Tag Archives: vikings

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.


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I’m creating a fantasy story with a slightly viking inspired seafaring warrior/raider culture. What kind of armour (and weapons) would you recommend for hand-to-hand combat on sea (pre-firearm technology level; late medieval or so)? Is it viable to think that these warriors would be able to swim in their armour if they fall overboard? Any extra things to keep in mind if these warriors should be considered the most fearsome elite warriors of my world (also against land-based infantry)?

As a brief history lesson:

Late medieval is the 14th and 15th centuries. The first use of firearms in a European warfare date to the 13th century. From a military standpoint (in Europe) the late medieval period is when firearms were first finding their place in warfare.

In the real world, the vikings were mostly gone by the 1100s. So they didn’t last to see the rise of firearms or the late medieval period. But, if you’re using piratical raiders, in a fantasy setting
based on the late medieval era, then guns are a rapidly growing part of
the landscape.

During the 14th century, gunpowder weapons were used primarily as siege equipment, gradually giving way to use in infantry combat as the technology was refined.

The 14th century started with a sudden climate shift in Europe called The Little Ice Age (this lasted into the mid-19th century, if I remember correctly), which strained Europe’s agriculture base. Simultaneously, Europe’s population had been gradually shifting into cities. The densely packed urban areas created ideal circumstances for the spread of disease. Specifically, Bubonic Plague, which wiped out over half of Europe’s population in under a century.

The Little Ice Age is particularly interesting, if you’re working with pseudo-vikings, because it caused in seasonal freezing of many rivers and straits in Europe. This resulted in battles where infantry was marched across the ice, to assault cities that, traditionally, would have required a naval force, and simultaneously, left the defender’s ships frozen in harbor.

The cold also resulted in a serious population decline in Northern Europe, due to famine, the arctic conditions, and (I assume) migration.

That might give you some ideas to play with in working out the details of your setting.

In the real world, the Vikings used chain mail (only one surviving shirt has ever been found) and lamellar armor (small metal reinforced plates, bound together in a grid pattern). Leather garments have survived, and they were probably intended for use as armor.

For weapons, the Vikings used swords (rarely), axes, spears, knives (called “knifr” or “seax” depending on the design), and bows. Spears were used both as thrown weapons and in close quarters. Bows, as I understand it, were used for both hunting and warfare. I’m not sure if they had distinct designs for each. I’m also, almost certain, the vikings didn’t use composite bows. While those already existed, the glues that held them together would have been water soluble, making their use at sea, “extremely problematic.” Swords were time consuming to make, making them rare and expensive.

It’s probably worth pointing out, with the Vikings, the best insight into what they used as arms and armor come from their burial sites. This means if something was too valuable to use as grave goods, or was given to an heir (such as swords), it’s probably disproportionately rare. Also, from what we know, most of the hilts would have been fashioned out of organic materials (like bone, ivory, and wood) which didn’t manage to survive the thousand years it took for archaeologists to find them. The same goes for any cloth armor they may have used. (It’s a bit of an open question.)

Moving forward a couple centuries, probably would have resulted in higher quality swords that were more easily produced. Meaning they could be longer, and more numerous. They would also probably retain most of their desirability from when they were rare, though their value as status symbols would suffer.

I don’t know what changes Viking Armor would have seen, moving forward. Though, it’s worth pointing out the Vikings did frequently take foreign weapons and armor as plunder. So whatever armor (and weapons, for that matter) they’re using, would probably be either patterned off foreign designs, or outright stolen.

The thing I can’t address at all is how the Viking ship design would have changed and evolved. I just don’t have the background to speculate intelligently on that subject, sorry.

I hope that gives you some ideas to work with, at least. It might not be the setting you had in mind, but there’s certainly a potential setting to play with there.


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Hey, so you know, that Viking study you linked an article about doesn’t actually say half of all Viking warriors were female.

The Economist dubbed this as “journalistic deficit disorder.” Where mainstream media take content from academic research and then mangle it in the reporting, either by presenting preliminary data as facts by screwing up critical details, or by reporting stuff that no one is actually saying.

(Specifically they were talking about presenting preliminary data as final and signing off. But, the other two do occur, and it is a good blanket term for the phenomena.)

Here’s a fantastic example from The Escapist. The article talks about a drive that breaks the laws of physics, and would allow for interstellar travel. Except, it’s from a conference paper; the academic equivalent of, “hey, this thing over here is being weird, anyone know what’s wrong with it?” (I’m singling The Escapist out arbitrarily, a lot of news sites grabbed that same “physics defying engine” story and ran with it.)

The problem is, once one site runs the article, others are inclined to follow, notice the example above links back to an article from Wired. In some cases, these “scientist discovers new thing” end up tracing back to some crazy’s blog, but once it’s in circulation, it’s stays there, with tech sites referring back to each other.

Sadly, it looks like that’s in full effect here, as well.

Digging through the Tor.com and USA Today articles, the actual point of the research was to determine if Vikings traveled to England in the ninth century as raiders or as settlers.

Historically the view has been that they were raiders, and predominantly, male, but the sex identification of corpse suggest there were far more women that migrated, than previously believed.

This includes corpses that were previously misidentified as male because of the grave goods that had been found included weapons but no jewelry. Archeologists were using jewelry (specifically broaches) to identify female burials and weapons to identify male ones, but, unsurprisingly, that methodology is a little flawed when we don’t know what the grave goods actually meant.

We do know that a lot more Viking women were buried with weapons, though, as I just said, we don’t know what that actually means.

So, Stubby the Rocket picked a title that was just this side of clickbait. To be fair to them, I don’t think they did this intentionally, they probably read Viking and assumed Viking Warrior, especially given that women being buried with weapons was an issue the paper was addressing.

The article’s since been updated to point to a post by Andrew W talking about this in more depth. Actually, if you haven’t looked at it yet, go read it, there’s some really great points in there. There’s also this post by Hjalti if you want to see more.

There’s an article here, that talks about the actual implications of the find.

That said, I could swear I’ve seen articles recently that were revisiting battlefield deaths and finding a staggering number of remains were women, though I don’t have a citation on it because random internet browsing is the enemy of coherent research.