For my entire reenactment career, I have encountered the problem of slippery shoe soles. Some reenactors solve the problem with rubber soles or metal hobnails, but these are not period solutions. Leather soles are extremely slippery on the wet or frozen surfaces, especially when they are a bit used and scuffed, which means the problem has to be solved in a way.
In Sagas of Icelanders and some other sagas, two terms skóbroddr (“shoe spike”; Eyrbyggja saga, Sturlunga saga, Sverris saga) and mannbroddr (literally “man’s spike”; Þorsteins saga hvíta, Vápnfirðinga saga) occur and they represent spikes that are used when saga heroes travel over the ice or as a cheating device mounted to horse forehead during horse fights. Spikes were not permanently attached to shoes; one could put them on and take them off as needed.
Crampons designed for horse hooves. Taken from Rybakov 1985: 362, Tab. 148, 26-29.
Crampons from sagas have many counterparts in the archaeological material in the whole of Scandinavia and beyond. The term mannbroddr suggests there were also crampons designed for horse hooves (see here). In some cases, it is difficult to determine which crampons were designed for men and which for horses. In this article, we will focus mainly on crampons that were meant to be attached to shoes. We will look at finds from Birka and Haithabu and some other analogies. Their function is to help to get stability on slippery surfaces, mainly ice. Etnographical mentions even attest the usage of crampons by whalers on the ocean, where whales were butchered (Goubitz 2007: 305). It is important to add that some of the graves with crampons from Birka were interpreted as winter graves; crampons and skates could play a symbolic role in this case (Gräslund 1980: 75–76). Fox example, during the exhibition We call them Vikings, The Swedish History Museum in Stockholm described crampons with these words: “The road to Hel is icy and leads north and downwards. Ice spikes ensured a safe arrival.”
Generally speaking, crampons of the Viking Age had no more than four spikes. Spikes are positioned in the way to maximize the friction of the shoe. Crampons can be divided into four basic categories:
Type A, “1-point crampons”. These were made of separate bent bands with only one spike. Bent bands, with no more than three pieces at the same time, were attached to leather or wooden bases. The length of these bases corresponded with the width of the shoes and were connected by straps to the shoe. Birka types 1 and 2 belong to this type (Arwidsson 1986: 111; however, Birka type 2 crampons could be horse crampons; discussion with Sergey Kainov). This type occurs also in Norway (Petersen 1951: 62–63), Latvia, Slovakia and on territories of the Old Rus (Spasov–Kainov 2005),
The method of attachment according to Spasov–Kainov 2005.
Type B, “3-point crampons”. Crampons of this type are in forms that are roughly trianglar – crampons in the shape of an equilateral triangle with open inner space (Birka type 3), Y-shaped crampons (Haithabu types 1 and 2), T-shaped crampons (Haithabu type 3) and V-shaped crampons (Swedish type 5). Crampons in the shape of an equilateral triangle with open inner space have been found in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Latvia and Old Russia (Petersen 1951: 62–63; Arwidsson 1986: 111; Kirpičnikov 1973: 170; Spasov–Kainov 2005; Petrov 2006: 174). Y-shaped crampons were found not only in Haithabu, but also in Schleswig (Saggau 2000: 99–100), in territories of West Slavic tribes and in Lund (Westphalen 2002: 271), in medieval Söderköping (SHM 34183:23), in medieval Riga (Petrov 2005) and Novgorod (Petrov 2006: 173–174); the same pieces were found in the tool chest from Mästermyr, Gotland (Arwidsson–Berg 1999: 16, No. 92–93). Three T-shaped crampons were found in Haithabu (Westphalen 2002: 271). V-shaped crampons were only found in the grave Valsgärde 7, which dates to the 7th century (Arwidsson 1977: 91, No. 1097; Arwidsson 1986: 112). No sure method of attachment is known, but we are aware of several high medieval or early modern methods from Oslo, Tønsberg, Trondheim, Leiden, Riga and Novgorod:
At least eighteen leather stripes designed for crampons, sometimes with shoe soles or with imprinted triangular crampons, were found in medieval and early modern layers of Oslo and Tønsberg in Norway. Examples taken from Johansen – Molaug 2008: 197, Figs. 209–210, Johansen 2008: 127, Fig. 141 and the catalogue of Unimus.
The leather stripe from medieval Tønsberg. The crampon was fixed in the stripe and then covered with round leather piece, which held the crampon in the stable position. Taken from Brendalsmo – Lindh 1982: 27. For more medieval leather stripes designed for crampons, see Ulriksen 1992.
A leather piece with imprinted crampon, found in Gamlebyen, Oslo. Very similar solution as in the previous picture. Dated to the first half of the 14th century. Taken from Færden et al 1990: 263, Fig. 30g, 264.
A very well preserved high medieval crampon from Söderköping, Sweden (SHM 34183:23). Note that holes around the crampon, which are similar to those from Oslo and Tønsberg. Taken from the catalogue of SHM.
Medieval leather stripe and triangular crampon from Trondheim. Taken from Goubitz 2007: 311, Fig. 23b.
Late medieval leather stripe with an imprint of triangular crampon, found in Leiden. Taken from Goubitz 2007: 311, Fig. 23a.
The method used in 13th–14th century in Riga, Latvia. Taken from Petrov 2005.
The method used in 13th–14th century in Novgorod, Russia. The area around the crampon is covered with another layer of leather. Taken from Petrov 2006: 172, 176, Fig. 1, 4.
The method suggested by Spasov–Kainov 2005.
The method suggested by Saggau 2000: Abb. 67:4. The crampon is placed in folded leather stripe. Note that the leather strap is placed on a modern shoe.
This method is etnografically attested from Finland. The crampon is placed in folded leather stripe and fixed by stitching. Taken from Schietzel 2014: 214.
Etnographical methods attested in Finland. Taken from Sirelius 1934: 116, Taf. 55, Abb. 244a-c.
The realization of the method suggested by Spasov-Kainov 2005, group NorraVind.
The attachment method used by Veronica Wik.
The attachment method from Tønsberg replicated by Veronica Wic.
The attachment method used by Amy Pooley when climbing Mr Kosciusko. Credits go to Joshua Button.
Type C, “4-point crampons”. Three X-shaped crampons were found in Haithabu (Haithabu type 4; Westphalen 2002: 271). In Viking Age and medieval Norway, X-shaped crampon with open inner space were used as well (see C13709, C35607, C37183or T2316). Similarly, there is a X-shaped crampon with open inner space and metal holders found in medieval Hovgården, Sweden (SHM 15825:149). The attachment method is not known from the Viking Age and it could be similar to what we have shown in the case of type B.
The crampon from medieval Hovgården (SHM 15825:149). Taken from the catalogue of SHM.
The attachment method used by Karel Sýkora, Marobud.
Other types, “atypical crampons”. We have to mention crampons of the Swedish type 4, that were found in graves Tuna Alsike X and Bengtsarvet 2. They were made of an iron bands, whose length corresponded to the width of the shoe. They had bent ends with loops for attachment and three spikes on the bottom side. Analogical methods with two spikes were found in late medieval or early modern sites from Germany (Heiligenberg, Tannenberg, Dossenheim, Gaisberg; Gross 2012: 448–9) and Russia (Staraya Ladoga). Besides the find from Staraya Ladoga, Kirpichnikov (1973) shows yet another interesting form medieval.
2-point iron band crampon with loops for attachment. Taken from Gross 2012: 544, Taf. 60.11.
Crampons found in Staraya Ladoga (Number. 3; 17th century) and Kniazha Hora (Number. 4, 1150–1240 AD). Taken from Kirpichnikov 1973: 170, Fig. 47.
Viking Age crampons could seem as old-fashioned or primitive pieces of metal. However, in Europe, simple crampons like all those aforementioned were used until the 20th century. Their simple and effective construction uses only a limited number of variants. Therefore, we can see very similar pieces in space and time.
Crampons from the 19th and 20th century with similar designs.
My first chance to use crampons took place in 2015, during the festival of Libušín, in the Czech Republic. I chose crampons of type B (Haithabu type 2, Y-shaped). I am very indebted to Jiří “Link” Novák, who gave them to me as a gift. The attachment method was copied from Danish reenactors, since I had not the sources I have now. This was my first try and I would like to inform you about all pros and cons of this piece of gear.
The most important discovery of this experience was that crampons make shoes a very useful thing. When a crampon is used with leather soled shoes, the result is comparable with rubber sole or hobnails. I have not had a chance to use crampons on an icy surface, but they worked perfectly on the wet or dry grass and were very useful during climbing a hill. I used crampons with thick felt insoles, but I think that woolen insoles and crampons fixed with the second layer of leather can lead to the same comfortable feeling. When the user is careful and slow, crampons can be even used on hard surfaces for short distances (all you feel is the pressure). In battle, crampons are also useful for stability, but rather dangerous and therefore not recommended. I personally think they were used mainly in winter, while they had no benefit in summer. They should be used mainly during winter events (for example hikes), whereas to a limited extent during summer events.
The first try showed that a crampon should be fixed into two layers of leather, because the crampon has a tendency to move and to tear the leather.For the same reason, it is necessary to place the crampon the middle of the leather band, not near the edge. The stitching can be very useful. It is always better have two fixed points on the shoe; my attachment method took advantage of leather straps, which hold the leather band in place. Below, you can have a look at photos of my experience.
I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon.
Arwidsson 1977 = Arwidsson, Greta (1977). Valsgärde 7, Lund.
Arwidsson 1986 = Arwidsson, Greta (1986). Die Eissporen. In: ARWIDSSON, Greta (ed.) Birka II: 2. Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde, Stockholm, 111–112.
Arwidsson–Berg 1999 = Arwidsson, Greta – Berg, Gösta (1999). The Mästermyr find : a Viking age tool chest from Gotland, Lompoc.
Brendalsmo – Lindh 1982 = Brendalsmo, Jan – Lindh, Jan (1982). Funn fra en utgravning, Øvre Ervik.
Færden et al 1990 = Færden, G., Schia, E., Molaug, P. B. (1990). De Arkeologiske utgravninger i Gamlebyen, Oslo. 7-8, Dagliglivets gjenstander, Øvre Ervik.
Goubitz 2007 = Goubitz, Olaf (2007). Stepping through time : archaeological footwear from prehistoric times until 1800, Zwolle.
Gräslund 1980 = Gräslund, Anne-Sofie (1980). Birka IV. The Burial Customs. A study of the graves on Björkö, Stockholm.
Petrov 2006 = М. И. Петров (2006). Обувные шипы из новгородских раскопок // Новгород и Новгородская земля: история и археология : материалы науч. конференции. Новгород, 24-26 янв. 2006 г, Великий Новгород, 171–178. Online: http://bibliotekar.ru/rusNovgorod/144.htm
Rybakov 1985 = Рыбаков, Б. А. (1985). Археология СССР : Древняя Русь. Город, замок, село, Moskva.
Saggau 2000 = Saggau, Hilke E. (2000). Mittelalterliche Eisenfunde aus Schleswig : Ausgrabung Schild 1971-1975, (Ausgrabungen in Schleswig 14), Neumünster.
Sirelius 1934 = Sirelius, U. T. (1934). Die Volkskultur Finnlands : I. Jagd und Fischerei, Berlin-Leipzig.
Schietzel2014 = Schietzel, Kurt (2014). Spurensuche Haithabu, Neumünster / Hamburg.
At the request of many reenactors, who are interested in early medieval warfare, my colleagues Roman Král, Jan Zajíc, Jan Bělina, et al. and I decided to write an article that would provide a comprehensive commentary on the use of padding under armor and fabric armor in the early Middle Ages. Given that there is no extant archaeological evidence, we are forced to speculate and discuss dubious literary references, iconography and tested, firsthand experience. In this article, we will formulate a list of design assumptions.
1. The need for padding under mail armor
A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Around 1070’s AD
Mail armor is constructed of connected rings of metal. It is logical that the mail armor and possibly other types of armor were used in combination with padding. Mail, which was the most widely used metal armor in Scandinavia, provides good protection against edged weapons and effectively disappaites the force of a blow. If it was worn without padding, a strike to the body would cause surface and internal damage. For the Viking Age (and indeed throughout the early Middle Ages) padding is never directly mentioned as part of combat equipment (mentioned as gerðar, herváðir and herklæði). The same applies to the surviving Scandinavian figures (see eg. Archer 2013) – armor lying close to the body and the undercoat is not noticeable. Padding as the bottom layer can easily be overlooked, but more significantly – when the armor was depicted, padding was not important for either the artist or the viewer of the piece of art; even though padding is as important as the other parts of armor. However, there are illuminations of contemporary European armor, in which the padding is shown (see eg. Skodell 2008), and we will try to show the parallels in contemporary padding across Western and Northern Europe.
2. The material of the padding
The best protection against the strike is layered textiles and/or leather. In the European reenactment the current trend is to produce fabric gambesons that are a few centimeters thick, but scientific investigation (see list at Archer 2014) suggests that two textile layers of fabric or a combination of fabric and leather were used. Iconography, showing the armor close to the body, could support that idea. We validated the use of few layers of wool (up to three) in modern (Eastern style) battles; the warrior is not restricted in movement and is fairly well protected against swords. Axe and spear, however, are problematic due to the force they generate. Similarly, we validated a thinner layer of felted wool.
Sagas and other sources, including The Book of the Hird (Hirðskrá) and The King’s Mirror (Konungs skuggsjá), mention textile armor treyja and panzer / panzari (Falk 1914 : § 87 + § 90; 181 – 182, 185 – 186). These two words were introduced into Old Norse from Middle Low German and they denote multi-layer linen gambesons of High and Late Middle Ages (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 194 – 196). In the Bayeux Tapestry armors are so simplied, they can represent mail, scale, lamellar armors or even gambesons, which are quilted in vertical or diamond patterns. In any case, they may be linked to professionalization of the army in 11th century.
The attack of the “Great Danish Army” from the manuscript M.736, fol. 9v, about 1130 AD.
Determining what style of the padding was used is probably the most difficult of all to answer, because it requires knowledge of contemporary clothing. It can be assumed that the cut of clothing was not entirely consistent over all the lands that the Norse enhabited. Also, it can be postulated that there were gradual improvements – i.e. the strengthening the individual parts and increasing the number of layers with the need of quilting.
