The longship in the medieval saga texts

Most of the sagas that survive from the Early Middle Ages were written down in Iceland and deal with the Norwegian kings in particular – and it is therefore also the Norwegian longships that we hear about. 

Snorri Sturluson writes in his work Heimskringla about the great longships from the end of the tenth century, Olaf Tryggvason’s TRANA ‘crane’ and ORMR INN LANGI ‘the long serpent’, and of Olav Haraldson’s VISUNDR ‘bison’from 1026 and Harald Hardrada’s dragon-ship from 1061-62. Snorri, however, did not write his sagas until about 1230 and his descriptions are probably more likely to apply to shipbuilding early in the thirteenth century than in the Late Viking Age. His descriptions are nevertheless valuable sources for us, because they give us an insight into shipbuilding that in spite of everything had not changed radically since the eleventh century.

Below you can read how Snorri describes the building of ORMR INN LANGI in Olaf Tryggvason’s saga.

The winter after King Olaf came from Halagoland, he had a great vessel built at Ladehammer, which was larger than any ship in the country, and of which the beam-knees are still to be seen. ... Thorberg Skafhogg was the man’s name who was the master-builder of the ship; but there were many others besides,– some to fell wood, some to shape it, some to make nails, some to carry timber; and all that was used was of the best. The ship was both long and broad and high-sided, and strongly timbered.

While they were planking the ship, it happened that Thorberg had to go home to his farm upon some urgent business; and as he remained there a long time, the ship was planked up on both sides when he came back. In the evening the king went out, and Thorberg with him, to see how the vessel looked, and everybody said that never was seen so large and beautiful a ship of war. Then the king returned to the town.

Early next morning the king returns again to the ship, and Thorberg with him. The carpenters were there before them, but all were standing idle with their arms across. The king asked “what was the matter?” They said the ship was destroyed; for somebody had gone from stem to stern, and cut one deep notch after the other down the one side of the planking. When the king came nearer he saw it was so, and said, with an oath, “The man shall die who has thus destroyed the vessel out of envy, if he can be discovered, and I shall bestow a great reward on whoever finds him out.”

“I can tell you, king,” says Thorberg, “who has done this piece of work.”

“I don’t think,” replies the king, “that any one is so likely to find it out as thou art.”

Thorberg says, “I will tell you, king, who did it. I did it myself.” 

The king says, “Thou must restore it all to the same condition as before, or thy life shall pay for it.” 

Then Thorberg went and chipped the planks until the deep notches were all smoothed and made even with the rest; and the king and all present declared that the ship was much handsomer on the side of the hull which Thorberg had chipped, and bade him shape the other side in the same way, and gave him great thanks for the improvement.

Afterwards Thorberg was the master builder of the ship until she was entirely finished. The ship was a dragon, built after the one the king had captured in Halogaland; but this ship was far larger, and more carefully put together in all her parts. The king called this ship the Long Serpent, and the other the Short Serpent. The Long Serpent had thirty-four benches for rowers. The head and the arched tail were both gilt, and the bulwarks were as high as in sea-going ships. This ship was the best and most costly ship ever made in Norway.

(Snorri Sturlason: Olav Tryygvason’s saga, chap.95, here in the translation of Samuel Laing, Everyman edition 1915)

Snorri’s text gives us some significant information, both about the building of the ship and its appearance. The building takes place close to Trondheim and many men are employed upon it. The most skilful of these is Thorger, who has been given the task of making the stems, but it is not he who directed the building to begin with. We note that Snorri’s listing of those taking part in the building is hierarchic – First the kings is named as responsible for building the ship, then Thorberg as the stem-smith, then the shipbuilders (those who construct the ship), then those who shape the timber, those who forge the nails and finally those who merely carry the timber. About the ship itself we read first how large it is – 34 rumis an indication of how many spaces between the frames there had been for the rowers and this corresponds to 34 pairs of oars, and secondly the vessel is equally as high up to the gunwale as the gunwale on a sea-going ship. This corresponds well with the picture presented by the medieval saga-texts of the great rowing-ships. In many descriptions of sea-battles we read that it is difficult to attack these because they are much higher.

