A Viking Age depiction from the Tjängvide image stone, on Gotland. Photo by Berig / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

The Viking Age (793–1066 CE) was a significant period during the Middle Ages when Norsemen, known as Vikings, undertook large-scale raiding, colonizing, conquest, and trading throughout Europe and even reached North America. This era followed the Migration Period and the Germanic Iron Age. Originating from their homelands in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, the Vikings explored the oceans and rivers of Europe through trade and warfare. They also reached Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Anatolia. The Viking Age not only applies to their homeland of Scandinavia but also to any place significantly settled by Scandinavians during the period. Despite their reputation, few of them were Vikings in the sense of being engaged in piracy. Their ventures resulted in the establishment of several kingdoms and earldoms in Europe, and their influence is still evident in many cultures today.

Viking expeditions (blue line): depicting the immense breadth of their voyages through most of Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, the Arctic, and North America. Lower Normandy, depicted as a “Viking territory in 911”, was not part of the lands granted by the king of the Franks to Rollo in 911, but Upper Normandy. en:User:Bogdangiusca / GFDL,

The Vikings were renowned for their prowess in battle and their innovative military strategies. Here is an in-depth look at the tactics they employed.

Surprise Attacks and Hit-and-Run Tactics

Contrary to popular belief, Vikings did not always charge head-on into battle. They were masters of surprise attacks and hit-and-run tactics]. Their longships, with their characteristic shallow-draft hulls, allowed them to cross the North Sea and navigate Europe’s many rivers. This mobility enabled them to appear out of nowhere, bypassing hostile land forces. One such example is the raid on Lindisfarne in 793CE, where the Vikings appeared suddenly in a type of surprise attack that no one thought possible.

Shield-Wall Formation

The shield-wall, or “skjaldborg”, was a central feature of Viking battle tactics. This entailed a phalanx-like formation of warriors who were up to five ranks deep. The front line was composed of the most well-armored troops, and their closely held, upraised shields faced the enemy onslaught. The Vikings, like the Anglo-Saxons, fought on foot (not horseback) and in battle formed a “shield-wall” where they locked together side-by-side, shields in front, and pushed their enemy back until they broke up.

Wedge Formation

In some situations, Vikings used a wedge formation known as the “svinfylking”. This formation was used to break through enemy lines.

Use of Ships in Navigation and Attack

The Vikings’ heavy use of ships, good strategic mobility, and strong grasp on logistics ensured they could cause havoc abroad for years at a time. Their characteristic hit-and-run tactics were bolstered by the establishment of overwintering bases, from which campaigns could be launched and more land could be conquered.

Viking long ships besieging Paris in 845, 19th century portrayal.

Weapons and Armor

Viking warriors used a variety of weapons and armor, including swords (both single- and double-edged), axes and battle axes, daggers, spears, bows and arrows, shields, helmets, and mail shirts. Viking swords were made of iron blades, intended to be held in one hand, with broad grooves along the center (“fullers”) cutting down their weight a bit. Some Viking sword blades were made from steel of a quality that rivals early modern steelmaking.

Adaptability to Different Situations

The Viking warriors were highly adaptable and constantly innovated in their military strategies. They utilized a combination of naval and land-based tactics, depending on the terrain and the nature of their campaign. From surprise attacks and hit-and-run raids to full-scale sieges, the Vikings showed great versatility in their approach to warfare.

Knowledge of Enemies

The Vikings maintained a vast network, which allowed them to strike exactly when treasuries and granaries were ripe — and resistance at a minimum. They often knew where and when large masses of peoples gathered for trade fairs. One example of this is the raid on Nantes in 843CE, where the Vikings showed up on the day of Saint John’s Eve, a day when people from far and wide came to Nantes to celebrate.

Psychological Warfare

Vikings leveraged their fearsome reputation to create terror in their enemies. This was a form of psychological warfare that added to their advantage in battles.

These tactics and formations, combined with their superior mobility and strong grasp on logistics, made the Vikings formidable opponents in warfare.

Viking swords at the Vikingermuseum in Haithabu, Germany. Photo by viciarg  / GFDL.

Final Thoughts

The success of the Vikings in warfare was due to a combination of superior mobility, innovative tactics, effective use of weapons and armor, adaptability, and extensive knowledge of their enemies. Despite their reputation as brutal raiders, Viking warriors were probably no more brutal than their peers, and their strategies continue to be studied and admired for their effectiveness.

 

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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