The Mystery Behind The Legendary Viking Ulfberht Swords

During the early Middle Ages, a considerable number of swords marked with the inscription ‘VLFBERHT’ (as well as variants of it) were used in many places throughout Europe. Quite many myths and legends surround their making, some being produced with such durable metal that they proved resistant even to these days.

These artefacts had been wrought from the 9th century to the mid-late 11th century, coinciding as such with the end of the tumultuous Viking Age. What some people might not know about them, however, is that they were initially designed in the Frankish Empire.

Replica of an 8th century Frankish sword from Weismain, Upper Frankonia, Germany (Archäologiemuseum Oberfranken, Forchheim). Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Later on, many of them were either exported, traded or exchanged to other kingdoms in early medieval Europe. What reinforces this theory is that the very word ‘VLFBERHT’ (Ulfberht) is actually a Frankish personal name which became a marketing term for many blacksmiths of the time. Who exactly created them though remains rather debatable.

Replicas of an early medieval helm and a sword featuring a Viking Age-like pommel. Image source: www.pixabay.com

So it is that the Norse origin for these blades is nothing more but a mere misconception. Nonetheless, many of them were used on the battlefield by the Norsemen both in native Scandinavia and overseas. Those ones had a specific pommel which resembled a crown (similar to the design of a sword’s pommel from the large bronze monument at Stavanger, south-western Norway).

As previously mentioned, their initial place of origin can be traced to the former Frankish Empire, specifically to Rhineland (or Austrasia as it was formerly known).

Depiction of an armed man with a similar Ulfberht sword (from Stuttgart Psalter fol. 7v, dated circa 830). Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Nowadays, an estimated number of 170 swords of this sort were unearthed through extensive archaeological research on the European continent. The largest density of such historical relics can be mapped to present day Norway, Sweden, and Finland (in this order). Aside from Fennoscandia, some were found in modern Baltic states as well as in northern Poland and Germany. Other swords were rarely discovered elsewhere than in Northern and Western Europe.

Technically, these swords were authentic masterpieces. They were durable, light, and extremely efficient against several types of armours. They had an average weight of 1.2 kg, an average length of 91 cm, and a common width of 5 cm. A particularly interesting sword of this kind is the one found in river Weser, Lower Saxony, Germany. According to several scholars, this discovery can potentially shed more light on the exact origin of these swords.

It is not excluded that they were originally made at monasteries located not far away from Weser, perhaps even at Fulda. The artefact puzzled many experts because of the fact that its blade was made of iron of a very close quality to that of steel (which is reminiscent of modern steelmaking practices of the 17th century).

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