What It Was Like To Be On The Front Lines Of A Viking Raid
Ten-foot spears, three-foot shields, and a thousand raving warriors - Viking combat was brutal, bloody, and often deadly. Whether raiding a defenseless monastery to haul off gold and jewels or lining up to battle a rival army, Vikings took no prisoners on the battlefield. The life of a Viking warrior started in childhood, when boys would train and hunt to learn the spear. But the warrior's life wasn't only for boys; shield-maidens fought alongside the men during Viking battles, throwing spears and fending off enemies. Sometimes Vikings also made love connections on the battlefield.
When battle dragged on, Vikings sent in the berserkers to smash through enemy lines. The elite warriors reportedly took performance-enhancing drugs to up their rage. And though the 19th-century stereotype of Scandinavians in horned helmets is a myth, some modern TV shows about Vikings capture the atmosphere of a battle's front lines. There are many accurate details on the TV show Vikings, though the series does have to edit out some Viking tactics too brutal for television.
- Photo: Vikings / History Channel
Battles Started With A Rain Of Spears And Arrows
At the start of battle, warriors lined up to create a shield wall to protect their shield brothers. Often the youngest warriors went to the front lines, with veterans lined up behind them for support. Bodyguards surrounded the group's chief or leader to make sure enemies could not break through. The battle began when a warrior threw a spear over the enemy's lines. A wave of spears followed, with armor-piercing arrows close behind.
Often, the opening salvo determined the fight. One side may have staggered and reeled from the spears and arrows that rained down on their lines. If both lines remained standing, Viking warriors pushed forward to wage close-quarter combat with their enemies.
- Photo: Matthew Paris / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Berserkers Could Destroy Battle Lines
Viking berserkers were in a uniquely elite class. Named "berserk," meaning "bear shirt" for the bearskins berserkers wore over their helmets, the warriors could turn a battle in an instant. Berserkers acted as the trump card in a Viking army. If two sides appeared equally matched in a battle, the army could send out the "boar's snout," a compact group of berserkers who smashed into the enemy's lines, attempting to break through. The berserkers engaged in bloody, one-on-one combat on the front lines.
Archaeologist Andrew Nicholson explained that the berserkers "may be a cult group or a warrior brotherhood." A fearless fighting group, they withstood the most intense fighting on the Viking battlefield.
"They had a reputation for being particularly ferocious and impervious to pain," Nicholson said.
- Video: YouTube
Nine-Foot Spears Might Come Flying Through The Air
Viking warriors brought several different weapons to battle: the spear, battle-ax, sword, and bow and arrow. Of those weapons, the spear was the most common and deadly. Viking spears often stood over nine feet in length, with a sharp iron blade at the end of the wooden spear. Vikings might sharpen the blade to multiple spiky points. And Vikings didn't only use spears for thrusting - they also threw them with deadly accuracy.
As archaeologist Andrew Nicholson explained, "Everybody thinks swords and axes are cool, but the spear was much more effective." The power of Viking spears, according to Nicholson, led to the saying, "Live by the sword, die by the spear."
- Photo: Danish State Archive / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Vikings Named Their Swords Things Like 'Leg-Biter' And 'Gold-Hilt'
On the battlefield, warriors faced Leg-biter and Gold-hilt, which were two names Viking warriors gave to their swords. While spears were more common in Viking battle, elite warriors also carried swords. During the Viking era, swords were expensive, so they often represented high status.
Most Vikings preferred double-edged swords, and many blades had the swordmaker's name inscribed. Because swords were costly, Vikings sometimes imported them from the Rhineland, a region in Western Germany. Vikings also prided themselves on the hilt of their swords, adding elaborate decorations. But in the heat of battle, most warriors kept their eyes on the blade, which could be up to 3-feet long.
- Photo: Vikings / History Channel
Shield-Maidens Fought Alongside The Men
Viking warriors on the front lines did not always comprise men. Shield-maidens also fought in Viking raids and battles. According to Viking chronicles (which may have conflate fact with legend), Viking leader Lagertha commanded a band of 120 ships of warriors. When her ex-husband Ragnar Lothbrok faced near-certain defeat in a fight, Lagertha sailed to his rescue, launching a surprise attack on the enemy from behind. Lagertha's ambush reportedly caused Ragnar's opponents to panic.
Shield-maidens also purportedly fought while disguised in men's clothes. Thus, they were sometimes indistinguishable from male warriors.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Warriors Could Snatch A Flying Spear Out Of The Air
Spears created terrifying chaos during Viking battles. Viking spears were almost 10 feet long, but their reach extended even further. The fiercest warriors could throw their spears across the battlefield to target far-off enemies. Skilled warriors could throw two spears at once, with one in each hand. Some warriors were reportedly able to catch a spear in flight and turn it back toward their enemy.
Because spears were the most common weapon used during Viking battles, fighters weren't safe anywhere within throwing distance.