Apparently, most of warriors in Sagas of Icelanders fought without armor, which can be interpreted as they could not afford quality armor or they acted too spontaneously to think about protection. However, from two extreme examples (Helgi, the hero of Vápnfirðinga saga, binds a big stone to his chest to avoid the injury, and Þóri Þorsteinsson, the fighter of Hákon the Good and veteran of Battle of Fitjar, cut a hole in an oxen hide and put that over his head) showing the same kind of ad hoc improvisation and the pattern of not having the armor in the fight. In some cases, warriors of sagas put on festive tunics before a fight; in the most dramatic moments of their life, fashion was more desirable than good protection. Frankish and English illuminations from the 10th – 12th centuries depict a variety of warriors clad only in caps and tunics. It is reasonable to assume that padding was virtually identical to those typical, civilian clothes, and their protective function was achieved by layering them. That means, a classic tunic (kyrtill/skyrta), knee-length garment without buttons or fastening, with long sleeves and gores. The neckline could have a lapel and collar to protect the neck, as Skjoldehamn and Guddal tunics. Likewise, coats (Klappenrock) or Eastern caftans with buttons could, of course, serve the same function.
Cotton Ms. Cleo. C VIII, fol. 18v, the end of the 10th century.
This solution is illustrated in at least a few sources. The first is the illumination of the Anglo-Saxon version of The Psychomachia of Prudentius (fol. 18v, see the picture), which dates back to the late 10th century. In this illumination one can see two fighters – dancers in short ring shirts with dagged edges and under tunics that reach the knees and wrists. Practically the same solution appears in several manuscripts illuminations from the 10th – 11th century (see eg. a scene from The Book of Maccabees of St. Gallen, Fulda Sacramentary, The Golden Gospels of Echternach, The life of St. AlbinandStavelot Bible). There are also literary sources with statements about fabric under armor, namely Saga of Magnus the Good (ch. 29), which states that “King Magnus threw off from him his coat of ring-mail, and had a red silk shirt outside over his clothes [ok hafði yzta rauða silkiskyrtu] […].”
Expected reconstruction warrior stored in Gjermundbu, 10th century. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 155.
This short quotation forces us to imagine a padding as several layered tunics. Personally, we use this solution and it allows the wearer to freely add / remove the number of layers, clean tunics separately and finally use separate tunics outside the combat context. Two Norwegian finds – Skjoldehamn and Guddal – contained paired tunics, which have been experimentally proven by us to be a good protection against cold and padding worn under the mail armor.
We can also imagine that padding could be made from tunics sewn together showing that padding is a special war garment that hardly finds application in a non-combat situations. It is often argued that Byzantine sources describe padding that is similar to a gambeson. An anonymous treatise on the strategy from the 6th century gives a particularly interesting testimony:
“There should also be a space between the armor and the body. It should not be worn directly over ordinary clothing, as some do to keep down the weight of the armor, but over a garment at least a finger thick. There are two reasons for this. Where it touches the body the hard metal may not chafe but may fit and lie comfortably upon the body. In addition, it helps to prevent the enemy missiles from hitting the flesh […].”(The Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy, §16, ed. G. T. Dennis )
In Scandinavia, the existence of such a one-pieced textile represent the term treyja, which could mean that specialized clothing began to be used in the later period (11th / 12th century onwards), but due to the nature of our sources, we can neither accept or reject this idea with 100% certainty. We have to admit that both variants are possible. Thickness of the special garment could be around 1 centimeter. During the making of such a piece of clothing, we would personally avoid excessive quilting; we would only stitched the layers at hems.
Armors with possible integral lining. A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Around 1070’s AD.
Scandinavian iconography suggests that the length of padding adapted to the length of chain mail. It is even possible to think about the intergral lining of the mail armor, as the Bayeux Tapestry suggests; it shows armors carried on spears, not worn by anyone, with wide coloured borders, perhaps suggesting that the padding was in some way integral to the armor itself, and scenes on the border also depict armor being removed from men that are clearly naked underneath, which also suggests integral padding that is removed with the mail. The Psychomachia of Prudentius and other contemporary illuminations, however, shows the opposite. With few exceptions, we can say that until the early 11th century, Scandinavians surely used shorter mail armors, with the length up to 70 cm and short sleeves. Mail components, such as protection over the neck or legs, were missing. During the 11th century, we can observe how the armor lengthened, which was due to Continental influence and which culminated in the use of a complete mail armor set.
We are strictly against the use of modern padding, which is haphazardly stitched together and which looks more like rags or slave clothing. The padding – no matter how it looked – had to be aesthetically pleasing and had to reflect the status of the owner. Some reenactors and organizers of festivals like to say there are no sources, so every version is possible. The goal that we reenactors should achieve is the least disturbing look that is in accordance with what we can see or read in sources. Now we will compare the Viking Recreation combat of the Modern Western European style to Modern Eastern European style. Modern Western (example here) is a style where the head is not a legal target and the force of blows is much less. This style combat is so safe it allows one to use no armor, and the historical look can be maintained. On the other hand, Modern Eastern style fighters (example here) are focused on hits with full force to protected target zones – a system that is illogical from the historical perspective. Western tradition allows to use a tunic as the main protective layer, while it is better to use more layers in the Eastern approach. The result we would like to achieve is that the armor can look historically correct in both styles, but with the different number of layers. On several occasions, we have fought in modern Eastern style battles with nothing but one tunic worn without mail armor; it turned to be a fight for our lives, the realistic feeling which gives one so much adrenalin to ignore hits from blunt weapons. Layered tunics, whether sewn or not, could be a good compromise between these two extreme approaches.
We hold the opinion the image of reenactors is crucial in the reenactment. We strove for a quality article, but we can not completely demonstrate our thoughts without photos. Therefore, you can find a gallery below. We hope that the gallery will extend in the future. If you have any image of the appropriate padding, you can, of course, send it to us and we will publish it.
Fabric armor of Roman Král.
Padding of Roman Král.
Armor of Roman Král.
Fabric armor of Jan Zajíc.
Padding of Jan Bělina.
Armor of Jan Bělina.
Armor of Jakub Jirásek.
My own padding made of tunics.
My own armour.
Integral linen and woolen lining of the armor. David Constantine.
Fabric armor of Hynek Raška.
Fabric armor of Petera Kováč.
Fabric armor of Michal Zemčák.
Fabric armor of Štefan Železník.
Fabric armor of Tomáš Vosátka.
Armor of Matej Chmelár.
Armor of Peter Šimčák.
An interpretation of Vendel Age coat of Matt Bunker.
We believe that the problem has been overlooked so far and the battlefields are full of non-historical armors that look more like the Michelin-Man. In order to change the current trend, the discussion has been led, and therefore we are open to opinion and are willing to participate in further debates. The article was well accepted and a separate addition, “War coat – an experiment“, was written. The most important quote from the article says: “For a traveling fighter, it is impractical to carry civilian clothes and extra special combat protection, I think. It is more advantageous to combine these two requirements into one.”
I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon.
Tento příspěvek je překladem interview, které dal Alexej Ovčarenko, ředitel agentury pro řešení historických projektů Ratoborci (Ратоборцы), Eleně Romašovové, reportérce deníku M24, před festivalem „Časy a epochy 2016“. Jedná se o shrnutí jeho myšlenek o minulosti, přítomnosti a budoucnosti ruského reenactmentu. Původní verzi rozhovoru můžete najít zde.
„Historie se lze dotknout“
Elena: „Alexeji, proč se v poslední době stala historická rekonstrukce tak populární? Před pár roky se jí lidé věnovali jenom v rámci svých skupin (klubů), ale nyní můžeme potkat rytíře nebo vikingy přímo na ulicích.“
Alexej: „Když jsme kolem roku 2000 začínali, část společnosti už požadovala analýzu historie, její konceptualizaci a znovuoživení. Stejné požadavky existovaly i na západě, takže jsme nebyli unikátní. Současná otázka zní, jakým směrem se bude ubírat reenactment v budoucnu. V Evropě začala být myšlenka reenactmentu zajímavá v 60. a 70. letech minulého století, zhruba v čase, kdy se do světového popředí dostával Pán Prstenů a další knihy spadající do žánru fantasy. A tak se zrodilo hnutí, které oslovovalo zejména mladé lidi. Když si mladí pořídili rodiny, začlenili je do koníčku, takže dnes můžeme v mnoha obdobích najít ‚stařešiny’, kterým už dávno není dvacet. Naše současná scéna začala pádem Sovětského svazu, a stejný proces začal v původně socialistických zemích, České republice a Polsku — hledání vlastních kořenů, přibližování se historii a touha historii rekonstruovat. Touha to byla romantická; hnutí bylo do určité míry tvořeno lidmi, kteří prahli po splynutí přírody a tradiční společnosti. Takové vnitřní touhy jsou normální, protože ne všichni dokážou snášet břemeno urbanistického prostředí. Odtud vzešel turismus za divočinou, který dnes aktivně probíhá všude.“
Elena: „Odkdy můžeme otevřeně hovořit o ruském reenactmentu?“
Alexej: „Reenactment v Rusku začal v 80. letech, a to pod vlivem zpracování ‚Vojny a míru’ od režiséra Sergeje Bondarčuka. Pro potřeby filmu byla vyrobena řada kvalitních kostýmů. Klukům, kteří tam tehdy dělali kompars, se napoleonika natolik zalíbila, že se jí začali věnovat, a tak se rozběhla první ‚fermentace’. V současné době je reenactment natolik populární, že by se mohlo zdát, že je na svém vrcholu. A může nás těšit, že ruští reenactoři v mnoha ohledech udávají tón. V Moskvě a jejím okolí se pořádá řada kvalitních historických akcí, kterých se zúčastňují zahraniční kolegové, jež je považují za prestižní. Kupříkladu ‚Časy a epochy’ se bez speciální reklamní kampaně samy zviditelnily v cizině. I když se nemohli zúčastnit všichni, tak se o festivalu mluví. A k tomu, že lze reenactory potkat na ulici — je normální, že když se něco stane populární, pak se s tím setkáváme častěji. Pokud má veřejnost ráda reeactory, bude větší poptávka po akcích ve městech. Hlavní je nesklouznout k profanaci.“
Elena: „Doprovází historické akce ve městech nějaké problémy?“
Alexej: “Hlavní problém spočívá v tom, že poptávka převyšuje nabídku. Reenactment je elitářské hnutí, není to něco, co lze vytvořit za půl roku nebo získat kliknutím na myš. Lásku k historii si koneckonců nelze koupit. Člověk se nejdřív musí začít zajímat o nějaké období, poté ho dlouho objevovat a ušít si první kostým, ten poté nahradit novým, jet na svůj první festival a tak dále. Než se člověk vypracuje do určité úrovně, kterou lze prezentovat lidem, zabere to spoustu času. Proto se domnívám, že v současné chvíli poptávka převyšuje nabídku. Navíc je třeba mít na zřeteli, že pro mnoho reenactorů jde o koníček, nikoli o práci. Pro řadu z nich je práce z veřejností samozřejmě důležitá a považují ji za své životní poslání, ale jiní se historických akcí ve městech neúčastní. V této chvíli hledáme optimální formát interakce mezi diváky a reenactory. Myslím, že ho dříve či později nalezneme, a půjde o interakci komfortní a harmonickou. Pokud se historické akce stanou hlavní náplní městských slavností, rád se budu přítomen, ať už jako organizátor či jako účastník, a budu považovat své poslání za splněné, protože se domnívám, že historická rekonstrukce prosazuje prospěšné hodnoty a zásady, které je třeba vštípit co nejvíce lidem.“
Elena: „Zmínil jsi, že je otázka, jak se bude historická rekonstrukce vyvíjet. Co si myslíš ty osobně?“
Alexej: „První možnou variantou následujícího vývoje je stagnace a stárnutí. Dost možná bude reenactment pro současnou generaci nezáživný. Chlapci ve věku 12–13 let jsou naprosto ponoření do virtuální reality a telefon nebo Ipod jsou pro ně důležitější než zbytek světa. Při naší práci to jasně vidíme, protože často pracujeme s mládeží. Generace narozená po roce 2000 sama sebe definuje prizmatem sociálních sítí a virtuální reality. V takovém prostředí lze reenactment stále propagovat, ale poněkud odlišným způsobem. Za mého času bylo zvykem, že lidé trénovali, vyráběli si kostýmy, připravovali představení a ukazovali se na festivalech, což budovalo sebevědomí. Pro současné chlapce a dívky jsou důležitější cool fotky se spoustou lajků na Facebooku. Tito si kostýmy nevyrábí vlastnoručně, nýbrž je objednávají, obvykle nezacházejí do detailů a spokojí se s focením hotového kompletu při používání.“
Elena: „Dá se tomu nějak zabránit?“
Alexej: „Ve chvíli, kdy se rozmáhá nějaký masivní trend, tak současně existuje skupina lidí, kteří z něj budou vybočovat. I dnes můžeme najít mladíky, kteří reenactment považují za odpočinek, za možnost úniku z virtuálních sítí, při které sami sobě dokáží, že jsou v reálném světě plnohodnotnými muži. V každém případě budou reenactorskou elitu tvořit lidé, kteří činí reálná rozhodnutí a kteří virtuální realitu používají jako nástroj, nikoli jako přirozené prostředí.
První možnou variantou budoucího vývoje je tedy stagnace. Druhou možností je příklon k vědeckým aktivitám a experimentální archeologii. S vědci jsme již mnohokrát spolupracovali a provádíme s nimi experimenty. Takováto práce je mnohem serióznější, a i když oboustranně přínosnější, pro běžného diváka o něco nudnější. Na straně druhé existuje něco jako populární verze reenactmentu, která má natolik velkou fanouškovskou základnu, že se může vyvíjet, až najde to pravé místo.
