Norse & Viking Swords
- Foam LARP Weapons
Introduction: Amongst the weapons of the early-medieval period, there is likely none more iconic than the Nordic sword. In the hands of a vikingr sea-wolf, it would have been a fearsome weapon known from the fat bogland monasteries of East Anglia, to the court of the Byzantine Emperor. But the Viking sword contains a rich, layered European history which paints the Vikings as so much more than big beardy blokes with horny helmets and poor personal grooming habits. Instead, we are left with the impression of the Norse peoples as interconnected, cultured and outward-looking – their swords are but one example of this multi-faceted and contradictory people. When choosing a sword or Viking short sword to compliment your medieval re-enactment impression or LARP costume, think about how the history of the Norse Viking sword flows through it: does it portray you as a raider with a stolen sword, or as a noble whose choice of weapon displays their status as a world-striding trader?
Are you sitting down? Because we have to get some mind-blowing things out of the way first, and we don’t want to make a mess. Ready? There is no such thing as ‘the Vikings’. Phew. Let’s dig into this – because understanding how Viking society worked, and how it related to the rest of Europe can deeply inform our historical re-enactment, or our Norse-inspired LARP outfits.
‘The Vikings’ is what we lazily call the loose agglomeration of heterogeneous Northern European cultures which emerged in the centuries after the retreat of the Roman Empire who suddenly went through a meteoric expansionist period from the middle of the 8th-century CE. The reason for this sudden expansion is much debated; it’s likely the result of a combination of factors that were different in different places: demographic reasons such as a surfeit of younger sons unlikely to inherit the family farm, the post-Roman economic collapse and the rise of Islam around the Mediterranean providing new opportunities for trade, the agricultural constrains of much of Scandinavia, and the perceived desirability and status of outward expansion. Once these factors combined, it is likely that they became self-reinforcing, with rival Norse nobles not wishing to be outstripped in terms of trade or booty: ‘Have you seen? The Olafssons have looted a new flatscreen!’ ‘Well, go to Lindesfarne and loot me a bigger one!’
We get the word ‘Vikings’ from their word for a sea-borne raider, a vikingr, but it is enormously unfair to the early-medieval Norse peoples that the practice of raiding came to define them; the Norse were primarily traders, colonists and settlers (with the odd bit of raiding on the side). By the high-medieval period wealthy Vikings were major power-players in European politics, seeking to tie themselves into the established dynasties and vie for the control of empires, and they had founded thriving colonies from modern Ukraine to Iceland. They had been the first Europeans to set foot on the American mainland, and they formed an elite unit of warriors in the service of the Byzantine Emperor in modern-day Turkey - an 8th-century graffito has even been found in the Hagia Sophia which reads ‘Haludan was here’. And slaves – vikingrs were slavers, nobody said they were nice. But their position in society is far more complex than is usually portrayed.
Even vikingrs are very different to their stereotypes (look no further than History Channel’s big-budget Vikings) – for one thing, they absolutely did not have horned helmets. Recent genetic analyses suggest that vikingrs were pretty evenly split in terms of gender, overturning the conclusions of earlier archaeologists who had waved their pipes vaguely and said ‘Well, it’s got a sword buried with it, of course it’s a man!’ Being a vikingr was a profession rather than an ethnic identity (the whole concept of ‘ethnicity’ as we would understand it would only emerge centuries later), and it was mainly poorer smallholders seeking to better themselves outside of the rigid strictures of feudalism who volunteered to go a-viking.
The Viking Sword in European Context
The sword typically used by Norse raiders was used widely in Northern Europe, having been derived by Frankish smiths from the late-Roman spatha. This was a wide-bladed sword used by heavy infantry and cavalry, long enough to be used from horseback, and mass produced by a variety of smiths across the Roman Empire. Far from seeking to replace Rome, the Frankish successors to the Roman occupation of Gaul known at the Merovingians saw themselves as the inheritors of Roman culture, and thus naturally placed Roman objects and styles at the height of their cultural esteem. They developed an intermediate form of pre-Viking sword known as the ‘Migration period sword’, a sort of high-status spatha made by Frankish smiths for Frankish nobles, often incorporating incredibly fine workmanship and rare materials, such as the luxurious gold cloisonné hilt found in the grave of the transitional late-Roman-early-Merovingian king Childeric I (d. 481 CE). The immediate predecessors to the Vikings, known as the Vendels, also buried their warriors with these high-status objects. We see in Vendel burials the ‘ring-sword’, where a symbolic oath-ring is incorporated into the hilt of the sword. As well, the Vendels had worked upon late-Roman designs in other arms and armour: for example, they continued to make the Roman-style chainmail out of alternating rows of stamped and riveted rings, and their ridge helmets were of a style which had originated all the way over in modern Syria, imported into Northern Europe by Roman cavalrymen.
