Viking - 8: Northland Clashes May See Kings Fall, Whereas Jomsvikings, Berserkers & Wolf-Heads Band Together on Oath
"Ask you must, and answer well to be called shrewd. One may know what you keep from others, never even a second. If three are told soon a thousand will know".
Sea battles featured strongly in the Viking Age, where ships were cabled together to form a 'wooden wall' like a floating stronghold
Clashes within the ranks of the Norsemen, civil wars in modern parlance often tended to be ship-borne warfare within home territory,
as in the Battle of Hafrsfjord in AD872, Svold in AD1000, Holy River AD 1026 and at the mouth of the River Nis on the coast of Halland in AD1062. The exception was at Stiklestad in AD1030.
However, even though on water, by cabling ships together the confrontations were almost as if on dry land - aside from when Olaf Tryggvason stepped overboard fully armed and vanished below the fjord's surface. The decks were floating 'stages', then, upon which the players 'acted' out their heroic roles. Ships might be strengthened at the prow, with plates against accidental ramming. The masts were normally taken down and all jockeying for position during fighting was under oar power. It happened from time to time that a ship's oars might be sheared off by another ship's prow, but this was not normally done on purpose. The 'diekplus' as it was known was a hazard, not a tactical manoeuvre.
Central to the battle was that ships rowed up to one another, grappling hooks were thrown and crews would haul the vessels together to make a sort of platform or pontoon bridge. As many ships as could get near were held to the main battle 'platform' and secured for the attack.
A hail of arrows, spears, iron-clad posts and even slingshot would be the fore-runner of an attack. Oarsmen were shielded, as they were important in getting the ships into line. Ships often carried stones in reserve for dropping onto rivals' vessels, to crash through their decks and sink them.
For raids ships were run up onto the strand or an island, or even on a river-bend, making ramparts to use as a defensive wall and stockades were often built as make-shift strongholds from which to raid the surrounding territory. Lines of communication were maintained by leaders with foresight to ensure against surprise attack. The camps within stockades could be used as refuges should the local inhabitants get over the initial shock of an attack before the raiders were ready to pull out again. Rarely were they taken completely off-guard and could pull away again within a short time if raiding proved un-fruitful.
Jomsvikings, Jomsborg (Jumne) and Loyalty to the Silver Chests
Fellowship and Mutual Interest - The Mercenary Corps
A feature of the Viking era was the springing-up of self-motivated and self-supporting brotherhoods of warriors. These were known as 'Viking-Lag' (pron:'Vikking-Law'), tightly-bound associations. They were confederations living under strict laws and supervision, not looking for conquest but hiring themselves out to heads of state for a financial return, or 'sold' (the origins of 'soldier [of fortune] that found their level in the Thirty Year's War half a millennium after the Vikings 'peaked').
Most widely-known, feared and respected were the Jomsvikings or Jomsvikingelag. Little is recorded about them but they built a fortress - the Jomsborg - at Jumne (now probably Wolin on the Baltic coast of Poland) near the mouth of the River Oder.
Harald Gormsson, 'Blaatand' (pron: 'Blotan', 'Bluetooth') turned a blind eye whilst they behaved - it is thought he founded them himself, but his son Svein Haraldsson, 'Tveskegg' ('Forkbeard') had them outlawed. A tower guarded the ship access, iron gates that barred the way in to a small haven said to hold three ships at any time, enough to carry a decent-sized warband. One story has it that Harald encouraged their free-booting and Jomsborg was probably garrisoned by Wends (Poles) led by Danes. At the Battle of Svold one of the eleven ships was manned wholly by Wends. The 'Jomsviking Saga' tells of Palnatoki, foster father of Svein 'Forkbeard' establishing the stronghold as a solely Viking base. Accounts of its origins vary, but most agree that at their zenith at the end of the 10th Century the leader was Jarl Sigvald, the son of a minor king of Skaane known as 'Strut Harald'.
Rules were very strict. Membership was limited to men of considerable strength between the ages of eighteen and fifty, expected to co-habit peaceably and not start any hostility between fellows for any reason. Showing fear in battle was discouraged, and fleeing from a foe of even strength was out of the question. The leader had the last word over blood-feuds that carried over from beyond the walls of the Jomsborg. Jomsvikings were expected to avenge the deaths of brothers-in-arms as if there were a blood-tie between them. All takings were collected centrally to be handed out evenly amongst the members. No man could be away from the fortress without permission for more than three days, and no women were allowed to stay within the fortress. Neither women nor children were to be taken captive. Anyone breaking the rules would be ejected from the brotherhood forthwith.
