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.
In this chapter, axeheads, shafts and methods of fixing will be discussed.
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). Three Icelandic Petersen type M axes are 16–24 cm long and ca. 13–22 cm broad (Eldjárn 2000: 69, 346). 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).
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.
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.
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.
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; 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.
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 (17.81 %)
- 60–90 cm: 51 examples (69.86 %)
- 90+ cm: 9 examples (12.33 %)
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 9 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), Břeclav (115 cm; 9th or 10th century, see here) and Stóri-Moshvoll (around 120 cm; 9th or 10th century). 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.
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; 28.37 %), maple (44 examples; 20.47 %), ash (36 examples; 16.74 %) and oak (19 examples; 8.84 %). Hornbeam was particularly popular in Poland, while maple seems to be universal in whole Europe.
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 (4 examples: 2× Oseberg, 1 × Reykjavík, 1 × Sønder Onsild), linden (2 examples: Gulli), alder (1 example: Fyrkat), elm (1 example: Nyrbo), oak (1 example: Gulli), 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 or a ferrule on the bottom part of the shaft. The only find of the butt comes from Barshalder (SHM 27778: 11, see here). It is also said that a metal ferrule or a ring that was located on the bottom of the shaft was found in one of mounds in Berufjord, Iceland (Eldjárn 2000: 348).
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.
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 Norway, 2 finds from Dublin, two Norwegian finds and 1 from Novgorod. They belong to two types and are made of alder, beech, birch, juniper, oak, pine, spruce, yew and willow wood. Moreover, there is an antler sheath found in Sigtuna. 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.
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 uses 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 or 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)
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”).
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, a picture from Dynna stone and the pendant from Klahammar show 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.“
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.
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 5 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, 42 axes were included. 39 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 of approximately 3 feet and 6 inches (107 cm). Axes of this length are usually depicted in the fight. 36 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.
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
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.
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.
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