17 February 2018

Hand-Held Historical Research: #Viking Jorvik

Spear, long axe and seax (long knife), with shield behind.
Spring might not quite be with us here in the northern hemisphere, but in the Acaster household mid February starts the annual series of historical research field trips, not so much in a field – I could have done if I’d wanted – but in York’s city centre streets. Welcome to the trading empire of Viking Jorvik.

A little background: York began life in AD71 as a fortress built by invading Romans, and the rectangle of medieval walls still standing used the fortress walls as foundations, which gives a somewhat breath-taking notion of how large the fortress was. A civil settlement sprung up facing it across the river, to be known as Eboracum. I used this research and more for The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy.

As the Roman legions left early in the 5th century the Saxons were arriving on British shores, and to a far lesser extent took over the fortress area and settlement, calling it Eoforwic. By the late 8th century “Northmen” were raiding the land using their state-of-the-art transports, langskips, and by 866/7 what became known as The Great Heathen Army had taken the settlement by sword-storm as it annexed the northern portion of the country. Ideally sited on a set of navigable rivers emptying into the North Sea for a crossing to Scandinavian lands, Jórvik, as the settlement was renamed, became the capital of the Dane Law. It remained under Norse rule for 100 years, re-blossoming into a trading hub as it had under the Saxons, this time stretching from Iceland to Russia to Byzantium and Ireland.

More weaponry for sale than can be imagined.
Getting the forge up to temperature to make arrowheads
All this was mere dry academic history until in the 1970s a major redevelopment of Coppergate, an area close to the river, re-wrote it. Viking Age streets full of houses were discovered in the silt, and 40,000 artefacts were lifted from the ground. The shopping centre redevelopment went ahead, leaving a somewhat unassuming small shopfront to announce The Jorvik Centre and act as a portal to an animated reconstruction of the old Norse dwellings in situ, complete with sounds and smells, deep below modern footfall. Since it opened in 1984 it has welcomed over 20 million visitors.

Along with the opening of the Centre came the Jorvik Festival, relying heavily on the participation of re-enactors. This has grown substantially over the years, now covering a week of events, with traders and participants coming from across Scandinavia and Europe, and North America by the sound of accents overheard, as well as talks, lectures, feasting and a battle. There’s always a battle; we are talking Vikings.

It is an opportunity to lift historically accurate weaponry and clothing for weight, try out skills, and discuss manufacturing techniques with people who actually make these items. So I could be found discussing the relative merits of various types of arrowheads, who in their society would be able to afford seal-skin ropes and whether ropes made from lime-bast would be as good aboard a longship – sorry, langskip – trying out a hand-quern, watching craftsman work with wood and iron, spinning with a distaff, and taking a lesson in nålebinding which looks halfway between crocheting and knitting. 
Have hand-axe, can split & plane wood
A writer never knows when these things might come in handy.


  1. How much does a shield way? I can't even imagine lifting any of those weapons. Much less using the weapon effectively while waving the shield around to intercept incoming blows.

  2. Good question. And like every good answer it starts with *depends*.

    Unlike the Roman scutum which were of a uniform size, the Norse shields were of a diameter to suit the man carrying it, both his size and preference; 18-48" I've seen mentioned, with 30-36" said to be common. Add into this the type of wood used for the butt-jointed planks: lime (linden/basswood) seems to have been preferred for lightness and durability, but fir and poplar were used as well. The trick was to use a wood with fibres that both flexed to help take the power out of a blow and "grabbed" the attacking blade. I've read that the painted faces were designed not to show ownership or allegiance, but to hide the direction of the grain to confuse an axeman attempting to cleave them in two with one hit.

    There'd be a central boss to take the fist which gripped a shaped bar nearly spanning the shield centrally, with two shorter spars parallel for stability. Sometimes that was it, sometimes rawhide would be wrapped around the perimeter to help hold planks tight, and sometimes it was metal-bound (more expensive) to do the same and to help blunt a blade. Some shields were shaved towards the edges giving a lighter weight. Some were faced with glued cloth.

    So in answer to your question, it seems a shield could weigh anywhere between 6-12lbs.

    The other thing to consider is that shields weren't a one-off item. A man might have one, yes, along with his spear, seax (utility knife), eating knife and hand-axe - only the rich had swords made by specialist swordsmiths, the rest mentioned could be made by the village blacksmith - but if the man was going into a known battle, and had the wherewithal to carry them, he might have two or three shields. They were considered fairly disposable because of the punishment they took.

    See the image fronting this blogpost: http://spangenhelm.com/the-norse-shield/ and bear in mind that these are re-enactors using blunt weapons.

    LOL! I bet you wish you'd never asked.