The Viking Myth:
If you read popular histories of the Scandinavians it is easy to assume that one-day in 790AD a new phenomenon was unleashed upon Christendom in the form of a sea-borne raid by northern barbarians upon a settled shore. This, however, could not be further from the truth.
The peoples of the far north of Europe had been raiding civilisations to the south for a thousand years, first continental Celts then Baltic Germans assaulted the British Isles, followed by the Saxons, Jutes, Angles and other motley adventurers. Recent research suggests that even the Picts may have originally sailed from Germania to colonise the tip of Britain.
The Germanic peoples carried on a long and dishonourable tradition of piracy that saw some spectacular successes and dismal defeats. One group ambushed a Roman flotilla in the Mediterranean and sailed the captured home via the straits of Gibraltar. When the Batavii tribe rebelled against Rome they ‘acquired’ a Roman flagship by attacking while the commander was otherwise engaged with his mistress!
Of all these forgotten pirates the most incorrigible were the Slavs. From the frozen Baltic to the gates of Constantinople these skilled boatmen mounted raids of varying size and success for centuries. In fact it may have been their success against the Scandinavians that prompted the latter to take up piracy in the first place. Slav-style ships were copied and used by the Visigoths, Heruls and Ostrogoths to raid Imperial territory, one such expedition saw them invade mainland Greece and the islands of Cyprus and Crete in the 3rd Cent AD with great success.
So why do we still regard the Scandinavians as the pre-eminent raiders of the early medieval period? Probably because the victims used a common written language (Latin) and more sources have survived. What is true is that the men (and women) who went a-Viking are remembered because of their bravery and adventurous spirit, their word-craft and ingenuity. Their history is far more interesting than a bunch of hairy bloodthirsty chancers charging around the ‘dark age’ world raping and pillaging.
Why go a-Viking?:
The reasons and causes of the initial increase in Scandinavian raiding that was to grow to epidemic proportions in later centuries are still being debated but it is worth looking at some of them to give an idea of why Scandinavians decided to undertake perilous sea journeys.
- Population growth – It is put forward that Scandinavia in the 7th Cent AD could only support 2 million inhabitants and that the surrounding lands were too poor to support colonisation. While this is undoubtedly the case it is interesting to note that wholesale migration was never a feature, no peoples in the early medieval period seem to have chosen to relocate en masse. Recent excavations are showing that the Frisians of the Baltic coast who were direly affected by changes in sea level in the 5th Cent AD may have simply perished where they lived instead of migrating.
- Climate change – Something of a red herring as the climate did not alter detrimentally until after the period of major activity.
- Improved ships – That the Scandinavians successfully employed the latest naval vessels is not in dispute, that they invented them certainly is. Other peoples who did not follow the Viking way already had sea-going vessels and it was the Scandinavians who put them to long-distance raiding use.
- Islamic silver – The opening up of eastern trade routes bought an influx of silver coinage into Europe. The Scandinavians would certainly been aware of this via the Baltic amber trade and increasing Swedish encroachments into Finland and Russia. This is an attractive argument but does not explain why raids targeted the Hebrides, Orkney, Britain, Ireland etc.
- Social change – Just prior to the raids a centralisation of power under Kings began although there was not a central monarchy. This may have led the leaders to look abroad for lands to conquer and to keep their subordinates satisfied with loot and out of harm’s way.
A personal view – I do not see a single event as the cause of increased Viking activity more a combination of all the factors and, for the raiders, a large dose of luck! When a Viking raiding party struck an area, which could not repel them, they would have rich pickings and potentially more would follow to take advantage of the chaos and disorder. When raids assaulted well-ordered states such as Byzantium and the Caliphates they were easily repulsed often with great loss to the Vikings. It must also be noted that when Scandinavians did settle they were generally assimilated into the local population within a generation (due to their small numbers and the innate Scandinavian trait for survival).
The Scandinavian Viking Army:
The warriors who made up the Viking armies were divided into several, social, types each fulfilling a battlefield role that is recognisable from other Germanic and ‘barbarian’ armies throughout history.
The leaders of Viking armies could range from a motivated merchant, mercenary captain, disinherited prince to a great King at the head of many allied contingents. The smaller raiding parties (often a single ship of 50 men) would have been similarly equipped and of a similar social standing, it is the larger armies that would give examples of the range of warriors who could take the field.
