Subject: hersir sea raider
Culture: Scandinavian / Norse
Setting: Viking Age, northern Europe 8th-10thc
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Haywood 1993 p46
"Traditionally, the Vikings have been regarded by historians as wantonly cruel, violent and destructive pirate hoards [sic]. However, in recent years a new view of the Vikings has gained widespread acceptance. The Vikings, it is argued, were the victims of a bad press: their numbers, violence and destructiveness were greatly exaggerated by monastic chroniclers who were prejudiced against them because of their paganism and their habit of plundering monasteries. Rather than destructive raiders, the Vikings should be regarded primarily as traders, settlers and skilled craftsmen. The level of Viking violence was only worse than that normally prevailing in early medieval Europe in so far as it did not exempt the church.
"In fact, these two views of the Vikings are not irreconcilable. Most Viking-age Scandinavians were indeed peaceful farmers, craftsment [sic] and traders whose lives were probably rarely touched by violence. However, those Scandinavians who chose warfare or piracy as a profession, that is the warriors who went í viking and participated in the plundering expeditions that so terrified the monks of Christian Europe, must have been prepared to use extreme violence to achieve their ends: viking was by definition a violent occupation."
* Craughwell 2008 p132, 134
"In recent years, it has been popular among historians to rehabilitate the Vikings, emphasizing their genius as shipbuilders and navigators, their importance as the founders of Irish cities such as Dublin and Waterford, their courage as explorers who sailed as far as North America, their contribution to opening up Europe to trade with Asia and the Islamic world. All of this is true. But the Vikings who came ashore at Portland and Lindisfarne were not explorers or merchants or the founders of cities -- they were pirates. They came to loot and pillage and enslave, and they killed anyone who got in their way or tried to resist them. Just as there is no denying the Vikings' contributions, it would be a distortion of the historical record to downplay the bloodshed and destruction they wrought on the people of the British Isles and western Europe."
* Harrison ill. Embleton 1993 p4
"When Norwegian Vikings first raided the European coast in the 8th century AD, their leaders were not kings, princes, or jarls, but a middle rank of warrior known as the hersir. At this time the hersir was typically an independent landowner or local chieftain. His equipment was usually superior to that of his followers. By the end of the 10th century, the independence of the hersir was gone, and he was now typically a regional servant of the Norwegian king."
* Nurmann, Schulze, & Verhülsdonk 1997 p23
"At the beginning of the Viking age the hersirs were the organisers and leaders of raiding parties and settlements, but their influence decreased with the late 10th century, when effective national monarchies evolved in Scandinavia. Thereafter the hersir became a local representative of royal power."
* Hjardar & Vike 2016 p190
"Helmets used in the early Viking Age consisted of several iron plates nailed together. They usually had a round top, but there was a trend towards more frequent use of spike-topped helmets, eventually forged as a whole from a single piece of iron. The Old Norse phrase hvassan hjalm ('sharp/spike helmet') refers to a helmet with a spiked top, or more precisely with a sharp ridge on the top. Helmets made up of four parts and topped with a spike are also mentioned. These are referred to as fjórðungar ('quarters'). There are several examples of these four-part helmets from Hungary, Russia and the Kazakh territories. Many of them had a spiked top, to which a horse-hair plume or other such adornment could possibly be attached. We can deduce that such helmets came to be used by Vikings who traveled east."
* Griffith 1995 p168-169
"Since we have very few surviving helmets -- about one from the Viking world itself (the Gjermundbu helmet, c.880), and only a handful more from its surrounding eras and territories (There are only about eighty, worldwide, for the whole period 500-1100) -- we cannot be sure whether helmets were restricted to a very small privileged elite or spread more widely among the military classes in general. Obviously no one who went to war would feel entirely safe without one, and no one would pass up the chance of grabbing one if he possibly could. There is no doubt that possession of a helmet was considered to be a mark of high status for a Viking warrior, showing not only that he was wealthy but also that he was better protected in battle. Helmets were ostentatious as well as practical, and a very great deal of social envy and one-upmanship tended to be invested in them. They were often gilded or otherwise decorated; they made particularly suitable gifts for persons whom one wanted to impress, and they often had a place in rich burials. ...
