From the day in 793 when Viking warriors descended on an isolated monastery in the north of England, the Norsemen became an object of fascination and terror for medieval Europeans. “Never before,” an English monk later wrote, “has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race.”
How did the Vikings come to inspire such fear in the hearts of their opponents? Archaeological excavations of Viking graves and battlefields show they used the same chain mail shirts, long spears, and sharp, double-edged swords as other well equipped warriors all across Europe.
Their reputation, experts say, came not so much from their weapons or armor as from their innovative tactics and high morale.
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The Vikings’ mastery of the waves, for instance, often gave them a strategic advantage. “Initially, what people most feared was their mobility,” says Andrew Nicholson, an archaeologist with the Dumfries and Galloway Council in Scotland and a Viking reenactor. “Their navigational skills and longships allowed them to turn up almost anywhere.”
By the time local lords got word of a raiding party and rallied their troops to respond, the Norse ships and their crews were long gone—often leaving a trail of corpses and looted monasteries in their wake.
Indeed, when they found themselves facing a well prepared opponent on equal footing, victory was far from assured. According to contemporary chronicles, the Vikings lost about as many pitched battles as they won.
But even when luck turned against them, warriors from the north were more likely to stay and fight—thanks, in part, to peer pressure. Viking armies were organized into boat crews, usually a group of a few dozen men from the same village or town. These “shield brothers” spent most of their summers packed shoulder to shoulder on longships, sailing for weeks to raid far-off targets.
“You row, pee, eat, drink, and fight together,” says Igor Gorewicz, a sword expert and author in Szczecin, Poland, who participates in Viking battle reenactments. “There’s a very close connection with people from the ship, and morale is very, very high.”
As a result, Vikings joined the fray confident that their comrades would watch their backs. “The village provides the crew, so you’re operating with your friends and people you know,” Nicholson says. And Viking religion promised warriors who fell in battle a place in Valhalla, where they would feast and fight among friends until the end of time. (Read "How to Eat Like a Viking.")
That same social pressure kept Vikings from turning and running during a fight. Cowardice in battle would follow a faint-hearted Viking home, bringing shame and ruin to his family. “If you dropped your shield and retreated, you’d be finished,” Gorewicz says.
That’s not to say Vikings were suicidal, or stupid. Far from it: Vikings were in it for the money. They preferred soft targets, like isolated monasteries and poorly defended churches—places where the risks were low and the returns were high. They had no sense of chivalry, and favored ambushes or sneak attacks when it served their purposes.
“They were going on raids to become rich,” says Gorewicz. “Of course they wanted to survive.”
And what about berserkers, the legendary Viking fighters whose fury in battle turned them into a synonym for insanity? Archaeological evidence for their existence is slim, but there are a few tantalizing clues, like a carved walrus ivory chess piece found in Scotland showing a bug-eyed warrior chewing his shield.
Evidence suggests berserkers may have been an elite warrior class, a notable distinction in a society already geared towards combat. “Berserk” literally means “bear shirt,” and there are ample depictions in Viking-era carvings of warriors wearing bear or wolf skins over their helmets.
“It may be a cult group or a warrior brotherhood,” says Nicholson. “They had a reputation for being particularly ferocious and impervious to pain.”
When facing a similarly equipped enemy, Viking armies had one simple but effective trick up their sleeve: the “boar’s snout,” a wedge of bellowing warriors designed to open up a gap in their enemy’s lines. They could then take advantage of the chaos to fight one-on-one.
The most common weapon was the spear, which could be thrown or used to stab at an opponent’s face or exposed body. A line of Vikings with shields and spears was a formidable obstacle.
“Everybody thinks swords and axes are cool, but the spear was much more effective,” Nicholson says. Among Viking reenactors, Nicholson says, there’s even a saying praising long, pointy sticks: “Live by the sword, die by the spear.”