The Gislinge Boat. © Roskilde Viking Museum 2016

Viking Age War Fleets

Studies of Vikings and their pirating and warfare seldom pause to reflect upon the enormous investment, the ships represented. New book sets this right.

Viking-Age war Fleets
Viking-Age War Fleets. Shipbuilding, resource management and Maritime warfare in 11th century Denmark
By Morten Ravn
Series: Maritime Culture of the North, Vol. 4.
Roskilde 2016

With 59 ship finds from Viking Age Denmark, archaeologists have in later years painstakingly arrived at a better understanding of how diverse a Viking ship might look. Small, long, wide, narrow, these clinker-built boats and ships sailed the seas from Newfoundland to Byzantium, trading, pillaging and homesteading from c. 750 – 1066. With profound economic, cultural and demographic consequences they succeeded in setting their mark on wider Europe to an extent that is not always recognised.

One question, which has seldom been asked, is what effort and resources, it took to build, maintain and man the fleets, which were critical for this enterprise. In a brand new book, Morten Ravn, Curator at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde has undertaken to explore the inner workings of such projects and what they involved. In a wider context, the aim has been to get a sense of what this might mean for our understanding of the geopolitical processes of the formation of Viking states in the 10th and 11th centuries.

This is a dense book; no nitty-gritty details seem to have been left out of consideration. From sourcing, felling and treating the correct wood needed for the keel, to the number of hours it takes to spin the wool and weave the sails, we are informed. On the way, we are also presented with a very handy overview of the detailed work processes as well as a deeply needed compendium of the ship-related technical terms in English, German and Danish; to this should be mentioned the numerous facts and figures about the speed of the ships, the inner working of the crews and much else, which the book is packed with.

However, this is not all. By painstakingly describing the workflow and measuring the time, which the many archaeological reconstructions of ships in Roskilde have demanded, we get a very nice overview of how much closed-canopy woodland and grazing land was needed to build the different types of ships. Armed with this knowledge he is able to expand our knowledge of the geo-political landscape, which fostered the Viking diaspora.

Sea Stallion © Viking Ship Museum
Sea Stallion © Viking Ship Museum

Based on this he can conclude that although each ship was a unique product of the combination of local resources and local craftsmanship, certain guidelines also governed the craft. These guidelines translated into different types of ships fit for different types of “adventures” – trading, warring, raiding and colonising. By measuring the resources and manpower needed to build and maintain a fleet, Morten Ravn has been able to demonstrate that it took a magnate to build and equip a small or medium-sized fleet of c. forty ships, while a king or an overlord was necessary to forge the collaboration among such magnates, chieftains or warlords in order to set sail with a major fleet of 160 ships.

Thus, when Olaf Tryggvason and Swein Forkbeard combined their forces and landed in England in 993 CE, they – according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle – commanded a fleet of 93 (94) ships. This should be compared to the fleet of Cnut the Great, who sailed to England with 160 ships. Such fleets would typically be composed of minor fleets contributed by magnates ruling over the necessary land to build and maintain a smaller fleet. Thiese enterprises would be undertaken wherever the natural resources were available; this is evidenced by the location of the “Snekke” place-names in denamrk, which can only be found on the coast of Denmark, where the forest was abundant. (“Snekke” means ship). These “snnek-places” were probably small boat-yards.

One of the interesting facts in the book is that ships were generally believed to be able to last for fifteen years before they would be scrapped or at least extensively restored. This means that new ships had to be built every fifteen years, needing boat-builders to source more of the scarce oak trees suitable for the keel. With a diameter of 0.35 – 40 (for the medium-sized carrier) this would translate into an oak tree between 80 – 120 years old. Accordingly, the most valuable and scarce resource, which would be needed for constructing a new ship, would only renew itself inside a hundred years; but was needed six times more often.

As the use of oak wood for other purposes, e.g. the building of halls, fishing-vessels, and farms would also have to betaken into account, it is reasonable to expect that Vikings would be on the constant lookout for new and virgin forests, which might be exploited.

Perhaps, this is the reason why the political centre of 10th century Denmark had to gravitate to both the East – Seeland and Scania – and the west – England? New land meant access to a rapidly disappering, yet crucial resource for the Vikings, which after a nearly 200 years of constant appropriation would have been rapidly vanishing.

This is a very important book which helps us in crucial ways to understand the craft and the management needed to “fara í víking”…

Karen Schousboe

Featured Photo:

Building the Gislinge Boat © Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

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