"Nevertheless, there is still considerable doubt about just how widespread helmets may have been when it came to battle. In the Maldon poem there is no mention of them at all -- and they appear on English coins only after the date of that battle, leading to the view that they were sadly rare in England around 991 and hence that Viking invaders had a decisive technological edge over their opponents. Against this there are some contemporary pictures in which the entire crews of Viking warships are portrayed as being fully armoured from head to foot; yet in view of the scarcity of surviving helmets we cannot be sure that this reflected anything more than a wistful ideal ...." [reference omitted]
* Sanmark & Sundman 2008 p62
"Vikingarnas hjälmar var troligen spetsiga och gjorda av läder. Man har bara funnit en vikingatida metallhjälm och den hittades i Norge. Hjälmen som är från 900-talet har en rund form med skydd för ögon och näsa."
* Konstam 2002 p120
"Early helmets were simple conical affairs, save the addition of a spectacle-like fixed visor. Others were formed from four segments, riveted together using bands; some had a flange to protect the wearer's nose. Almost all were made of iron, although decorative helmets in other metals have also been found. Most seem to have been simply constructed and unadorned; just domed conical helmets, without any additional form of protection. It is worth noting that the Vikings never wore the horned helmets so beloved of fiction. The image stems from several illustrations from the early Viking age, where helmets of this kind may have been used for ceremonial or religious functions, but were almost certainly not widely used, and were never worn in battle."
* Nurmann, Schulze, & Verhülsdonk 1997 p25-26
"There is only one well-preserved find of a helmet that is undoubtedly of Viking origin -- that found at Gjermundbu, dated to the late 9th century. The helmet consists of a brow band to which two curved strips are fixed to make a dome, one running from the front to the back and the other from ear to ear; at their junction is a small spike. The strips form a frame for four concave triangular plates which fill in the skull of the helmet. The face is partially covered by a 'visor' shaped like the frame of spectacles or goggles, decorated with inlaid eyebrows; and a mail neckguard was originally attached to the back and sides. All parts of the helmet were riveted together.
"Although this is a unique survival, documented finds of visor pieces at a number of other Scandinavian sites confirm its widespread use. It appears to be a simplified development of a much more elaborate helmet construction of the Vendel age, 100-200 years previously."
Costume (Hair, Tunic, Footwear)
* Heath ill. McBride 1985 p50
"Basic Viking costume comprised a long-sleeved woolen or linen tunic reaching to mid-thigh or just below the knee (often worn over a fine wool or linen shirt), plus trousers which came in an assortment of styles: close-fitting like ski-trousers; untapered; or exceedingly baggy and gathered below the knee. Some were only knee-length, with separate leggings, often cross-gartered fron knee to ankle. Stockinged breeches, sometimes of fur or leather, might also be worn. Shoes were of soft leather, sometimes with wooden soles, winter pairs having the fur left on for warmth. Rough cowhide or sealskin boots might also be worn, hairy side out. A short cape or a longer cloak, pinned at the right shoulder, or sometimes at the hip, completed the Viking's everyday dress."
* Gabrielsen 2000 p43
"[T]he men wore trousers and hose with a tunic or shirt over the top -- often with a decorative border. Over this they wore a cloak. Clothes were woven of wool or flax, and the finest garments were edged with silk or fur. ...
"Both men and women wore jewellery and the same items were made in various materials, so that the different groups in society could all be in fashion. The men took great care of their beards and their hair and it was said that in Hedeby both men and women wore eye make-up. It is almost symptomatic that in Birka it is in the graves of men that we most often find borders of silk and colourful material on tunics and cloaks."
