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Viking age warfare was brutal and chaotic with swords, axes and arrows all flying around at the same time. Due to these many threats the Vikings had to develop methods of defence to protect themselves from harm. Along with their armour and helmets the Viking Shield was an integral part of their battle equipment for the Norsemen.
Only the richer members of society would have been able to afford armour which was complex to and expensive to smith from high quality steel, therefore the shield was the staple defensive tool for the majority of Vikings. Absorbing blows on the shield was also much less risky than relying on armour to protection from potentially lethal attacks. They could be used as both defensive and offensive weapons allowing the vikings to block attacks and strike with the edge of the shield. Another common practice was the decoration of the shields with protective runes which would keep the user safe from harm and ensure victory.
Viking Shields were typically light and easily manoeuvrable. They had a round circular design and were predominantly made from wood with an iron 'boss' in the centre to protect the users hand. In contrast to other medieval and ancient shields they were usually held by a single hand in the centre instead of being strapped to the arm. This gave certain advantages in terms of manoeuvrability and allowed for a combination of fast offensive and defensive moves, however stability and weapon retention were sacrificed.
The size of Viking shields seems to have varied substantially however the majority were thought to be approximately 30 inches in diameter. Larger shields would be more beneficial for defending against arrows however since the Vikings often used them as offensive weapons the smaller designs were more common due to their increased reliance on manoeuvrability.
The shields were made by joining several planks of wood together with iron nails and iron bands on the back. There is some debate about which kind of wood was traditionally used due to the fact that most historical finds were made from pine and a variety of other common types of wood, however in the sagas they were often said to have been made from linden wood. It is thought that some shields were also reinforced with iron around the rim to protect the edge and allow for more damaging attacks when it was thrust at an enemy combatant, however there is limited archaeological evidence to support this theory.
One of the most complete remaining Viking Shields was found in Trelleborg, Denmark in 2010. It was discovered in fragments and pieced back together and is now on display at the Danish national museum. Historians estimate that this shield dates back to the 10th Century AD during the reign of Harald Bluetooth. It had a diameter of 33.5 inches and was made from 7 planks of Fir wood. There was a hole in the middle where it is presumed that there would have been a boss fitted however this part was never found. The front was originally covered in animal skin to protect the wood and would have been painted with traditional colours and possibly protective runes. The shield was relatively thin, being 8mm at the centre and 5mm at the edge. This would have offered less protection that other shields of the medieval age however it was much lighter and easier to manoeuvre.
Trelleborg shield after being reconstructed from fragments - National Museum of Denmark
There were also a large number of semi-intact shields from the Gokstad Ship historical site in Norway, which was excavated in the 1880s. These shields were thought to be painted alternately in black and yellow and displayed along the ship. There were 64 in total with 32 displayed along each side of the ship. Much like the Trelleborg shield they were relatively thin compared to other shields from the same time period, which supports the theory that they would have been covered in animal skin to improve their strength.
Shields from the Gokstad Ship burial site - Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
It was widely accepted amongst historians and Viking enthusiasts that the Norsemen would fight in lines with their shields interlocked in front of them much like the Roman's phalanx which was so effective for them in their conquest of Europe.
Many historians believed that the germanic peoples had learned this technique from the roman's when they invaded around 1000 years prior to the Viking age and adopted the tactic for themselves for themselves. It had been proved time and time again that a better organised force which worked as a team could defeat a much larger enemy army.
The Viking armies were not heavily reliant on cavalry or ranged attacks, in fact the vast majority of their warfare was done by infantry in hand to hand close combat. It is therefore thought that they would have used some kind of formation to protect themselves from enemy arrows and keep formation during their attacks, this is where the idea of the 'shield wall' comes in. Battles would be fought by the two sides clashing against each other in their shield walls and trying to hold their formation in order to break the enemy.
In recent years there has been some criticism of the idea of the shield wall theory, most notably by a prominent archaeologist at the University of Copenhagen named Rolf Warming. He asserts that most of the Viking shields found at historical sites were quite thin and would not have been able to survive sustained blows from swords or arrows. This casts doubt on the idea that they would spend any large amount of time seeking protection behind their shields as would be the case in the shield wall theory.
There is also very little written evidence to support the use of shield walls, since the tactic is not mentioned or pictured in any known historical sources according to Warming. He also conducted numerous practical test with reconstructions of Viking shields based on historical designs and found that when used in the shield wall the shields would take significant damage and could not be relied on for protection for very long. However when used in a more dynamic manner to deflect enemy blows during combat and strike back at them the light Viking shield design performed much better and received relatively little damage.
As with many things in the Viking age there is much left to interpretation by modern historians due to the lack of evidence. If you enjoyed our article or wish to add anything please leave a comment below.
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