"Each summer they went out and made war in new lands, earned great renown and were seen as the greatest warriors; few were thought to be their peers at this time", the Jomsviking Saga tells us. They were well sought after. Nevertheless, looking behind the myth we see that each campaign in which they fought turned out badly for the hirer, such as when Styrbjorn Starki fought against his uncle Eirik 'the Victorious' at Fyrisvold near Uppsala. The ending proved calamitous for him. Svein 'Forkbeard' in his attack on Jarl Hakon of Norway was beaten at Hjoerungavag around AD990, and Olaf Tryggvason was cornered at Svold by the Swedes and Danes in AD1000. In each case Jarl Sigvald cut and left when the outlook darkened for his men. Yet in the Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason he is seen as a prudent, ready-witted man (in other words a quick-thinker who hates to lose his men in what he sees as a lost cause).
King Magnus 'the Good', Harald Sigurdsson's nephew, destroyed Jomsborg in AD1043, 'killing many, burning and levelling both the stronghold and the land around, wreaking the worst havoc'. The core of the membership had disbanded a lot earlier, perhaps shortly after the death of Jarl Sigvald around AD1010. Survivors of Magnus' attack are said to have left with Sigvald's brothers Heming and Thorkell 'Havi' (The Tall) for England with Svein 'Forkbeard' in AD1009. In time they would become the core of Knut's 'Tinglith', his royal bodyguard that became his 'Huscarlar' (huscarls - still the king's bodyguard in England under Harold II at Caldbec Hill near Hastings) .
Society's Outsiders - Berserkers and Wolf's-Heads (or Wolf-Coats)
Before Christianity in the northern kingdoms berserkers were thought of being possessed of supernatural strength. They were outsiders who fought for a king or jarl, but other than their paymasters or leaders they were left alone.
In battle they rushed on unarmoured (bar-serk, without mail-shirt) as might mad dogs or ravenous wolves. They bit their shield-rims and were as strong as bears or wild boar and could kill with one blow. Neither fire nor iron could harm them. This was what was called the 'berserk fury', so the Ynglinga Tal (Yngling Saga) says.
These days we say of anyone in a rage as having gone berserk. The berserk fury would have been some sort of mental illness, perhaps linked to a belief in shape-changing (or lycanthropy). The king's champion Bodvar Bkarki in the Saga of Hrolf Kraki lapsed into a trance and 'became' the bear. He was in this state when one of his friends saw him and demanded to know why he was asleep when his king was in danger; thus King Hrolf lost the battle against the Svear warlock king Adhils. It may even be put down to epilepsy, where the victim is unaware of what is happening to or around them. There was some kind of gene passed down through generations.
A chronicler tells of a man whose twelve sons were all 'stricken' by the condition. 'It was their habit if they were with comrades that when the fury came over them they went ashore and wrestled with trees or boulders, as otherwise they might kill one of their own'.
The Volsunga Saga raises the spectre of shape-changing, in the Sigmund and his son put on wolf-skins, communicated in the manner of wolves and howled when they attacked. Wolves and bears are the creatures most often linked with berserkers, for whom the expression 'ulf hednar' (wolf-coats or wolfskin-clad ones). 'Berserker' was thought originally to mean 'bear-shirt' and not 'bare-of-shirt'. 'Hrafnsmal' (Lay of Hrafn) paints berserks as very brave - if not foolhardy - and never drew back from a fight. Together with being seen by Odin as of particular worth this view of berserks meant they were to be seen in the retinue of great warrior kings, fighting at the head of their armies. They were not known for being sharp-witted, however, not very bright. In one sea battle at Svold in AD1000 some of Olaf Tryggvason's berserkers forgot they were fighting at sea and in their mad rush to attack the enemy fell overboard and drowned. In later Christian Iceland the berserk fury was outlawed, berserks being seen as 'ungodly freaks' whom the sagas (written in later years by men of the cloth) tell us were overbearing bullies, cut down by heroes of Christian persuasion or learning.
Sons of the Storm, Lords of Battle, Tempters of Urd
Some say berserkers did not exist, then how come references to them emerge time and time again in sagas? In pre-Christian times they were employed to frighten the opposition, unless the opposition also had berserkers. Then they would try to intimidate one another, howl, snarl and snap like wolves before hurling themselves mindlessly at their rivals. In the saga of Hrolf Kraki both the Danish king Hrolf and the Svear (Swedish) king Adhils had berserkers. There is no reason to suppose other minor kings had no berserkers. Berserker means 'without mail' or sark, mailshirt, i.e., 'bare serk'., In other words someone who went unprotected into battle. After their stints they were physical and mental wrecks and had to 'tank up' again on strong ale or mead to regain their composure. There's an entry in the 'Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age' for this and other cultural phenomena associated with pre-Christian Scandinavia
Next - 9: Missionary Raider
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster