Did the Vikings Wear Helmets?

We know for sure that the Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. Yet a debate has recently emerged in regards to whether or not the Vikings wore helmets into battle at all. Two divergent camps continue to argue over the prominence of protective headgear during the Viking Age, and neither appears to be gaining the upper hand. This is because from a scholarly position, we simply do not know. Only one Viking Age helmet has ever been recovered in archeological digs, leading many to suspect they were uncommon. The following are the two sides of the argument on whether or not the Vikings wore helmets.

The argument against helmets:

Archeologists have only recovered one helmet (pictured below), dating back to the 9th century, which likely means they were uncommon. Other items such as swords, axes, various articles of clothing, ships, and even maille hauberks have been more commonly found in Viking Age burials and dig sites. The fact that helmets are such a rare find is a strong indication that, at the very least, iron helmets were not commonly made or utilized. Until more artifacts are found, the presumption should be that Viking Age Scandinavians did not commonly wear headgear.

Vikinghjelm

The argument for helmets:

The lack of archeological specimens of helmets does not necessarily indicate that they were not commonly used. Metal was in high demand in the Viking Age, and even more so later in the medieval period. Quality metals, such as those found in helmets, may have been melted down, refined, and repurposed, which may explain the lack of helmets in the archeological record. There is evidence in the historical record, such as in the representation of a Viking attack on Guérande in the Annales D’Angoulême (pictured below), in which the Norse warriors are all drawn as having protective head gear in one form or another. This is indicative that the Vikings did wear headgear that simply did not survive to today.

Guerande-vikings-1

Who is right?

There is not enough information to make a definitive assessment on the matter. A lack of helmets in the archeological record poses a particularly perplexing argumentative problem because it neither proves nor disproves the use of helmets by the Vikings. This problem is further compounded by artistic representations by historians from the time whose artwork may or may not be accurate, and there is no way of knowing for sure. Short of a lucky find of a mass grave containing helmet-clad warriors, we may never know for sure. Thus, for now, it is up to the individual’s interpretation of the evidence to decide, and the debate shall continue.

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11 Comments

  1. judywork1957 says:

    Reblogged this on Time Slips and commented:
    There is also speculation among some that the reason we find few helmets left is that they were passed on to others along with other battle gear.

    1. I agree with the idea that helmets might have been passed along.

      We can only know from formal burials and not the battlefield, as the battle gear would have been stripped from the fallen and reused.

      Maybe, a warrior expecting to go to Valhalla after death will have no need for his helmet and so pass it down to his heir?

  2. Jany Vernis says:

    The other possibility is that quite alike biking helmets nowadays, they couldn’t be reused/fixed once they had taken a few blows, so they were sent back to the blacksmith to be melted and remolded, while chainmail could be fixed to no end.

  3. waltsoc says:

    Perhaps they simply were too expensive? Anyways: thanks for a great article.

  4. Great title and a great way to lead people to your books. so much better than simply here’s a picture of the cover now buy my book. interesting as they are currently showing Beowulf at the moment (go on tell me I’ve got the wrong time period). Keep up the good work.

    1. Christophe says:

      Thanks! History is my passion so it all came together relatively easily. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Guntram says:

    “Quality metals, such as those found in helmets, may have been melted down, refined, and repurposed, which may explain the lack of helmets in the archeological record.” I’m sorry, but I have to correct you on this one.
    The earliest traces of cast iron are from the high middle ages in Europe, and, perhaps a tad earlier, in India. It is not until the 1350s that furnaces and bellows became sophisticated (and large) enough to reach the melting point of iron, and even then the material they produced was more or less viewed as junk as the cast iron could not be used in blacksmithing without refining (which started to become a common practise somewhere around the 1600s). It was also too brittle to be used for other purposes and was thus an undesired byproduct.

    Helmets and other steel/iron (there is no clear distinction with wrought iron) items would have been made from iron riddled with impurities, giving it a wood-like structure when rupturing/breaking. This kind of wrought iron was also far more resistant to rust compared to the modern mono steels we have today (also due to the impurities stemming from the production process). [On a side note, this also answers the everlasting question of “How did they get rid of rust in their maille?”.]

    Good iron was sought after and came with a hefty price tag, so it might well have been re-used; but the process on how it would have been recycled was much different from this (hollywood ?) myth. In short: heat metal. Fire weld together. Refine bar. Heat bar and forge new item. (Or partly re-use the helmet, as with the St. Wenzels helmet in Prague for instance.)

    1. Christophe says:

      I think you are misreading the point I tried to make in the broader article. I was presenting the argument for why there could be so few helmets in the archeological record if helmets had been common. It is not my argument, it is the argument of several noted historians, including Søren Sindbæk of the University of York. Note that I went over the other side of the argument as well, which is to say that the Viking Age Scandinavians may not have worn helmets at all.

