There is Skaldic poetry that is specifically dedicated to the Norse shield. They are known as the “shield poems.”
The shield was as much a part of Norse culture as was the ax. It was well developed and one of the best shields made.
The Viking shield was very different from that of the shields used around the World. The shields were made from wood with a metal center and were colorfully painted. Upon first glance, there doesn’t seem to anything special about these shields but you’d be very wrong to think so.
The shield designed by the Norse was a superior and well thought out concept.
It was not made from solid wood as were the other culture’s shields of the day. This is in contrast of what you would think you wanted from a shield. Something solid enough to block hits from weapons and arrows. Something durable enough to protect you. Something strong enough to protect you from the swing of a sword, thrust of a spear, or an arrow with your name on it.
Archaeologists have much information about the shields that were used by Norse warriors and Viking raiders. Several findings, such as the one from Copenhagen, Denmark, where a well-preserved Viking shield more than 1,000 years old was found, have contributed to the incredible amount of information gathered about the construction of these shields.
The Viking shield was a brilliant concept and ahead of its time.
It was actually made from what we would think of as soft and flimsy wood like fir, alder and poplar. Norse shields were not made from heavy oak or other known solid woods. In the Sagas, it is written that they were to be made from ‘flexible’ woods such as linden, lime, or basswood. Wow, that’s a flimsy wood to be making a shield from. Why would the fierce Vikings use such a flimsy wood, instead of hard woods like their opponents?
The Norse chose this flexible wood because, unlike the hard woods such as oak, Viking shields weren’t inclined to split so easily upon a successful hard impact. When there was a successful split of the Norse shield by a weapon, the fibers of the wood tended to bind around blade which prevented them from cutting any deeper unless a lot more pressure was applied. Something you definitely didn’t want to be wasting your time doing in combat. Hesitating in attempts to finish splitting your opponent’s shield gave your opponent the opportunity to split your head open.
Another characteristic about the wood the Norse chose to use for their shields was the fact that instead of bearing the blunt of a solid hit, which would also cause the shield to split or shatter, the ‘flimsy’ wood of the Viking shield would bounce and absorb some of the impact. This made the shield more effective.
They also reinforced their shields with leather quite frequently and occasionally had iron around the rim for added strength.
The shield wasn’t made of a single sheet of wood, but of planks.
The shield from the Gokstad ship was about 3 feet in diameter and shows us clearly how the shield planks were laid. The planks were tightly formed running along the grain of the wood. This caused blows against the grain to bounce back, adsorbing the energy and blows along the grain would grip the weapon.
An addition to the flexibility of the Viking shield that helped repel hits was that it was painted. It wasn’t painted for looks or uniformity like the Greek or Roman shields were with identical markings and color to identify them to their lord or unit. The Viking shield was painted specifically for a function other than identification. One thing you’ll notice about a Viking shield is that in a band of warriors, they all had different color shields with different markings. Markings that were painted on their shields that had no real significance in relation to marking who they were or who they belonged to.
This was because the Viking shield was painted for a reason that had nothing to do with units or cohorts. It was painted for the sole purpose of hiding the grains of the wood of the shield. If an opponent were able to see the wood grains on a shield, they’d be able to figure out where to hit it in order to split it.
The Viking shield was intentionally painted to conceal the wood grains, it was not painted to look pretty or to mark their loyalties.
The cleverness of this was when their opponent went to strike the shield, they had no hint as to the shield’s most vulnerable place or where to strike or hit it.
Add the fact that the Norse shield was flexible and would absorb the hits and even would bounce their opponent’s weapon back at them. If an attacker did get a lucky hit along the grain of the shield’s wood, then their blade would most likely get caught in the wood’s fibers and instantly give the shield wielder an advantage over them.
There is one more clever thing about the Viking shield, the center part of it called the shield boss (sköldbucklawas) made of metal. Usually the shield boss was made of iron and was concave with the shield. Some had a handle inside of it, but this was uncommon as most used a wooden handle that also served to cross support the shield’s planks.
The advantage of this was that it was like having a fist made of iron. You could bash the enemy with it and even use it to parry and block blows.
The shield center was the primary place where the wielder would use to repel and block strikes against them, using the iron shield boss around their fist as much as possible. The shield boss had a a strip of wood in the back for cross support of the wood planks. This was used as a handle and made it easier to wield as it fell upon the natural place in the hand and would also serve as an iron fist, so to speak, to strike an opponent with the shield.
With the wood being light weight and the handle also being in the center and formed with iron, the shield was easier to wield and use than the shields used by other nations. Other nations such as the Greeks and Romans, strapped their shields to their forearms which made them difficult to wield in melee combat.
Viking shields were also heavily used in defensive and offensive formations.
The skjaldborg (shield fort) was a main defensive formation where Norse warriors would create a line of interlocked shields (shield wall) and thrust their spears at their opponents. And of course, the previously mentioned Norse shield formation called the “svinfylking” (boar formation), where warriors created a wedge formation and charged forward to burst through the enemy’s front line or even thwart an enemy cavalry advance on them.
- This article is an excerpt from the book:
Kane, Njord. “Norse Armor and Weaponry.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. ISBN 978-1943066018 .
Used by permission from the author and publisher exclusively for use on spangenhelm.com only.
- Hayward, John (2000). Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc. ISBN 0-500-01982-7.
- Oakeshott, R.E. (1996). The Archaeology of Weapons, Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. New York: Dover Publications Inc. ISBN 978-0-486-29288-5.
- “Arms and Armour Part 8 Shields”. Regia Anglorum. 10 December 2002.
- Holman, Katherine (2003). Historical Dictionary of the Vikings. Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-4859-7.
- Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement. Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, March 1970.
- Kane, Njord. “Norse Armor and Weaponry.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018
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