oseberg viking ship

 hansa cog

Τop: The famous Oseberg Viking ship.
Below: A German cog. These  ships
– real floating  fortresses – were the  Nemesis of the Viking longships. Note the high towers on the prow and stern, heavily manned with archers. The marines used to take posistions on the deck of the ship.

by  P.  Deligiannis

The Proto-Scandinavian boats, the progenitors of the Viking longships, first appear in cave paintings of Norway around 1500 BC. Millennia of evolution led to the superb Viking longships. Around 600-700 AD these progenitor ships were exclusively oared light, flexible and fragile structures that could not withstand the weight and pressure of the mast and sail. Soon afterwards the Scandinavian shipbuilders imitated the ships of the Mediterranean, adding a long beam (the keel) along the bottom of the ship. The keel made ​​them strong enough to hold the mast and sail. The addition of the keel around AD 700 marked the beginnings of the classic Viking ship and since then it was no longer propelled only by oars. The Scandinavians soon adopted the square sail of the Mediterranean, which allowed them to sail in the seas far away from their homeland.

The smaller Viking warships had 13 oars on each side, or 26 in total. A ship with 16 oars on each side (32 in total) needed a crew of at least 40 men. If the captain/commander wanted to have restful men to row in rotating shifts, he needed twice as many rowers, so the ship had at least a crew of 70 men. The ships of the warlords and the kings were always the biggest: these ships could carry 200 or more warriors. The rowers were always Viking warriors and never slaves.
The classic Scandinavian ships had on their prows carved animal heads, real or mythical, usually reptiles or dragons. They were made ​​with the most frightening look in order to dishearten the enemies. The stern was also sculpted as the tail of these animals. Apart from the popular dragon, the snake, the eagle, the ram and the hawk were frequent themes for the prows of the Nordic ships.
A famous Viking ship was the Long Serpent, the warship of the great Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason, built ​​in the winter of AD 998, which as described in the saga of the king, had 34 oars on each side, a total of 68. It was really a very long vessel. Harald Hardrada’s ship was called the Great Dragon and had 35 oars on each side. As stated in Hardrada’s saga, it had the same length as the Long Serpent; it was gilded on both sides (probably partially gilded) and had a dragon head on its prow. It was big even for its class, a really magnificent ship.


I will not write on the great sailing and raiding worthiness of the Viking ships, which is very well known. Considering this worthiness, I’ll only point the fact that these vessels sailed across vast distances, perhaps farther than any other type of ship in the world until their age: they sailed from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and from North America to the Caspian Sea.
The Viking ships were superb vessels, but they declined and eventually lost their worthiness due to their sole disadvantages: their very low deck and their fragile construction. They could not confront the ships of the Mediterranean which had a higher or much higher deck, being galleys with two or three rows of oars (dromons, biremes, triremes and other vessels of the Arabs,  the Venetians, the Byzantines, the Genoese, the Catalans and others). For this reason, the Vikings in the Mediterranean had only a few successful raids. It is noteworthy that the Normans of Italy, cultural descendants of the Vikings (and not really their physical descendants as they are usually considered to be), did not use Nordic warships but Mediterranean ones. It was impossible for the Vikings to jump from the deck of their vessel to the one of a Mediterranean ship, in order to start their infantry battle on the enemy deck (the basic Viking tactics in a sea battle), because they were assailed by a rain of arrows and other missiles from the enemy higher deck. Additionally, the much heavier Mediterranean vessels could easily sink the Scandinavian ships by ramming them.
The Continental Northern European shipbuilders noticed these weaknesses of the Viking warship comparing to the average Mediterranean war vessel. Thereby they adopted the defensive characteristics of the Mediterranean ships and in the 11th-12th centuries they began to build increasingly heavier and more robust ships, with high sides and towers on the bow (prow) and the stern, the cogs of the Later Middle Ages. The German (including the Proto-Dutch)  navigators and shipbuilders  who used to sail in the Mediterranean, were the first to built this kind of ships because they were the most affected by the raids of the Vikings. These medieval Northern European ships were cumbersome and bulky, but they were real floating fortresses. The ships of the Vikings, who used their oars especially in naval battle, had a terrible disadvantage against the cogs that had no oars. Their oars could easily be destroyed during the manouvres of the conflict.  From the high decks of their ships, the Continental Europeans were ‘hammering’  with arrows and spears the Vikings who were trying in vain to climb the enemy high deck. Α group of skilful archers could injure or kill the entire crew of a Scandinavian ship, before someone manage  to climb aboard their deck. After all, they were supported by many marines. Moreover, such a vessel could cut in half a Viking ship by falling over it.
Viking ship

the very low deck and the fragile construction of the Viking longship were almost its sole disadvantages which caused its decline.

The Vikings responded to this development of the Northern European ships with a similar move: in order to reach the enemy decks, they raised platforms added to their ships. But the European shipbuilders responded immediately constructing even higher towers on the bow and stern of their cogs. This was the beginning of the end for  the Viking longship as a fine vessel for raids and generally as a worthy vessel. Henceforth, the Continental European mariners felt no great fear for the Scandinavian pirates who used to confront, and very soon the Viking terror was forgotten. The Scandinavians continued to use their traditional long ships but simultaneously they began to adapt the new shipbuilding developments, gradually adopting the cog. In 1304 the warships of the entire Danish fleet of almost 1,100 vessels were of Continental European types. In 1390 with the Union of Kalmar, the last Viking-type ships, obsolete for this era, were turned into skyttebaade, i.e. oared vessels with light guns. This was now their only military utility, a rather diminished one. Shortly after 1400, the famous Nordic ships disappeared  in their homeland. The last Viking ships were possibly  used in Greenland until the mid-15th century, when the last Norse colony on the island disappeared.


Periklis    Deligiannis