Z pohledu reenactora lze říci, že explozivní fáze vývoje je završena. Je potřeba dodat, že pro většinu lidí je rekonstrukce dočasný koníček do doby, než vyrostou. Propadnou mu v prváku nebo druháku, navštíví pár festivalů, pořídí si práci, rodinu, děti, a musí s rekonstrukcí seknout. Ale pro některé se stal reenactment způsobem života a nákladným koníčkem. Mám přátele, kteří si našli dobrou práci, vydělali si, ale stále se zabývají reenactmentem, kterým vyplňují to málo času, které jim zbývá. Tito mají kostýmy na opravdu vysoké úrovni, a pokud se svým koníčkem někdy skončí, darují své prvotřídní komplety muzeím.“
Elena: „Pracujete nějak na tom, abyste mládež dostali z virtuální reality?“
Alexej: „V aktuálních chvíli s mládeží z nedostatku času příliš nepracujeme; organizujeme řadu projektů. Ale podporujeme skupiny, které s mládeží pracují. Jen tak mimochodem, tendence pracovat s mládeží je nyní velmi intenzivní, zejména v Moskvě. V 90. letech to fungovalo tak, že pokud jste byl reenactorem, s největší pravděpodobností jste se pohyboval kolem paláce kultury a měl jste na starost skupinu mladíků, byla na to vyhláška. Koncem nultých let tohoto století tenhle systém skončil, ale řada z těch odrostlých mladíků se ke koníčku vrátila. Reenactment upřednostňuje devirtualizaci, to je prostě fakt. Během roku se koná mnoho festivalů, na kterých člověk může potkat stejně smýšlející lidi, což je ve virtuální realitě složité. Samozřejmě je jednodušší preferovat požitkářství a hraní na webu, ale reenactment dává možnost volby.“
Elena: „Možná by stálo za zvážení založení nějaké školy pro historickou rekonstrukci, kterou by děti navštěvovaly už raného věku. V ní by se mohli učit základy historie, jak šít kostýmy a každodennost jednotlivých historických období.“
Alexej: „Nápad je to dobrý, ale vyžadoval by systémovou změnu. V takovém případě hrozí, že dosáhneme jistého přebytku. Hnutí původně vzešlo od obyčejných lidí s hlubokým zájmem, a pokud někdo začne hnutí kontrolovat shora, nebude z toho žádný užitek, hnutí se vysílí a mládež odejde. Mladí lidé se nechtějí poutat. Myšlenka škol je skvělá, ale je realizovatelná spíše na úrovni kroužků. Jakmile budeme mít čas, rozhodně se k tomuto nápadu vrátíme.“
Elena: „Pochopila jsem správně, že tvá agentura ‚Ratoborci’ neorganizuje jenom velké městské akce, ale rovněž podnikové akce ve stylu různých historických období?“
Alexej: „Akce pro podniky pořádáme málo a snažíme se jim vyhýbat. Obecně řečeno, jsem z nich zklamaný.“
Alexej: „U západních korporací se stalo módou, že pořádají team buidingové akce, které se většinou, podle naší zkušenosti, zvrhnou v nasávání v kostýmech, a všichni se pak hluboce stydí. Teď se snažíme realizovat projekty o něco chytřeji – výdělečné i nevýdělečné akce, jakož i projekty s hlubší myšlenkou. Například projekt ‚Sám v minulosti‘, který spočíval v tom, že muž žil půl roku jako poustevník na středověkém statku a blogoval o svých prožitcích. Tento projekt měl obrovskou odezvu, a tak teď pracujeme na pokračování, ‚Sedm v minulosti‘.“
Elena: „Rekrutujete nějak nové reenactory?“
Alexej: „Řada z těch, kteří se přijedou podívat na festival ‚Časy a epochy’ jako diváci, se poté začne o rekonstrukci zajímat. Jednou se mi stalo, že za mnou ve Státním historickém muzeu přiběhl hlídač a nadšeně vyprávěl o tom, jak se synem navštívil ‚Časy a epochy’ roku 2011, kdy byly zaměřené na starou Rus, a jak teď chodí se synem na přednášky a čte historické knížky. Ukázalo se, že do té doby pracoval v muzeu jako hlídač už 7 let, ale nikdy si nenašel čas, aby si ho prohlédnul. Jednou z funkcí festivalů, jako jsou ‚Časy a epochy’, je ta, že ukazuje historii jako živoucí a zajímavou, historii, které se lze dotknout.“
Elena: „Která historická období jsou nejpopulárnější?“
Alexej: „Tím nejpopulárnějším a nejjasnějším obrázkem pro kohokoli v Rusku a kdekoli jinde je rytíř. Rytířská tématika je pokaždé úspěšná. Neměli bychom podceňovat ani vliv Holywoodu a obecného povědomí. Teď je populární stará Rus, protože televizní seriály jako ‚Vikings’ nebo ‚Game of Thrones’ udaly trend, a tato historická epocha je tak nejsrozumitelnější. Když lidé slyší o staré Rusi nebo rytířích, mají jasné asociace. Druhoválečná tématika je také populární.“
Elena: „Ale tu nikdo nerekonstruuje aktivně.“
Alexej: „Samozřejmě že ano, ale ne v Moskvě, protože zákopy a těžkou techniku apod. nelze použít ve velkoměstě. Navíc u této epochy dochází jen k omezené interakci, protože divák se může jen koukat, ale neparticipuje na rekonstrukci. Ale pokud mluvíme o rytířích nebo staré Rusi, divák pouze nepřihlíží; když přijde na festival, může si uvařit chleba v peci, pojíst středověké pokrmy nebo si třeba i ukovat nůž. Získá komplexní dojmy a opouští akcí s vědomím úplného ponoření se do středověku. Zdá se, že i první světová válka je zajímavé období. V roce 2014 jsme jí věnovali jeden festival, a ukázalo se, že lidé o Velké válce prakticky nic nevědí. Mají povědomí o revolucích z let 1905 a 1917, o Stalinových perzekucích, někdo si vzpomněl na novou ekonomickou politiku nebo vyvlastnění pozemků kulaků, ale Velká válka je naprosto zapomenutá epocha. Někteří návštěvníci našeho festivalu plakali, protože tuhle stránku historie ještě nenalistovali.“
Elena: „Vím, že berete výrobu kostýmů a dalších věcí velmi vážně. Kde si je vyrábíte?“
Alexej: „Máme vlastní dílny, které se tento rok značně rozrostly, na což jsem pyšný. Na velkých festivalech jsme téměř vymýtili aranžérství, naše dílny začaly vyrábět repliky na reenactmentové úrovni, což byla na dřívějších festivalech utopie. Například lavice byly považovány za spotřební zboží, a tak jim nikdo nepřikládal větší pozornost, ale teď kluci z naší dílny vyrábějí repliky lavic, které jsou blízké originálům. V historické rekonstrukci si nemůžete vykovat např. sekeru podle své fantazie. Musíte mít předlohu sekery vyrobené před tisíci lety, zopakovat výrobní technologii, dodržet materiál a tvar, a to je mnohem obtížnější. A u větších staveb, jako třeba srubů, je rekonstrukce ještě mnohem složitější.“
Elena: „Kde získáváte látku na kostýmy? Musí být také autentické?“
Alexej: “Máme tři hlavní zdroje, ale ve skutečnosti je spousta míst, kde reenactoři nakupují látky. Někteří zruční výrobci tkají vlnu ručně. Když potřebujeme len, častěji používáme domácí látky, které se dají stále sehnat ve vesnicích na severu. Třetí možnost je nakoupit látku z Běloruska. Tamější továrny vyrábějí látky, které jsou velmi podobné originálům, ať už vazbou, hustotou nebo barvou. Expert na textil by samozřejmě rozeznal moderní materiál od originálu, ale obyčejný člověk nepozná rozdíl. Pro většinu reenactorů je taková podobnost dostačující. Někdy dochází k extravaganci, kterou pochopí jen reenactoři, jako když si člověk nakoupí za strašlivé peníze etnografické vzorované hedvábí z Japonska, hedvábí z Uzbekistánu nebo Itálie.“
Elena: „Takže na vikinských kostýmech neuvidíme žádnou syntetiku?“
Alexej: „Syntetické materiály jsou známkou špatného provedení. Každý by měl chápat, že kromě posudku naší komise, která hodnotí kostýmy, je v sázce i názor kolegů, který má mnohem větší váhu.“
Elena: „Jak často se stává, ze reenactoři nepřijímají jen zevní atributy, ale také mravní zásady daného období?“
Alexej: „Někdo rekonstrukci bere hloubkově, někdo ne. Dělení mezi hmotnou a duchovní kulturou je velmi tenké, a osobně se snažím spirituálnímu světu vyvarovat. Mezi reenactory se obecně považuje za špatný rys a symptom LARPáků.“
Elena: „Jaký je rozdíl mezi reenactory a LARPáky?“
Alexej: „V LARPových hrách si člověk vybere postavu, historickou nebo fikční, a činí s ní, co uzná na vhodné. V reenactmentu si člověk nevybírá postavu, nýbrž některé předměty z materiálního světa, a ty rekonstruuje. Přitom zůstává moderním člověkem, byť s určitými výstřednostmi.“
Elena: „Je pravda, že reenactoři chovají jisté předsudky k LARPákům, které považují za méněcenné?“
Alexej: „V minulosti byly nějaké spory, ale dnes už ne. V současné době jde o dvě odlišná hnutí, která mají svá pro a proti. Probíhají snahy o komunikaci a zjemňování ostrých hran. Uvědomujeme si, že jde jednoduše o dvě rozdílné cesty, a není důvod nějakou z nich řadit nad tu druhou. Navíc jako agentura využíváme zkušenosti z LARPových her, jelikož existují zavedené mezinárodní modely, které můžeme použít. Ti, kteří se LARPu věnují, pořádají akce o 3–5 tisících lidech, vybírají poplatky, žijí v lesích a vše si vyrábějí sami. Tohle v případě reenactorů nepřichází v úvahu, ale věříme, že je v tomhle přístupu pravdivé jádro.“
Elena: „Mají reenactoři kodex cti?“
Alexej: „Reenactoři často mají určité zásady. Kupříkladu se pokládá za normální, že lidé drží své slovo. Reenactoři navíc obvykle zastávají hodnoty tradiční rodiny, což je pro mne velmi důležité. Není to nikde napsané, ale mezi reenactory je jednoduše akceptováno, že máte hodně dětí, velkou rodinu a tak dále. Samozřejmě se stává, že se někdo rozvede, ale zobecňující střelka míří vždy k silné rodině. Historická rekonstrukce zahrnuje určitý výsek společnosti, jako každá jiná subkultura, a jelikož vychází z kladných předpokladů, šíří prospěšné zásady: držet slovo a mít aktivní sociální postavení.“
Děkuji Alexeji za možnost zveřejnit jeho interview. Projekt Forlǫg přeje Alexeji mnoho zdaru a zajímavých momentů v jeho budoucí reenactorské kariéře.
I thank to Alexey Ovcharenko for the chance to publish the translation on his interview. The Forlǫg Project wishes Alexey good luck and interesting moments in his future reenactment career.
In this article, I would like to present the work of my friend and colleague, craftsman Jan Zbránek from Marobud group. With my cooperation, he made an excellent blunt version of the Petersen type O sword from Dukstad (B 1103).
The whole project started in spring 2016, when Jan ordered a blunt blade from swordsmith Ondřej Borský, aka Ernest’s Workshop. The idea was to create a more quality and unique sword than the average standard in the Viking reenactment. Another criterium was the fact the sword should be suitable for the impression of the 10th century Norway. Jan had no experiences with swordmaking, but he has bronze casting skill, since he makes jewelry for his store Skallagrim – Viking Jewelry. That’s why Jan asked me whether there are any Norwegian swords with bronze cast hilts.
The initial research
Bronze cast sword hilts occur in every corner of the Viking world. Basically, bronze cast hilts are typical for Petersen types O and W swords, as well as for some type Z swords, Late Vendel period swords and for rare types beyond the Petersen typology. Even though both types O and W date to the first half of the 10th century, Jan decided for the type O, because it has more examples in Norway and it is more decorated. Examples of the type O were found in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, France, Germany, Great Britain and Ireland, while sword of the type W were found in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Great Britain and Eastern Europe (Androshchuk 2014: 71–72, 79–80; pers. comm. with Lars Grundvad).
Petersen type O is described as the sword with the hilt that consist of the lower guard, the upper guard and the five-tongue-lobed pommel. The type is considered to evolve from the Carolingian type K (Żabiński 2007: 63). Even though Petersen divided the type O into three subtypes (Petersen 1919: 126–134), his typology was recently upgraded by Androshchuk (Androshchuk 2014: 71–72). As a result, type O is now divided into two main subtypes. The subtype O1 is characteristic by the pommel and guards that are cast in bronze (/made of iron core covered with bronze), often decorated with various knots. There are at least 12 examples of this subtype in Norway (Androshchuk 2014: 71). The subtype O2 is remarkable for the pommel and guards that are made of iron and decorated with silver plaques with engraved interlacing or animal motifs. There are at least 8 examples of this subtype in Norway (Androshchuk 2014: 72). While the subtype O1 is more or less evenly distributed in Norway, the subtype O2 has more coastal concentration, suggesting the higher probability of being imported objects (Żabiński 2007: 63). All swords of the type O are two-bladed, and there is a sword with an ULFBERHT inscription on the blade (C 16380) and two other swords with pattern-welded blades within the Norwegian material (Androshchuk 2014: 71).
Jan made up his mind to recreate the a relatively unknown find B 1103 from Dukstad mound, which belongs to the subtype O1. Together with the sword, an axehead and two spearheads were found. The Unimus catalogue has only vague information about the sword and quotes a book which is about 150 years old. Unfortunately, we have not contacted the museum of Bergen, so we had to improvise. Still, I dare to say that our improvisation is based on scientific knowledge.
Photos of the original sword from Dukstad (B 1103), Universitetsmuseet i Bergen.
Geibig’s typology of blades. Taken from Geibig 1991: 84, Abb. 22.
For example, the catalogue contains the information that sword is “30 inches [76 cm] long and intentionally bent“, but the attached picture of the sword clearly shows the blade belongs to the Geibig’s type 2, which is dated to period between 750 and 950 AD and is characterised by a gently tapering blade with long fuller of near uniform width, blade length between 74 and 83 cm, blade width between 4.8 and 6.2 cm and fuller width generally between 1.7 and 2.7 cm (Geibig 1991: 85, 154; Jones 2002: 22–23).