None of the other descriptions of large ships in the sagas is as detailed as Snorri’s text is about ORMR INN LANGI. The description of king Sverri’s MARIASUDEN, which was built in Trondheim in 1182-83, however, is worth mentioning. Its construction is described in Sverris saga, which was written by Karl Jónsson at the command of the king himself and it is noteworthy how critical the saga is of the ship. The king was not satisfied with its size and commanded it to be lengthened by 12 ells at a point when the construction was far advanced. The result was that the ship with its 33 rumwas neither harmonious nor durable and on its maiden voyage the king had large chests full of nails brought on board so that the ship could be repaired as it sailed. On the voyage in question it is reported that the king had no fewer than 280 men on board, that is more than eight men per rum. The figure suggests that the great longships at the end of the twelfth century had become much broader and hence heavier than those of the Viking Age. This also applies to the fact that king Sverrir some years later could employ the same method as with MARIASUDEN, when he in all haste had to convert a number of cargo-ships to longships.

The saga texts refer to about 15 examples of large ships with 30 pairs of oars or more from shortly after the year 1000 to the middle of the thirteenth century.

Name                    Site and date       Builder                     Number of rum

TRANEN                 Nidaros 995            Olav Tryggvason         30

ORMR (the short)    Nordland før 999     Raud                          30

ORMR INN LANGI    Nidaros 999-1000    Olav Tryggvason         32 or 34

VISUNDR               Nidaros 1026           St. Olav                      at least 30

BUSSEN                 Nidaros 1061-62      Harald Hardrada          35


MARIASUDEN         Nidaros 1182-83      King Sverrir                 32 or 33

OGNABRANDEN      Nidaros 1199           King Sverrir                 36

NN                        Nidaros 1206-07       King Inge                    30

NN                        Nidaros 1206-07       Håkon Jarl                   36

NN                        Nidaros 1206-07       Peter Støyper              32

OLAVSSUDEN         Unknown                 Birkebeiner (rebels)     32

LANGFREDAG         Nidaros 1232-33       Skúli Jarl                     36

KROSS-SUDEN       Orust 1252-53          Håkon Håkonsson         35?

MARIASUDEN         Bergen 1256-57        Håkon Håkonsson         30

KRISTSUDEN          Bergen 1262-63        Håkon Håkonsson         37


(After Bent og Erik Andersen 1989, Råsejlet - Dragens Vinge, p. 28)

It is noteworthy that hardly any increase in size seems to have taken place in the number of rumin the great ships from the eleventh century on. The number of rumfor the ships of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is only about 5% greater than the number of those in the eleventh century – an increase so small that it may be incidental. As we have seen above, however, growth took place in height and beam rather than in length.

Another fact becomes clear in the sagas, however, – the significance of the towns for the building of large ships. Almost all of the ships were built either in Trondheim or Bergen and Bergen replaces Trondheim as their place of building at the same time as Bergen becomes the more important of the two towns from a political and economic point of view. Apart from these there is only a mention of a vessel from Nordland and one from Orust, which is quite close to Kongshelle, the now-lost but once flourishing Norwegian market town on the Göta Älv. The distribution pattern showing the role played by towns as sites for shipbuilding is one that is also familiar in other Northern European sources, for example in William the Conqueror’s ship list.

Although detailed descriptions of individual ships are rare, the sagas are full of descriptions of battle-scenes and pictures of life on board and they therefore provide a rich source of information about maritime terminology and practical processes in the Early Middle Ages. This material has been carefully examined by Hjalmar Falk in his long article, Altnordische Seewesen, which appeared in Wörter und SachenVol. IV in 1912 but has also been published in Swedish translation under the title Fornnordisk Sjöfartin Stockholm in 1995.

Danish text: Jan Bill

Translation: Gillian Fellows-Jensen

The historical sources