* Harrison ill. Embleton 1993 p32
"Dressing for war was not so much a matter of uniform or camouflage but an expression of wealth and pride. The warrior would appear in his finest and most conspicuous clothing. In Njal's Saga, Skarp-Hedin dresses before violent encounters in the most ostentatious fashion. Participants in feuds are recognized at a distance by characteristic items of apparel. The intention often appears to be the advertisement rather than concealment of their presence."
* Carey, Allfree, & Cairns 2006 p59
"Viking spears were of light and heavy varieties: the former were thrown as javelins and had narrow blades and slim shafts, while the latter were used for shock combat and had broad, leaf-shaped blades and thicker, often iron-shod shafts. Both types of spear blade were socketed and some had short side-lobes jutting out just above the socket. This last type is often referred to as the Viking 'winged' spear."
* Konstam 2002 p120
"Spears -- cheap and easy to produce -- were ideally suited for arming the leidang (levy). Viking spears tend to have a broad blade, with cross-guards or lugs extending from the socket. This prevented them from penetrating too far into the victim's body and making it hard to recover the weapon for further use. Smaller spears with narrower blades may have been used as javelins by skirmishers, or as hunting weapons."
* Harrison ill. Embleton 1993 p50
"Many of the spears associated with the Vikings are Carolingian imports identified by a characteristic broad blade and wings projecting from the socket. The latter feature is analogous to the cross-pieces on later boar-spears which prevent the shaft penetrating too deep into the victim. Modern experiment shows they could also be used to hook an opponent's shield aside. Spears with narrower blades may be interpreted as javelins, although a dual purpose is implied in literary sources. The intricate decoration sometimes found on this type of spear does not rule out their use as throwing weapons. The thrower might reasonably expect to recover his spear afterwards. Personalized decoration would allow instant recognition and the thrower's skill would be undeniably shown when his weapon was extracted from a defeated foe."
* Hjardar & Vike 2016 p177
"Almost half of the Frankish spearheads imported to Scandinavia in the last half of the 8th century had wings on the socket. Winged spearheads are still found from the second half of the 10th century, but by then they were very few. The protruding wings may have functioned to prevent the spear from penetrating unnecessarily far into the wound, making it easier to pull out and stab again. The wings were also useful for hooking onto and pushing the edge of an opponent's shield and weapon, opening the way to a strike.
"Wings originated on spears for the hunting of large animals, where the wing functioned as a barb to hold the spear in the prey and hinder a large, angry animal from coming close enough to attack the hunter.
"The wings on many weapon spears are shorter than those on hunting spears, often no longer than the breadth of the blade. Wings which were too short could follow the blade into the wound. This suggests that that [SIC] wings on weapon spears were possibly just a symbolic reference to the ruling class's manly mastering of dangerous prey."
* Haywood 1993 p84
"Axes are the weapon with which the Vikings are most often associated, and these were often used as a cheaper alternative to a sword."
* Nurmann, Schulze, & Verhülsdonk 1997 p16-18
"At the beginning of the Viking era both the normal woodcutter's axe and the small 'bearded' axe were commonly used. Axes would be kept as tools in every Nordic household, so they would be available to even the poorest free-born warrior; but they soon developed into a symbol of the terror the Vikings spread among their enemies. They had 60cm-90cm (2ft-3ft) hafts and cutting edges 7cm-15cm (3ins-6ins) long. The fransisca, a small throwing axe probably developed by the Franks, was also used by Anglo-Saxons and Vikings alike."
* Harrison ill. Embleton 1993 p50
"Axes of the period are ... decorated according to the owner's status. The splendid Mammen axe without its inlaid silver design would be no more than a common wood-chopping tool. The shape of axe-heads differed according to purpose, although it should be noted that a wood-axe might make a serviceable weapon."
* Konstam 2002 p120
"Smaller axes serves [SIC] as single-handed weapons, or even as throwing-axes."