The size given by the catalogue is not impossible – there is a Petersen type O sword in British Museum collection (1891,0905.3.a), which has the same lenght – but this sword is described to have an “extremely short blade” (Pierce 2002: 90). The fact that the blade is bent complicated our chances for closer estimation and we rather used average, typical parametres of original Geibig’s type 2 blades; 77 cm long and 5.5 cm wide blade. This fact makes the complete sword 92 centimetres long, which is not so far from several type O swords (Kaldárhöfði: 91 cm; Berg: 95.8 cm; Eriskay: 97.5 cm).
While the original handle is “3 1/2 inches [9 cm] long“, Jan made his handle 1 cm longer for comfortable usage, which is a necessary compromise. Androshchuk lists 140 swords with the the lengths of handles ranging from 6 to 10.8 cm: “Most swords have grips 8.5-9.5 cm long, which could be estimated as the average width of a human palm. However, there are also other lengths of grips, which evidently means that sword hilts were assembled with taking into account the physical data of the customers.” (Androshchuk 2014: 105). The rest of the sizes on the sword recreation were proportionally estimated. The decoration, which is not well preserved in the case of B 1103, was carefully redrawn and compared to other known decoration of type O swords. It has to be stressed we had no chance to examine the sword personally, so we could miss some details that are invisible on the photos, like the side decoration of both guards.
Some examples of the decoration of subtypes O1 and O2.
The result of the research was put to the graphic visualisation. Jan´s brother Jakub made a 3D layout under our detailed supervision. When both visualisations were made, Jan could better imagine the finished sword. After unsuccessful tries to make models of wood, Jan decided to order plastic models from a Czech company called MakersLab. What a fascinating experience to hold in hands the object which was on the paper seconds ago.
Models were brushed, polished and prepared for casting. Jan used the simpliest method, the casting into two-piece sand mould. During the first casting, two of three components were successfuly cast. The last component, the upper guard, was cast during the second try. It was a good experience for Jan, because until that time, he cast only small pieces of jewelry. Subsequently, metal fittings were shaped to the desired form; the sand mould casting is not perfect and a cast object requires a lot of additional work.
Examples of the applied wire on the pommel, B 4385, B 1780 and C 13458.
Afterwards, the chiselling of the ornament followed. When the work was done, it was necessary to put the fittings onto the tang. To reduce the risk, Jan used a modern drilling-machine and a file. After the work was successful and aesthetic, Jan fixed the twisted silver wires around the pommel and in-between lobes of the pommel. In case of original sword, the wire was missing, but five holes for the wire are still visible. Various methods of the applied bronze or silver wire can be seen on some type O swords (for example, the sword from Eriskay; or B 1780 and B 4385 within the Norwegian material).
The final phase consisted of woodworking and leatherworking – the handle and the scabbard. Regarding the handle, the original sword had no traces of the handle; however, several swords of the subtype O1 have relatively well preserved oval handles of wood, including swords from Kaldárhöfði, Eriskay or Rossebø. The wooden handle was then covered with leather for a better grip; the application of the leather corresponds to the Androshchuk type I: “grips with oval-shaped cross-section, made of wood; in some cases there are traces of leather and linen wrapped around the grip” (Androshchuk 2014: 104). When the handle was done, the sword was finished. It weighs 1280 grams; the balance point of the sword is placed 15 cm from the lower guard.
The core of the scabbard was made of two sheets of spruce wood covered with cow leather decorated with raised lines and mouth. Each wooden sheet is less than 5 mm thick, which seems to be a thickness of some preserved pieces (Androshchuk 2014: 43). The leather was sewn on the inner side and was stained in the end. The baldric can be suspended thanks to the ash wood bridge-like slide with animal head terminals, which is attached to the scabbard by twisted yarn. Such a method is highly dubious, but possible, if the extent of our knowledge about Viking Age suspension methods are taken in account. Basically, two main methods are known:
slider method. This method seems to be typical for Pre-Viking and Viking Age Scandinavia and England. The scabbard has only one fixed point; the baldic goes through the slider that is placed on the front side of the scabbard, longitudinally positioned a bit below the mouth. The slider can be integral part of the scabbard (for example Broomfield, Wickhambreux), or it can be separate and fitted to the scabbard. Fitted sliders could be made or metal, horn, antler or wood, and could be placed under the leather cover (York, Gloucester) or onto it (Valsgärde). No preserved slider from the Viking Age is known; however, short longitudinal slits in the leather for letting a baldric pass through were observed during the examination of English scabbards (Androshchuk 2014: 105; Mould et al. 2003: 3355-3366).
The diagram of visible slits on scabbards from York. Taken from Mould et al. 2003: 3363, Fig. 1688.
Carolingian method and Ballateare-Cronk Moar type. This method is about two fixed points on the scabbard. Fixed points could be achieved by many ways, but I prefer to point out that they were perpendicularly positioned. The usage of two fixed points was the reason why this method needs a strap-divider. Generally speaking, this method involve the usage of metal parts, and that´s why we can trace this method much better than the previous one, even though it was used in a limited way in Viking Age Scandinavia (see Ungerman 2011).
Carolingian type of suspension. Taken from Androshchuk 2014: Figs. 61, 67.
The sword and the scabbard were finished after a half of year in October 2016 and presented during the private event of Marobud group, Sons of the North.
The project involved many people who deserve our thanks. Firstly, we would like to thank to Ondřej Borský (Ernest’s Workshop) and his skill, because the blade is very well done. Secondly, our praise goes to Jakub Zbránek and his grafic skills. We have to mention also guys from MakersLab, who did a good job, and Unimus catalogue. We would like to also express our gratitude to Martin Zbránek and Valentina Doupovcová for documentation. The project would have not existed without the support and patience of our families.
In case of any question or remark, please contact us via Marobud page or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon. Thank you!
Androshchuk 2014 = Androshchuk, F. (2014). Viking swords : swords and social aspects of weaponry in Viking Age societies. Stockholm.
Geibig 1991 = Geibig, A. (1991). Beiträge zur morphologischen Entwicklung des Schwertes im Mittelalter : eine Analyse des Fundmaterials vom ausgehenden 8. bis zum 12. Jahrhundert aus Sammlungen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Neumünster.
Jones 2002 = Jones, L. A. (2002). Overview of Hilt and Blade Classifications. In. Oakeshott E. – Peirce, I. G. Swords of the Viking Age, pp. 15–24.
Mould et al. 2003 = Mould, Q., Carlisle, I, Cameron, E. (2003). Craft Industry and Everyday Life: Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York. The small finds 17/16, York.
Peirce 2002 = Peirce, I. G. (2002). Catalogue of Examples. In. Oakeshott E. – Peirce, I. G. Swords of the Viking Age, pp. 25–144.
Petersen 1919 = Petersen, J. (1919). De Norske Vikingesverd: En Typologisk-Kronologisk Studie Over Vikingetidens Vaaben. Kristiania.
Ungerman 2011 = Ungerman, Š. (2011). Schwertgurte des 9. bis 10. Jahrhunderts in West- und Mitteleuropa. In: Macháček, J. – Ungerman, Š. (ed.), Frühgeschichtliche Zentralorte in Mitteleuropa. Studien zur Archäologie Europas 14, Bonn, pp. 575–608.
Żabiński 2007 = Żabiński, Grzegorz (2007). Viking Age Swords from Scotland. In. Acta Militaria Mediaevalia III, Kraków – Sanok, pp. 29–84.
On March 30 1943, Universitetets Oldsaksamling in Oslo gained the information that a farmer named Lars Gjermundbo found and dug into a huge mound on his land near the farm of Gjermundbu, Buskerud county, southern Norway. The place was examined by archaeologists (Marstrander and Blindheim) the next month and the result was really fascinating.
The plan of the mound. Taken from Grieg 1947: Pl. I.
The mound was 25 meters long, 8 meters broad in the widest place and 1.8 meters high in the middle part. The most of the mound was formed by stony soil; however, the interior of the middle part was paved with large stones. Some stones were found even on the surface of the mound. In the middle part, about one meter below the surface and under the stone layer, the first grave was discovered, so called Grav I. 8 meters from Grav I, in the western part of the mound, the second grave was found, Grav II. Both graves represent cremation burials from the 2nd half of the 10th century and are catalogized under the mark C27317. Both graves were documented by Sigurd Grieg in Gjermundbufunnet : en høvdingegrav fra 900-årene fra Ringerike in 1947.
Grav I consists of dozens of objects connected to personal ownership and various activities, including fighting, archery, horse riding, playing games and cooking. Among others, the most interesting are unique objects, like the chain-mail and the helmet, which became very famous and are mentioned or depicted in every relevant publication.
Possible reconstruction of the gear that was found in Grav I, Gjermundbu. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 155. The shape of the aventail is the weak point of the reconstruction.
The helmet is often described as the only complete helmet known from the Viking Age. Unfortunately, it is not true, for at least two reasons. Firstly, the helmet is not by any means complete – it shows heavy damage and consists from only ca. 10 fragments in the current state, which means one fourth or one-fourth or one-third of the helmet. To be honest, fragments of the helmet are glued onto a plaster matrix (some of them in the wrong position) that has the rough form of the original helmet. Careless members of academia present this version as a reconstruction in the museum and in books, and this trend is then copied by reenactors and the general public. I have to agree with Elisabeth Munksgaard (Munksgaard 1984: 87), who wrote: “The Gjermundbu helmet is neither well preserved nor restored.”
Secondly, there are at least 5 other published fragments of helmets spread across Scandinavia and areas with strong Scandinavian influence (see the article Scandinavian helmets of the 10th century). I am aware of several unpublished depictions and finds, whose reliability can not be proven. Especially, helmet fragments found in Tjele, Denmark, are very close to Gjermundbu helmet, since they consist of a mask and eight narrow metal bands 1 cm wide (see the article The helmet from Tjele). Based on the Gjermundbu helmet, Tjele helmet fragments and Kyiv mask (the shape of the original form of Lokrume fragment is unknown), we can clearly say that spectacle helmet type with decorated mask evolved from Vendel Period helmets and was the most dominant type of Scandinavian helmet until 1000 AD, when conical helmets with nasals became popular.
An old reconstruction of the helmet, made by Erling Færgestad. Taken from Grieg 1947: Pl. VI.
To be fair, the helmet from Gjermundbu is the only spectacle type helmet of the Viking Age, whose construction is completely known. Let´s have a look at it!
The scheme of the helmet. Made by Tomáš Vlasatý and Tomáš Cajthaml.
My mate Tomáš Cajthaml made a very nice scheme of the helmet, according to my instructions. The scheme is based on Grieg´s illustration, photos saved in the Unimus catalogue and observations made by researcher Vegard Vike.
The dome of the helmet is formed by four triangular-shaped plates (dark blue). Under the gap between each two plates, there is a narrow flat band, which is riveted to asomewhat curved band curved band located above the gap between each two plates (yellow). In the nape-forehead direction, the flat band is formed by a single piece, that is extended in the middle (on the top of the helmet) and forms the base for the spike (light blue; the method of attaching the spike is not known to me). There are two flat bands in the lateral direction (green). Triangular-shaped plates are riveted to each corner of the extended part of the nape-forehead band. A broad band, with visible profiled line, is riveted to the rim of the dome(red; it is not known how the ends of this piece of metal connected to each other). Two rings were connected to the very rim of the broad band, probably remnants of the aventail. In the front, the decorated mask is riveted onto the broad band.
Since all known dimensions are shown in the scheme, let me add some supplementary facts. Firstly, four somewhat curved bands are shown a bit differently in the scheme – they are more curved in the middle part and tapering near ends. Secondly, the spike is a very important feature and rather a matter of aesthetic than practical usage. Regarding the aventail, rings have the spacing of at least 2 cm. On contrary to chain-mail, rings from the helmet are very thick and probably butted, since no trace of rivets were found. It can not be said whether they represent the aventail, and if so, what it looked like and whether the aventail was hanging on rings or on a wire that was drawn through the rings (see my article about hanging devices of early medieval aventails). Talking about the mask, X-ray showed at least 40 lines, which form eyelashes, similarly to Lokrume helmet mask (see the article The helmet from Lokrume). In spite of modern tendencies, neither traces of metal inlay nor droplets of melted metal were found. There is a significant difference between the thickness of plates and bands and the mask; even the mask shows uneven thickness. Initially, the surface of the helmet could be polished, according to Vegard Vike.
I believe these notes will help to the new generation of more accurate reenactors. Not counting rings, the helmet could be formed from 14 pieces and at least 33 rivets. Such a construction is a bit surprising and not so solid. In my opinion, this fact will lead to the discussion of reenactors whether the helmet represents a war helmet or rather a ceremonial / symbolical helmet. I personally think there is no need to see those two functions as separated.
I am very indebted to my friends Vegard Vike, who answered all my annoying question, young artist and reenactor Tomáš Cajthaml and Samuel Collin-Latour. I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon.
GRIEG, Sigurd (1947). Gjermundbufunnet : en høvdingegrav fra 900-årene fra Ringerike, Oslo.
HJARDAR, Kim – VIKE, Vegard (2011). Vikinger i krig, Oslo.
MUNKSGAARD, Elisabeth (1984). A Viking Age smith, his tools and his stock-in-trade. In: Offa 41, Neumünster, 85–89.
In the time of fast way of living and the focus on making money, one young man decided to break the yoke of modernity, to leave his home and set off for Rome, only in early medieval clothing and with limited knowledge of English. The will to live is his weapon, an unbeatable sense of humor is his shield. His name is Karel Sýkora, and this is the story of his travel.
Around one year ago, my mate from Marobud, advanturer and good friend Karel Sýkora (25) decided to embark on a long and hard journey traveling on foot, only in historical costume. After doing his final exams on forging in June 2016, we participated in Viking Age festivals throughout most of Europe. Meanwhile, the plan was set – when “the season is officially over”, he ends with his job, leaves all his property at his parent’s house and sets off to Rome. It means ca. 1500 kilometers or 1000 miles. This incredible plan actually happened and Karel is on his way at this very moment!
