The longship in written sources

Written sources from the Viking Age are rare and there are especially few of them that can tell us anything about the contemporary longships. The written sources left by the Vikings themselves are mainly found in two particular categories.

The first consists of the rather taciturn inscriptions on the rune stones whose information about the ships normally restricts itself to an account of ownership, indication of the functions of those on board, and sometimes the type of vessel – often less.

The other main source is the scaldic verses. In the Viking Age these were a living tradition but they were first transmitted into writing in the medieval period. It is only because this kind of verse is subject to strict regulations with respect to rhyme and metre that we can today assume that the later versions are more or less word to word transcripts of what was originally recited.

If we are to attempt to look for other written sources that can give us information about the longships, we must first and foremost look in the directions in which the Vikings sailed – and in particular to Western Europe, where the chronicles, often compiled in monasteries, give contemporary but succinct descriptions of the activities of the Scandinavian fleets. Some sources, for example William the Conqueror’s list of ships, were left by the Scandinavians themselves abroad, or by their descendants. 

The sources are rather more expansive if we also take into account the first centuries of the medieval period. Here it is first and foremost the sagas of the kings and the contemporary sagas, where we can find full and probably also quite realistic descriptions of the longships and the use that was made of them.

Also in Saxo Grammaticus’ many descriptions of the raids made against the Wends on the south coast of the Baltic, recorded in Gesta Danorum, the longships appear in large numbers but unfortunately also with very little concrete information. Finally, the medieval Scandinavian law-texts with their provisions about the campaigns of the leiðing, the naval defence force, are of great value for the understanding of the longship and its role in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Danish text: Jan Bill

Translation: Gillian Fellows-Jensen