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Longships : Busse : Skeide : Snekke : Serpent/Drakkar : Merchant ships : Karv : Knarr : Byrding : Skute : Ferry : Smaller boats
Today we have a quite clear impression of what a viking ship really is. But the vikings themselves rarely used the term "viking ship" about their ships. "Viking ship" is a modern term used about a whole group of different ship classes which were used in Scandinavia in the Viking age (793 AD - 1066 AD) and in the next couple of centuries. We often associate the term with elegant longships with dragonheads and tall and upright sterns and stems, and a rig with a broad square sail. Actually only a few ships were equipped with dragonheads, as they should mark the status and rank of the viking kings. The majority of the ships were more modestly decorated, optimized for sailing abilities, strength, speed and cargo capacity needed for the purpose.
The historical sagas and the many archaelogical excavations throughout Scandinavia give us a rich glipse of the many different classes of Viking ships. All of these ships have certain characteristics in common which still makes use of the term "Viking ship" relevant. Most of the principles for shipbuilding in the Viking Age are still used in traditional wooden boat building in Scandinavia today, particularly in western and northern Norway.
Key elements in Viking ship construction
clinkerbuilt hull with overlapping strakes
a sturdy but shallow keel
sidemounted rudder at the stern, on the starboard (right) side
pointed stem and stern
only one mast amidships
square or rectangular sail of twill suspended from a yard
open boats without cabins
the ships could be propelled by oars or sail, or by oars only
the hulls were slightly flexible and light, and sleek and fast in the water
For more details on viking ship hull and rig construction go to this page >>.
The Norse saga literature usually refer to the size of a ship given its number of "rooms". This usually correspond well to the number of pairs of oars. One "room" (Old Norse "rúm") was the space between to seats along the gunwhale. As the size of a room could vary from ship to ship, this measure is rather inaccurate. The measure "alin" (english "ell"=2 feet) is also used sometimes, but as the alen has changed in length several times though history, this measure is quite unreliable. The alin in the early Viking Age was 47.4 cm.
The variation in actual hull design was large, and the development of new ships went on continously. The most profound changes must have taken place in the 7th and 8th century when the first Scandinavian ships were built with sail. Earlier ships had only been driven by oars. The introduction of sails made it possible to increase the cargo load without loss of their superior speed.
A large number of accidents and lost ships must have speeded the process of designing better ships. The Oseberg ship is an example of an early viking ship class which had sail, but it had a rather weak mast base and low gunwhale. The mastbase was cracked at one time during sailing and later repaired. The slightly younger Gokstad ship had a much more rugged mast base and a higher gunwhale. The Gokstad ship also had shuttable holes in the side of the hull for the oars, which made the ship better suited for crossing open oceans. Neither of these ships belonged to the class of true longships, but to the smaller all-purpose class called "karv" (Old Norse karfi).
In the 9th and 10th centuries the development continued with more different classes of ships and bigger longships. After 1000 AD large longships were built which were unthinkable only a couple of centuries earlier. The were primarily developed for battlecraft in war at sea between rivaling scandinavian kings. They had also an important function as status symbols for the kings.
After 1100 AD some ships were built with "castels", which were some form of cabins giving shelter for weather and at war. Also the rudder went through important changes, as it was moved from sidemount to the rear mounting. The official city seal of Bergen from early 13th century clearly illustrates a longship with its rudder mounted at the rear.
The Leidang ship
This is my conception of how a standard ship in the leidang might have looked like. The leidang was the norse and dane defensive viking ship fleets, established late in the 10th century. No leidang ship have been found, but we know from the sagas and early norse laws that they usually had 20 pairs of oars. Ships of this particular size was called "tjuesesse" in the old norse sagas. (Tjue=twenty, sesse=seat/thwart). With two men operating each oar, the crew counted about 90 men in total. This number is confirmed in Sverres Sigurdssons's saga from the 12th Century, where the arch bishop in Nidaros, Eysteinn Erlendsson, had a tjuesesse with 90 men.
These ships must have been built for both speed and cargo capabilities. They should be able to transport food and equipment for two months for the crew. The bow and stern were pointed, but usually without a dragon head. The ship in the drawing is 31,5 m long, and have a sail measuring about 110 square meters. I drew the ship first, using the same distance between the oar holes as in the Gokstad ship, and then measured the relative length. The height of the mast is rather modest, in accordance with the old rule that the crew should be able to lower the mast within the stern of the ship. The lower part of the sail must also have clearance to the three yard supports. A bigger sail than shown here would easily put too much load on the yard in the top. It would also be extremely heavy to haul. If the size of the sail should be adjusted, it would probably rather be smaller than larger. In addition the ship was also equipped with shields and oars, not shown here.
Longships were large and long ships with a slender hull, with 20 pairs of oars or more. Their had a high length:width ratio, which gave the hull minimal resistance in water, resulting in high cruising speed. These ships were capable of carrying a large number of warriors but had little space for cargo. The largest of the known longships were probably more than 50 m long, carrying 200 - 300 warriors. The longships were specialized warships.