The main purpose of all of this is to be free as much as possible, to be your own master. Karel was fed up with a lot of stress and obligations in our modern world, he needed his head cleaned. The second reason is the fact he feels he is getting older each year and there will be no real freedom in the future because of work and family. In his opinion, the way is the goal, he wants to test his experiences and costume in reality and to make some new memories that could be worthy of remembrance. Rome was picked from three different reasons – first of all, it is in the right position, not so far, not so near, secondly, the way is not overcrowded when compared to Santiago de Compostela, and thirdly, many pilgrims in history made a pilgrimage to Rome as an act of faith.
Since there is no other way to became more historically accurate, he decided to take his tablet and to document the complete travel. Besides the tablet, the only unhistorical things were ID cards, money, bottles, glasses, and a hammock at the start of the travel. It is necessary to say that he keeps unhistorical objects unvisible for the most of the travel and he has them only for practical purposes.
The travel started on Sunday, September 11 by the monastery in Velehrad, Moravia, Czech Republic. The plan was and still is to go via Slovakia, Hungary, border areas of Austria, Slovenia and Italia. The way is not given, but it leads mainly by rivers, through forests and national parks with rests at our friends, churches, monasteries, historical open-air museums and kind native. The traveler slept the first night in a house in Archaeological open-air museum Modrá. The next significant stop was Mikulčice by Morava River on Thursday, September 14 and Pohansko by Dyje River the next day. Karel crossed the Czech-Slovakian border on September 16, that means ca. 100 km per 5 days.
Until that time, Karel was barefoot, but he was suffering from lots of small wounds, so he started to wear shoes, which turned to be a mistake in rocky Little Carpathians and on modern roads since shoes are almost destroyed by now. The traveler visited a hill called Vysoká and military area Záhorie with its nice sand dunes. From Sunday, September 18 to Tuesday, September 20, Karel spent his time with our friend Samuel, the leader of Herjan group, in Pezinok, where he recovered a bit.
After that, Karel continued to Danube River that forms the border between Slovakian and Hungary. He managed to get to the river on September 22 and he slept in the protected natural area Dunajské luhy, which is located between two braches of one of the biggest European rivers and is accessible only by a ferry. Karel missed the second ferry to the Hungarian side, so he decided to change the way, go back to the Slovakian side of the river and to continue to the border point Medveďov.
So it happened and Karel crossed the river and Slovakian-Hungarian border on September 24 in the morning. The next stop was the city of Győr. By that time, the travel has already taken ca. 250 kilometers in 13 days. In Győr, he met new early medieval friends – reenactors – and spent a beautiful weekend with them. We would like to thank mainly to Daniel Koncz for taking care of Karel. They held a banquet, consisting of traditional Hungarian goulash and a lot of alcohol, and visited Pannonhalma Archabbey, which was founded in 996. There the party divided, and Karel continued in the direction Szombathely.
On September 26, Karel visited the village Vaszar and was forced to repair the torn strap on his backpack. He moved forward to old town of Pápa the next day.
On September 28, Karel stopped at a campsite in Vinár, where he had a shower and a small rest. Then he continued to Celldömölk and then to the spa town of Sárvár the next day. He was forced to go barefoot on the road for nearly 20 kilometers; as a result, his feet were brushed to the blood. Karel put his shoes on again and enjoyed a Hungarian beer as a small reward. After a small examination of local sightseeings, Karel changed the way and followed Rába River in the direction Körmend. Later that day, he found a lovely place with hay by a small inlet of the river. Karel stated it was relatively cold in the night several hogs visited him. Fortunately, nothing happened.
Friday September 30 was the rest day and Karel repaired his stuff (new wedges in his trousers, some reparations on shoe soles and the backpack), made a new documention of the costume and took a bath in Rába River. On the first October day, he felt the coming autumn and decided to go south as fast as possible, in the direction Vasvár.
The next part of the travel, the crossing of Hungarian-Slovenian border, is not well documented, yet it was crucial for the rest of the journey. It was raining all the time, with windy weather and the constant problems with period shoes. On October 2, Karel reached Katafa and slept there. He continued through the national park Őrségi to Őriszentpéter the next day, but the strap of his backpack broke again and he had to repair it. October 4 was the day of the crossing Hungarian-Slovenian border; Karel crossed it 5 minutes after noon. After a small visit of Romanesque rotunda in Selo, he slept near Moravske Toplice. The crosswind from mountains was so cold he could not sleep well and he run out of hard liquor that he got from Daniel in Győr.
On 5th October, Karel reached Murska Sobota. It was a bit sad day, since it was no longer possible to continue in period shoes. He tried to repair them several times, with no long-term result. It is need to add that shoes were 2 years old before the start of the journey and they were not the best. Even though, Karel showed the hard will when he was able to go 60 kilometers in torn shoes and wet weather. He was forced to buy a modern pair of shoes. It is an important finding – for a long journey, at least two good and new pairs of shoes are needed, a sewing set is good too. Karel visited the local museum with Celtic exhibition and then continued in the direction Ptuj. On October 6, he slept near Gabrnik.
On October 7, Karel visited the town of Ptuj and its castle with armoury. Then, he moved to the monastery of Ptujska Gora and asked monks for asylum. On the next day, he visited ruins of castles in Studenica and Zbelovo and he slept by Dolga Gora. Karel reached Šentjur on October 9, and after he bought some provisions there, he moved to ruins of Rifnik castle and slept in the palace. The Slovenian countryside is woody, hilly and very nice and Karel enjoyed many spectacular panoramas. It is important to mention that the autumn nights and mornings are cold, with the temperature reaching below 0°C. Karel has his woolen sleeping bag and woolen blankets, but he needed to isolate the cold from the earth, so he bought several rugs. This is also an important finding, which will be useful in the following expeditions.
On October 10, Karel passed Rimske Toplice and reached Radeče and Sava River. It was raining all the day, so he was forced to put his hood on. The next day, he moved to Sopota and slept in an old wooden cabin. It was exactly a month from the start of the visit, and Karel said he did not realize the passing of time. On October 12, Karel reached Šmartno pri Litiji and he managed to move to Ljubljana the next day, where he met his friends from archaeological services “Skupina STIK” and “Arheofakt”. Slovenian friends took a good care of him, fed him, showed him an archaeological park and made an interview with him. The interview was published in Slovenian language 10 days later. Karel could rest for two days in Ljubljana, and he continued to Logatec on October 16. By that time, the travel has already taken ca. 700 kilometers (435 miles); it means Karel was in the middle of the travel.
On October 17, Karel visited and slept near a Roman fortress Ad Pirum in Hrušica. He was invited to visit his friend Ivan to Trieste, so he continued to Ajdovščina the next day and he met there Turkish pilgrim which was on his journey for more than a year. At night, Karel slept at the site of another abandoned castle, Turn near the historical town of Štanjel. On Wednesday, October 19, at 2:38 PM, Karel crossed Slovenian-Italian border in Dol pri Vogljah and continued to Opicina, where he met his friend Ivan. Finally by the sea.
Karel stayed in Trieste until Sunday, October 23, when he moved forward. We would like to express our thanks to Ivan Hrovatin for taking care of Karel. The pilgrim slept near San Giovanni di Duino that day. Karel said it is much warmer climate near the sea, but it was rainy as well. On October 24, Karel reached Aquileia, which is the most important pilgrim center in the region. Unfortunately, the basilic was locked, and Karel slept like a beggar by the wall of it. The next day, Karel slept near Piancada. After the crossing of Tagliamento River in San Michele Al Tagliamento, Karel change the way and continued in the direction Caorle. He slept in San Gaetano on October 26. The next day, Karel went through San Margherita to the sea and then continued on the beach in the direction Venice, barefoot. He slept in Lido di Jesolo that day.
On October 28, Karel reached Punta Sabbioni and slept there. The day after, he embarked on waterbus (vaporetto) and sailed to Venice. Venice is a very nice, historical city and Karel enjoyed it, even though the number of tourists and the price of water buses were rather bothering. On the other hand, Karel met some Czech tourists there and other tourists from Italy and Switzerland invited him for a drink. After the visiting of historical center, Karel sailed to Lido di Venezia and slept there. On October 30, Karel continued to Sant’Anna di Chioggia, with two ferry travels between islands.
On the last day of October, Karel crossed Po River and slept in a pine forest near Mesola, inside the Po Delta Regional Park. On November 1, Karel slept on the beach in Lido di Pomposa. By that time, travel has already taken 1000 kilometers. An unpleasant police event happened the next day in Comacchio, and it took the whole day. Generally speaking, Karel was misunderstood for a terrorist. On November 3, he went along the bank of the lake in the direction Ravenna. He slept near Sant’Alberto. Karel reached Ravenna and his friends Michelle and Emanuela the next day. It was a warm meeting; they took a good care about him and Karel was fed and participated a training of their historical group. We would like to thank to Michelle and Emanuela for the care. Karel spent two days in Ravenna and he made some repairs, including the making of pins from copper wire he found. On Sunday November 6, Karel continued to Apennine Mountains.
On November 6, Karel slept in Oriola. The day after, he came to Perticara and ask in a church for shelter. Fortunately, he was offered a warm, dry bed. What is more, he was given a heavy woolen sheet, which showed to be useful during the crossing of Apennine Mountains. On November 8, Karel slept on the peak Poggio Tre Vescovi in mountains. If was foggy, windy and frosty weather, and according to his words, this was the most harsh night on his journey. Yet he survived, and continued to Chiocciola, where he slept on November 9. According to his words, mountains were full of hunters, and that was a problem, because Karel could not find the right way; on the other hand, the water in rivulets was drinkable. On the next day, Karel reached Sansepolcro and asked for asylum, and he got that eventually. On November 11, after some problems with navigation and raining, he slept near Lippiano, heading to see Trasimeno Lake.
As he got closer to Rome, the journey started to be more connected to visiting religious sites. In addition, hoarfrost and dense fogs occured each morning and snow was lying in moutains. For example, on November 12, Karel slept in a small dry chapel in San Lorenzo Bibbiana. On the day after, he passed the lake by and was heading to Perugia. Karel was offered an asylum by a pastor in Mantignana, and he got a supper and hot shower by a community taking care of earthquake affected people. Karel went through the town of Perugia on November 14, and he slept under the supermoon near Sant’Egidio. The day after, Karel visited Assisi, a historical site of pilgrimage. He was offered to sleep in Franciscan college and to visit the mass in the morning; another day with a supper, shower and a dry bed. After the mass, he continued and reached Bastardo. Local pastor could not offer him asylum, but he payed him a room in a hotel. Last 150 kilometers to go.
What lies in the future of this project? Check our Facebook project out to find more!
Rolf F. Warming. Photo taken by Jacob Nyborg Andreassen, Combat Archaeology.
Rolf Fabricius Warming is Danish archaeologist, whose studies have preeminently been on the subject of combat and conflict in the past, ranging from Mesolithic violence to organized state formation in the early modern period. He holds an MA degree in Maritime Archaeology and is currently finalizing his dissertation project for another MA degree (in prehistoric archaeology), which is focused on Viking Age shields and martial practices. He has the rank of sergeant in the Royal Danish Army and is a master and the chief instructor of a martial arts system, teaching classes and seminars on a national and international level. He is the founder of Combat Archaeology, an organization committed to researching and interpreting material and issues on the subject of combat in the past.
How many shield fragments have we found in Viking Age Denmark?
At the time of writing, we have exactly 40 positively identified shield remains from Viking Age Denmark (including Schleswig and Scania). There are an additional 3 miscellaneous or missing artefacts which may represent other shield finds but too many uncertainties exist as to the nature of these finds at this point.
An overview of shield fragments from Viking Age Denmark.
What does the average shield look like?
“Nu scolo menn vapn sin syna sem mælt er i logum. scal maðr hava breiðöxe. æða sverð. oc spiot. oc skiolld þann at versta koste er liggia scolo
iarnspengr þriar um þveran. oc mundriði seymdr með iarnsaumi.”
Gulaþingslǫg hin fornu
A scheme of the shield construction. Made by Sergei Kainov and Oleg Fedorov.
It is difficult to offer a simple description of what the average shield would look like. The shield remains signal quite individualized designs, both in terms of constructional elements and dimensions, at least as far as shield bosses are concerned. Some shields were fitted out with more reinforcing or decorative fittings while other shields differed in terms of shield boss morphology and dimensions. Several shield types also appear to have been in use during the Viking Age. The flat round shield is the most well-known of these, but convex round shields also appear to have been used. It is possible, too, that some forms of kite shields could have been employed as early as the 10th century, although these shields are conventionally understood to appear around the time of the Bayeux Tapestry (c.1070) which contains the earliest depictions of such shields.
However, at the risk of losing scientific rigor, the following observations may be given to offer a basic description of features that may be said to characterize the majority of the common flat round shields. The vast majority of Viking Age shield finds are sparse in metal. Often the shields are only recognized by the surviving fragments of the shield boss, the metal centerpiece of the shield, which frequently constitutes the only metallic part of the shield. However, it is possible that shields constructed of purely organic material may have existed as well, judging from the nearly intact shield from Tira, Latvia, which is dated to the 9th century and was equipped with a wooden shield boss. The iron shield boss of Viking Age round shields was usually fastened to the board with 4-8 iron rivets over a somewhat circular hole. The shield board itself consisted of c. 6-8 softwood planks which had a thickness of no more than 1 cm in the center and tapered gently towards the edges of the shield. In cases which have allowed for an estimation of shield board diameters, the measurements have yielded a range between c. 75 and 90 cm. Typically, the wooden handle, which could consist of hardwood or some more rigid timber compared to the planks, appears to have spanned across the shield board and riveted onto here in multiple places. For the sake of economy and ensuring a lightweight construction, it was desirable to let two of the rivets from the shield boss flange pass through the handle. The shields were most likely equipped with a thin leather facing which was applied to the front of the shield board; assumedly, a similar leather facing could also be applied to the back of the shield. A rawhide edge could be stitched to the shield rim with a thread of some organic material, perhaps sinew or leather. Later round shields of the Medieval period appear to have been of a more robust construction and included, among other things, more reinforcements of iron, if we are to judge from the historical sources.
A version of the shield construction suggested by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike.
What about more expensive shields?
“Baugs þá ek bifum fáða bifkleif at Þorleifi.”
Þjóðolfr hvinverski : Haustlǫng
Typology and chronology of some types of Scandinavian shield bosses. Made by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike.
