The first thing a Viking would reach for when off to raid or fight was a shield. These often ingeniously constructed shields were part defensive wall, part stretcher, and part wind protector and an important part of any Viking armory.
Nordic Iron Age improvements
Throughout the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE), most militias, armies, and raiders used large, wooden shields that could trace their origins back to the Scandinavian Iron Age, which ended with the rise of the Vikings.
These shields mainly consist of a thin circular plank centered with a dome of iron to protect the hands of the warrior. This dome is called a "shield boss" and has been found in a variety of Viking-era graves throughout the lands the Vikings roamed.
The history of Viking defensive weapons – especially shields – dates back to the Pre-Roman Iron Age (5th – 1st centuries BCE.) Long-range trade networks which had flourished during the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1750 – 500 BCE) had been significantly broken up and disrupted.
This meant that bronze – an imported alloy – became exceptionally scarce. Locals living in Scandinavia had to source local materials such as iron.
As new smelting and extracting techniques slowly filtered north from central Europe, iron objects, including knives, swords, shields, kettles, and buckles, soon became more and more commonplace and have been uncovered by archaeologists, especially in southern Denmark.
Utilizing this new iron technology made not only offensive weapons stronger and more lethal but also helped defensive weapons – like shields – become structurally more secure, sound, and solid.
What did Viking shields look like?
Typical Viking shields were between 80-90 centimeters / 32 – 36 inches in diameter though larger varieties – like the shields found at Gokstad – could be 94 centimeters / 37 inches in diameter or as small as 70 centimeters / 28 inches.
Each shield had to be fitted to the shield bearer and made large enough to provide adequate protection but not too large to be cumbersome. Most of the shields excavated have been made from pine or spruce, but other materials may well have been used.
In Norway, the construction of shields was a strict legal matter. Two sets of laws - Gulaþing and Frostaþing – specified exactly how a shield should be made.
According to the laws, a shield should be made of wood, fastened with three iron bands, and a handle secured to the back with iron nails. Later revisions of the laws also included it should be thicker – two layers of wood – and even suggested the correct color scheme – red and white.
There is still a lot of debate in academic circles on whether Vikings fought behind a shield wall. Photo: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock
So, what exactly did a Viking shield offer the bearer?
A Viking shield is an extremely effective form of defense against personal attacks or projectiles. The shield itself should not be thought of as a shock absorber, but the relatively large surface area redistributes the shock.
This redistribution allows the shield bearer to absorb the force of an axe or sword blow, greatly reducing the risk of injury.
The shield itself can also be used as a personal battering ram to push a would-be attacker away or offline.
A Viking shield protects the shield bearer from many areas of attack. When held in a neutral position (upon the arm), it covers a rough area from the neck to the knees.
The head and lower legs are exposed, meaning they often became the desired targets of any attack.
Many Viking-era skeletons excavated, especially in York, England, show leg injuries consistent with a deliberate attempt to sever leg muscles.
Occasionally, an offensive weapon – perhaps an axe – would remain stuck in the shield. The shield bearer could either break it loose from the grip of its owner – making the attacker extremely vulnerable with no weapon – or twist the shield to try and break the weapon.
Shields were used both in single combat and as part of a larger "shield wall." The Vikings were certainly not the first warriors to use a line of shields as an impregnable first line of defense when in battle.
With the possible exception of the Byzantine Empire, most European successor states of the Western Roman Empire, who the Vikings either raided or fought with, had or more or less forgotten about the battlefield tactics that the Roman Army had perfected and were once common knowledge.
One such tactic, used by the Vikings, was the use of a shield wall when encountering aerial projectiles or an onward charge. Yet it should be noted that there is academic disagreement about whether Vikings did consistently fight behind a shield wall or whether this was just more sporadic battlefield innovation.
More than just for use in a battle
Despite being a great defensive weapon, Viking-era shields were often extremely useful in many other situations.
When crossing a river or a stream, a Viking may cover his back with a shield to prevent arrows from being fired upon him. Though this provided significant protection, one might think that the shield just gave the attackers something to aim at.
Shields were also helpful on Viking ships. Each warrior's shield was placed next to each other in a row, running along the starboard and port side of the longship.
This provided some protection from the weather and choppy waters for the crew. Some scholars believe that these were only placed upon entering or exiting a harbor – to give off an imposing and menacing presence.
Shields also had great decorative value. Many shields adorned the walls of Viking longhouses, often elaborately decorated. Moreover, they could also be an expensive gift for the Viking-era rich and elite.
Finally, in an era where basic medical knowledge was almost non-existent, a shield could be used as a rudimentary stretcher to carry fallen or injured warriors quickly off the battlefield and out of harm's way.
For more on the debate around whether Vikings fought behind a shield wall, read a Science Nordic article on it here.
Denmark's leading science media website, Videnskab.dk, has also recently published an article on what Viking shields really looked like, accessible here.
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