By Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson
From Ephesos to Dalecarlia. Reflections on Body, Space and Time in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by E. Regner, C. von Heijne, L. Kitzler Åhfeldt and A. Kjellström (Stockholm, 2009)
Introduction: There are many preconceptions regarding the Northern warriors of the Viking Age. Whether fierce men plundering and pillaging Western Europe or axe-bearing soldiers in the Emperor’s guard in Byzantium, their reputation as skilled warriors preceded them wherever they went. To what did the Northerners owe their success, and what were their characteristics in terms of skills and organization? This paper deals with Viking Age warriors and the brotherhoods or warrior bands that partly created the foundation for their achievements.
The Early Middle Ages was a period characterized by change. Viking Age society in Scandinavia went through a transformation from a system of local power and petty chieftains to a grander, more regional power structure. Political ambitions expanded and an administrative system emerged that was linked to the king and his deputies.The change from local to regional power also included a change from power over souls to power over territory, something that can be seen archaeologically in the landscape of defence. Even the military structures underwent changes, in terms of both warfare techniques and weaponry. There was a transition from endemic to more institutionalized warfare with an increased level of professionalism among the warriors. War was fought on a larger scale. This implied new structures, increasing the importance of the dynamics and interplay within the warrior group and greater dependence on one’s comrades in arms than ever before. The infamous berserks and ulvhednar described in the Sagas reflect these changes, in that the heroes of older times had become outcasts with questionable reputations.
Warfare during the preceding Vendel Period could be characterized as endemic, of low intensity, with an emphasis on ritual and display and with riding and skirmishing as the predominant tactics. The mounted warrior of the Vendel period was certainly capable of actual warfare, but there was also a strong element of display. The chieftains interred in the well-known ship burials of Valsgärde and Vendel show an array of weaponry adorned in elaborate styles and fashioned from expensive materials. Power lay as much in visual appearance as in military strength. Religious beliefs were strongly to the fore, and the visual parallels between the chieftains and the gods were obvious. Endemic warfare had a strong impact on society, as there was a constant presence of warfare and a constant stream of young men prepared for the life of a warrior.