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Ahmad Tabari





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PostPosted: Tue 16 Apr, 2013 10:27 pm    Post subject: Why not burn their ships?         Reply with quote

I just finished watching the third episode of the new Viking series. Although I know I that the series director is trying to portray the Vikings as unbeatable warriors in comparison to the supposedly meek and unwarlike Northumbrians, I was hoping that the Saxons would be able to get some pay back on Ragnar and his crew for bringing so much destruction. One of the first things that popped into my head was if they can't beat them on the field, why don't they station some archers on the banks of the river the viking ships were expected to pass through and simply burn them in their ships with fire arrows?

Assuming that the authorities know which tributaries the viking ships will sail through, this seems to me like an effective way of neutralizing these raids. Are there any examples in the sagas and chronicles of this being done?

P.S. If this seems like a stupid question, keep in mind that my knowledge on Viking warfare is somewhat rudimentary Wink
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Elling Polden




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PostPosted: Tue 16 Apr, 2013 11:03 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Fire arrows work a lot better in the movies. Chances of iginting a ship with them are slight. Burning pitch and sulphur was used in the medevial period, but presumably combined with boarding.

What one could do, and was done, is simply block the river with a palisade, chain, or similar. However, this merely forces the enemy to disembark, and if you can not stop him once he does ther effect is not all that great. But it will give you time to react.

What one should also consider is how "simple" the period was, not only in terms of technology but also social organisation and settlement patterns.
These are regions where the only cities are remains of old roman settlements, and the population lives scattered on individual farms. There is no standing army, with the exception of the personal household guards of local bigmen, and these big men live scattered as well. The overall population was less than 1/10th of today.
And no message moves faster over land than a horse can run.

A viking raiding party in a single ship could number from 30 to 180 (!) depending on period and size of the ship. In present day terms, this would be similar to a US mechaniced infantry company rolling into your neighbourhood with NO ROE what so ever, and the goal of stealing all the Iphones, laptops and kitchen appliances they could get their hands on.
It is POSIBLE to stopp them, or deal them some damage, but it takes preparation and organization. And the phones are down and are here NOW....

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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Bryan Heff




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PostPosted: Wed 17 Apr, 2013 4:03 am    Post subject: Re: Why not burn their ships?         Reply with quote

Ahmad Tabari wrote:
I just finished watching the third episode of the new Viking series. Although I know I that the series director is trying to portray the Vikings as unbeatable warriors in comparison to the supposedly meek and unwarlike Northumbrians, I was hoping that the Saxons would be able to get some pay back on Ragnar and his crew for bringing so much destruction. One of the first things that popped into my head was if they can't beat them on the field, why don't they station some archers on the banks of the river the viking ships were expected to pass through and simply burn them in their ships with fire arrows?

Assuming that the authorities know which tributaries the viking ships will sail through, this seems to me like an effective way of neutralizing these raids. Are there any examples in the sagas and chronicles of this being done?

P.S. If this seems like a stupid question, keep in mind that my knowledge on Viking warfare is somewhat rudimentary Wink


I have been watching the series and want to agree with you on the portrayals of the 2 peoples thus far. Boy, they sure make the Saxons looks like a bunch of bumblers. The Saxon soldiers in particular seem like cartoon characters with oversized badly fitted helmets and confused looks. Since the show is called Vikings, I guess its no surprise that they are portrayed as nearly invincible.

Still, I will watch.
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Ken Speed





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PostPosted: Wed 17 Apr, 2013 9:36 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Not to belabor the obvious but if the Saxon's burned the Viking ships then the Vikings wouldn't go away, would they? Eventually that's what happened, Vikings stayed one way or another and settled in Saxon lands often making things worse for the Saxons than when they were periodically raided.

I haven't watched the series but I suppose the Vikings are supposed to be professional fighters while the Saxons are essentially farmers grossly oversimplifying the facts. Recent archeological discoveries seem to show that, at least sometimes, the Vikings got the dirty end of the stick and traded their head for a hole in the ground.
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T. Kew




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PostPosted: Wed 17 Apr, 2013 11:13 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As noted, it's not actually very easy to burn a ship. Fire arrows are relatively ineffective at burning anything, really - there's not much fuel you can get into the head of an arrow, and lighting wooden planks isn't easy. Against a city or the like you can start fires simply by means of raining arrows in until one of them finds a conveniently flammable target, but ships aren't hugely well supplied with things like that.

However, a couple of comments on methods that were used to defend against Norse raiders.

You do see some fortified rivers. In particular, the Franks did this a fair bit: Charles the Bald ordered fortified bridges and obstructions to be built on the major rivers in France. However, this requires a much higher scale of royal power and investment than simply watchposts or archers would. Towns also tend to have various water defenses - Hedeby has a palisade encircling most of the harbour, while the Skudelev ships were sunk as a barricade in the river there.

In Anglo-Saxon England, royal power gets used to build "burhs", a form of fortified town spread across the country. Each one is situated at a defensive location, fortified, and allocated an area of land who are responsible for manning the defenses, and are protected by it in cases of attack. Viking raids were reasonably effective at raiding, but even when large armies arrived, siege warfare was not their strongpoint (or, for that matter, an Anglo-Saxon strongpoint either) so the defenders could generally defend themselves adequately in such a fortification.

In general, effective defenses required strong local authority. The vikings were most drastically effective attacking weak or unprepared areas, while in general battle against an equal force the outcome was much more variable, and a strong ruler could make his kingdom reasonably resistant to everything but the odd minor attack.

Instructor and scholar, Cambridge HEMA
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Wed 17 Apr, 2013 1:36 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

well...keep an eye on that Saxon snakepit.

but to contribute to the topic--A number of incendiary "top darts" were found on Mary Rose, so there must have been some value in them at some point in history. The caveat there is that these things were massive--over 7' long, IIRC, and with relatively large incendiary heads around a long spike. Those might have been able to burn long enough and hot enough to do some damage. According to Weapons of Warre, boarding was still the preferred method of naval conquest, even though the guns were becoming increasingly important (one of the reasons MR sank, it appears).

-Sean

"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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T. Kew




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PostPosted: Wed 17 Apr, 2013 1:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hm. My guess would be that by then, the presence of powder on ships made fire a more useful weapon. All you could really do to a Viking ship would be to set fire to the timbers itself, which seems rather trickier.
Instructor and scholar, Cambridge HEMA
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Luka Borscak




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PostPosted: Wed 17 Apr, 2013 2:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Difficulty of burning the ships with arrows aside, destroying the ships is only a good strategy if you want to pin down the vikings and fight them in a battle. I don't know when this series is supposed to take place, but resistance to vikings only became really successful with Alfred's reforms of army and burh system. Half of army was always in the field and could move immediately and there was always a burh relatively close with some ready troops there too. Before that, most of the times Anglo Saxons in a certain area would rather see vikings sail somewhere else than fight them...
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Artis Aboltins




PostPosted: Thu 18 Apr, 2013 12:46 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It is quite possible that fire arrows of later times where supposed to be used on the ships sails - after all, Mary Rose and other larger vessels of her time used sails as means of locomotion - while vikings could have relied on their oars to get them out of the harm's way, even if their sail went up in flames (sails is likely one of the things that would easily catch fire, being cloth that might be impregnated by use of pitch or other similar substance).