      I neither espoused nor confirmed either side as being true because, in reality, we don’t have enough evidence to prove one way or the other definitively. Hence the “may have” statement, rather than a “they did this” statement.

      By this same token, your assertion that there were no furnaces hot enough to melt iron until the 1350’s is not exactly true. There are isolated examples in Western Europe beginning in the 9th Century that refute this claim, although it proves true for the broader early medieval society. This to show that when dealing with this early period, you really have to stick to the evidence, and most of what we think we know is a “maybe” or “most likely”. Absolute statements – like the one you made – about this time period generally prove to be false in some way.

      And for the record, I don’t source any of my evidence from Hollywood. If you wish to have an intelligible discussion on historical topics, I suggest you refrain from making such flagrant and inflammatory accusations. There is ample evidence that all manner of metals were repurposed through the ages. The concept of metal recycling and repurposing is widespread in academia, and there are several Viking Age sites where there is evidence for this. Here’s a good article where Søren Sindbæk of the University of York discusses much of that evidence: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/12/091214-viking-recycling.html.

      1. Guntram says:

        My reply was in no way meant as an offence. You are probably right, and this re-using/recycling was most likely common practise throughout the early middle ages in Europe, just as I stated above.

        My point simply was that iron would not have been melted down, at least not in these times. This is also where Hollywood (here a placeholder for modern media) question came in: Some types of media (and yes, I’m also counting in fantasy blockbusters) show iron being melted down and cast into swords or other forms. This might have been how bronze and other metals were worked, but iron/steel simply does not work this way. This part of popular culture has definitely minted the public’s image of how iron was worked “in the olden days”, similar to horned helmets. I did in no way accuse you as taking such works as your sources. I was merely trying to point out that the word “melted down” would not be quite correct for the process and that a less-informed reader might pick up on it, miss out on the “might have” and sell it as a proof. I have sadly seen this happen more than once.
        This is not about your article in general, which absolutely expresses my view as well (though, I hitherto had this tought mainly regarding the merovingian period).

        Why am I writing this? To spread knowledge about how this recycling process was most likely executed. Up to this day, there are few things we know for certain. One is that the metal was worked and that it was highly treasured, We are almost but sure how it was worked and we have quite some evidence why and how the process evolved. One example: The “lumps of melted-down iron” from your linked article may actually be one of several remnants of the smelting process from the only hitherto confirmed process for this time and place – the bloom furnace process. We have a terminological problem here: lumps of iron may describe something usually referred to as “blooms” or iron sponge, the direct result of the bloom furnace process (the desired product). It may be pig iron (later also referred to as cast iron when it was produced on purpose) which is a by-product of the bloom furnace smelting (iron running out when the furnace gets too hot). This material cannot be used in blacksmithing without prior refinement through decarburization, for which there is no evidence at the time as far as I am aware. Or, the third possibility for these “lumps” might be salamanders, large chunks of molten metals and slag that deposit at the bottom of bloom furnaces, useless at the time (the term salamander is still used when a blast furnace cools down by accident and forms a single, huge piece of smelted material). So much for the archeo-metallurgy.

        Lastly, I did not intend to make any absolute statements. English is not my first language and I read articles such as yours to improve my vocabulary. I am, however, able to give you some of my sources:

        Beck, Ludwig (1892): Die Geschichte des Eisens in technischer und kulturgeschichtlicher Beziehung. Von der ältesten Zeit bis um das Jahr 1500 n. Chr. 2. Aufl. Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn (Band 1).

        Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg (Hg.) (2003): Abbau und Verhüttung von Eisenerzen im Vorland der mittleren Schwäbischen Alb. Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg. Stuttgart: Theiss (Forschungen und Berichte zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Baden-Württemberg, Band 86).

        Ludwig, Karl-Heinz; Schmidtchen, Volker (1992): Metalle und Macht. 1000 -1600. In: Wolfgang König (Hg.): Propyläen Technikgeschichte, Band 2. Berlin: Propyläen Verlag (Propyläen Technikgeschichte).

        An interesting read about bloomeries: http://www.darkcompany.ca/iron/

        And something English about blast furnaces: http://beckleyfurnace.org/salamander-furnace-bear/

      2. Christophe says:

        I appreciate your well thought out response, and I apologize for my defensiveness in regards to the Hollywood statement. I’ve been accused of using Hollywood movies as a source before and it irks me to this day when I see mention of it because I’ve been studying this subject for over 15 years in and out of traditional academic settings. I always respect someone who is able to bring valid sources to the discussion, which you have done, and for that I thank you. I appreciate your fleshing out of the point you were trying to make, and I agree with you that my original article, and the statement therein to which you spoke, was broad and fairly vague. With that being said, you very evidently know your subject in the history of metallurgy, would you be interested in guest-writing something for my blog on the subject of iron-making in the early Middle Ages/Viking Age?

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