The Huscarles – These were the personal retinue of their Lord, a warrior band bound by oaths of loyalty and retained by the generosity of the leader. They could number in tens or hundreds but were the core of any sizeable Viking army. Their armour would be the best available, their weapons highly decorated gifts from their Lord. A splendid sight on the battlefield as they formed around their Jarl or King with their banners flying and sun glinting from their two-handed axes and gold chased swords they were formidable fighters who would not yield until their leader commanded it. For some idea of their prowess it is worth reading an account of Hastings where mercenary Huscarles formed around the English King and fought to the death even after he had fallen cleaving Norman knights and their horses in two with huge blows of their Danish axes.
Early Raiders – When the sea-borne attacks began the warriors accompanying the Lord and his Huscarles would have been drawn from the available manpower in Scandinavia. Their skill with axe (mainly a one-handed version) and sword is reported time and again, as is their ferocity in battle. They did not fight in any real order but would rush to engage an enemy in single combat. The richer and more successful might have a mailshirt and many wore simple helmets but they used their large shields skilfully to defend and attack. A few might carry a bow in addition to their usual equipment and ‘snipe’ at an enemy shieldwall, they could also take on the role of scouts when in enemy territory but were still quite ready to enter the fray.
Later warriors – Around the mid-9th Cent Viking armies began to form shieldwalls of a more solid nature and armour became more common although it was never universal. This may have been a reaction to fighting not only more solid enemies on foot but also contact with mounted troops who could carve through the earlier raiders swarms with devastating results. The membership of the warrior bands also changed with more young men joining the ranks as a ‘career’ abroad became preferable to staying at home where opportunities were limited due to increasing centralisation of power and a growing monarchy. These younger warriors were known as the Hird or Hirdsmen. The bow became more popular during this later period and there are accounts of archers being gathered into bodies to concentrate their attention on mounted troops. Another development was mounting the whole army on stolen horses, this allowed very swift movement and could surprise an enemy who expected a slow-moving army of footmen.
The Beserks - No mention of the Vikings can leave out these most colourful warriors in their armies. The mythic story goes that these are super-human warriors who are possessed by the spirit of wild animals (bear and wolf) which enables them to withstand horrific wounds during their suicidal charges. The more prosaic idea is that they were paranoid, psychotic, axe-wielding maniacs fuelled by large amounts of alcohol and psychotropic fungi who a cunning warlord would unleash to terrify the opposition (and possibly his own men) allowing his warband to exploit the ensuing confusion.
The truth is probably somewhere between of course. What is obvious is that beserks existed, they are referred to in Icelandic sagas on several occasions. What is not obvious is who they actually were. We hear of the word beserk being used as simply another meaning of Viking (pirate), it describes ‘wolfheads’ (outlaws) who by necessity had to be threatening to survive and we are told of whole beserker families! One saga describes them taking the most dangerous positions in ship-to-ship combat and at other times surrounding a Lord and giving their lives to protect him. One cinematic depiction of them (the Pythonesque ‘Eric the Viking – a must watch!) has a father and son beserker team where the control of the beserk-mode is all-important and lack of it is considered dishonourable.
That beserks could lead armies and produce poetry while having a successful mercantile career is borne out by the hero Egil Skallagrimsonn who was considered a Viking role model! That there was a religious aspect to them may be deduced that after the conversion to Christianity (c1000AD) beserks were ‘banned’ by the church. There are references to them being used as tax collectors by one King so they must have been trustworthy.
So what/who were they? The wearing of distinguishing clothing (e.g. animal skins) has been used by warriors since the dawn of time and continues today (the Guards bearskin) so the beserkers may have been “harder men amongst hard men”. They were considered outside the normal social standing and so a leader could use them where other troops might be dishonoured, their appearance and reputation both on and off the battlefield would mean that they were constantly proving themselves (maybe like gunslingers in the Old West?) so would be battle-hardened in the extreme (no saga lends credence to any suicidal tendencies). They are most likely the true embodiment of the Viking barbarism that is attributed to all Scandinavians in this period of heroes.
Other Scandinavian Armies:
While we have looked at the armies that ranged overseas there are two exceptions that should also be considered, the first is the Leidang (the Scandinavians who defended their homelands and, in the case of the Swedes, fought overseas), the second the Rus (Swedes in Slavic Russia).
The Leidang – These armies had a similar core of Huscarles but differed in that they seem to have employed a shieldwall from the beginning. This consisted of the Bondi, the farmers and landowners who fought in defence of what was theirs. They were generally older and wealthier than the men of the Hird (who were probably their younger sons and brothers) were. That they were tenacious and fearsome is recorded time and again. In a land where there was plenty of Law but no police you had to enforce your claims at the end of a sword and woe betide anyone trying to shift a Bondi and his family from their rightful land.
