The longships on the rune stones

The rune stones are a rather taciturn but nevertheless important written source about Viking-Age longships because they are the only ones written – or rather carved in stone – by the Vikings themselves. What the rune stones can tell about maritime life has been discussed most recently by Judith Jesch in her book Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse (Routledge 2001). The present account is based on her results.

It is known today that there are about 3,000 rune stones dating from the Late Viking Age and the early medieval period down to the beginning of the 12th century. The great majority of them, about 90%, stand in Sweden, while most of the others are to be found in Denmark and Skåne, with a few in Norway, the Isle of Man, England and Scotland. 

Although the word longship does not actually occur on the rune stones, there are six or seven rune stones that mention the word skip ‘ship’. This is the case, for example, with a rune stone from the middle of the eleventh century that is found today in Svinnegarn Church in Uppland and tells about a certain Bakke or Banke who had a ship of his own and “steered eastward in Ingvar’s host”. Bakke would thus seem to be an example of a chieftain or great man who owned a warship of his own and took part with it in warlike expeditions. Another stone is the Spånga stone in Södermanland, which tells that Guðmar “Stóð drengila í stafn skipi” stood like a drengr in the ship’s stem. A drengr was an outstanding young warrior, one of the king’s closest allies, and he was apparently one of those who went foremost into the battle. 

The special ship-term skeið reappears a few times on the rune stones. A skeið is clearly a warship. On the Tryggevælde stone the word is used to denote the great ship setting in connection with the raising of which the stone was erected, while an inscription on a boulder at Esta in Södermanland was made in memory of Sigvið, a skeiðar vísi,  “The ship’s captain”. This inscription also dates from the eleventh century. Yet another word for ship that is found on the rune stones is knörr. This would rather, however, seem to denote a cargo ship, or perhaps just a sea-going ship, hardly a longship in our sense of the word. On the other hand it is possible that the barð, which is mentioned on the Djulefors stone in Södermanland, is a warship – at all events the inscription, which dates from the eleventh-century, tells that “Inga raised this stone in memory of Óleifr, her [illegible]. He to the eastward ploughed his barð, and died in the land of the Lombards”. Barð is assumed to refer to a particular shape of the stem, and from scaldic verse we know that Erik Jarl’s ship was known as Barði – so is it not likely that Óleif’s barð was also a warship?

Some few rune stones point to the fact that the very act of steering a ship played a special role. The famous rune stone from Hedeby that praises Eiríkr as both félagi and drengr also tells that he was stýrimaðr ‘steersman’, that is skipper. Eiríkr died in battle at Hedeby and perhaps it was he who steered his and his comrades-in-arms’ ship to the trading-place on the Schlei. In other contexts, for example on the stone from Ärentuna in Uppland, however, the word would rather appear to be used as a title, and from early medieval written sources we know that the steersman was the man appointed by the king to be in charge of the equipment and the gear and the navigation on the expeditionary ship (leiðingskip) from each herred ‘hundred’.

The crew on board a ship were often referred to as skiparar ‘shipmen’. Examples of this use include the above-mentioned stone from Esta, which shows that the term skipari could also be used of the crew on board a warship. 

The term lið, which normally denotes the military followers of a leader, occurs on a couple of rune stones as the term for a greater or smaller collection of warships. An example of this is the inscription from Nä in Uppland, which tells that “He owned a farm in Þorsholmr and a skiplið in Hrólfsstaðir”.

The above-mentioned stone from Svinnegarn is an example of a group of more than twenty Swedish rune stones that were all raised over men who lost their life on Ingvar’s expedition to Serkland. The unsuccessful expedition took place about 1041 and Serkland is the term employed by the Vikings of the Muslim regions. The Ingvarr expedition is one of several examples on the rune stones of expeditions with several ships being led by a king or a magnate.

In summary it can be said that the rune stones present a picture of maritime warfare in the eleventh century that was structured around personal ownership of the longships – maybe beside a parallel organisation, a leiðing  – and on a clear distinction on board the ships between styrimaðr, steersman, and skiparar, the crew. It is also clear that the expeditions had a leader, a king or magnate, who had command over the whole fleet, and to whom the individual captains had sworn loyalty. Apart from an often quoted inscription on stone, no. 6 from Århus, there is nothing in the runic texts to point to anything other than that military navigation was organised strictly hierarchically. This stone was raised to Asser Saxe, who owned a ship together with Arne, and it is not clear whether it was a mercantile or a military ship-partnership that they shared. The hierarchy reflected in the rune stones does not, however, mean that the Viking-Age fleets can be compared with fleets in modern times, where the hierarchy is based on the power of the state and legislation – in Viking-Age society it was to a high degree the shared warrior concepts of honour, the ethos, that put the individual shipman and steersman under an obligation to play their roles in the fleet.

Danish text: Jan Bill

Translation: Gillian Fellows-Jensen