In the early ninth century, the Vikings tore through Europe, wreaking havoc and consuming territory at a level that filled their victims with awe and dread. But why were the wealthier, more populous, and entrenched peoples of what are now England, Ireland, France, and Russia so powerless to stop them? What made these Norsemen so effective?
Was it the Viking’s sword, which was light enough to be used deftly with one hand but heavy enough to inflict death through an enemy’s armor? Was it their seax, the long knife that could dart through a foe’s defenses in the blink of an eye? Was it the hewing spear, that could slash and thrust from a distance; or the shield, that could bash, press, trap, and punch as well as it could protect? Perhaps it was the most famous of all the Viking’s weapons, the axe, which could break a man’s arm despite his shield, and create arcs of carnage through a battlefield?
It was actually none of these things. These weapons were formidable, but the natives of the lands the Vikings invaded had similar swords, shields, axes, and spears. Their armor of chain mail, scales, leather, quilted jackets, or animal furs (which was not just a convention in B-rate movies, but an inexpensive and practical way to separate a man from the edge of a sword) was also similar between the Norsemen and their Saxon, Frankish, or Celtic enemies. If we could travel back in time and see the two sides meet on the mist-shrouded knoll, we would probably at first have difficulty telling them apart. So it was not the warrior’s kit, or the tools of war that made the Vikings nearly invincible.
Perhaps, then, it was some physical attributes of the Scandinavian adventurers that made them greater than their adversaries.
We know from archaeological records as well as from the tales their foes told of them, that the Vikings were some of the biggest men in Europe at the time. The average Viking would be muscular and supremely well-conditioned not only from a lifetime of weapons practice, but from long bouts of rowing their long ships through open seas.
Yet, while anyone who fights will tell you that size matters, it is also true that size isn’t everything. While the extra twenty pounds of brawn a Norseman or Dane would bring to the shield wall was a considerable advantage, this advantage could be negated through superior numbers of their enemies, or other means. Centuries before, the Romans proved that the physical stature of Germanic peoples could not only be overcome, but even used against them. Of course, many of the Saxon and Frankish warriors the Vikings faced were also big men with a lifetime of warcraft.
Perhaps, then, the reason for the Vikings’ supremacy was the long ship. The development of the Viking long ship directly gave rise to the Viking Age. Five hundred years before, the Saxons had invaded England by ship; but their ships were only suited for crossing the channel, and sometimes did not even have sails. The Viking long ship was a major innovation over anything else in the region at the time. It had a broad, square sail that could capture the wind. It could seat fifty warriors, who through braving the icy waters of the North Atlantic became hardened teams. Most of all, the Viking long ship had a very shallow draft. This meant that the vessels could not only cross the tempestuous seas, but could continue to float along the rivers of the lands they reached. Using this remarkable invention, the Vikings penetrated deep into enemy territory, achieving a mobility that armies of the past could only dream of. By the time a defending army could amass and ride out to face them, the Vikings would have taken what they wanted and left the rest in smoldering ruin. For generations the kings of Europe were at a loss for how to deal with this problem (Churchill, 1956).
However, the Vikings did not always need their long ships to be effective. In fact, the “Great Heathen Army” of 865 left their ships behind them and advanced through the kingdoms of England on foot or on horseback. They were just as successful, and managed to seize the entire eastern part of the island for themselves (Churchill, 1956; Brown, 2015). So while the long ship was one of the things that launched the Norsemen’s supremacy, it was not the sole cause of it.
It was not arms, physical attributes, or vehicles that made the Vikings almost invincible. It was something else entirely: it was their attitude. Every Scandinavian brave enough to take his seat on a rowing bench and “go Viking” (berserker) had something in common. It was not merely gain they were seeking, but glory. Norse culture of that age revolved around war. Their songs and stories reveled in it, and their social structure reinforced it. The Vikings believed that ordinary people who died ordinary deaths went on to a dim afterlife; but those who died gloriously in battle went on to Valhalla, where they would feast, love, and yes – fight – until the world itself ended. The pleasures of life might be reward for valor, but were not really ends unto themselves; valor itself was the ultimate goal. Because of these beliefs and attitudes, by the time a lad was old enough to take up the oar and the shield, he would have hardwired into him an “ecstatic joy of bloodshed”; and so battles were undertaken many times for the “sheer delight of fighting” (Howarth, 1977, p. 110). So, while the defenders huddled in their shield walls understandably shaking with fear, the Vikings literally had no fear – only excitement. If they won, they won glory; if they died, they were rewarded in Valhalla. For this reason it was said that the Norsemen “neither wept for their sins, nor for the death of their friends” (Churchill, 1956, p. 91). It was this extreme psychological advantage that was the Viking’s greatest weapon. The Viking spirited man had nothing to lose and everything to gain. This made them unstoppable.
History is often the tale of “perfect storms”, and this is certainly true of the Viking Age. The profound psychological advantage of the Scandinavian adventurers was made even more powerful by the contrasting mindset of their enemies. The early medieval Christian mind was especially literal. The people who lived in the lands the Vikings plundered expected God to be actively involved in their world, and to reward every good behavior and punish every bad one. For evidence of this mindset we need look no further than the laws of time: trials by ordeal and trials by combat were the norm. So when the Vikings began ravaging the lands of Christian Europe, many of the defenders believed that (just like in the Old Testament when the Israelites were punished by losses in battle) God was using the Vikings to punish them for some unknown sin (Flood, 2013). So with every victory, the Vikings became more confident, and with every defeat, the defenders became more certain that their cause was hopeless.
Eventually, the Christian defenders did begin to gain victories, and under strong leadership and innovations of their own they began to turn back the Viking tide. Gradually, the Vikings began converting to Christianity; but they did not immediately abandon the spiritual dimensions of their warlike nature. One of the most celebrated Vikings of all time was Herald Hardrada, a Christian Varangian long in Byzantine service, and the self-made king of Norway. In the songs and sagas celebrating Herald’s amazing valor combined with appalling violence and rapine, we see the poets reflecting the mindset of the day by sharing this glory (rather perversely) with Christ rather than Odin (Howarth, 1977).
Herald Hardrada’s glorious death in battle marked the end of Viking Age in 1066; but part of his legacy is the demonstration that while beliefs and ways of life change over time, the Viking ethos of unshakable valor remains the greatest of weapons.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Sons of Vikings: A Legendary History of the Viking Age (an excellent historic book on Vikings) and Usurper: a Novel of the Fall of Rome.
Brown, N.M. (2015), Ivory Vikings: the Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, St Martin’s Press, New York, NY
Churchill, W. S. (1956), A History of the English Speaking Peoples, volume 1: The Birth of Britain, Barnes and Noble Books, USA
Flood, J. (2013), The Twilight of the North: From Byzantium to Stamford Bridge, Kindle Direct Publishing, USA
Howarth, D. (1977), 1066: The Year of the Conquest, Penguin Books Ltd., London