20 August 2008

Weapons and Armies: Viking Threats from the Sea

By Michelle Styles

Men will quake with terror
Ere the seventy sea oars
Gained their well earned respite
From the labours of the ocean
Norwegian arms are driving
This iron studded dragon
Down the storm tossed river,
Like an eagle with wings beating.
Snorri Sturuluson: KING HAROLD'S SAGA Ch. 60
(translated by Magnus Magnusson)
It is impossible to think of the Vikings without thinking about their raids and most importantly, their ships. For the Vikings, their ships were more than transportation, they were the reason of their being. The vast majority of their sagas use ship imagery and revolve around the ships and their raids. To be a Viking warrior was also to be a sailor.

The reason for this lauding of all things nautical is simple. Because of the difficulty of the terrain, most of the commerce and transport was done by boat. The Nordic people in order to survive had to trade, and to trade over long distances. And the greatest warriors were afforded ship burials.

The Viking dragon ship or long boat did not emerge suddenly, but was a series of technological innovations.

The earliest Nordic boat discovered, Als Boat, dates from around 350BC and was basically a canoe with a a dug out lime tree as a base and two planks and was designed to be paddled.

Although we know the Romans and Greeks used rowers, the earliest Nordic boat displaying this feature, so far discovered dates from around 400 AD. The greatest ship burials--the Gokstad Ship and the Oseburg ships--have not only given us the most accurate information about the lifestyle during the early Viking period, but also information about the ships themselves and why they were so effective.

It is the combination of the sail and the oars which gave the long boats speed and maneuverability. During raids, there is a theory that the boats carried two crews--one to row while the other one rested. This is because the Gokstad ship had 32 oars, but was hung with 64 shields. There are, however, no benches and it is thought that the oarsmen perched on their sea chests.

The narrow hulls twisted and turned on the sea, like a serpent. Indeed, the prows of the ships were adorned with detachable dragon figureheads. In the Oseburg burial chamber, a number of the figureheads were discovered.

The ships had relatively shallow draughts and this enabled the Vikings to sail up rivers and to land their boats without harbours. Thus various rich inland cities such as London became targets as did places like Lindisfarne which did not have the anchorage for war ships.

The steering oar was always on the right side of the boat and hence the reason for the word--starboard. The old Norse word is styra and means to steer.

But how good were the boats? In 1893, a replica of the Gokstad ship took 28 days to sail from Bergen to Newfoundland Canada. The men who participated in the voyage recorded that the hull twisted and turned like a serpent, and this aided the quick crossing. The boat became the toast of the Chicago world fair, and apparently today is in a park at the Chicago Zoo.

The long ship was the secret to the Viking success--swift, responsive to the oarsmen and able to land warriors as and when the Vikings wanted. They were the engineering marvels of their time and gave the Vikings added advantage in their preferred method of warfare--raiding.

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