In the case of more expensive round shields, the fastening of the rawhide edge could be further enforced by use of a few bronze or iron clamps. In a few exceptional finds from Valsgärde and Birka in Sweden, however, the clamps cover larger parts of the shield rim, even its full circumference, in which case it is more likely that they have served to reinforce the rim as a whole. Other more elaborate shields are fitted out with trefoil-shaped handle terminals of copper-alloy which have been decorated with human masks and animal heads. These appear to have fastened the handle more firmly to the shield board. The back of the long handle and grip could be reinforced with copper-alloy or iron fittings which are sometimes seen decorated with silver plating, ribbon lacing or braiding patterns and human masks. Occasionally, the entire grip or handle appears to have been constructed out of metal. In only exceptional cases is the flange of the shield boss given a more elaborate shape – such as a toothed flange, or the shield boss adorned with non-ferrous metal – such as thin bronze strips – which could be fastened around it’s flange or the wall. So, although some of these fittings are of a more elaborate kind, there is no evidence for superfluous or purely decorative fittings, which, by contrast, are known from the war booty sacrifices of preceding periods. The fittings, or that to which they are attached, all have a function and are largely for the purpose of providing additional strength. However, when using such elaborate fittings, the Viking Age Scandinavians do not appear to have shunned away from the opportunity to display excessive decorative elements. The human mask, animal heads as well as the ribbon lacing and braiding patterns appear to have been recurring themes. Both historical sources and microscopic traces of color also indicate that the shield boards themselves could be decorated, although this is, strictly speaking, not limited to expensive shields.
Weaponry has throughout history been given as gifts. And judging from both the archaeological record and historical sources, there is no doubt that also shields could beperceived as highly valued objects. The shields could be painted and further accentuated by beautiful decorations. Associating a high quality shield with mythology orancestral achievements would of course render the shield an object of much admiration and a fitting gift.
Designs of shields based on pictorial evidence. Made by Marobud.
Given the development and coexistence of different shield types and shield boss types as well as regional discrepancies in offensive weaponry preferences, it is clear that no single answer can be given as to how the shields were used. It is, in fact, even difficult to speak of a so-called “Viking fighting style”, as such! Instead, the material suggests that combative styles varied in the course of the Viking Age and across the various Scandinavian regions, expressing also influences from other cultures, such as the Carolingians. What also complicates matters is that the functional aspects of shields can be examined on many levels, including the operational, tactical and strategic levels of warfare. Nonetheless, it is evident that any inferences made into any functional aspects of shields must be grounded in knowledge about how the shield was used on an individual level.
Let us focus on the common flat round shield, which is commonly thought to characterize Viking Age combat, and how it was employed in the context of close quarter combat. Like the military combative systems and martial arts of the modern world, there probably existed various approaches to combat and even nuances of what some considered the same combative styles. Nonetheless, the construction of the flat round shields allows us to examine some of the main underlying principles that may have governed most combative uses of this shield. The flat round shield was a thin, lightweight shield which was held by the center grip, without any enarmes (i.e. straps that could fasten the shield more firmly to the forearm). This, along with the center hole (protected by the shield boss), which allowed the hand to grip the shield closer to its center of mass, and the circular shape of the shield greatly facilitated maneuverability. The fragility of the shield necessitated precisely such maneuverability since the shield-bearer would have to make use of the concept of deflection if he did not want the shield to break easily. Rather than a mere passive defense, the shield was used actively. This could be done with the shield held flat in front of one´s body or at an oblique angle with the rim facing roughly forwards. In both cases, however, practical experimentation with a sharp sword and round shield reconstruction indicates that there is a strong correlation between the degree of deflection and the extent to which the shield is actively thrusted forward. If this use of the shield did not contribute to the notorious aggressive behavior of the Vikings, it is at least very much in line with the bequeathed image of these light and aggressive infantrymen that assumedly reflect the nature of Scandinavian combatants throughout most of the Viking Age.
Actively used shield. Reenactor Roman Král.
In short, what we have is a very actively used shield. In defensive situations the shield could be thrusted forward or maneuvered in a manner that would better deflect incoming attacks; in offensive situations, where the shield-bearer himself would attack, the shield could act as an offensive striking weapon that could be used to create openings for one’s axe or sword, particularly through powerful strikes with the shield rim. Assuming that round shield construction did not deviate to any extreme extent, the shields were employed by using these principles in both the context of single combat and in formation fighting; there is, to my knowledge, no supportive evidence of static shield use, even when speaking of such concepts as “shield-walls”. The case is different in the medieval period where more robust shields are used. Interestingly, there is also some evidence suggesting that this tradition of actively used shields continues beyond the Viking Age, now merging with some branches of the medieval sword and buckler tradition.
With all my respect and admiration, I would like to thank to Rolf Warming and his unique project Combat Archaeology for the interview. I hope you liked this article. In case of any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon.
Po článcích o bojových nožích z Haithabu, Švédska a Ruska mám tu čest představit přehled norských dlouhých nožů doby vikinské. Každý exemplář je opatřen krátkým popisem a pokud možno obrázkem. Kromě nožů jsou rozebrány také pochvy.
This article is a short summary of what we know about long knives in the Viking Age Norway. Two main sources were used – Petersen’s Vikingetidens Redskaper and UNIMUS catalogue. The result is only a representative number; the article is not complete.
In Norway, long knives were used until the 10th century. From 16 more or less preserved blades, 2 knives belong to the Merovingian type (ca. 100 years old by that time) and were deposited in 9th century graves. In the 9th century, Merovingian type was replaced with lighter, narrower and shorter knives. The typical knife used in Viking Age Norway had a straight blade with relatively uniform features:
20–50 cm in length (ca. 10 cm long handle), 2–3 cm in width
in most cases, both blade and back are evenly straight; the blade tapers near the point
the wooden handle, sometimes with a bronze ferrule
Sheaths covered both blades and handles and were decorated sometimes. Sheaths show that Anglo-Saxon seaxes and Swedish scabbard knives were rarely used in Norway .
In 14 cases, knives were found in graves/mounds, eight times with a sword, seven times with an axehead, six times with a spearhead, sometimes with other tools. Graves belonged to women in at least two cases.
The function is difficult to guess. Merovingian type were probably deposited from symbolical reasons. Light long knives could serve as kitchen knives, hunting knives and weapons in case of need.
For all my reenactment career (ca. 10 years), I encounter so-called Dane axes, two-handed axes used in second lines on the battlefields. These weapons are very popular and terrifying and the same time. What the most problematic part of fighting with this kind of weapon is the fact that modern warriors tend to implement their own ideas of what works on modern battlefields and they avoid of those ideas, which are, in their opinion, not functional. Historical background of this weapon is put aside, when the weapon is replicated and used; simply because modern rules of fighting are different and historical background is unknown or unattractive to many warriors.
There are many kinds of early medieval axes that could be considered as two-handed; however, there is no strict line between one-handed and two-handed axes and we can only judge by our common sense. This short overview will discuss two main types of two-handed axes that were used in Scandinavia; this time, we disregard Byzantian axes, Baltic axes of Kirpičnikov type IV etc., however, they can be added in the case of interest. I am absolutely aware of the fact that some reenactors and modern warriors will disagree with the result of this article. In such a case, please feel free to write your comments below and to bring your evidence.
A replica of the type M, made by Petr Floriánek, carried by Petr Váka. Courtesy: Radka Opočenská.
In this chapter, axeheads, shafts and methods of fixing will be discussed.
Petersen´s axe typology.
Axehead (Petersen type M)
When talking about a “Dane axe”, we actually refer to axeheads of Petersen type M. The type M was introduced around ca. 950 and it was so popular it was used from England to Russia until 13th century (Petersen 1919: 46–47). The type was developed from older types of Scandinavian axes (like F, G, H), due to the need for bigger war axes that occured in 10th century in big part of Europe. One of the reasons can be associated with the fact that protective parts of war gear were used more often; Petersen type M should be seen as a reaction to usage of maille and helmets, or better, to the centralisation of power.
Petersen type M is defined as an iron broad axehead with expanded, wedge-shaped and very thin (usually 2–5 mm) blade and projecting lugs on either side of the head. Axes of type M from Birka are 20–22 cm long, 16–18 cm broad and they weigh 385–770 grams (Vlasatý 2016). 12 axes of type M from Danish graves are ca. 13–24.6 cm long and ca. 10–21.7 cm broad (Pedersen 2014: 131–134, Find list 2). Russian axes belonging to the type M are 17–22 cm long, 13–20 cm broad and they weigh 200–450 grams (Kirpičnikov 1966: 39). Baltic axes of the same type are 12.5–23.5 cm long and 12–22.5 cm broad (Kazakevičius 1996: 233). 13 Polish axes of type M (IIIA.5.1 and IIIA.5.3 according to Kotowicz) are 13.6–21 cm long, 11–20.6 cm broad and they weigh 200–450 grams (Kotowicz 2014). The given weight of axes is only partial; many axes are rusted, but the original weight can be counted from the amount of iron material that remained in axes to the present days. Vike (2016: 96–97) speaks about six Norwegian axes (13.2–21.3 cm long and 15.3–25.3 cm broad) that weigh 273–603 grams in current state, and the author calculates that original axes could weigh 600–800 grams.
The most massive example I am aware of comes from Wetrowo, Kaliningrad Region. The size of the axe, which is now deposited in Berlin, is quite impressive – 23 cm in length and 33 cm in width. Another big axe was found in the River Thames (see here); it is 24.4 cm long, 28 cm broad and it weighs 966 grams. It is needed to point out that such big axes are very rare. It has to be said that there are at least three phases in the evolution of the type M; the older versions are smaller and have narrower necks, while the more recent are bigger and more massive (see the chart). The type M is often mistaken for Petersen type L, which was developed at the same time (Petersen 1919: 45–46). Generally speaking, the type L is shorter (ca. 11–20,5 cm) and narrower (ca. 6.5–17 cm). Nevertheless, some bigger examples of the type L (like B 9694) can be easily mistaken, since they have average sizes of the type M. It is true that the line between types L and M is very narrow sometimes (and artificial!), but both types have their own specific nuances, when it comes to proportions (as well as the symmetry and thickness) of the blade, the neck and the eye.
It has to be mentioned that “In the 10th cent. in the northern part of our continent, especially after Christianisation, the number of axes in graves increases signiﬁcantly. They often belonged to persons of lower social position. As a rule, they were the only military equipment of the dead” (Kotowicz 2013: 51-52). Piotr Kotowicz (2011: 52) pointed that axes became “a symbol of the warrior’s profession” by that time. It is true that most of axeheads are found alone in graves; on the other hand, I was able to collect at least 19 Scandinavian graves that contain axehead of type M together with another type of weapon or riding equipment (the list is here) – the spearhead is the most common second weapon (13), as well as shield boss (9), sword (7), the second axe (3), weapon knife (2) and arrows (2). In these graves, riding equipment occur in 11 cases. What is more, two Gotlandic axes of Petersen type M were put to graves with men wearing lamellar armours (Snäckgärde, SHM 484, see this article). That’s why I tend to say that Petersen type M axeheads are indicators of the high status, or at least warrior status.
A considerable number of Petersen type M axeheads are decorated. The decoration (often consisting of a cross) can be distinguished into five types:
engraved ornaments. The axe from Blichowo (Kotowicz 2013: 44, Fig. 4; see here) has the butt carved with a Greek cross.
punched dots and grooves. This type can be seen on one axe from the River Thames (Paulsen 1956: 87, Abb. 32; see here). Vertical pairs of grooves can (or could) be seen on axes from Kongsgården (Rygh 558; C 3210; see here) and Lednica (Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013: cat. no. 81; grooves are now invisible, see here).
inlay. The axe from Hultsjö (SHM 737; see here) is inlayed with ornaments (including cross) in silver. The same method can seen on the axe from Skensta (SHM 6814; Paulsen 1956: 112, Abb. 48; see here). This method of decoration seems to be particularly popular in Finland, with at least three examples inlayed with silver found in Posio (KM 24379; Paulsen 1956: 116, Abb. 50, see here), Humikkala (KM 8656:H47:5; Paulsen 1956: 117, Abb. 51; see here) and Köyliö (Kotowicz 2013: 49, Fig. 9; see here).
overlay. The famous axehead from Botnham (Ts 11937; see here) is decorated with Ringerike ornament in gold. The grid to which gold was hammered is still visible.
The last kind of decoration is special and it covers so-called “axes with crosses” – axes with blades decorated in their inner parts with incised Latin crosses (and sometimes with grooves as well). There are 5 Scandinavian finds of the type with open blades, the list can be seen here; all of them are dated to the second half of the 10th century. Another example comes from the vicinity of Plock, Poland (Kotowicz 2013: 51, Fig. 11; see here).
Examples of decoration. From left: the axes from Thames, Skensta, Hultsjö, Bothamn and Närke. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 163.
There are at least two Swedish axes (Nässja, SHM 5237; Tåby, SHM 6126) that prove the mixing of Scandinavian and Eastern traditions. These two axes have Petersen type M blades, but instead of projecting lugs, they have an egg-shaped or rounded middle piece (sides the eye for the shaft) and a projecting butt with round or square cross-section. Axes like these show how variable this kind of weapon is, combining two functional elements into one piece.
Schematic pictures of both methods.
The axehead could be made by at least two methods. On the beginning of both methods, there was an iron ingot or a welded billet containing iron plates of different quality. The material could be folded several times for better quality. Afterwards, the body of the axehead was shaped. The first method, the easier one, is about forging the rough shape, splitting the frontal part, inserting the high-carbon steel blade and punching the eye for the shaft in the end. The second method lies in forging the rough shape in unwrapped (opened) symmetrical or asymmetrical shape – without the need to punch the eye for the shaft – and welding the frontal part, splitting the frontal part and inserting the high-carbon steel blade. On some examples, the ridge formed by inserted blade is very visible. In both cases, some finishing touches might be needed, as well as decoration, polishing, sharpening etc.
Very good example of the first method can be seen in the video below:
Axehead (Lunow type)
In my recent article “Axes from Birka“, I discussed a very interesting type of axehead, so-called Lunow type. The type is characteristic with its massive and long T-shaped blade, sometimes with four projecting lugs on either side of the head and a small butt.
