What little we do know points to the fact that it was highly laborious, making it only affordable for all but the most important and wealthiest Viking warriors.
The Nordic Iron Age
The Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) is that historical estuary that bookends the Nordic Iron Age and is the beginning point of the High Medieval Period.
Societies in the Scandinavian peninsula started using iron (mostly sourced from bog iron in Denmark) centuries after their southern counterparts by about 500 BCE.
The next millennium saw the slow creep forward of iron-making techniques, first in weaponry and then for agricultural purposes, which saw iron become a highly prized metal.
- READ MORE: A complete guide to Viking weaponry
The fall of the Roman Empire, by about the 5th century CE, saw the last phase of the "Nordic Iron Age." Here, the rise of Germanic kingdoms, throughout former Roman provinces, saw a literal treasure trove of gold flow northward to Scandinavia.
Centuries of indirect contact and trade with the military might of Rome saw advanced foundry and weapon-making techniques.
By the time of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 CE (one traditional date to start the Viking Age), people living in Viking societies could get their hands on a plethora (this only increased when the Vikings started to raid and trade more often, bringing in not only wealth but arms too) of iron weapons, from knives and axes to Frankish made swords and even protective armor.
Despite the reputation that Vikings have as the early medieval period's most armed-to-the-teeth warriors, there is a scant archaeological record of Viking weaponry, with even less about their armor.
What little we know about Viking armor comes down to us from the Norse sagas (tall tales which were supposed to entertain during those long and cold Nordic winter nights), runestones, and a handful of illustrations.
Most infuriatingly for we who run a Viking historical-themed website, though the Vikings mythologized battle and warfare, and had created a whole culture and society based on a hypermasculine warrior cult, they were extremely poor record keepers.
It has been left to those brilliant modern historians, academics, and archaeologists to try and piece the missing historical jigsaw together.
There has been a huge number of contemporary accounts of Viking raids – especially from these pesky learned monks and priests all over coastal communities in Europe – but none have provided us with a catalog of what the Vikings wore to protect themselves.
Despite only a handful of archaeological and historical records, what did Viking armor look like?
Protective iron armor was expensive in the Viking Age - leather was much cheaper and more available. Photo: Nomad_Soul / Shutterstock
Full Leather Jacket
Only a tiny segment of people in Nordic societies during the Viking Age was employed as Viking warriors.
Only a smaller fraction still had the means and the wealth to acquire protective iron armor, from head to toe. Most people living in these societies were agricultural workers and, thus, of extremely limited means.
There is a popular hypothesis that these societies were so poor, with so little arable land to tend, that this resulted in an exodus of able-bodied young men: what we know now as the "Viking expansion."
If you were your average Viking warrior, perhaps you were going on your first-ever raid, how could you protect yourself?
The answer lay all around you. Despite being seen as a luxury item now (yet an increasingly problematic luxury item to many vegans, animal activists, and others worldwide), leather was, in the early medieval period, cheap and readily available.
This offered some form of protection and was believed to have been used, as a liner, for those wealthy enough to afford a helmet, to help absorb the blows of weapons.
Other options included layers of clothing, be they fashioned of wool (making Vikings the figurative and literal version of "wolves in a sheep's clothing"), linen, or even hemp.
Whilst this doesn't sound like much protective clothing, anything is better than nothing, and the extra layers and padding did absorb some of the power of whatever the enemy was trying to thrust into your gut.
The more successful Vikings became in raids, the more loot they lifted. Photo: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock
That will cost 820 silver coins or two horses, thank you...
For those discerning Vikings who had raided a few towns in their day (if you know what I mean) and were men of immense means, iron armor was very much an option to buy before their next raid, battle, or war.
Chain mail was, up until the end of the "Viking Age, the most complete way to protect your body. It is only much later in the period, from the mid-11th century CE onwards, that we start to see the sort of heavy body armor that Hollywood loves to put a knight in.
The first thing to realize about chainmail is that it was, during the early medieval period, exorbitantly pricey. As examples, let us look at two different prices paid for a shirt of chainmail – which was the "cheapest" option as it involved the least amount of time, work, and materials.
In 11th century CE Germany, this shirt would set you back 820 silver coins whilst the price for a cow (a hugely important commodity that was literally used every single day) was only 100.
Fast forward to 12th century England, and we have a receipt for a shirt of chainmail that cost the owner 100 shillings. Compare that price to a horse (the early medieval period's version of both a tank and a car) which was half the price at 50 shillings.
If you couldn't afford the silver coins, shillings, or whatever else was traded for armor, the next best thing to do was steal it.
Not only did the Vikings take with them a horde of slaves, enough treasure and booty to fill up all of Valhalla, but they also pinched weapons and armor from coastal communities, towns, villages, or fallen enemies.
The more successful Vikings became, the more loot they lifted, which meant the more protection they had. It was a vicious upward spiral of military success.
Win more battles because you have acquired the best weapons and armor because you have won more battles because you have acquired the best weapons and armor...
Protecting your noggin'
Somewhat disappointingly, there has only been fragmentary evidence discovered from six (!) Viking helmets produced during the Viking Age.
In fact, only four of these fragmentary "finds" occurred in the Viking "homeland" of Scandinavia, with the other two uncovered in countries that have a deep Viking history: Ukraine and The United Kingdom.
The most famous of these fragmentary finds (mainly as there were enough pieces to reconstruct a full helmet) is the Gjermundbu helmet.
Uncovered on a farm, in western Norway, in 1943 CE, it was forged of iron and consisted of four pieces with a peaked top. What is certain about this helmet is that it was designed and produced to attempt to protect the wearer from being literally sliced or hacked from all angles.
A narrow strip of metal protects the eyes and the nose from any would-be assailant. It now takes pride of place at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Norway.
National Geographic has an article detailing more on some of the most impressive Viking artifacts, including the Gjermundbu helmet, available to read here.
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