Note that a the term "longship" is not the same term as a drakkar or dragon-ship. In Scandinavian litterature there is a difference between these two terms: The "longship" refers to a certain size and geometry of the hull of the ship, while a dragon-ship refers to the mounting of a dragon head at the prow of the ship to mark the rank of a king or a viking chieftain. A ship can be a longship without having the status of being a dragon-ship. Most longships did not have any dragon head. See more info under Serpent.
It is unclear when the first longships were built, but references to longships in the old norse sagas and datings from archaeological ship finds indicate that the first real longships carrying sail were developed in the 10th century. The rudder of the longships remained sidemounted to around 1250 - 1300, when they started to rear mount the rudder instead. After 1300 the Danish and Norwegian kingdoms became gradually weaker and the expensive longships went out of use.
The longships can be divided into several subcategories, according to Norwegian maritime historians:
The "Busse" was a class of longships with large cargo capacity and a large crew. They were designed for battlecraft to give advantage in war against other ships. They can be regarded as warships.
The "Ormen Lange" (The Long Serpent) of king Olav Tryggvason of Norway was such a ship. A "busse" could have a much as 35 pairs of oars and a total length of 50 meters or more. To picture the hull of a busse one can think of it as a prolonged and enlarged version of the Gokstadship, with even taller stern and stem and a dragonhead. This gives the busse an even larger length/width ratio than of the Gokstad ship.
The "Skeide" was also great longships equipped with 20 - 35 pairs of oars. Most likely they had lower gunwhale than the Busse class and lower cargo capacity. Perhaps were they also slimmer and faster. The sagas does not give a clear picture of the differences, but it must have to do with the shape and dimensions in the hull. The Skuldelev 2 longship found in the Roskilde fjord in Denmark could be an example of a skeide.
The "Snekke" was a kind of longship used both at war and for travels. The snekke had probably more charactar of beiing a crew carrier than a pure war ship. My guess is that they had stems and stens of more modest heigth than the more prestigious classes of longships. The Snekke as a term in ship design seem to have been well known both in Scandinavia and in parts of the Baltic Sea. Snorri Sturlason use the term "Vendelsnekke" in some places in one of his sagas.
The longship "Tranen" (Trana) of the norwegian king Olav Tryggvason was according to Snorri a snekke. But the king was more impressed by the look and design of the longship "Ormen Skramme" which was built in Salten in northern Norway and at one stage captured by the king.
"Sud" were probably not a longship class of its own, but a pars pro toto that appears as a suffix in several ship names in the late Viking age and high Middle ages. Most longships that were called -suðínn probably belonged to the busse class.
Serpent - Drakkar - Dragon-ship (Norwegian: "drage" / "drake" or "Orm")
In english literature several terms seem to be in use for a looser group of large viking ships. Both the terms serpents and drakkars are frequently used, and seem the be equal to the norwegian terms "drage" (drake) and "orm". Regarding the shape of the hull of a large longship and its flexibility at sea I prefer the term serpent of the two, as "orm" translates into serpent or snake. I believe this comes closest to what such a ship must have looked like in use. The norse word "orm" (old norse "orminum"), must not be confused with or translated into the english word "worm", even though dictionaries can suggest such a translation.
The serpents were usually the largest ships in the fleet of a viking king, and were supposed to stand out to symbolize his superior rank.
Calling a ship a serpent seem to have been a looser term than using the more restricted terms busse, skeide, snekke and sud. Any of these could also be called a serpent if they were equipped with an animal shaped head in the stem. Usually this head was shaped like a dragons head. Also other animal forms are known from the sagas, for example the ship "Visund" which had a bulls head (a vicent - european buffalo) in its stem. The stern could also have a dragon head or forming a dragons tail. The dragon head was not permanently fixed to the prow, but could usually be taked down for various reasons.
The sagas of Snorri Sturlason gives several examples of ships that were called both a "serpent" and one of the subclasses of longships. Among these are "Ormen Lange" (The Long Serpent) which are mentioned both as serpent and busse in different parts of the saga.
Merchant ships - "Kaupskip"
The vikings had several classes of trading ships, designed for crossing open sea carrying a lot of cargo. These ships were the true "work horses" in the Viking age. They can be subdivided into several classes:
A karfi was substantially smaller than the real longships. Usually they were equipped with 13 to 16 pairs of oars. They can have been very versatile and can have been in use both as merchant vessels and at war. The karfis probably had a level deck without fixed twarths for the rowers. The crew would instead sit on strapped chests during rowing that could be stowed away when the karfi was under sail.
Both the Gokstad ship and the Oseberg ship are examples of well preserved ships of this viking ship class.
The knarr had a relatively bulky hull with fewer pairs of oars than the longships. The oars were placed towards each end, leaving the space midships for cargo. The knarr was designed for manouverability, large loading capacity and good sailing abilities offshore. Where Snorre Sturlason tells about "kaupskip" (merchant ships) in his sagas, he probably tells about this kind of ships. Early types of knarrs could also be used as warships, as in the famous battle of Harfsfjord in Norway around 872 AD, where knarrs with figure heads and ornamented stems played an important role in the battle. Also the Anglo Saxon chronicle refers to "cnears" late in the 9th century as warships. "Knarr" (and "cnear") may have its root in a backcurving stem profile.
