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Viking Ships & Piracy

September 19, 2016

Scrolling through my social media feeds this morning, I was reminded that today is #InternationalTalkLikeAPirateDay; and, serendipitously, I’m reading various accounts of Viking ships and sea-battles as I prep for my class on Vikings. When I made the schedule, I didn’t realize this happy coincidence, but I am glad for it. This is one of our first major readings in primary sources (we read “The Tale of Thorstein Shiver” and “The Tale of Audun from the Westfjords” early in the semester to get a taste for the subject matter), after a few weeks of reading modern perspectives on Scandinavian peoples during the Viking Age. Vikings remain some of the most popular pirates from the Middle Ages–as I noticed is noted on the Wikipedia page for “Piracy”–and later medieval literature looking back to the Viking Age provides some great accounts of their nautical exploits.[1]


Harold Godwinson’s ship as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

First, we learn a lot about Viking Age ships, their construction, and what was valued in the best of them. A few passages stand out from a description of the Long Serpent of King Olaf Tryggvason (c.960-1000) in The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason (chapter 88; number 32 in Somerville and McDonald), included in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla:

During the winter after his return from Halogaland, King Olaf Tryggvason built a ship at Hladhamar. This ship was bigger than any other in the country and the stocks on which it was built survive as visible proof of this. Thorberg the Woodcarver was responsible for the stem and stern, but there were many others involved in the work as well. Some of them felled trees; some shaped the wood; some forged nails; and some hauled timber. All the materials used were of the best quality, and the ship was constructed with large timbers. It was long and broad and stood high above the water.

[E]veryone agreed that such a large and beautiful ship had never been seen before.

King Olaf named it the Long Serpent…. The Long Serpent had thirty-four rooms, or rowers’ benches [with room for sixty-eight men]. The dragon’s head at the prow and the coiled tail at the stern were both heavily gilded and the sides stood as high above the water as those of ocean-going ships. The Long Serpent was the best and most costly ship ever built in Norway.

This passage seems to be a sort of prototypical description of a ship, as other literary accounts (including Snorri’s own description of King Harald Sigurdarson’s ship, also in the Heimskringla) mimic, allude to, or even comparably rely on this passage as a type of reference point.

But perhaps more fascinating–from the perspective of looking for pirates and piracy in literature about the Vikings–are accounts of sea battles. One particularly fascinating narrative occurs in The History of the Earls of Orkney (chapters 87-88; number 37a in Somerville and McDonald), which describes the journey of Rognvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (c.1103-1158), to Rome and the Holy Land. In one episode, Rognvald and his troops wage battle against a group of Muslim merchants on a ship called a dromond in the Mediterranean. Rognvald’s men see the dromond first, and Rognvald is able to call together his ships to formulate a plan for attack. After consulting with his advisors, a bishop (unnamed in this section) and a warrior named Erling, he seems rather confident in his strategy, saying, “If it turns out to be Christian merchants, we can make peace with them, but if they’re heathens, as I think they are, then almighty God in his mercy will give us victory. We’ll give the poor every fiftieth penny of whatever booty we take.” With that, the men from the Orkneys set their plan into motion, drawing their ships up alongside the enemy dromond to attack.

One of the problems with such an attack, as the bishop had previously mentioned, was the danger of a larger, taller ship pouring down hot pitch on a longship that sat lower in the water. As the battle starts, “The crew of the dromond began pouring burning sulphur and pitch over them, but most of it fell beyond the ships as Erling had predicted, and so they had no need to shield themselves from it.” With multiple ships drawn up beside the dromond, a few ships retreat farther out, and the bishop directs the men on these ships to fire arrows toward the enemies: “This attack was very effective. The people on board the dromond were so busy protecting themselves that they paid little attention to what the Norsemen at the sides of their ship were up to.” The Norsemen hack at the sides of the merchants’ ship, and soon begin to find ways to climb aboard while the enemies are distracted–in a series of adventuresome and even humorous moments involving a pile of burly Viking men climbing up an anchor onto the ship. The text even offers a brief anecdote about Erling’s neck injury, earning him the nickname “Wry-Neck” for his inability to hold his head upright afterward.

As Rognvald had guessed, the text identifies the enemies as non-Christians, but not until the battle is well under way. There comes a pause in the middle of the battle to describe the enemy warriors: “The men on the dromond were Saracens, whom we call Mohammed’s heretics. There were many black men too, and they put up the strongest resistance.” Pitting Christians and Muslims against each other is a rather widespread trope in later medieval literature, and it isn’t all that surprising to find this type of polemic here, with the common term “Saracens” used for the Muslim warriors. Given the complex and widespread networks of travel end trade in the twelfth century, it also isn’t difficult to accept the plausibility of this type of encounter between Muslims and Norsemen in the Mediterranean during the time. But the detail that some of the enemy merchants were “black men” is intriguing, since it adds another layer of racial sentiments as well as some sort of distinction from the Muslim men. All of these details distance the merchants, othering them for medieval audiences. Another curious detail occurs just a few lines later: “The Norsemen noticed that one man aboard the dromond was taller and handsomer than the others and they thought for sure that he must be their leader.” No mention is made, however, of the religious, ethnic, or racial identity of the leader, here or elsewhere in the passage. What makes him handsome to the Norsemen? Is he one of the Muslims, or one of the black men? What marks this man as leader is his physicality, but the text offers no specific detail to solidify his identity; this devil is not in the details, but purely in his otherness as a non-Christian, non-Viking, and presumably non-European.

Once the onslaught is over, and the Vikings have predictably won the battle, one last, strange moment is recorded at the end of the episode. Taking what they wanted from the dromond, the Norsemen set the whole ship on fire:

When the tall man they had captured saw this, he started and grew pale and agitated. They tried to make him talk, but no matter how much they threatened or cajoled, he didn’t say a word or make a sign. When the dromond was completely ablaze, they saw something that looked like a burning stream flowing into the sea. This greatly affected their prisoner. They concluded that they hadn’t searched carefully enough for treasure and that metal, either gold or silver, had melted as the fire took hold.

The narrator seems more interested in the loss of treasures like those known to the Vikings–gold and silver objects valued across the medieval world. But perhaps the reason this treasure escaped the notice of the men from Orkney is because it was easy for them to overlook, not knowing it was precious cargo, despite its seeming value to the merchant. Could this “burning stream flowing into the sea” be oil, catching fire as it leaked out of whatever containers held it on the ship? Oil of various types were part of the mercantile world of the Mediterranean by the twelfth century, as it was known not only in the Middle East but also to Western Europe by way of Islamic Spain. Perhaps this passage provides one glimpse of its presence, a casualty of Viking piracy on the high seas.

[1] All passages discussed in this post come from selections in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, 2nd ed. (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014), 151-80 (chapter 6, “Fjord-Serpents: Viking Ships”).


From → History, Literature

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