Ulfberht Swords: A Contemporary Debate on the Viking Age
Amongst the thousands of Viking age weapons discovered throughout recent history, Ulfberht swords were one of the rarest and most highly prized. Forged and distributed between the 9th and 11th century, they are identified by the letters inlaid on the steel blade, commonly agreed to read “Ulfberht”.
The legendary blades are universally regarded as both mysterious and significantly ahead of their time. Not only were they of a high quality, but likely the most feared
In this article, we explore the history in order to try and untangle the mysteries of the Ulfberht
As we will continue to learn throughout this article, the Ulfberht swords stood out in more ways than one.
Approximately 91 cm in length and 5cm in width, they were normally encrusted with brass, silver, or bronze decorations on the hilt. Each
The cross guards on the Ulfberht swords were usually disc shaped rather than the traditional sail shape of an inferior weapon. The pommel was cast from a singular piece of metal, outshining all other swords which were made by combining two pieces of steel, a far more complicated process.
Finally, the engravings found on the side of the blades are probably the most important part of the Ulfberht Swords’ composition, which we will go into greater depth about shortly.
What makes the Ulfberht special?
There are many things that make this particular viking sword so special:
- The Name
- The Material and Manufacturing
- The Qualities it held in battle
- The Mysteries behind them
Let us explore each of the above!
So, what does “Ulfberht” mean?
The most obvious identifying characteristic of the Ulfberht swords are the variants of the same engravings found on each one. Approximately 170 blades have been discovered, but even something as simple as a reoccurring name has caused some debate.
The word “Ulfberht” was once thought to be the name of the one swordsmith who forged these legendary viking weapons.
However, as more of the swords have appeared, the differences in their form suggests that there is a 300 year time span (link) when the Ulfberht
Although there are theories behind the elusive inscription, the bona fide identity of the swordsmith remains one of the
And Where Were the Swords Made?
There is a surprising general consensus that these mighty viking blades were not originally forged in Norway.
Whether it was the name of the swordsmiths’ family or the branding used by the workshop, the linguistic indication is that “Ulfberht” was a Frankish personal name. This then suggests that the origin of the Ulfberht swords was in the Rhineland, in between France and Germany in modern day Europe.
Ulfberhts have been found in an array of European countries. This has led historians to theorize about the production of the swords. It is most likely they were manufactured in the Rhineland and then distributed throughout Scandinavia.
Other researchers have suggested the swords may have originated from a handful of different locations across Europe and the world.
However, given the inlaid trademark, it feels hard to argue with the belief that the Ulfberht came from North Western Europe.
The Mysteries of Ulfbehrt’s Material
Although the origin of the branding isn’t entirely certain, it appears to be far more conclusive than the debate that surrounds the material used to make the Ulfberht swords.
Due to the high cost of labor and sourcing, the metal that made up your “average” Viking warrior’s weapons was very different to the steel that made the high quality Ulfberhts.
Whilst most steel blades in the Middle Ages would have been made using the bloomery process, the Ulfberht was the lord of the
The steel that placed the Ulfberht swords above the rest was that it had a significantly higher carbon content. This could be up to 1.2%, giving the Ulfberht blades their unmatchable power.
The exact type of steel, how it was made, and where it came from are more topics that we can add to the great Ulfberht debate!
The first contender in the debate comes from researcher Alan Williams’ published work “Crucible Steel in medieval swords”.
Instead of using “regular” iron-ore steel created in the bloomery process, Ulfberht swords are understood to be made from Crucible Steel. This metal was achieved in a completely different process.
By heating iron-ore in a sealed crucible with high carbon material for multiple days, the container would eventually break and reveal a cake of cast steel ready for forging into a
Williams looked at the possibility that the steel cake used in the manufacturing of the Ulfberht came all the way from Asia, as countries including Sri Lanka, India, and Persia are known to have been making crucible steel since before the 9th century.
Williams suggested that the Vikings were trading in such steel with Asia via the well documented volga trade route. This neatly addresses the reason for the cease in production of the Ulfberhts after the 11th century, the same time the trade route closed.
On the other hand..
German chemist Robert Lehmann disagrees with Alan Williams’ theory.
After conducting his own studies of an Ulfberht
The chemical analysis carried out by Lehman led him to confidently announce how the source of metal for the Ulfberhts could have come from the Siegerland region of central Germany.
Top Quality Steel Swords
Despite the disagreements, it is undisputed that the Ulfberht “brand” was probably the highest quality
Due to their composition, they are understood to have been the fastest, strongest, and most durable swords of the time. Lehman has even suggested that the Ulfberht may have even been designed to “sing” when removed from its scabbard.
After his analysis of the Helman blade, Lehman spoke of the vibrations created by the blade, elevating the reputation of the swords to that of mystical legend. Although a lot of these theories are inconclusive, it is reasonable to say that everything about the Ulfberht makes them one of the most desirable swords of the viking age, then, and even now.
9th Century Innovation!
An even more extraordinary part of the Ulfberht’s origin story is the heat the medieval swordsmiths would have had to reach in order to cast this steel. It was a process originally believed to have only been achieved after the industrial revolution, making the swords 800 years ahead of their time.
In 2012, Ric Furrer, a modern day swordsmith in America reverse engineered the Ulfberht
Where Have They Been Found?
Ulfberht swords have been discovered throughout history both deliberately, on archeological expeditions, and by accident. One of the most fascinating things is the vast area in which they have been found.
Unsurprisingly many have been uncovered in Viking Burial Sites in Norway, as it was a sacred act to bury a warrior with his weapons. However, a number of others have been stumbled upon in rivers across Scandinavia and Northern Europe.
Ulfberhts have been discovered in:
- A river in Karlsruhe
- A 10th Century Grave in Nemilany
- The river Elbe
- The river Weser
- The river Nene
- The Baltic Sea
And so on. Based on these findings, we can see the success and desirability of the Ulfberht, a spectacular feat of distribution during the Viking Age.
It has become clear throughout this article that the precise origins of the esteemed Ulfberht swords remain something of a mystery. However, it does feel as though the mystery adds to the status and legend that surrounds them. Not only were the Ulfberht swords the highest quality and most ferocious blades on the battlefield, they were also a symbol of the admirable wealth and rank of those who carried one.They were replicated by swordsmiths hoping to bask in the glow of the magnificent weapon in the Middle Ages even till now. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery after all. However, like all designer brands and trademarked products, the famous “Ulfberht” engravings means that we can still precisely identify one of the greatest European swords ever forged.