* Sanmark & Sundman 2008 p60
"Vikingarnas vapen var en viktig faktor för deras framgångar. Svärden var mycket kraftiga och hade dubbeleggade blad men kunde ändå svingas med bara en hand. Svärden och handtagen var ibland omsorgsfullt dekorerade, i vissa fall med runinskrifter."
* Hjardar & Vike 2016 p169-171
"For several hundred years before the Viking Age, double-edged sword blades were relatively heavy towards the tip, with parallel edges and a flat blade without a fuller groove along the middle. By the beginning of the Viking Age, development of better balanced and more easily handled swords was already well under way. Viking sword blades could be wider than before, but with the total weight reduced by the groove along the middle. Combined with narrowing and thinning of the blade towards the tip, this moved the centre of gravity towards the hilt, making swords easier to handle and enabling them to be made with longer blades. Viking swords usually weigh slightly over 1 kg.
"From the middle of the 8th century, the number of double-edged swords in Scandinavia increased, and new, rather massive types of iron hilt began to appear. Only one fifth of Viking swords found in Norway are single-bladed, and these are from the earlier part of the Viking Age. A lot of evidence suggests that the single-bladed sword was the last phase in the development of knives as weapons. Straight-backed knives evolved into sword-length knives during the 8th century. At the start of the 9th century these single-edged knife-swords evolved from having a simple wooden knife-handle to being mounted on a metal hilt like the double-edged swords. Single-edged swords have been found mostly in Norway, especially west Norway, and this may have been where they developed."
* Carey, Allfree, & Cairns 2006 p59
"Vikings, like their Germanic forebears, preferred the sword as their primary offensive arm, though the expense of this weapon often forced warriors to use axes and spears. The very best swords were imported from Frankish lands (despite Carolingian capitularies threatening capital punishment if arms sellers were caught), though Scandinavian craftsmen usually fitted them with ornate hilts and grips of precious metal, bone, horn and walrus ivory. Viking sword blades were usually pattern-welded and double-edged, averaging 32 inches in length, with a shallow fuller on each side to reduce the weight of these hefty blades."
* Griffith 1995 p173
"If helmets and mail were prestigious items, the same was also true of swords, although they were generally more widely available and many more have come down to us as grave goods or deposits in rivers and lakes (some 2000 from Scandinavia). They were made by quite sophisticated forging techniques to give hard, carbon-steel blades (the process known as 'pattern-welding', which was also sometimes used for spearheads), although individual hardened blades were sometimes welded onto softer but more pliable steel cores. Swords tended to have a better finish and decoration than spearheads, with ivory or precious metals being incorporated in the hilts of the richer examples. They were also more likely to be named, as a symbolic or mystical dedication of both the sword itself and its relationship to its owner, and they seem to have gone out of fashion rather less quickly than did helmets. They may therefore have had a longer 'shelf life' than some other arms, and so it may not have been at all an unusual case when Grettir's great grandfather's sword was handed down to him as a highly useful family heirloom." [references omitted]
* Harrson ill. Embleton 1993 p49
"The commonest form of Viking sword (of which over 2,000 have been found in Scandinavia alone) is the long, straight, two-edged type. These were usually about three feet long with a simple cross-guard and some form of pommel. The blade was generally fullered for lightness and strength. The points of such swords were comparatively blunt as they were intended more for cutting than stabbing. Such weapons could be purely functional or highly decorative. Fittings of copper alloy were more common in Scandinavia than Europe, but even so pommels and cross guards of ferrous metal were the norm. When not in use the sword was carried in a scabbard of wood, usually covered in leather with a metal chape. The interior of the scabbard was ideally lined with sheepskin, the wool side inwards, the natural greases protecting the metal of the blade. Scabbards were usually suspended from a waist belt but could be worn over the shoulder on a baldric."
* Konstam 2002 p120
"The typical Viking long-sword was a straight, double-edged blade made of iron and counterbalanced by a large semi-circular pommel, with the grip protected by a small straight cross-guard. Blades were usually fullered (grooved; a fuller is a tool blacksmiths use to make grooves in iron). Fullering increased lightness and strength as well as leaving a channel along which blood could flow (disputed by some historians).
