The battlefields of the Viking Age were terrifying places where a warrior faced hails of arrows and multiple attackers armed with all manner of deadly weapons. Not all Vikings had access to armor, and even the best armor of the era would not stand up to many direct hits. Thus, the shield was perhaps the most indispensable tool the Viking carried. The shield was both a defensive and offensive weapon. Once decorated, it conveyed the user's identity or loyalty, and was sometimes painted with runes or symbols to bring victory.
Shields were essential in the opening stages in battle as both sides locked with each other in primal contests of will and were then paired with the sword, spear, or axe to break open the defenses of the enemy. Even the indomitable berserkers used shields (and are often mentioned biting shield edges in their frenzy), and wielders of the mighty, two-handed Dane Axe or the fell hewing spear still carried shields slung on their backs. Displayed on the gunwales of their dragon ships, the shield became one of the most recognizable symbols of the Vikings. There are a lot of misunderstandings about how shields were made and used. While a short book could be written on the topic, and there is much that is open to debate, this article will discuss some of the main facts and theories of the Viking shield.
Features and Construction of Viking Shields
The Viking shield was round and constructed primarily of wood, with a bowl shaped 'boss' made of iron at the center. This boss provided protection for the warrior’s hand that gripped the shield directly behind it with a single grip. Compared to the strapped shield of the Ancient Greeks or the High Medieval knight, a shield that is gripped in the center has disadvantages in stability and weapon retention, but it offers advantages in reach, maneuverability, and tactical options.
Viking shields varied in size from about twenty-four to thirty-eight inches in diameter, so that the individual warrior could find the right balance of coverage versus weight. A small shield may be fine for single combat (as the dish-sized bucklers of the Renaissance were) but inadequate for the battlefield, while a heavy shield could not be quickly moved. When untrained, modern people are given the opportunity to play at sword and shield, the tendency is to hide behind the shield while occasionally risking a whack at the opponent, but the Vikings used their shield in very active ways. Thus, maneuverability was essential.
The archeological and literary record are at odds when it comes to the Viking shield. The sagas often refer to shields being made of linden wood, which is lightweight but strong and flexible. However, most of the shields we have recovered are made from various woods, including ordinary pine. The Gulaþing and Frostaþing laws – Norse laws from the Viking Age – state shields should be made of wooden planks held together by three iron bands fastened with iron nails, but we have few surviving examples of this technique.
Later revisions of the laws, along with a 10th-century Frankish poem, Waltharius, state that shields should be made of layers of thin planks laminated together. Again, the archeological record does not produce many examples of this, though it is interesting the think that ubiquitous modern plywood may descend from proposed advances in medieval shield-making technology. As an aside, that the law would even weigh-in on how shields should be made demonstrates the level of order in Viking society. The disconnect between the literary/legal and archeological record is easy to explain. In the written sources we see the ideal shield, in the archeological record we see what was practical.
So, the common Viking shield was made of wood butted together with one to three supporting pieces of wood (with the central support serving as the grip). Wooden shields would then often be covered either with a layer of leather or linen. As this covering cured, it would shrink and tighten the shield. Research has found paint residue directly on the shield wood itself, which means that some shields were not covered. In such cases, the paint offered weather protection as well as concealed the grain of the wood (and hence the weak points of the shield). The edges were also lined, usually in leather, to reduce chipping where it was so likely to occur. Despite a prevailing impression that shields would be rimmed in iron, there is little archaeological evidence for this, and iron rims would have increased weight and craftsmanship costs considerably.
It is important to remember that, unlike today’s militaries, there was no central body distributing uniforms and weapons to early medieval armies – especially not Vikings. Warriors would outfit themselves as best as they could and would improve their equipment as they met with success. What a Viking was looking for in a shield was something that could ward off blows and dissipate energy directed at them, it had to be light enough to carry, and had to be affordable/available to them no matter whether they were the jarl or the greenest young man at the oars.
The Shield Wall
Vikings fought wars face to face. The Vikings were marine infantry that used their revolutionary longships to achieve an extraordinary advantage in mobility over their enemies – but once it was time to fight, the battle was typically fought on foot. Horses were also used to achieve mobility, but the Vikings were not usually cavalrymen. Later they would learn this skill from those enemies who found it a useful tool against them, but for most of the Viking Age, the horse was only meant to take a warrior to the fight or away from the fight as quickly as possible. For the Vikings, real fighting centered on an infantry formation known as a shield wall.
Shield walls involved warriors standing shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping. They had been a mainstay of Germanic battles since the first contact with the Romans (700-1000 years before) demonstrated that individual prowess was no match for teamwork. The Germanic tribes quickly adapted the Roman fighting methods to their own purposes, and by the Viking Age, tribes that had no clear idea of what Rome was could perform the maneuvers as well as Caesar's best legions. Viking ships were crewed by about 40-60 oarsmen – men who lived together and braved the seas together (and many of whom were already family or friends). These ship crews now formed the basis for the shield wall, with groups of warriors now making a line of overlapping shields, reinforced with other lines of shields behind them.