A battle between Swedes, Danes, Norwegians etc must have been a terrifying affair with deep battle lines crashing into each other, axe and sword hacking and slashing, a deadly scrum. The bow was also used more often at home and archers would form up behind the shield wall and rain arrows down in support of the warriors in front before adding their weight to the melee (up to 20% of a Leidang army could be archers).
Always considered a backwater by Europe the Leidang system stayed in being well into the feudal period so by the 12th Century it would not be uncommon to see Kings and their retinues equipped as knights fighting beside Huscarles, beserks and bondi. A strange army indeed.
Naval engagements – A quick mention of the use of ships apart from raiding must be made. The Scandinavians would try to turn a sea battle into something like a land encounter by roping ships together. They would fight in the same way (sometimes using long spears – see the Rus below) with drowning an added danger (most could not swim!). This could make an exciting and different tabletop game as you fight across the ships taking on beserks and warriors until you corner the warlord and his Huscarles on his flagship for a final showdown.
The Rus – The foundation of the lands of the Rus show the typical Scandinavian characteristics. In the mid-9th Cent a former Viking (Rurik) got bored of raiding western Europe and set off down into the Slav homelands and set himself up in Novgorod. Two of his lieutenants then sailed down the River Dnieper and decided that Kiev looked like a splendid place to set up their own little kingdom, this was in 855AD. By 860AD they decided that they would assault the greatest city on earth at the time, Constantinople! They survived this seemingly suicidal escapade and returned to Kiev where they set about conquering as much land as possible. Then in 882 the wonderfully named Oleg the Wizard (Rurik’s successor) turned up from Novgorod, slew them and incorporated the Kiev state into his own.
Their subsequent aggression against all and sundry became legendary; they conquered the Bulgars (a group of former Huns) who were so impressed they still fought with the Rus after they were expelled from Bulgaria! They constantly harried the Byzantines, the Khazars and Petchenegs, then turned their attention to Poland, Estonia and Croatia! Eventually they set to fighting amongst themselves and the state of the Kiev Rus fragmented into numerous city factions by the mid-11th Cent.
Their armies differed from other Vikings in that they took to the long spear normally employed for shipboard combat and many carried the Slavic oblong shield instead of the Scandinavian round type. They continued to use the single-handed axe and sword but as secondary weapons. Their clothing became Slavic as well, bleached white with baggy trousers and overboots, they also shaved their heads in nomad fashion leaving scalp and sidelocks. The elite warriors were recruited from Varangians (Scandinavians) and formed the druzhina bodyguards who were the equivalent of the Huscarles but tended to be much fewer in number.
This army can include Alan, Bulgar, Turk and Pecheneg horse archers (which look the same as Huns) as well as bands of Viking adventurers under their own leaders. A truly awesome army!
Ireland – One area of Viking activity that is rich in wargaming potential is Ireland. This was initially a Viking success story as they allied with the local Irish Kings and founded Dublin, which thrived for many years. The tumultuous and chaotic world of Irish politics was their undoing however. As there were always at least a couple of claimants to the Irish High King’s title this led to unceasing internecine warfare into which the Vikings were drawn.
This volatile situation was made worse by the difference in religion, the Irish being Christians by this period and the Scandinavians Heathen. It was not uncommon to have Irish and Viking contingents on both sides in battles and this led to a weakening of the immigrant Scandinavians as they fought each other. The Irish also began to learn battle-craft from the invaders and took to using the fearsome bearded axes the better to cleave Viking armour, combined with their excellent local knowledge and tendency to ambush and melt away instead of fighting made for an unpleasant lesson for the Vikings.
The best remembered pitched battle of this period was Clontarf in 1014AD where the Christian High King of Ireland Brian Boru attacked Dublin and forced a decisive encounter. It also illustrates the high mortality rates of head-to-head combat.
The Scandinavian army was a mix of several homelands. Brodir of Man brought a force and the Jarl of Orkney Sigurd another, there were Viking adventurers from all of Europe under their warlords and even some Welshmen turned up! The wonderfully named Sigtrygg Silkybeard commanded the garrison of Dublin. You can see how diverse a Viking army can be from this. Added to this were the men of Leinster under their King Maelmordha just to add a little more colour to the proceedings. Even Brian Boru had some Manx Viking mercenaries in his Irish army.
