Owning a sword was not only a status symbol for the present but also a highly prized family heirloom for future Viking warriors. 

In fact, one Frankish sword was so skilfully made, of such high quality, and then so devastatingly used against its makers that one of the world's first export bans was placed upon it.

Carolingian Empire

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a myriad of empires, kingdoms, and political entities sprouted throughout Western Europe. Perhaps the most impressive was the various Frankish Empire. This was the largest post-Roman "barbarian" kingdom that, at its zenith, stretched from the Spanish Marches to Rome to Denmark. 

With Clovis I crowned King of the Franks in 496 CE, his dynasty (the Merovingians) would eventually be replaced by Charles Martel, who not only established one of the preeminent dynasties in European history (the Carolingians) but whose ancestors included the illustrious Charlemagne. During the 9th century, Francia was now referred to as the Carolingian Empire.

This empire was not only the greatest in geographical size, but its economy was more advanced than the other kingdoms and polities in Western Europe. The Carolinians re-established the Roman era trading towns, cities, and ports, and soon thriving trade networks were established, including the Abbasid Caliphate and the various Viking societies dotted throughout Northern Europe. 

Blacksmiths in the Carolingian Empire were renowned for their advanced sword making. They produced, without any doubt, the best quality swords in Central and Northern Europe.

Use of weapons

Much of the weaponry used by Frankish warriors and armies could trace its roots back to the famous Roman legions. As the Roman Empire, in the west, disintegrated, so did many of the skilled blacksmithing techniques and practices. 

The most common weapon used up until the 8th century was a seax (Old English for "knife"). These were small swords, or daggers, varying considerably in size and mostly used by the Saxons and later Germanic peoples. However, the sword began to replace the seax as the weapon of choice beginning in the 8th century CE.

Forging a sword was a highly specialized and skillful endeavor. Blacksmiths and metalworkers throughout the Carolingian Empire not only built on earlier Roman knowledge but, from the 9th century onwards, soon began to learn new techniques from contact with other more military superior cultures (e.g., the Abbasid Caliphate). 

Higher quality steel became available, which enabled narrower blades. This meant that the swords were not only more lethal but also lighter and stronger. By the dawn of the so-called "Viking Age" (from about 793 to approximately 1066 CE), the production and export of high-quality swords were important parts of the economy of the Carolingian Empire.

Frankish coastal communities were one of the first places to experience the wrath and sheer terror of the Vikings. Photo: Gioele Fazzeri / Pexels

What exactly was a "Viking" sword?

Some historians and academics have often labeled swords wielded by a diverse range of European peoples and armies, from the early medieval period, as "Viking swords." However, this is a bit of a misnomer. More correctly, these were often Carolingian-produced swords used by the Vikings. 

Given that this correct term is a bit of a mouthful, some leniency should be given to those learned people. The term originates from the fact that many swords manufactured in the Carolingian Empire ended thousands of kilometers away in the pagan burials of Viking warriors and peoples. These swords are believed to have arrived in Viking societies through trade, ransom payments, or as prized booty from raids.

These swords varied in size and appearance throughout the Viking Age but were between 1.0 to 1.5 kilograms in weight with a blade length of between 70 – 90 centimeters long. The custom decoration of sword hilts – often with precious gems and stones – was heavily popular up until the 10th century but declined thereafter.

There were also often inscriptions on the blade. This was either a production name of the blacksmith or to whom the sword belonged. The most famous example of this are the 170 swords inscribed with the Frankish name Ulfberth found spread across Northern Europe. Some 44 were discovered in Norway, while some have been found as far away as Ukraine, Iceland, and Spain.

So what about the export ban?

Frankish coastal communities were one of the first places to experience the wrath and sheer terror of the Vikings. From 820 CE onwards, the Vikings began to raid and pillage the Frankish Empire. The first raid on Paris took place in 845 CE with – if we are to believe later medieval sources – some 700 Viking longships sailing up the river Seine. Nonetheless, the Vikings plundered the cities of Cologne, Bonn, Utrecht, Xanten, Trier, and many other places throughout the Rhineland – the nucleus of Frankish power.

These raids became such an existential threat to the Franks that Carolingian Emperor Charles the Bald declared an export ban on the sale of swords to Viking societies under the penalty of death. Yet, although the ban was in place, swords still managed to find their way into the hands of Viking warriors. In fact, the famous 10th-century CE traveler (and perhaps the first and most famous Arab travel writer) Ibn Fadlan noted that Viking societies based around the river Volga, in Eastern Europe, had a plethora of "Frankish" swords. 

Some scholars have argued that this export ban was, perhaps, one of the reasons why Viking raids intensified throughout the Frankish realms. Swords were a prized possession, a sign of social status, a family heirloom, a piece of very conspicuous consumption, and a useful and lethal weapon of war that the many Viking warriors would, literally, sail for hundreds of miles in order to get their hands on one.

For a look at a recent "Viking sword" uncovered in Norway, visit the article on the Newsweek website here.


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