The Vikings used tents on their longships

[Translate to english:]
[Translate to english:]
Published 08th Jul 2007

The Sea Stallion's rain-soaked passage from Roskilde to South Norway leaves us with the question, whether tents could be raised aboard warships in the Viking Age and in the High Middle Ages.

The tents are described by several scaldic poets and it appears from some citations that they sailed with the tents up. 

As early as in the tenth century Harald Hairfair “had foam-covered tents at his disposition”, ræðr tjöldum drifnum (Haraldskvæði 5, B 22).

Sigvat Tordson calls Olaf Haraldsøn “he who destroys the black tent-horse (the ship)”, meiðir myrkblás tjalda drasils (Sigvatr 13,2, B 246).

Arnor Jarlaskjald says about the Norwegian king, Magnus the Good, that he understands how to lead his ships out on the dark sea or spend most of the time “under the foam-covered tent” und drifnu tjaldi, (Arnor 2,16, B 310).

Arnor also tells about one of the Orkney jarls that when away from the islands “he wore the black tent”, sleit blóu tjaldi (Arnor 5,19, B 320). The most obvious example that the tent was in use while sailing!

And Thodolf Arnorssøn says about Harald Hardrada that off Nidaros “he slings the long tent off him”, slyngr löngu tjaldi af sér (ThjóðA 4,19, B 351).

In twelfth century Denmark there are records of occasions when the tents are raised, while the ships are swinging at anchor. Ælnoth related about the peasants that with the permission of the king “they lift with joy the anchors from the sand, take down the tents that had been put up, raise the high mast, unfold the sails to the wind and ... steer out to sea” (Hans Olrik: Danske helgeners levned I 59). The tents are called in Latin tentoria superaffixa “the tents that are fixed on top”, i.e. on top of the ships (VSD I 101). It is not quite clear from Olrik’s translation that the tents are actually on board the ships. The other translator, Erling Albrectsen, would seem to believe that the tents were on land and he writes “...they packed up the tents, liftede the anchors joyfully from the sand, raised the high masts etc...”. Albrectsen has obviously not understood what Ælnoth meant and the significance of superaffixa

As a connoisseur of Saxo, Hans Olrik ought to have known the place in Saxo’s fourteenth book (Saxo 14: XXV 20) where King Valdemar and some of his men raised tents on their ships which are lying for anchor off the coasts of Wendland. Here they are lying and enjoying an after-dinner nap. Archbishop Eskild comes up and reproaches them for lying as if in their graves in stead of fighting. This story is also told in Knytlinga saga chapter 120. In both sources the tents are compared with graves. And this must say something about what the tents looked like. Perhaps they resembled Roman gravestones with low, sloping tops. They might also have looked lie the elevations one could see in churchyards in olden days, where the dead lay for the first year under a low, longish mound until the excavated earth had sunk down again to its normal level.

In Sverris Saga or the Böglunga Sagas from the beginning of the thirteenth century it is said that tents were taken down when the ship was preparing for battle. 

It is not until the second half of the thirteenth century that we hear that Håkon Håkonssøn, King of Norway, has built himself a big new ship whose gunwale is as high as the telt-ås on an older vessel. It was obviously a case of a spar running along the centreline of the ship, above the gunwale but under the sail. This might well be said to make the tent resemble a Roman gravestone. There must have been a tent-spar on the Danish leding (naval levy) ships around 1160. Personally, I believe that the twelfth-century Danish leding ships with 40-42 oars resembled the eleventh-century skeith. I can’t prove it, however. So this is the nearest I can come to a suggestion as to what a Viking-Age ship’s tent might have looked like.

I thought that I had named the “foam-covered tents” in my first article on Leding og Skjaldekvad but discover now that this was not so. I had simply kept the idea to myself. The Norwegian kings and the Earl of Orkney did not spend time under the “foam-covered tents” just to take their after-dinner naps. They sat in their tents during their swift and heroic voyages.

Rikke Malmros, cand.phil.

Created by Rikke Malmros, historiker, forsker i vikingetidens samfund og søfart