How could these "barbarians" defeat more sophisticated military cultures ranging from the Byzantines to the Arabs?

The longship - superior naval technology

Between the 9th and 13th centuries CE, oceans, seas, and rivers across much of Europe and West Asia saw the presence of Viking longships. These specialized warships had been invented by the Norsemen (that is, people in Viking cultures in Scandinavia) and perfected to form a powerful weapon in their own right.

The longship was designed to be versatile, quick, and agile – something unheard of in early medieval naval designs. It had a long, narrow, and light hull, which was specifically designed for speed. Fitted with oars, these longships could reach speeds of up to 15 knots (28 kilometers / 17.3 miles per hour). 

The ship's narrow and shallow hull allowed navigation not only in the ocean but also in shallow rivers and creeks. This versatility allowed Viking warriors a range of mobility that other militaries simply did not have. Perhaps the most famous use of the longship was the various sieges and sackings of Paris during the 9th century, where Vikings sailed up the narrow waters of the Seine River.

The longship was the Viking version of an armored personnel carrier (APC) and could transport warriors quickly and rapidly from coastal areas to rivers to seaside ports and islands with much ease. Many polities in Europe had defensive military fortifications that the Vikings could easily bypass by navigating a nearby river or stream.

The elements of surprise

Raiding and the element of surprise were also among the reasons why the Vikings were so successful in battle. The use of the longship – and its superior mobility – literally allowed Viking warriors to sneak up and surprise often-immobile military forces.

These surprise tactics were used effectively in the first – and perhaps most famous – Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 CE. Whilst other medieval polities often had huge ships that simply could not navigate streams and rivers, Viking longships could sneakily snake their way upstream and attack military targets, often at their weakest spots. Surprise and ambushes were a significant part of Viking military tactics throughout the Viking Era.

Vikings were skilled fighters who lived in violent times and idealized a brutal warrior culture. Photo: Valerii Iavtushenko / Pixabay

Sharp, shiny, and skilful

The site of a Viking warrior with a battle-ax was a feared sight throughout many communities and cultures in early Medieval Europe. One of the reasons why Viking warriors were so successful in battle was the quality and superiority of their small arms.

Many in Viking societies and cultures were skillful blacksmiths. The wealth of Viking swords, axes, and small arms found buried throughout Scandinavia and the Baltic region attests to this. Constant battle and contact with more "sophisticated" military cultures – such as the Byzantines or the Franks – would eventually rub off on the Vikings' weapons production.

Frankish blacksmiths, who made particularly high-quality weapons, made a tidy trade with many in Viking societies and cultures. However, when they realized that their weapons were being used against them, there was an export ban on Frankish weapons to the Vikings.

An embedded warrior culture and going 'berserk'

One of the more interesting reasons why Vikings were so successful in battle was that they lived in a culture that worshipped and idolized warlike behavior. 

In a society that idolized violence and possessed a warrior culture, the highest accolade for a Viking was to die on the battlefield and reach Valhalla. This embedded warrior culture gave the Vikings a fierce reputation for utter ruthlessness and bravery in battle.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this warrior culture was the Berserkers. Mentioned in many Old Norse sources, these were warriors who were said to have fought in a furious trance-like rage. The word itself has been much debated as modern academics translate it as "bear skin," whilst Snorri Sturluson, Iceland's famous medieval man of letters, translates it as 'bare skin,' i.e., warriors wearing no armor. Nonetheless, these warriors were said to howl like wolves, foam at the mouth, and whip themselves into a raging fury. They were often used as the tip of the spear, as "shock troops" to frighten and intimidate enemy combatants.

The best description we have of berserkers comes from the Ynglinga Saga:

"His (Odin's) men rushed forwards without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang."

Modern academics and historians have interpreted these berserkers as suffering from signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and their behavior is said to have inspired the legend of the werewolf.

With superior naval and weapon technology, sneaky and sophisticated battlefield tactics, and a warrior culture that produced bravery, fearlessness, and fierceness, Viking warriors dominated many medieval European societies, cultures, and polities for more than two centuries.

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