something akin to mercenaries. Many found employment in other cultures and civilizations, with many fighting for English kings (especially Harold Godwinson) or establishing the famous Varangian Guard in the Byzantine Empire.
There was, of course, an economics of weaponry, with the richer being able to afford the more luxurious and deadly weapons. Beautifully crafted weapons were not only acquired for practical purposes but only as a sign of prestige, wealth, and conspicuous consumption.
Swords, chain mail, and helmets cost small fortunes, whilst the more "plebian" weapons consisted of battle axes, a spear, or a large knife. While the rich could afford some form of armor, the poorer classes had to make do with several layers of woolen clothing.
As a reference for how expensive armor was, academics have unearthed a receipt from 10th-century CE Germany. A cow was bought for 100 silver coins, while a small suit of mail armor came in at an eye-watering 820!
We will go through some of the more common weapons that any decent Viking may brandish in the following paragraphs.
Vikings used battle knives or short swords as backup weapons in combat. They were particularly useful in close-quarter combat and unexpected situations. Photo: Dm_Cherry / Shutterstock
All sharps and sizes
A knife was the most common object used by people in Viking societies when they wanted to inflict bodily harm.
A small common knife, a knifr, was a single-sided small-bladed knife. This has been commonly found in Viking-era graves as it was widely produced and available to everyone, even slaves.
However, the seax was the knife that is most associated with Vikings. This was akin to a machete, with a larger blade, and would have needed to be forged by a blacksmith, making it relatively more expensive than a humble knifr. This was used not only by Vikings but by some of their contemporaries, including the Saxons and the Anglo-Saxons.
Friends, Vikings, countrymen, lend me your spears...
Despite the more fancied depictions of Vikings brandishing axes or swords, the most common weapon (other than a knife) that you would face if you were ever to duel with a Viking was a spear.
Typically made from ash wood, a spear could be as long as 2-3 meters / 6.5 - 9.8 feet. The head of the spear could be winged (krókspjót) or possess a large head (höggspjót).
- READ MORE: Viking spears: Odin's weapon of choice
Regardless, most spears were thrown – and thus lost – at the beginning of a battle or skirmish. Generally, lighter spears were made for throwing, whilst the larger, heavier spears were used for thrusting into an enemy's ranks or ribs.
Despite their rather common use and availability, spears held great cultural significance amongst people in Viking societies.
Not only was a spear Odin's weapon of choice – the famed Gungnir – but apparently, it was common practice to throw a spear over the head of the opposing army before a battle began. This was done as a tribute to Odin.
Archaeological findings show that swords were valuable weapons made only for those who could afford them. Photo: Waterfall Stock / Shutterstock
Cutting edge technology
Many Viking swords were not even of Viking origin. During the early medieval period, the Frankish realms (especially centered around the Rhineland) had a reputation for producing blades of outstanding quality and durability.
More than 170 such swords have been uncovered in Northern Europe, with the Frankish name "Ulfberht" inscribed on them. These blades mark a turning point in construction as they appear to be a sort of transition between earlier Roman-inspired swords and the later medieval sword wielded by knights.
The more typical Viking sword, not produced in the Frankish realms, was to be used in single combat and could have a blade as long as 90 cm / 35 inches. Whilst the earlier types were forged with a combination of wrought iron and mild steel, swords from the later Viking era were often made from homogenous and higher-quality steel.
The export of Frankish swords to their Northern European neighbors (especially the Saxons and later the Vikings) became such a deadly nuisance (as most were then turned back against the very people who had forged them) that in 864 CE, Frankish Emperor Charles the Bald placed an export ban on them...under pain of death!
An axe to grind
How many children's history books – and we, at The Viking Herald, are talking here from personal experience – have an illustration of a Viking brandishing an axe?
Hundreds? Thousands? Probably as many as there are coins in the Spillings Hoard! There is no other weapon more commonly associated, in the popular imagination, with Vikings than an axe.
These were far cheaper, and thus your average Joe (or should that be your average Joakim) found themselves in possession of these deadly weapons.
These also had a practical purpose when the owner was not raiding or trading – remember, most "Vikings" went back to a farm. The larger form of these axes was the Daneaxe – which could be as long as the man wielding it!
However, to burst many a Hollywood bubble, the only axes that were produced in the Viking era, in Viking societies, were single-headed axes. Those elaborate double-headed axes – which have popped up everywhere on shows like Vikings – were simply not made by any person in a Viking society.
Sticks and stones may break your bones... but arrows will really hurt you
Aside from elaborate weapons which were delicately forged, elaborately decorated, and cost more than a few cows, many weapons that some Vikings used underlined their lifestyle.
A bow and arrow were important for hunting game - both of the animal and human variety. It has been estimated that a skilled archer – which, granted, did take years of practice – could fire a single arrow as far as 200 meters / 656 feet.
These were often made from ash or elm wood (common throughout Scandinavia then as now) and were only pulled back to the chest rather than under the chin.
Nonetheless, this still gave the arrow a huge range, and the range of an arrow fired from a bow was an actual unit of measurement used by people in Viking societies, amounting to just over 200 meters / 660 feet.
For those without the dexterity, strength, or skill to fire an arrow, many Viking warriors also used slings. These were easy to fashion, cheap to produce, and the perfect weapon for light infantry.
Unlike many of the above weapons, they were easy to transport and whip out and use when needed.
The first thing a Viking would reach for when off to raid or fight was a shield. Photo: Andreas_Bergerstedt / Shutterstock
Shield of dreams
When the Vikings were on the backfoot, a shield was the best and most used means of defense.
They were usually constructed from fir, poplar, or linden wood, with the most popular diameter used around 75 – 90 centimeters / 30 – 35 inches.
It appears that shield sizes somewhat lengthened during the Viking era, with the smaller ones uncovered bearing striking similarities to shields used by the Saxons in the 5-7th centuries CE. The shield was not only useful in battle but also in getting to the battle.
Round shields were placed along the sides of a Viking ship to help protect the crew from the natural elements. Imagine rowing across the North Atlantic Ocean with limited protection from the swell, sea, and wind!
Protection only for the monied few
One of the most famous discoveries from the Viking Age was uncovered on a Norwegian farm in the mid-1940s.
The Gjermundbu Helmet (so named after its eventual resting place in Norway) is perhaps the most striking and celebrated early medieval helmet yet uncovered.
Even though helmets were a regular piece of armor – for those that could afford them – the fragments of only 6 Viking helmets have been uncovered.
The cost of a helmet was so prohibitive that it could only have been worn by the most elite, the wealthiest, and the most prosperous of Vikings.
Despite popular culture, and much to the chagrin of we at The Viking Herald, no Viking helmets have been uncovered with horns on them.
National Geographic has more information on some Viking weapons, with an article available to read here.
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