Q&A: Pirates, Vikings, and More Pirates

hello! i wasn’t sure who to ask + i noticed you’ve answered some pirate questions before. my story’s set in a fantasy universe made from scratch. firearm is just being invented, it’s very popular yet. so i wanted to ask, do you maybe know how real pirates were armed/what they fought with before the firearm came into use?

The firearm wasn’t really, “invented,” in one moment. The technology evolved over the course of nearly 800 years. When you’re talking about Age of Sail pirates, they were using weapons that had seen four centuries of technical refinement.

Maritime raiders have been a threat since humans first took to the seas. The term itself has a Greek root, dating back to Hellenic Greece. Worth noting that peirates was used to refer to both seaborne and land based raiders. (This would later become pirata in Latin.) So the modern distinction between a bandit and pirate didn’t exist until more recently.

Bronze age piracy in the Mediterranean included a bustling slave trade, where sailors and other individuals captured by pirates were sold in major ports. This was aided by the rugged, Greek coastline, which was effectively impossible to fully scour. Beyond this, Hellenic pirates were, effectively bandits.

Arguably the most famous group of maritime raiders are the Vikings. Viking raids started in the 8th century AD, and continued into the early modern era. They were spurred by a variety of factors, and there’s no full consensus on exactly what caused their rise. Elements include the Medieval Warm Period, from 950 to 1250, Europe experienced an increase of average temperatures by almost two degrees C. This is believed to have spurred a population boom in Scandinavia. Combine this with a primogenitor inheritance system, which meant only the oldest son inherited from their father, and there was a strong need to bring in new resources to support a family. Raiding predates the MWP, so it seems plausible that this simply fueled existing behavior. This also resulted in Vikings aggressively colonizing elsewhere in Europe, as they found more favorable land and claimed it for themselves.

One example of this legacy is Normandy. The territory that became Normandy was given to a Viking Raider named Rollo by King Charles the Bald, after Rollo besieged Paris in 911. In exchange for swearing vassalage to the Frankish king, he was granted the territory. He effectively became the first Duke of Normandy, though, it’s unclear when that specific title came into use, as he never used the title Duke.

Piracy in the Caribbean was fueled by massive amounts of wealth moving through the region, and simple logistics.

Defending a set position is easy. You can fortify, dig in, and wait. At that point, the hardest part is avoiding boredom. This is a little harder when that point is somewhere you can’t fortify, but the same principles hold.

Defending a moving target is harder. You know the path it will take, and you can do some work to control potential risks. However, you’re going to have to go with the target. Knowing where you’re going will give you some cues on when you need to be alert, but ultimately, you need to be there.

Defending multiple stationary points is easy, if you can split your forces. However, in doing so, you’re less able to hold each one individually. It becomes a balancing act. In a modern situation you can rely on a highly mobile “floating” defensive force, which can be called in to deal with any defensive position coming under attack, which helps offset some of the problems, but this was not an option in the Age of Sail.

As a quick aside, having a small reserve force who can quickly reinforce your forces as needed can be incredibly valuable from a strategic position in battle. It’s only as part of a larger campaign, where they don’t have time to get where they’re needed in time to be useful, that this becomes less viable.

Defending multiple mobile targets from multiple threats, while still needing to defend ports. Yeah, that’s extraordinarily difficult. Mix in that European forces didn’t have full repair and refit facilities in the New World, that many different governmental and economic groups were operating in the area, and you should start to see why the Caribbean was a hotbed of pirate activity in the 17th century.

Simply put, there was a lot of money moving around, and no real way to protect it.

In an odd moment, the guns weren’t entirely important. They were in the specifics of how the European powers got a foothold in the Americas, but it was basically irrelevant to the reasons that piracy flourished there.

So, if you’re asking, “what did pirates look like before the invention of the firearm?” That’s the Vikings. Really. The firearm reached Europe in the 12th century. The pirates you’re thinking of were in the 17th. From the 12th century to now, the technology has never stopped advancing. Even now, firearms developed in the last 20 years are incorporating new technical developments that aren’t present on Cold War era armaments. The chemical composition of primers and powder has changed significantly in the last century.

I’m not averse to the idea of a fantasy setting without firearms, but I would strongly recommend against thinking that a culture would go from discovering gunpowder, to making a wheel lock in a matter of years. This would also create a situation where most characters simply wouldn’t know what they were dealing with. Even just getting everyone on board with what a gun is, without access to mass communications, could easily take decades or longer. Also, worth noting that new technology in firearms tended to be pretty expensive. It’s possible that, for whatever reason, firearms are just transitioning from vanishingly rare to widespread use, due to production changes. Not exactly new, and people would know what they were. This saves you from the basic problem of your characters dying like idiots when they get shot by that guy waving a funny looking club around.

-Starke

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