The battle itself reads like a legend, Irishman fought Irishman with Leinster the victor, they pursue too far and bring about the defeat of their Viking allies who flee back towards their ships. They are drowned and hacked down dying in droves.
The Dublinmen retreat across a bridge that collapses and two and a half thousand are cut down (less than two dozen reach the city). Then the rumours spread, Boru is dead, struck down by Jarl Brodir who is then slain by the High King’s retinue, Jarl Sigurd has fallen, Boru’s son and heir Murchadh lies amongst the dead and his grandson Tordelbach has drowned in the pursuit to the ships. The Dublin Vikings never really recover from this reverse.
Viking armies in Ireland would be the same as the later forces elsewhere, fighting as a tight shieldwall. They would differ in being joined by small groups of fairly unmanageable Scandinavian adventurers and Irish mercenaries. They might also have an Irish King as an ally who might provide substantial numbers of troops to the enterprise (as high as 25-30% of the total in some cases).
Gods & Heroes:
No piece on the Vikings can be complete without mention at least of their religion, it coloured their daily lives and led them to act in the heroic ways they did. Just prior to this period there was a subtle shift in the hierarchy of their deities, to coincide with the centralising influence of Kingship Odin was promoted from a shamanic figure to All-Father, kings then claimed descent from his line (a little known fact is that the British Royal family still do!). Tyr, an early pretender to the claim of chief among Gods became the holder of Honour as a Holy trait, Frey the Bountiful and his sister Freyja (Goddess of Lust for Life, sorceress and Sister of Battle) again came to the fore (see their boar symbols on helmets and shields). Possibly the best known of all is Thor (Thunor to the Germans) who is wrongly portrayed as a battle god these days; he was god of the common folk and a fertility deity who protected the weak from the strong (as long as they were Scandinavian of course!).
Viking heroes were therefore those who had the statesmanship and poetic prowess of Odin, the sense of justice of Tyr, the generosity of Frey, the battle lust of Freyja and the sense of community of Thor. Reading the sagas and myths of Scandinavia (plus the superb Germanic poem Beowulf) will add to your sense of what the Vikings were really like, so next time you win a battle don’t just strut about, write a saga!
Click here for the full step by step painting guide. By Kevin Dallimore.
The Scandinavian complexion is very fair but would be weather-beaten in the extreme from all that sailing! Hair colour varied between blonde and black with some redheads. Danish Vikings would have darker hair than others.
Clothing would be well made, of good quality and tastefully decorated with appliqué or coloured hems, necklines and cuffs. Trousers could be vertically striped. Colours would be natural dyes but quite bright as Scandinavians were (are?) noted for their cleanliness. The usual colours of the period predominate, red, green, brown, blue and grey with the first of these a particular favourite. Cloaks when worn were similar in colour range but with greys a favourite. Animal furs would be worn hair outwards and could take the form of hats, jerkin/waistcoats or leggings. Leatherwork would be natural colours but could have tooled designs or colouring added. Headbands were often worn; they were thin cords and would have a simple design over the plain cloth. They may have helped keep helmets in place and hair out of the eyes.
Shields were painted good solid colours with red a definite favourite. Some ships crews would paint their shields the same colour (red, black, yellow) or have half one hue and the rest another and then hang them alternately on the rails for effect. Before the Christian period (c1000AD) designs were rare, the only alternatives to one colour being halved or quartered shield faces. The reason for this apparent austerity may be that shields only really lasted one combat and had to be replaced frequently.
The rims of shields were mainly leather (re-enactors use soaked dog chews for theirs!) but iron was not uncommon and even bronze is recorded. Bosses were almost universally of iron.
You can download Kevin Dallimore's sheet of printable Viking flag designs HERE. Original artwork by Ian Heath, based on contemporary carvings, descriptions or illustrations.
Although Viking flags are mentioned in sources we have no accurate descriptions of them beyond the devices they carried. One captured gunnefane (‘war-flag’) was called ‘Reafan’ (‘Raven’) so the device is fairly obvious and as the raven was a bird of the battlefield and associated with Odin these devices may have been popular. Another flag was white cloth with a ‘serpent’ (a wingless dragon possibly like the World Serpent of Norse myth?) on it. Many of these banners had magical properties attached to them, if the raven flew (the flag was caught in the wind) the army always won etc. This may have been unfortunate for the flag bearers as there are traditions saying that they always died at the moment of victory. An alternative to ravens might be eagles or even stallions as these were known and revered in Scandinavia.