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+ULFBERH+T: The Viking's Secret Weapon

Updated on February 19, 2015
"Viking Raid" by E. Charrier, 1881
"Viking Raid" by E. Charrier, 1881 | Source

The Scourge of Europe

793AD marked the beginning of a particularly turbulent time for Northern Europe. This was the year of the first viking raid on a Christian nation, namely the sack and pillage of Lindisfarne monastery in what is modern-day Northumbria, England.

The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793AD reads "This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter."

There followed two-and-a-half centuries of near-continuous warfare, as the pagan Northmen came into conflict with the Christian nations of North Europe. They almost succeeded in conquering the whole of England, and in a way they eventually did; the Norman invasion of 1066 was carried out by descendants of Viking settlers.

Viking Swords

The Vikings used a plethora of different weapons in their campaigns across Europe, including axes, spears, bows, daggers or seax, and of course swords.

The typical Viking sword was designed to be used one-handed, as the other hand needed to be free to hold a shield. Considered an evolution of the Roman spatha, Viking swords were straight-bladed, double-edged weapons with a blade length varying from 71 to 84cm. In the centre of the blade was a fuller, or blood groove; this was an indentation that made the blade lighter without compromising strength, and also helped prevent the sword from becoming stuck fast in an enemy's flesh.

The hilt of the sword was often crosspiece in design, and was usually constructed of a single piece of metal bolted on to the sword's tang. The handgrip was fashioned from wood or bone, and often wrapped in leather, cloth or wire to improve grip. The sword's pommel was a heavy piece of metal, bolted or welded to the end of the tang, and was used to balance the sword.

Examples of Viking swords
Examples of Viking swords | Source

There were of course variances in design, for example early period swords often had one large fuller, while swords from the later period had two or even three smaller ones. Swords also reflected the status of their owner; a low-rank Viking warrior with little wealth would own a plain sword, functional but with very little in the way of embellishment, while a chieftain could afford a sword with an engraved pommel, gold wire wrapped around an ivory hilt and a scabbard with gold fittings. Swords were used as a status symbol as much as they were used as weapons.

No matter how wealthy the sword's owner, all warriors in the Viking age faced a major problem when it came to swords: poor quality steel. Metallurgy had seen no significant advances in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. With smiths and smelters lacking the knowledge to create high-quality steel free from impurities, the majority of swords in North Europe during the Viking age were highly susceptible to cracks and breaks. This is one of the reasons many warriors preferred to fight with axe and spear, as the structure of these weapons provided considerably more reliability than the fragile sword.

A ninth-century Viking sword with +ULFBERH+T etching clearly visible.
A ninth-century Viking sword with +ULFBERH+T etching clearly visible. | Source

History Channel Ulfberht Documentary

+ULFBERH+T Swords

For a lucky few, namely the wealthiest Viking leaders or jarls, a far superior weapon was available: the Ulfberht sword. These enigmatic swords were created of a steel far superior to anything else available at the time, and as such would have had a reputation as unbreakable, perhaps even magical.

Little is known about how the Ulfberht swords came to be made. The steel used was of such high quality that comparable metal wouldn't be manufactured in Europe until the Industrial Revolution, some 800 years later. To put this into context, Ulfberht swords were so technologically advanced that they were, technically speaking, equivalent to Genghis Khan fielding machine guns as he conquered Asia.

What makes the construction of these swords so remarkable is the complexity of the forging process. In order to separate impurities from the iron, it must be heated to over 3000°C, a temperature that is far in excess of anything other blacksmiths of the age were capable of producing. Furthermore, Ulfberht blades have been found to contain certain additives such as manganese that weren't used in sword production elsewhere for another 500 years. Finally, the level of carbon found in the steel has been recorded as high as 1.1%. This is unheard of in any other sword from the same period and region, and the level of skill required to create such a composition is comparable to the swordsmiths of Japan 600 years later.

One theory postulated by historians is that ingots of crucible steel were brought to Europe from the Middle East; the Islamic scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni wrote about the methods used in its production around 1015AD, thereby providing us with at least one possible source for the steel used in the Ulfberht swords. European traders, Vikings and others, are known to have reached as far afield as modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iran, so it's certainly possible that they brought crucible steel back with them. This steel would have provided the Ulfberht smiths with an excellent starting point, but they would still have had to use skills and techniques that were unknown anywhere else on Earth at the time to create the finished weapon.

Modern reproduction of an +ULFBERH+T sword
Modern reproduction of an +ULFBERH+T sword | Source

+ULFBERH+T Origins

One thing we know for certain is that the Ulfberht blades were not the work of a single smith. The weapons have been dated to cover a span of 200 years, so clearly they were made by different smiths. It is thought that the Ulfberht signature was used as a kind of trademark, and it's likely that there were no more than a handful of Ulfberht smiths active at any one time, probably one or two master craftsmen and their apprentices.

The name Ulfberht is Frankish in origin, and while it is true that Frankish smiths had a reputation for fine craftsmanship, there is a conundrum regarding the use of the name on Viking swords. The vast majority of Ulfberht swords have been found in Viking possession, in burial mounds, battle sites etc. However, Frankia was a Christian empire, perpetually at war with the pagan Northmen, and the trade of weapons to the pagans was forbidden or heavily restricted. Additionally, the use of crosses within the Ulfberht signature suggests that the weapons were forged by Christian smiths, so how did so many of them end up in the hands of the Vikings?

One possible explanation is that the Ulfberht swords were in fact made by Viking smiths, who used the word not as a signature, but as a word of power. It has been postulated that Ulfberht is not a name at all, but a contraction of the Danish ulfr, meaning wolf, and the Saxon beraht, meaning shining. It is well-known that Vikings gave their swords names, and perhaps "Shining Wolf" was merely an extension of this custom. Unfortunately this theory doesn't explain why the word appears in Latin form, rather than Norse runes; although one possibility is that they were made by Christian smiths living under Viking occupation, for example in England's Danelaw. Sadly, it's highly likely that we will never know the true origin of these remarkable weapons.

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Enigmatic, mysterious, magical?

Whatever the true origins of Ulberht swords, they are undoubtedly one of history's great mysteries. One can only imagine the mystical reverence placed on these blades by pagans and Christians alike. In an age when very little was understood about metallurgy, it's easy to surmise that the existence of unbreakable weapons, sharper than anything else available, would have been ascribed to magical and mythical beings; Odin, Thor and Volund the Smith would no doubt have been credited with their creation, along with dwarves, elves and other supernatural forces.

Even today, we know little more than the Vikings about where these blades came from. They are an enigma, an aberration in metallurgical chronology, and are likely to remain so unless some as yet un-found evidence appears to unravel the mystery once and for all. Perhaps they were indeed crafted by the gods, because so far we haven't found a better explanation for where they came from.

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