Time to sit down again – more devastating truths. Ready? There is no such thing as a ‘Viking sword’. When we refer to ‘Viking swords’, we really should refer to ‘Viking Age swords’ – the swords used by vikingrs were produced along the Upper Rhine, in modern southeastern Germany and northern Switzerland, by Frankish and Germanic smiths - and, like everyone else, the Vikings acquired them by various methods: they either bought them, or stole them. Proper Viking Age swords emerged in around the 8th-century, around the time that Frankish smiths began to get access to the early crucible steel known as ‘Damascus steel’, which was now being imported from the Indian subcontinent to the Mediterranean by Islamic traders. Up until this point, Frankish smiths had probably been making their own steel on a small scale haphazardly in the forge by working wrought iron for long periods in a charcoal-fired hearth to harden the iron by mixing in carbon, and then using these bars for the cutting edges of the blade. The process of creating complex blades with bars of different grades of metal arranged in various geometries is known as ‘piling’, and this had been commonplace since the Roman era. A good Frankish smith in the Migration Period could make a beautiful ‘pattern-welded’ blade: this incorporated a soft core of different grades of wrought-iron twisted together to produce complex rippling-water patterns, with valuable hard steel piled onto the outer sides to take the blade’s edges. But the increasing availability of steel, better in quality than anything they could make in their own comparatively cool hearths, meant they could begin to experiment with all-steel construction.
The Frankish smiths used the new material to make unadorned, functional blades with both distal and profile tapering: this means they got narrower towards the tip both when viewed from above, and when looking down the blade. They often also added a fuller, a long channel impressed into the centre of the blade, which widened and lightened the blade, as distinct from earlier spathae which were usually unfullered. Both tapering and fullering were vital innovations in making heavy, long blades that were still agile and well-balanced. Instead of tapering to a needle-point like many medieval swords in the era of plate armour, Viking swords have somewhat rounded points, which would have been much stronger whilst still being pretty effective at thrusting. Both edges of the sword would have been sharpened (although a small number of single-edge Viking swords closer in appearance to later falchions have been found) and especially those made from ‘Damascus steel’ would have been capable of maintaining a razor-sharp edge. Norse swords all have a full tang – that is, when it is forged, the blade has a narrow ‘tail’ onto which the crossguard and grip were slotted, held in place by the pommel. We know all this because a large number of Viking swords (or, to give the smiths their proper due, Frankish swords) have survived partially or wholly.
An unfortunate byproduct of all of this innovation was that pattern-welded swords fell out of favour, associated with the older inferior methods and materials, and by the height of the Viking Age (c. 1000 CE), the pattern-welded sword had almost entirely disappeared. Tragically few have survived.
Who Or What Was Ulfberht?
As archaeology began to take shape as a discipline in the late 19th-century, it began to become clear that one word kept cropping up over and over in relation to Viking swords. And that word was ‘Ulfberht’. If you’re stuck for Viking sword names, how does ‘Ulfbehrt’ sound? The word has been found inscribed on around 170 sword blades which have been unearthed in places as far flung as Norwegian ship burials, river offerings in England, and in Varangian Ukraine – as you may notice, almost wherever Viking colonies were founded. The inscription is usually made from twisted bar iron, either notched into the blade or hammered in in-situ when the blade was hot. Since Ulfbehrt is also a Frankish given-name, a variant of the much-less-silly ‘Wulfbert’, it was originally thought that this might have been the personal mark of a wildly prolific and highly sought-after master smith. However, it quickly became clear that judging by other markers such as hilt design and archaeological context, the manufacture of these blades spans about 300 years, from the 8th-century to the 11th, the whole span of Viking Age swords. So, is this evidence of an immortal legendary bladesmith who outfitted the entire Norse world?