The distribution of Lunow type. Taken from Michalak – Kotowicz 2014: 112. Fig. 5.
Michalak and Kotowicz (2014: 112) register 22 finds of this type, coming from what is now Denmark, Germany, Poland, Russia and Sweden. It seems that the centre of this type was situated in Greater Poland, Brandenburg and Pomerania. They can be dated to ca. 940–1050 AD. Sizes varies between 13–21.4 cm × 13–29 cm. The best known examples were found in Lunow, Brandenburg an der Havel and Poznań-Dębiec. However, this type seems to be quite popular in Scandinavia in that type; there are 9 examples, mainly from Denmark and Sweden, including axes from Birka(SHM 35245:95), Haithabu (two examples), Over Hornbæk (grave BPW), Rosenlund (grave KR), Suderbys (SHM 11128), Lindholm Høje (grave 2149), Ulbjerg and Lund. The examples from Birka and Lund are very similar to the best known specimens from Poland and Germany; they are decorated with silver and copper inlays as well, the rest consists of typologically similar axes. I would like to suggest that examples from Dolmer and Trelleborg should be included among the rest as well, as they belong to the same tradition. The full list of Scandinavian finds with sizes can be seen here. Similarly to some axes of Petersen type M, the example from Rosenlund was found together with a sword, a spearhead, a shield-boss, stirrups and spurs.
Some axes of Lunow type 1 – Poznań-Dębiec (Luboń), Poland; 2 – Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany; 3 – Lunow, Germany; 4 – Lund, Sweden; 5 – Birka, Sweden; 6 – Over Hornbæk, Denmark; 7 – Lindholm Høje, Denmark; 8 – Haithabu, Germany; 9 – Suderbys, Gotland, Sweden; 10 – Rosenlund, Denmark.
The question of shafts is problematic, since there are not so many complete examples from the period and those that survived are not well known. Let’s begin with the length.
Sankiewicz and Wyrwa (2013: 77–78) made probably the most comprehensive list of complete axe shafts from early, high and late medieval Europe. From their list and some other finds these authors were probably not aware of, a very interesting result arises:
24–60 cm: 13 examples (18.31 %)
60–90 cm: 50 examples (70.42 %)
90+ cm: 8 examples (11.27 %)
The length of 60–90 cm (mainly 70–80 cm) is the most common and both aforementioned and many other researchers consider this length to be a standard; Kirpičnikov (1966: 28) suggests 80 cm to be an average length, as well as Mäntylä (2005: 110) gives the length of 70–90 cm and Kotowicz (2008: 447) writes that shafts varied between 60 and 80 cm. They agree on the statement that longer shafts should be seen as two-handed. In our simplified list, there are 8 examples of shafts longer than 90 cm, consisting of shafts from Behren-Lübchin (94 cm; 12th century), Lednica no. 85 (97 cm; 950–1050 AD), Novyja Valosavičy (100 cm; the end of 10th century – the beginning of 11th century), Lednica no. 84 (107.5 cm; 11th century), Kirkkomäki (108 cm; 11th or 12th century), Pahošča (110 cm; the end of 10th century – the beginning of 11th century), Vorma (111 cm; 13th century) and Břeclav (115 cm; 9th or 10th century, see here). What is more, three Petersen type M axes found in Lough Corrib probably had shorter shafts, around 80 cm, as well as other finds, axes from the River Robe and the River Shannon (see here). As will be mentioned in following chapters, these lengths are most likely typical for two-handed shafts of battle axes.
Some axes with shafts: 1 – Vorma, 2 – Lednica (no. 84), 3 – Kirkkomäki, 4 – Lough Corrib.
Vike (2016: 107–108) points out that Slavic tradition used shafts simply made of young trees of various shapes, but Scandinavian tradition consisted of shafts made by splitting of massive log. Thanks to this method, shafts were (relatively) straight and hard. In spring and summer 2016, I made a research on what species of wood were used to construct shafts in Middle Age Europe (the result can be seen here– this research is not complete!). The result is that combination of hard and light wood growing in the vicinity of the site was the desired quality of the shaft material. Evergreen wood species were used very rarely (only 1 example). The most common species are hornbeam (61 examples; 29.19 %), maple (44 examples; 21.05 %), ash (36 examples; 17.22 %) and oak (19 examples; 9.09 %).
Shafts of Slavic (number 1) and Scandinavian traditions (number 2). Taken from Vike 2016: 108, Fig. 14.
Cross section of shaft fragments of axes from Lundehall and Langeid.
Shafts of three Petersen type M axes from Lough Corrib were made of cherry wood, as well as the fragment of wood found with type M axe from Langeid. The shaft of axe from Vorma is made of spruce. Shafts of axes from Lednica are made of hornbeam (no. 85) and maple (no. 84). The most common wood species found in Viking Age Scandinavia as materials of axe shafts are maple (6 examples: 2× Barshalder, 2 × Sønder Onsild, 1 × Grimstrup, 1× Træhede), birch (3 examples: 2× Oseberg, 1 × Sønder Onsild), alder (1 example; Fyrkat), elm (1 example; Nyrbo), beech (1 example; Haithabu) and cherry (1 example; Langeid).
The eye usually has an oval, egg (droplet) shaped or round cross section. Sizes of eyes varies between ca. 2–4.2 cm × 2–4.2 cm (Polish: 2.4–4.2 cm × 2–2.8 cm, Russian: 3.5 × 2–2.5 cm, Baltic: 3 × 2–4,22 cm). From my experience, most shafts have droplet shaped cross section and preserved fragments of shafts prove it.
The only type of decoration of shafts we are able to find consists of metal. There are only two kinds of such a decoration, including:
plate ferrules in the upper part of the shaft. The meaning of such a ferrule is obvious – it makes the axe firmer in the strained part and makes the axe to look more splendid. The problem was recently described by Vegard Vike (2016).
made of iron. An iron ferrule was found with the Petersen type E axe from Hemse (Hemse annex; SHM 5645; see here), but is now missing. Another one was found with Petersen type M in a 11th century grave in Bilczewo, Poland (see here). For more Polish, Russian and Hungarian analogies from different periods, see Kotowicz (2008: 451–453).
made of brass/bronze. Six examples of this decoration were found in Norway (C 24243, C 25583, C 27132, C 29866, C 57235, C 58882; see here). The ferrule of axe from Langeid is made of rectangular plate that is 0.5 mm thick; the plate is nailed to shaft with 12 brass nails (11 mm long, 2.5 mm thick). It has to be mentioned that a slight layer of wood under the ferrule was removed, so there is no visible step between the undecorated part of shaft and the decorated one. At least two Norwegian ferrules (C 27132, C 29866) have four projections in the lower part peeping under the axehead. Another eight examples come from Gotland (SHM 484 Gr. 4, SHM 4815, SHM 7785:93a, SHM 8064:196, SHM 14855, SHM 14885, SHM 19273, SHM 22297). There are three more finds discovered in the River Thames, one of them is ornated with rich motives and has 9 projections in the lower part (see here). Another example of brass ferrule comes from Klincovka, Kaliningrad Region (see here, I am indebted to Piotr Kotowicz for this information). There are at least two finds of decorated shaft wrapping of brass plate from 10th century Latgalian graves in Lithuania (see here and here, Kotowicz 2008: 452–453).
made of silver. A very nice example comes from Kalihnovščina, Nothern Russia (see here). The ferrule is placed below the axehead and ends in four cross-shaped projections in the lower part.
a butt on the bottom part of the shaft. The only find of this decoration comes from Barshalder (SHM 27778: 11, see here).
Dominant types of brass/bronze fitted shafts. Taken from Vike 2016: 105, Fig. 12.
Fixing of the axehead to the shaft
There are two major methods, how axeheads were fixed. The first one is mounting the axe head from the tapered bottom. This method could be combined with a kind of securing of the axehead, for example with leather. The second method lies in mounting from the upper end of the shaft and securing the axehead with a wooden or metal wedge or nail. Both methods were used in the Viking Age Europe; for example, the first one can be seen on one of Oseberg axes and on many axes from Lednica and Mikulčice. Since the upper end has to be thicker and forms so-called forskapti (for example axes from the River Robe and the River Shannon), the first method can be easily recognized. Axes with shafts decorated with ferrules were mounted from the upper end, but the wedges do not occur in their case; some metal fitting could serve as external wedges. Even though wedges are not common, we can find some evidence for both wooden and metal wedges. Three axes from Lough Corrib were secured with wooden wedges, as was probably the axe from Hallingby (C 25583). Petersen type M axe from Ballinderry Crannóg was secured with a wooden wedge and a metal nail (see here). Petersen type M axes from Velo Vestre (C 24243) and Hunninge (SHM 19273) are also secured with metal spikes . One axe from Lednica (no. 102; Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013: 204–205; see here) is secured with a metal wedge. The recently found axe from Hårup, Denmark, was secured with one big nail that goes through the eye (see here). Pedersen (2014: Pl. 4, 21, 32, 57) shows at least 4 more Danish axes secured with metal wedges, including the axe from Trelleborg.
Three main methods of fixing of the axehead to the shaft, Taken from Vike 2016: 109, Fig. 15.
In one of my previous article, I mapped all finds of Viking Age axe sheaths (see here). To sum up, there are 13 finds of wooden sheaths from Haithabu, 2 finds from Schleswig, 2 finds from Dublin and 1 from Novgorod. They belong to two types and are made of alder, beech, birch, juniper, oak, pine, spruce, yew and willow wood. In our context, the most interesting sheaths come from Schleswig; one sheath is decorated with two pictures of two-handed axes, one of them belonging to the Petersen type M. Thus, the function of this object is clear. The second sheath from Schleswig could belong to an axe with 235 mm long edge. There is no doubt that sheaths like these served to protect blades from blunting and rust.
Type 1 Type 2
In this chapter, axeheads, shafts and methods of fixing will be discussed.
Sagas and chronicles contain some pieces of information that can be useful for comparing with what we know from archaeology. The most importantly, we can learn how two-handed axes were called, used and perceived.
It should be said in the first place that Old Norse people did not call these axes “Dane axes”. Petersen type M axes, together with axes of type F, belong to a broader term breiðøx. Literary sources work carelessly with terms, so it is sometimes hard to say which passage refer to two-handed axe. Terms like þunnsleginn øx (“axe that is hammered thin”), háskeptr øx (“long-handled axe”) or simple “big axe” are small clues that can refer to two-handed axes. Let’s have a look on The Saga of the Sworn Brothers (Fóstbræðra saga), where we can find typical passages:
“Þorgeirr had a broad axe, a mighty weapon, keen-edged and sharp, with which he had sent many a man to dine [in Valhalla].” (ch. 3)
“Bjarni forged a broad axe for Þormóðr, according to his will. The axe was hammered right down to the cutting edge, had no weal to obstruct it and was thus extremely sharp.” (ch. 23)
Even though Þorgeirr´s axe is a mighty broad axe, he use it as a one-handed weapon in fight (for example ch. 8). As the result, to be sure we refer to two-handed weapons, we have to pick passages about breiðøxar that are held on both hands; even this approach can be wrong, because warriors, in case they had no shields, used weapons with both hands (see for example here). In such a way, only two axes in sagas can be named as two-handed – Hel, the axe of Óláfr Haraldsson (Saint Óláfr) and his son Magnús the Good, and Rimmugýgr, the axe of Skarphéðinn Njálsson.
Literary sources are far from being much descriptive. They contain information only about owning, carrying and fighting with what we could call two-handed axes. As we can see, axes have their own names and are owned by famous people. It corresponds nicely with what we can see from their occurrence in warrior graves and their decoration – Petersen type M axes are markers of the high rank, of a status similar to “hero”, “champion”, “professional warrior”. With no doubt, axes of this type were owned and used by noblemen and their hirðir (“retinues”).
One of the most interesting passages from Old Norse sources can be searched in Saga of Magnus the Good (Magnús saga góða), where King Magnús, just before the battle of Hlýrskógheiðr (1043), throws away his own chain-mail and runs to the array of enemy, starting the battle with two-handed axe Hel (tha axe that used to belong to his father) in his hands. I believe this mention corresponds to depicted fighting scenes that incude two-handed axes:
“Then King Magnús stood up, and ordered the war trumpets to sound, and at that moment the Víndland army advanced from the south across the river against him; on which the whole of the king’s army stood up, and advanced against the heathens. King Magnús threw off from him his coat of ring-mail, and had a red silk shirt outside over his clothes, and had in his hands the battle-axe called Hel, which had belonged to King Óláf. King Magnús ran on before all his men to the enemy’s army, and instantly hewed down with both hands every man who came against him. So says Árnórr jarlaskáld:
‘The unsluggish ruler stormed forth with broad axe, and cast off his byrnie; a sword-clash [BATTLE] arose around the ruler of the Hǫrðar [NORWEGIAN KING = Magnús], as the prince clenched both hands around the shaft, and the shaping guardian of heaven [= God] allotted earth; Hel clove pallid skulls.‘’” (ch. 29)
At least two English sources mention “the apologetic gift” of earl Godwin of Wessex given to Harðaknútr, the last Danish king of England, in 1040. The gift consisted of a ship of 80 warriors equipped with gilded “Dane” axes:
“Each of them had a gilded helmet on the had, a Danish axe on left shoulder and a spear in right hand.” (William of Malmesbury : Gesta regum Anglorum, II, § 188)
“Also, each of them had a chain-mail, a partially gilded helmet, a sword with gilded handle by the waist and a Danish axe, decorated with gold and silver, hanging on the left shoulder. In the left hand, each of them had a shield, whose bosses and rivets were gilded as well, and they had spears in their right hands, the one, which is called atagar in English language.” (Florence of Worcester : The Chronicle)
Axe-bearers from pictures stones from Tängelgårda I and Alskog Tjängvide I, Gotland.