A note on the show though - it is a pure fantasy with no relationship to history at all, unless you consider a couple of names, so I would not seek logic in it - there is more "historical accuracy" in "Game of Thrones" series than in this abortion of a show.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Thu 18 Apr, 2013 7:10 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Keep in mind that this was done by the History Channel so it won't have anything historical in it. Razz

FWIW there are no constrictors in England except for the Aesculapian Snake which has only been in the wild for about 30 years - ever since a few escaped from a Welsh zoo. And they eat rodents, not people. But a pit full of Grass Snakes wouldn't be very scary.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass_snake

Edit: Here is a list of all the reptiles that are native to England. It is a pretty short and boring list. I have more reptiles than this in my back yard.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_reptiles_of_Great_Britain

I thought that perhaps a pit of deadly spiders might be better but the UK doesn't have any of them either. I suppose that a pit of badgers will have to do.
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Thu 18 Apr, 2013 8:42 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:
Keep in mind that this was done by the History Channel so it won't have anything historical in it. Razz

FWIW there are no constrictors in England except for the Aesculapian Snake which has only been in the wild for about 30 years - ever since a few escaped from a Welsh zoo. And they eat rodents, not people. But a pit full of Grass Snakes wouldn't be very scary.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass_snake

Edit: Here is a list of all the reptiles that are native to England. It is a pretty short and boring list. I have more reptiles than this in my back yard.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_reptiles_of_Great_Britain

I thought that perhaps a pit of deadly spiders might be better but the UK doesn't have any of them either. I suppose that a pit of badgers will have to do.


True, but the traditional legend of Ragnar features snakes. And, as they say about a gun appearing in the first act of a play--it must go off in the last.

-Sean

"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Ahmad Tabari





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PostPosted: Sun 21 Apr, 2013 1:46 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for all the responses. It seems almost everyone agrees that flaming arrows would not have been as effective at burning ships as I thought. Looks like burhs were the way to go for the Saxons.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Sun 21 Apr, 2013 3:25 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Flynt wrote:
True, but the traditional legend of Ragnar features snakes. And, as they say about a gun appearing in the first act of a play--it must go off in the last.

It is a bizarre legend. The only snake in England that is even remotely venomous is the European Adder and it is rarely fatal. The last reported death, dispite reported bites every year, was a five-year-old in 1975. What are these snakes supposed to be doing - licking him to death? They should have come to Australia and found some proper snakes Razz
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Eric W. Norenberg





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PostPosted: Sun 21 Apr, 2013 4:00 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

For what it is worth, a link to a story about a recent rash of snakebite cases in Merry Olde England

(edit: I can't get the link to work, but further investigation indicates the source is not an authority on venomous reptiles- the allergic potentials below are still plausibly... plausible. I guess.)

Sounds like the native adder can produce a sever allergic reaction. Maybe a whole pit of them could do a person in. The king supposedly had Ragnar's snake-proof pants stripped off him before they tossed him in, so... maybe?
Would leave plenty of time to sing your own dirge, I suppose. I think a real Viking would just start biting heads of and tossing them out of the pit. Tastes like chicken!

Pit o' badgers sounds pretty good tho! I might name my pub that someday- ale's on the house Mr. Howard!
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Bjorn Hagstrom




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PostPosted: Mon 22 Apr, 2013 1:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:
Sean Flynt wrote:
True, but the traditional legend of Ragnar features snakes. And, as they say about a gun appearing in the first act of a play--it must go off in the last.

It is a bizarre legend. The only snake in England that is even remotely venomous is the European Adder and it is rarely fatal. The last reported death, dispite reported bites every year, was a five-year-old in 1975. What are these snakes supposed to be doing - licking him to death? They should have come to Australia and found some proper snakes Razz


Well, I always thought the idea behind the snake-pit was to cause a slow and agonizing death of being bit over and over again..an inland taipan would do the job swift and less painful, and that would somehow lessen the popular image of Germanic tribes as cruel barbarians Wink Besides, he needed some time to recite his death song!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kr%C3%A1kum%C3%A1l

European adder venom is normally not fatal, at least not if your bodymass is decent and you do not get an allergic reaction or get bit so the local swelling will block your airways. Small pets and children are of course a little more vulnerable.

But repeaed bites over a period of time lends at least theoretical credibility for adder-filled snake-pit to work for a full size Scandinavian hero.

There is nothing quite as sad as a one man conga-line...
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