No. There is an awful lot of conjecture, but it seems clear that there was an original Ulfbehrt ‘brand’, that was subsequently copied with varying success over the following centuries – but precisely who or what Ulfberht was, eludes us still. There are some intriguing possibilities. One is that Ulfbehrt was an individual smith, a master craftsman who made legendary blades of such quality that they sparked off a horde of inferior copycats – this is the theory most often espoused in sensational write-ups of the Ulfbehrt swords. Other possibilities are far more interesting, and tell us much more about how Viking Age society worked. It could be that Ulfbehrt was the overseer of a larger sword-manufacturing operation, in the same way that Ralph Lauren does not personally make every polo shirt. It could even be that Ulfbehrt was nothing to do with the manufacture of the swords at all, he might have been the proprietor or noble who commissioned these swords, sort of a Viking venture-capitalist: historian Anne Stalberg argues that they might have been a bishop whose holdings produced at least the originals of these Viking swords for sale at market.
Like that of many named swords, the story of the Ulfbehrt swords has grown in the telling. Media and sales write-ups often repeat as fact that the swords were ‘impossible’, that they ‘used technology that was only invented in the 19th-century’, that they were ‘the most feared swords of the medieval period’, etc. This is clearly sensationalism, but there is the smallest imaginable grain of truth to it. Metallurgical analyses of the surviving Ulfbehrt swords implies a very rough correlation between the quality of the spelling and the quality of the blade - the particular spelling on the blades varies a little, usually either +VLFBEHRT+ or +VLFBEHR+T, although many ‘Ulfbehrt’ swords are clearly rough stabs at the word, missing letters or being mostly garbled. The best Ulfbehrt swords appear to contain South Indian ‘Damascus steel’, or at the very least exceedingly high quality bloomery steel. This means they would have been qualitatively better than most other blades of the period – the super-hard blade’s ability to notch or even break inferior weapons probably set off their legendary status, and tempted crafty imitators.
Thus, we can write a speculative story. Bishop Ulfbehrt’s ironworkers have managed to produce extremely high-quality steel in his abbey’s bloomeries, and his smiths have been working with this difficult and temperamental material to make new all-steel swords. One day, one of the Bishop’s agents brings him something nearly priceless: a shipment of steel ingots with a pattern like rippled water, taken from an Islamic trading ship in the Mediterranean. This is my big chance, he thinks, I’ll be able to buy myself an archbishopric with this… He gives his best smiths the Damascus steel, and they know from their experiments with the bloomery steel not to melt and weaken the Islamic steel, to work it cool into a blade for the King himself. Oh, says Ulfberht, and put my name on it...
Buying Your Own Authentic Viking Sword
Now that we have examined the Viking sword in the context of Europe, and speculated about the mysterious Ulfberht, we can begin to make informed choices about which Viking sword replica you should purchase.
When purchasing a Viking sword replica, you should be aware of the construction processes involved. A battle-ready Viking sword has to have ‘full-tang construction’ – that is, the tang of the blade extends the length of the hilt and is secured by the pommel to make a resilient weapon capable of being wielded and struck without flying to pieces. Whilst half-tang, partial-tang or ‘rat-tail’ construction is a lot cheaper, the hilt being secured by a welded steel rod, Viking swords without full-tang construction shouldn’t even be swung around others – for obvious reasons! Swords properly constructed for full-contact are usually labelled ‘battle-ready’.
In terms of materials, we have seen that Frankish smiths were working with high-quality steels that don’t differ enormously in composition from modern high-carbon steels – modern steels are merely more consistent and produced on a scale orders of magnitude larger. Most modern Norse swords are made from either spring steel or stainless steel; the former is a particularly resilient steel-manganese alloy used to manufacture springs and other memory metals that ‘spring’ back into shape, whilst the latter is a generally cheaper steel-chromium alloy that doesn’t rust. As we have seen, lower-carbon steels and iron were rarely used as swords (or at least, not for very long, because they broke quickly!) - but these days, very good afforable display Viking swords made from mild steel are available.
Uptown Top Viking
There you have it: a complete guide to Viking swords. We can see its evolution in tandem with Viking society, from the brutal low-quality iron chopper of the early Viking period, into a refined steel symbol of European, and indeed global, interconnectedness by the end of the Viking age – mirroring how Norse cultures developed rapidly from Scandinavian sea-robbers targeting whichever defenseless agricultural community they could sack for a few silver candlesticks, into a sprawling cultural powerhouse comprising of King Cnut’s North Sea Kingdom, the Byzantine Varangian Guard and the Kievan Rus. Also, I expect you all to name your firstborns Ulfberht, it’s high time the name made a comeback.