Shields could be raised as needed behind the first line to form cover for arrows, javelins, or other missiles. According to Byzantine sources, the ideal density of a shield wall was five to ten lines. Too few lines could be knocked down by an enemy's shield wall; too many lines became an immobile and confused crowd. From this, we can suppose that our average Viking ship would produce a section of shield wall 8-12 men wide and five men deep. In larger Viking actions, these ship crews would combine with other ship crews to form shield walls hundreds of warriors across.
An individual warrior would have little chance against a shield wall. They would be too exposed while having very few vulnerable points to aim their attacks at and would probably be cut down very quickly regardless of how big or skilled they were. For this reason, most battles of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages involved meeting shield walls with shield walls.
With both sides using the basic shield wall strategy, the fight became about which side could maintain their cohesion the longest. Though most warriors probably longed for the swift, flashy dances of death the sagas sang of, most battles started out as shoving matches with the frontlines of each opposing shield wall crushing against each other. Death or disability would come as a seax (long knife) under the shield rim or a spearhead over it. A simple slip could mean death. When shield walls broke and gave way to melees, individual talent and prowess could again assert itself, but the Viking way of war was primarily organization, teamwork, patience, and courage in the face of blind chaos.
Recent Criticism of Shield Wall Theory
We should mention that while the shield wall idea is widely taken for granted by historians, not everyone believes it happened that way. One particularly vocal critic is University of Copenhagen archaeologist, Rolf Warming. Warming's research found – as countless other weapons tests had also found – that Viking shields cannot stand up to repeated determined blows of some battlefield weapons. Warming argues that the many references to shield walls in sagas are merely poetic descriptions and that Vikings instead charged in using a variety of formations, warding off attacks with their shields and overwhelming the enemy through shock and awe.
Most experts would agree with Warming that the Viking shield is better to ward away blows than to receive them flush, and that Vikings were known both for ferocity and creative battle strategies. Most would also agree that “hiding behind” a shield wall would be a bad strategy – but shield walls always move relentlessly (albeit slowly) forward. This forward motion removes the space necessary for an assailant’s blows to have full power, similar to the crowding or clinching techniques used by boxers and MMA fighters today. By depriving the enemy room to swing, the Viking shield should have held up fairly well, though we do see throughout the sagas, poems, and histories that shields were routinely broken in battle. For example, the Krákumál (or, The Dying Ode of Ragnar Lothbrok) has no fewer than three such references in merely 29 verses, including this description of Viking battle, “the whole ocean was one wound: the earth grew red with reeking gore: the sword grinned at the coats of mail: the sword cleft the shields asunder.” The fact that in ritualized, holmgang duels Norse law allowed each fighter three shields shows that broken shields were a risk Vikings accepted.
Warming's many valid points, as well as the arguments against them, are just one more example of how there is almost nothing one can say about the Vikings that is not open for debate. His criticism seems to be making an impact, and the latest season of the History Channel’s Vikings featured no shield wall scenes to speak of, while the earlier seasons did. This debate will probably continue for some time to come.
The Viking Shield in the Melee and Duel, and Re-creating Viking Fighting Arts
So, we have looked at how shields were used by Vikings entering battle side-by-side, but how were they used in the melee or in one-on-one fights, when the Viking had more freedom of movement but also 360 degrees of danger? This is a question that has been receiving more and more attention, not only from historians but also filmmakers, reenactors, and HEMA (historical European martial arts) practitioners. Unfortunately, an honest answer is "we don't know for sure." Late in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, sword masters wrote intricately-worded, brilliantly-illustrated manuals on personal combat, but there are no such resources from the Viking Age. The sagas offer rousing descriptions and many clues, but no step-by-step instructions.
One method used by experts is to reverse engineer Viking fighting styles by applying known fighting methods from other places or times to Viking Age technology and goals, laboring under the presupposition that things do not change any more than they have to. This can be very helpful but has many inherent problems. Another method is to examine the items themselves (in this case, the Viking shield) in context through experimentation, and to see what answers they present.
For example, consider the center grip of the Viking shield. These shields were held this way by choice, not because strapped shields had not been invented yet. However, the center grip creates a pivot point. If the shield is struck to one side or the other with any force, the shield swivels on this pivot point. In the shield wall, where shields overlapped, this effect would be negated, but in single combat, there is no way for the Viking to prevent the shield from turning except to reinforce it with his weapon hand. From these facts and observations we can conclude that this movement of the shield was not seen as a disadvantage, but rather a feature to use in one's own shield skill and to exploit in the enemy. Thus, Vikings likely used the swiveling motion of their center-gripped shields to redirect forces away from them, or to outmaneuver, bind, jam, or otherwise thwart their enemy's attack.
One of the leading Viking combat researchers today, and a big proponent of the aforementioned technique, is Roland Warzecha. Warzecha has many demonstrations and tutorials available online, but like Rolf Warming he has many critics and counter points of view. More theories and materials are being produced almost daily, thanks to HEMA revival and the internet. This is all just as well, for it is unlikely that the Viking shield – or anything else they did – was only used one way. The best way to discover the truth is to study what is available and then to pick a shield up and try it out for yourself. By physically studying Viking combat, you can gain an appreciation for your ancestors that no words can teach you.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer and lifetime martial artist who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
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