The Skuldelev-wreck 1 found in the Roskilde fjord in Denmark was a knarr. It had a deck fore and aft and the cargo room in the middle. It had a high gunwale, which made the ship seaworthy in rough waters. The ship is regarded as a good example of the kind of knarrs which were used for trading trips within Scandinavia and further south in Europe.
One special kind of the knarr was called "Grønlandsknarr" (Greenland) and "Vinlandsknarr" (New Foundland). They were oceangoing cargo ships with a length of 25 m or more.
The byrding was a smaller vessel primaily used as domestic freight carriers along the coast. Their size was probably 10 - 15 rooms, thus a bit smaller than the karfi. They were also able to cross great distances offshore, such as between Norway and Iceland. In the naval armys they could be used for carrying supplies to the crew in the larges boats, such as food and water. Reconstructions have shown that these boats were fast sailers.
The word "byrding" has great resemblance with the norwegian suffix "-børing" , which is used in far newer ship classes in Norway. E.g. the "fembøring" in north and the "sambøring" from Sunnmøre.
Other ship classes
The Norse sagas tells us about small and light vessels which could sail fast. They are often called "skute", which is a rather unspecified definition. It is not clear whether a "skute" was a class of ships of its own, or if it was a common term for a wide range of smaller ships, including karve and byrding.
In addition of being fast sailers, these ships also had the advantage of being ready to sail at a short notice. Demanding only a small crew with little equipment, such ships could be made ready to sail without attracting attention from the surroundings. They could also be easier hidden than any larger ship. Such ships must have been well suited for transportation of persons, couriers and messenger carriers during wars and conflicts.
The term "skute" has survived to our time, and determines even today a rather unspecified group of smaller sailing boats and ships. The term is used in everyday language in Norway.
Ferry - ferje (ferju)
Ferje - ferry - are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas as smaller carriers for crossing shorter distances, like across fjords. It is likely that the typical ferje was rather small, so that it could be rowed back after a misson by one or two men. They were probably built flat and strong, so that they could carry horses and cattle onboard. The term ferje seem to have spread from old norse, and is today part of the english language in the form ferry. In Norwegian we still say ferje.
A skipsbåt - ships boat - were smaller boats which were towed after a larger ship. Due to this they were called eptirbátir - the afterboat. Or they were stored upside-down onboard a larger merchant ships just behind the mast base covering cargo. The were used as landing boats or used for fast transportation between the other ships in a naval force.
These boats must have had great similarity with the wooden boats in western Norway of today. Three such boats were found inside the Gokstad ship. In construction they are virtually identical with todays Oselvar boat type from Hordaland.
Imagine a typical viking age knarr with its rear stern cut away. Then build a rear castel, and replace the traditional side rudder of the vikings with a rear mounted rudder. Then you have the prototype of a medieval age jekte. With impulses from the hanseatic kogg and other ships with rear castels, the transision from the viking knarr to a norse jekte was a logical step. This happened in the 13th and 14th century. Gone are the dragon heads and the pronounced stems. But the jekte was clinkerbuilt in just the same manner: keel and strakes first, then ribs and beams. The sail was still square for a long time. The jekte was the work-horse along the norwegian coast through the entire medieval age and into the 19th century. They were mainly used in fishing and for transportation of cargo along the coast.
The Hanseatic trading guilds ensured privileges for themselves, which prevented native norwegian farmers and traders in building as large boats as they wanted. This gave the Hansa traders monopoly in the cargo traffic between Norway and the countries on the other side of the North Sea. With restrictions in size and cargo capacity for Norwegian ship builders, the age of the large norse clinker-built ships came to its end.
Norwegian wooden boats of today
One often think of viking ships as something that vanished from history. But during the entire medieval age the smaller types of boats used in the vikings age were still built all along the coast of Norway . They even developed into a large range of different boats well adapted to local conditions and for many different purposes. Local variants emerged and became tradition within its area. These traditions are still alive. Oselvar, Nordfjordbåt, Sunnmørsbåt, Nordlandsbåt are all examples of such local tradtions. The square rig of the viking age was used all along the western coast until late in the 19th century with only minor modifications. Færings, ottrings and fembørings to menition some, are all true and direct decendants of the viking ships. In my opinion they are small viking ships.
So, if you want to build a Viking ship, even a færing will do for a start!
Jørn Olav Løset
Last update April 7th. 2015.
"Heimskringla" by Snorri Sturlason
Småhefte "Sjøfart", Bergen Sjøfartsmuseum
"Vestnorske båter", Bernhard Færøyvik
"De skjulte skipene", Sverre Marstrander
Plansje over Sunnmørsbåter, Saxe Bjørkedal
And everything that I have read and heard since I was 7.
Viking ship index page
|Published Feb. 29 2004. Last update 16-04-2015. Copyright 2004 Jørn Olav Løset. E-mail:||joeolavl||@||online.no|