"From over 2,000 surviving examples, we can see that while the edges were sharpened, the points of the swords were quite blunt. This means that they were used to hack, not stab. Sword finds range from the strictly functional to the highly decorative."
* Griffith 1995 p174
"The basic sword was straight, single-handed but double-edged, and about 35 inches (90 cm) long. It was normally kept in a sheepskin-lined, leather-covered scabbard held on a belt or slung at the hip on a baldric and, because it was intended for chopping rather than thrusting, it often lacked a sharp point. The impression we get of Viking 'fencing' is therefore that they must have used their swords in rather the same way that they used their axes -- in a series of heroic great swings with the full weight of the whole man and his weapon behind each. The weapons' edges were kept sharp, but they would probably not have had very much less effect even if they had been blunt. They were for cleaving shields, or skulls, or arms, or legs rather than for any delicate finesse of rapier-play. The tempo of action would therefore have been slow and deliberate -- a forester's 'chop ... chop ... chop' rather than a chef's rapid and fluid 'swish-wish-wish ...' as he sharpens his carving knife. In these circumstances it is not surprising that the saga literature contains many examples of warriors who meet their end as a result of swinging their weapon so hard that it misses its mark but embeds itself into the ground or into the woodwork of a boat ..., so that they are effectively disarmed and present a helpless target to their enemy's next blow." [CONTRA Amberger 1999 p198: "Even without the unfortunate home-ec analogy and the over-used cliché of 'finesse', Griffith's observations are valid only for the initial phases of combat. In mêlée and life-and-death scenarios, it is of course ludicrous to assume that each fighter paused after the cut to give his opponent the opportunity to pay him back in kind. (Apart from the fact that real-life fights with the rapier probably comprised more time of observant inactivity than the rapid-motion 'finesse' of Errol Flynn may suggest.)"]
* Hjardar & Vike 2016 p168
"... [I]n Old Norse the word sverð also means 'penis'. The person who was pierced by the sword was therefore by implication a female, a vagina, a sheath for the sword. The sword is the weapon which is most often given extraordinary qualities and special names in the sagas."
* Griffith 1995 p166
"By far the cheapest and commonest item in the Viking armoury was the shield, which was also the most useful item in battle. Rich or poor, young or old, no warrior could afford to be without a shield -- and sometimes he might have more than one -- regardless of whatever else he took with him. The shield was his main line of defence against all forms of attack, and if used correctly it could make helmets and mail shirts almost entirely superfluous.
"The traditional Viking shield was circular, around a yard in diameter, with a metal boss at the centre to cover the hand grip. It would be made of relatively narrow strips of wood, possibly laminated and preferably lime, with some iron struts as its frame at the rear and a leather (rarely metal) reinforcement around the rim or even all over its face."
* Sanmark & Sundman 2008 p62
"Sköldar skyddade krigarna i striden. De byggdes av trä och var runda. Skålformade järnbeslag skyddade krigarnas händar."
* Hjardar & Vike 2016 p183
"The Vikings appear nearly always to have used round shields. The wooden shield-plate was flat with a hole in the middle where a wooden carrying handle was mounted crossways on the inside. A dome of plate iron, the shield-boss, was nailed securely over the hole on the outside, to protect the hand. In the Viking graves, this iron boss is the most important and often the only evidence of a shield."
* Konstam 2002 p120-121
"Sadly, no reliable archaeological examples of shields have been found. Those from the Gokstad ship-burial may well have been specially commissioned designs for use in the burial mound, but pictorial evidence suggests that round circular shields were the norm. A central metal boss protected the wood and hide shield, and the outer surface frequently appears to have been painted, either with quartered patterns of solid color or, more usually, simple artistic devices."