It should be streesed that these are the oldest mentions of the Latin term “Danish axe” (securis Danica), together with the passage from De Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi (ch. 21), written by Hermannus The Archdeacon in late 11th century (“According to Danish fashion, Osgod Clapa had armrings on both hands and gilded axe was hanging on his shoulder.“). It is accepted (see for example DeVries 1999: 217) that Petersen type M came to England during the Conquest of Knútr the Great, and two-handed axes could be weapons of his troops called þingmenn. This elite retinue survived until 1066, as an be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry and skaldic poetry, and these troops were understood as very tough opponents by Norwegians in 1066 (see Úlfr stallari : Lausavísa). DeVries (1999: 217) thinks that English warriors used Petersen type M axes more commonly than Scandinavians. However, the Scandinavian origin of this weapon was still understood, as it was called “Danish axe”. In his major work The History of The English (Historia Anglorum), Henry of Huntingdon, 12th century historian, mentioned the popular story of Norwegian warrior, who killed more than 40 chosen Englishmen with the axe during the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066):
“Here a single Norwegian, whose name ought to have been preserved, took post on the bridge, and hewing down more than forty of the English with a battle-axe, his country’s weapon, stayed the advance of the whole English army till the ninth hour. At last some one came under the bridge in the boat, and thrust a spear into him, through the chinks of the flooring.” (Historia Anglorum, VI, §27; trans. Forester 1853: 209)
The same story, but with slightly different details, can be found in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (version C) and Deeds of the Kings of the English (Gesta regum Anglorum) of William of Malmesbury (see here). Even though details vary – in other versions of the story, the axe and the number of slained opponents are missing, the Norwegian is equipped with a chain-mail and the way of his death is different as well – these passages are important proof of the skill of owners of these axes. I have to add that the popular theory that the Norwegian was a berserkr is rather a result of modern creativity.
“Danish axes” occur several times in high medieval sources, mostly in connection with King Stephen of England (Battle of Lincoln 1141; he allegedly fought with the axe until it was broken) and Richard the Lionheart (Battle of Jaffa 1192). Also, they are included in Old French romans in the form hasche Danoise (“Danish axe”).
Irishmen equipped with two handed axes. Topographia Hibernica, Royal MS 13 B VIII, folio 28r.
What is insteresting is the fact that literary sources can show how axes were carried. In connection to “Danish axes”, Latin sources from England contain the phrase in humero dependente (“hanging on the shoulder”), in humero sinistro (“on the left shoulder”) and in sinistro humero pendentem (“hanging on the left shoulder”). In Old Norse literature, there is a quite nice parallel to this phrase, hann hafði øxi um ǫxl (“he had axe across the shoulder”) – one occurrence of the phrase is connected with Skarphéðinn Njálsson, the owner of two-handed axe Rimmugýgr (“Skarphéðinn was foremost. He was in a blue cape, and had a targe, and his axe aloft on his shoulder“; Njáls saga, ch. 92). The aforementioned quote from Florence’s Chronicle is important as well – we can see that warriors could have many weapons, including hanging axes, and could change them. The design of hanging device is unknown and to learn more, experiments are needed. The picture from Hunnestad Monument shows a warrior with his two-handed axe on the right shoulder. Similarly, Varangian guardsmen greeted the Emperor by axes raised on right shoulders:
“Guardsmen were holding them in the right hand, leaning the blade against the left wrist. When the Emperor came, they brought up the axes to lean them on their right shoulders. During the time of the name-day of the Emperor, the Varangians saluted him and banged their axes, which emitted rhythmical sound.” (Kotowicz 2013: 52)
Slavic axes called taparøxar (from Slavic topor, “axe”, and Old Norse øx, “axe”) are mentioned in sagas and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (version A) sometimes. In sagas (Ljósvetninga saga, Njáls saga, Vatnsdœla saga), they occur as prestigious objects among Norwegian-Icelandic elite. The shape is not know, nor the length of the shaft; however, I believe that Lunow type or Russian types of one-handed axes (like Kirpičnikov types I, II, III) are possible. I think the best mention of the axe comes from Ljósvetninga saga (ch. 2), where it occurs as a gift of jarl Hákon, the ruler of Norway in ca. 970–995:
“Jarl [Hákon] said he [Sǫlmundr] should first deliver his gifts, a Russian hat to Guðmundr the Mighty and taparøx to Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði.“
A replica of the axe from Langeid, made by Vegard Vike and Anders Helseth Nilsson.
In literary sources, axeheads and shafts are frequently decorated. We already mentioned English sources, where axeheads are gilded. In sagas, what is interesting is the fact that axes decorated with gold are mentioned as gifts from specific rulers (Haraldr hárfagri, jarl Hákon, Sigurðr Hloðvirsson, Haraldr harðráði) and are given to important Icelanders. It seems that mentions like these are oral formulas – for example, both Þorkell from Vatnsdœla saga (ch. 43) and Þorstein from Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar (ch. 1) receive øx gullrekna (“gilded axe / axe inlayed with gold”) from Sigurðr Hloðvirsson, jarl of Orkney, and in an analogical manner, both Brandr from Brands þáttr ǫrva (ch. 1) and Halli from Sneglu-Halla þáttr (ch. 10) get in possession of øx gullrekna thanks to generous Haraldr harðráði. My point is that the quantity of mentions is not so important, since it rather reflects features of orally-derived prose of high and late medieval Iceland. If we study material like this in order to get relevant information about weapons, we should focus on what parts of weapons are decorated and what is the context. To sum up, saga literature mentions axeheads decorated with gold (gullrekinn and gullbúin) and shafts covered with silver or iron wrappings (vaf) or plates (spengðr). The “fore-haft” (the part above the axehead) of the axe, that was given to Sneglu-Halli, was decorated with “a big silver knob [silfrhólkr] with a precious stone on it” (Sneglu-Halla þáttr, ch. 10). Let’s say that gold, silver and any other kind of decoration is mentioned as an indicator of the maximum richness and the status, and such a decorated gift is a proof of king’s favour, which gives the importance to the receiver of a gift, the character of the story, and his descendants.
Before we move forward to the next chapter, the last thing – the terrifying aspect of axes – has to be mentioned. Unlike swords, axes are named after Norns, troll-women and monsters etc. in poetry (for example Norn skjaldar, “the norn of the shield”, or brynflagð, “the troll-woman of the chain-mail”, and so on). One of the most illustrative mention I know comes from Halldórr ókristni’s Eiríkrflokkr (st. 7), it says: “slender monsters of the land of Þriði [ÞRIÐI = ÓÐINN, LAND OF ÓÐINN = SHIELD, MONSTERS OF THE SHIELD = AXES] yawned with iron-mouths at people“. In literary sources, axes are often synonyms of awe, brutality or hard power (“Even though we are not lawmen, we will solve the suit with axe butts” says Þorsteinn in my favourite sentence in Vatnsdœla saga, ch. 37). No wonder, because axes are very destructive tools and weapons, designed for chopping and they can not be easily blocked. On the other hand, facing to these deadly weapons is the feature of a brave man.
Depictions (pictorial evidence)
In this chapter, I divided the pictorial evidence between four groups from different areas and periods. Only those axes that resemble Petersen type M were included. Groups are:
Bayeux Tapestry. This group contains no less than 20 axes.
Scandinavian pictures. This group contains at least 4 axes.
Another (Byzantine and Russian pictures). This group contains only 5 depicted axes.
High Middle Ages pictures. 12 axes were selected to this group.
To sum up, 41 axes were included. 38 of them are depicted together with men. We can distinguish two basic forms:
standard axes, with the length varying between 3 and 4 feet (91–122 cm). Sankiewicz and Wyrwa (2013: 76) suggested the length ofapproximately 3 feet and 6 thumbs (107 cm). Axes of this length are usually depicted in the fight. 35 depicted axes belong to this form.
above-standard axes, with very long shafts reaching to the head of the wielder. Edge and Paddock (1988: 31) calculated the length to 4 or 5 feet (122–152 cm). The axe depicted on Byzantine ivory plaque seems to be even longer. The context suggests they were used as symbols during ceremonies; these symbols are important for stressing the crucial persons in the piece of art and their sizes could be disproportionally enlarged. On the other hand, axeheads are not enlarged, so we can assume these symbolic axes did in fact have long shafts. 6 depicted axes belong to this form.
Axes of the first form seem to be weapons of renowned warriors. As the rule, wielders of axes are tall. In 23 cases, warriors with axes wear a better form of body protection (chain-mails, scale armours, gambesons) or noble clothing. Similarly, in 25 cases, warriors have helmets. Together with axes, 11 swords and 8 shields are depicted, what is in agreement with aforementioned statements (warriors could have many weapons […] and could change them). One axeman holds a blowing horn. Two depicted men from pictorial evidence are described as Leofwine Godwinson and King Stephen of England. On the contrary, five axes are shown in hands of men not dressed in armour; two of them seem to be peasants, not warriors.
In at least three cases, two-handed axes of the first form are depicted in hands of men leading the attack/defense (in one case, a flag is right behind the leader). Axes seem to be very good weapons during the siege, the fight against cavalry and during a charge or a defense. In one high medieval case, a two-handed axe is used on horseback. In a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, a man holds a shield in the left hand, a spear in the right hand and the axe is hanging in his back or is hidden behind his kite-shield. Two depicted shields are located on backs of their wielders, and even though they are not actively used, they could give some kind of protection. In three cases, men carry a two-handed axe just in one hand in combination with a shield. One depicted axe had the axehead cut off by a sword.
A considerable number of warriors (12) hold the axe in the left-hand forward grip; however, we can find some men with the right-hand forward grip (8). It is speculative whether the artists wanted to show the real fighting techniques or the perspective of period style was more important. To avoid any misleading result, let’s say that the owners knew how to use these axes in the most effective way and probably changed the grip in order to gain the advantage.
Regarding the second form of two-handed axes, we can try to count all the contexts of their usage. Harold Godwinson is depicted to hold his axe during the meeting with messengres of Duke William. In two cases, axes are used during a meeting of King Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson. Another two axes are shown when Harold Godwinson is offered the English crown. In all five cases from Bayeux Tapestry, long two-handed axes are connected with the English ruling power, King Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson. The maker of the Tapestry probably wanted to stress their nationality and status by giving them the typical weapon (on the contrary, Normans are always depicted with swords as symbols). Finally, the sixth axe is depicted on a small Byzantine ivory plaque, dated to the 10th or 11th century (see here). The plaque shows a man in underpants, holding the axe in the right hand and (Petersen type X) sword in the left hand. The axehead seems to have the similar design to what we previously called “open blade”. A similar design is shown at the miniature axe from Avnsøgård, Denmark. In my article “Axes with crosses“, I agreed with Kotowicz (2008: 447-448, Note 16), who put these “open bladed” axes in connection with pelekophori (“axe-bearers”), Varangian guards. It seems probable this kind of axe served for ceremonial greeting of the Emperor, as mentioned above.
The most of depicted axes of both types seem to be top-mounted, since the shafts are thicker in the lower part. At least three (high medieval) pictures shows bottom-mounted axes. No visible decoration of both axehead and shafts is visible; the colour of axeheads can be interpreted in many ways. The bronze axe amulet from Haithabu shows the shaft with a large knob (the curved bottom end of the shaft).
A note for reenactors
A replica of the type M, made by Scott Roush.
We can clearly see that original two-handed axes were used in completely different way than modern versions. The most visible difference is the length of the shaft, causing the need to fight in the first line with the lacking protection of limbs (gloves). Modern versions of two-handed axes are based on 6 aforementioned axes with very long shafts, which are not shown to be used on the battlefield. Such an approach is an ignorance of the majority (34) axes and archaeological material. In the real fight, two-handed axes require a lot of free space, so they have to be placed in the first line or on the side of the formation. The sharp axe is almost unstoppable, destroying both shields and bodies. The placing in the first line and the shorter shaft have to be compensated by quality armour that reduces the risk of mortal wounds. However, there are no period gloves able to give the protection against sharp weapons. From my experience, I can say that a man with a 110 cm long axe has to be enormously movable, in order to be safe and effective. If we are talking about the real fight, stopping in front of the enemy line is the worst idea, the best option is to run forward and attack. A combination of two-handed axe and a shield passively hanging in front of the warrior, which is a common trend today, is ineffective in the real fight (it can be pierced with a spear anytime), slows down the warrior and has no real support in historical sources (on the Bayeux Tapestry, warriors had shields on their backs). The act of deploying two-handed axes always has a great morale impact on both sides, and probably occured in special cases. As a result, warriors with two-handed axes, leaders, and their retinues belonged to the heaviest armoured infantry and the most skilled troops that occured on late Viking Age and high medieval battlefields.
A replica of the type M, made by Ronan Jehanno.
To be fair, modern versions (with 2.5 metres being the maximum length I have seen) are perfect weapons for a modern way of fight and its rules. In the “Eastern style”, rules are set to be “dead” after the first proper hit into the areas covered with armour – the system that is illogical from the historical perspective. Long two-handed axes are good for this purpose, as well as the hooking of shields and weapons. That’s why we should draw a very clear line between what is period and what is modern. However, when we make compromises, I tend to advise the length of the axe that reaches to the chest or the chin of the wielder. Such a length allows the wielder perfect control of the weapon. In any case, the length should be referential, not standardized to the particular number.
I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle = The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Edited and tranlated by Michael Swanton, New York 1996.
Florence of Worcester : The Chronicle = The chronicle of Florence of Worcester with the two continuations; comprising annals of English history, from the departure of the Romans to the reign of Edward I. Translated by Thomas Forester, London 1854. Online. Latin version can be reached here.
Henry of Huntingdon : The History of the English (Historia Anglorum) = The chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon. Edoted and traslated by Thomas Forester, London 1853. Online. Latin version can be reached here.
Hermannus The Archdeacon : Miracles of St. Edmund (De Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi) = Hermanni archidiaconi liber der miraculis sancti Eadmundi. Edited by Thomas Arnold. In: Memorials of St Edmund’s Abbey, vol. 1, London, 1890, 26-92. Online.
William of Malmesbury : Deeds of the Kings of the English (Gesta regum Anglorum) = William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the kings of England. Translated by John Allen Giles, London 1847. Online. Latin version can be reached here.
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A 14th century depiction of both handed axe from Novgorod. Taken from Paulsen 1956: 99, Abb. 39.
I would like to present my catalogue of scabbard chapes used in Viking Age Norway. The catalogue is based on Grieg’s, Paulsen’s and Androshchuk’s lists and an unpublished detector find. The catalogue is not complete and is supplemeted by a map, a graph and tables. Please, let me know if you find what I missed. Thank you.