Everybody should be familiar with the Age of Discovery. But you know what, before the Age of Discovery, Vikings had dominated the Europe with the excellent Viking ships, and started the Viking Age as early as the 8th – 11th century. At that time, Vikings roamed everywhere in their ships, and looted European coastal countries. They also sailed merchant ships to everywhere in Europe and established many immigrant settlements.
“Oh, my God! Please protect us from the Northmen!” That was the prayer often heard echoing in European churches in the early Middle Ages. The so-called “Northmen” referred to the Vikings who were living in the Scandinavian Peninsula (modern Denmark, Sweden and Norway). Their ships often popped up near the shore or river bank in European countries, launched overwhelming raids and plunders, then quickly left with their spoils. Vikings frequently succeeded and became the most feared in Europe, because the Viking ships were fast and shallow-draft.
Viking warship, also known as the Viking long-boat or Viking drakkar (the Viking king and tribe chiefs usually took the drakkars), took shape around the 8th century. Its typical feature was the two dragon heads at both bow and stern. The Viking warship was long, narrow and small-size. But later, sails were widely installed and used on Viking ships, and thus provided higher speed and better cruising ability. Its high speed and shallow draft conformed to Vikings’ tactic needs of surprise attack and quick battle.
In 793 AD, Vikings from Norway raided Lindisfarne Priory in England with Viking warships. This incident marked the opening of Viking Age. In the following three centuries, with excellent Viking warships, Vikings conquered a vast land from Ireland in the west to the Volga River in the east, and almost swept the whole Europe. In 837 AD, Vikings from Denmark landed in Ireland and established the city of Dublin; in 885, the leader of Danes Siegfried (Sigfred) led 700 warships and 30,000 Viking soldiers to besiege Paris for a year, and the siege ended after French paid 700 pounds of gold and Vikings established a colony in Normandy; in 907, a Swedish Viking leader named Oleg (Prince Oleg of Novgorod) led 2,000 warships and 80,000 soldiers to attack Constantinople (the capital of Byzantine Empire), forced Byzantines to sign an unequal treaty and pay annual tribute to him.
Viking warships played an absolute role of vanguard in Vikings’ outward expansion. So, how were Viking warships built? And how did Viking soldiers fight with them? Let’s go find the answer from archaeological findings.
In 1880 and 1904, two Viking warships used by Norwegian royal family between 800 and 850 were excavated. Their keels and hull-shells were made from solid oak, while the bottoms and decks were made from pine. The wood planks of hull shell were obviously imbricated, therefore this ship was built with the “overlap joint” method, that was, imbricating the planks like tiles and then fixing them with iron rivets. Sometimes cables were used to bind the hull, and the gaps between plants were filled with animal hair or plant fiber. With the imbricated planks and square sails, the warships were solid enough and lightweight.
Vikings usually use the tactics as below: sailors paddled to propel the warship at the speed of five or six knots; when there was a fair wind, the warship could go at a surprising speed of 15-20 knots with sails. Soldiers wore leather armor or chain mail, as well as conical leather or iron helmets. When arriving at the destination, they jumped off the warships and launches raids with axes, swords and spears in one hand and a big basswood shield in the other one. Sometimes, archers and cavalries would fight in coordination to hit the enemy by surprise. When the situation was not good, the ingenious design of the similar bow and stern on Viking warship helped Viking soldiers to quickly leave the battlefield without turning the ship around. What was more impressive was, when necessary, Viking soldiers could even carry the warship to go across land and ice, and sail off again where was navigable.
Vikings were not only conquerors and plunderers, but also merchants and navigators. With the particular merchant ships, Vikings traveled throughout the Europe, accumulated a large number of wealth, and promoted the development of Nordic society. They also discovered many lands where nobody had ever set foot on during their explorations, and established many settlements there.
A kind of merchant ship named “Knorr” was widely used at that time. In 1962, five Viking-age ships were discovered in the Roskilde Fjord of Denmark, and one of them was a 16-meter-long Knorr ship. Like the Viking warship, the performance of Viking merchant ship (represented by the Knorr) was rapidly improved due to the large-scale application of sails. But compared with Viking warship, Viking merchant ship had a higher gunwale, a larger width and more paddles. These paddles were installed at the bow and stern so that there was enough space for cargos in the middle part of ship. And it provided better comfort than Viking warship while the payload capacity was ensured.
Viking merchant ships mainly carried amber, fur, beewax and walrus ivory. Amber was particularly popular among Romans and could be called as the economic pillar of Vikings. What Vikings needed were silver coins, glassware, cloth and fine weapons. Similar to the Viking warship, Viking merchant ship had a shallow draft. Therefore, Viking merchants could easily expand their scope of trade to everywhere in Europe through the Baltic, the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea as well as the Seine, the Rhine, the Dnieper and the Volga.
Vikings made remarkable achievements in maritime exploration. For example, in 874 AD, a Norwegian named Ingólfur Arnarson led a group of immigrants from Nordic region to arrive in Iceland, and they were believed to be the earliest permanent settlers in Iceland; in 982 AD, Erik the Red, who was sentenced to three-year exile, started his exploration from Iceland, and discovered a beautiful and fertile island in the west. He named this island as “greenland”, and brought more Norse immigrants to this island. That is Greenland today.
Between the 8th century and 11th century, both Viking warship and Viking merchant ship had deep influence on the European society. Throughout the history, there were not only plunder and resistance, but also trade and communication. And human society is continuously developing in such explorations and collisions.