* Heath ill. McBride 1985 p52-54
"Shields were circular, constructed of wood, and might be leather-covered. They were bound round the edges with iron, or leather in the Gokstad examples, while one found at Birka in Sweden was bound with small bronze plates. In the centre was a prominent hemispherical or conical iron boss, behind which was the hand-grip. The shield itself was usually between 30 and 40 ins. in diameter and made of limewood, only about one-fifth of an inch thick and consequently very light. If the Gotland picture stones are accurate some shields may have been smaller. they were generally painted, the colours most often referred to in the sources being red (by far the most popular), yellow, black, white, and to a lesser extent green and blue; the 64 shields found with the Gokstad ship were painted alternately in yellow and black. The orb could also be divided up into halves and quarters painted in contrasting colours, and there are some references to shields painted with mythical scenes, dragons and other creatures."
* Hjardar & Vike 2016 p165
"Like the axe, the knife was a slaughtering tool, used for the necessary trick of cutting throats and draining away life-blood. The knife used as a weapon represents liberation from dominance: a son's liberation from his father; a slave's liberation from his master; a people's liberation from a dominant race. This can also be seen as a cultural expression of the idea of the newborn infant being liberated from the mother through birth and the cutting of the umbilical cord. The slave was not allowed to own more than a small working knife, and so a large knife designed as a weapon was a symbol of liberation. One type of long knife used as a weapon was known in Old Norse as a sax, and in Old English as a seax. The etymological origins of this word have meanings such as 'to split in two, to separate, to divide, to cut[']."
* Nurmann, Schulze, & Verhülsdonk 1997 p18
"As indicated by the name, the origin of the sax lies with the Saxons, and the Vikings most probably adopted it from these peoples who were as often their neighbours as their enemies."The sax is a single-edged knife of a length which can range from about 7.5cm to 75cm (3-30 inches). We can distinguish between two groups: short ones with a length of 35cm (14ins) or less, and long ones of between 50cm and 75cm (20-30 inches). Originally the shorter knives were probably everyday domestic tools, carried to war for camp use but also ready to hand if a fallen enemy had to be finished off. The long saxes were developed specifically as weapons, but they could equally be used for more peaceful chores, in the manner of a machete. Some long saxes fitted with sword-type handles were found in the Irish Viking burials of Kilmainham-Islandbridge."
* Hjardar & Vike 2016 p167
"The medium-length knives used as weapons hung horizontally from the belt, across the front of the lower abdomen. The cutting edge faced upward, with the handle of the knife conveniently placed for the warrior's right hand. The sheath had two hanging straps going up to a belt which appears to have been a specialised weapon-belt with fixed fastening points so that the knife would stay in the correct position. Long knives were too long to hang horizontally in this way, and contemporary pictures show that they hung diagonally across the left hip, more like a sword."
* Nurmann, Schulze, & Verhülsdonk 1997 p45 caption
"Purses ..., both decorated and undecorated and in many sizes, have been found in all areas of Viking settlement."
Jewelry (Pendant, Bracelets, Belt)
* Haywood 2000 p108
"As it still is today, jewelry was at once an adornment and a way of displaying wealth, but it also served a practical purpose, as a convenient way of carrying wealth, as a means of exchange, for sealing a friendship or alliance, and, at a more mundane level, as fastenings for cloaks, dresses, and belts."
* Allan 2002 p110
"Living in spartan times, the Viking peoples expressed their love of ostentation through jewelry. Men and women alike wore arm- and neckrings as well as shoulder brooches that held their outer garments in place; in addition, women wore necklaces, pendants, and occasionally finger-rings. Plain silver neck- and armrings were made in standard weights so that they could double up as currency; to settle small amounts they were often cut into fragments known as 'hack-silver.' Most of the metal used was melted down from Middle Eastern coins brought back to Scandinavia by Rus traders."
* Allan 2002 p133 caption
"Mead and ale were often passed around at feasts in drinking horns. Most such vessels came from cattle, but more elaborate artifacts were also put into service."