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09.01.2020

Sword

The Viking Age sword was for single-handed use to be combined with a shield, with a double edged blade length of up to 90 cm. Its shape was still very much based on the Roman spatha with a tight grip, long deep fuller and no pronounced cross-guard. It was not exclusive to the Vikings, but rather was used throughout Europe

Swords were very costly to make, and a sign of high status. They were rarely used and some swords found in graves were probably not sturdy enough for battle or raiding, and instead were likely decorative items. Like Roman spathae, they were worn in leather-bound wooden scabbards suspended from a strap across the right shoulder. Early blades were pattern welded, a technique in which strips of wrought iron and mild steel were twisted and forged together, with the addition of a hardened edge.Later blades of homogeneous steel, imported probably from the Rhineland, many bearing inlaid makers' marks and inscriptions, such as INGELRII or VLFBERHT. Local craftsmen often added their own elaborately decorated hilts, and many swords were given names, such as Leg-biter and Gold-hilt. The sword grip was usually made of an organic material, such as wood, horn, or antler (which does not often survive for archaeological uncovering), and may well have been wound around with textile.

Owning a sword was a matter of high honour. Persons of status might own ornately decorated swords with silver accents and inlays. Most Viking warriors would own a sword as one raid was usually enough to afford a good blade. Most freemen would own a sword with goðar, jarls and sometimes richer freemen owning much more ornately decorated swords. The poor farmers would use an axe or spear instead but after a couple of raids they would then have enough to buy a sword. One sword mentioned in the Laxdæla saga was valued at half a crown, which would correspond to the value of 16 milk-cows. Constructing such weapons was a highly specialized endeavour and many sword-blades were imported from foreign lands, such as the Rhineland. Swords could take up to a month to forge and were of such high value that they were passed on from generation to generation. Often, the older the sword, the more valuable it became.

A distinct class of early single edged swords is known from Eastern Norway at the time. These had the same grips as the double edged swords, and blades of comparable length. The blades varied from long and slim, like the more common two edged swords, to somewhat heavy, giving the weapon a more cleaver-like balance. Confusingly, the same finds are sometimes classified as "sabres" or "seaxes" in English literature.

As mentioned above, a sword was so valued in Norse society that good blades were prized by successive generations of warriors. There is even some evidence from Viking burials for the deliberate and possibly ritual "killing" of swords, which involved the blade being bent so that it was unusable. Because Vikings were often buried with their weapons, the "killing" of swords may have served two functions. A ritualistic function in retiring a weapon with a warrior, and a practical function in deterring any grave robbers from disturbing the burial in order to get one of these costly weapons. Indeed, archaeological finds of the bent and brittle pieces of metal sword remains testify to the regular burial of Vikings with weapons, as well as the habitual "killing" of swords.

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