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An Elegant Weapon For A Less Civilized Age
March 6, 2013 12:39 PM   Subscribe

They were the finest European swords the day, superior to almost any other on the battlefields of the Viking Age. Made from steel no one in Europe would know how to make until the Industrial Revolution. Stronger, more flexible, almost magical in combat, engraved with the mysterious name "+ULFBERH+T" by unknown makers, these swords were the both fearsome weapons and incredibly expensive prestige possessions. Only 171 have every been identified. And no one had made one from start to finish, using only hand tools, for over 900 years.

The "Ulfberht" swords were viking swords made between ~800 and 1100 C.E. of crucible steel. Crucible steel is made by heating iron ore with a source of carbon (often charcoal or bone) close to 3000°F until almost all the impurities ("slag") are removed from the iron and the carbon is absorbed, leaving a purer steel.

The technique for crucible steel was unknown in Northern Europe at the time the Ulfberht Swords were forged, but it was known in places like Afghanistan and Iran. By the Viking Age, warriors to the East had been fighting with superior weapons made of Damascus Steel for centuries. The theory is that Viking traders plying the Volga Trade Route brought back crucible steel ingots. When the Volga Trade Route was closed by the Russians around the 12th century, the making of Ulfberht swords ceased.

Swords in general were prized possessions to the vikings, as most warriors would be armed with spears and axes. Any sword was a much greater investment in time and materials, and the crucible steel of the Ulberhts made them sharper and (importantly) less likely to chip and break in battle like swords made of lower-grade steel. In a testament to how good the Ulfberht swords were, people went to the trouble of making fakes of lower-quality steel with the Ulfberht brand name on them. And as is usual with brand-name fakes, the details matter.

The name "Ulfberht" is not Norse, it's Frankish. Also, the two "+" in "+ULFBERH+T" would, in that age, have been associated with a Bishop's name, or someone else in the Church hierarchy. And Christians (as the Franks were since Clovis I) were forbidden from trading with the Pagan vikings. But Church armorers would not have access to crucible steel from the East like the vikings, so the mystery of the name reamins unsolved.

PBS site
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey (38 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite

 
Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: "engraved with the mysterious name "+ULFBERH+T""

Does anyone here speak l33t?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:46 PM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


An Elegant Weapon For A Less Civilized Age

Ahem.

Previously.
posted by Fizz at 12:47 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Interesting post!

So, the Vikings had been trading with societies in Central Asia, where this technology was well known, but trade routes were closed in around the 12th Century? My history is pretty rusty, but isn't this around the end of the Viking Age?

Anyway, wasn't there already a lot of trade between Europe and the Levant by this time (the 12th Century)?

Although I suppose the mystery is why crucible steel (Ulfberht) swords ceased to be made. What technology was used to make swords in medieval Europe?
posted by KokuRyu at 12:50 PM on March 6, 2013


And Christians (as the Franks were since Clovis I) were forbidden from trading with the Pagan vikings. But Church armorers would not have access to crucible steel from the East like the vikings, so the mystery of the name reamins unsolved.

Christianization of Scandinavia
posted by Jahaza at 12:51 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


fakes of lower-quality steel with the Ulfberht brand name on them

For a while I thought these could be the oldest known counterfeits, but it looks like some wine stoppers from 2200 years ago might take the prize.
posted by exogenous at 12:59 PM on March 6, 2013


Why do American pseudo-documentary shows always have to be "epic"?

I'm all like son, you do not need dramatic music and goofy looking extras suited to look like pretend vikings, I'm here to watch swords get made!

There is almost nothing dramatic about the subject material, because everyone involved died hundreds of years ago, and it's not like a sweet bitchin' sword makes you immune to arrows, axes, ten foot long poles or superior logistics.
posted by pmv at 12:59 PM on March 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


Well, I know what my next Pathfinder character is going to be called!
posted by Vindaloo at 1:02 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


pmv, you've obviously never seen flame wars/discussions amongst various aficionados about which sword (claymore, katana, etc etc) could be used to kick whose ass ten ways to Sunday.. There are plenty of folks willing to spill lots of e-ink on the subject.
posted by k5.user at 1:06 PM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


these swords were the both fearsome weapons and incredibly expensive prestige possessions. Only 171 have every been identified.

Well sure; Valyrian steel is one of the only things that can stop White Walkers.

(great post!)
posted by quin at 1:12 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love how the thrusting dummy has a belligerent look on its foam rubber face, in case you doubted that he deserved it.

Years ago I posted this askme, asking about what kind of sword we could make today, and how it would compare to swords of 1,000 years ago. Got some interested discussion of relative metallurgy.
posted by fatbird at 1:21 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wish I could remember what terrible sword-and-sandals movie this is from, but I vividly remember a scene from one in my childhood, wherein the superstudly Crusader was comparing weapons with a fey Infidel from the Mysterious Orient. The Crusader dude whacked his monstrous sword into a log and cut it in half with one blow; such strength! And then the Infidel wafted a diaphanous silk scarf into the air, and held out his sword, which parted the scarf in two with no effort at all.

I'm not sure what this demonstration was supposed to convey, but I know which of the two swords I'd rather shave with!
posted by Fnarf at 1:25 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ermagerd!
posted by Kabanos at 1:43 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fnarf: And then the French fencer opened a small box from which flew a buzzing gnat. He flourished his rapier most impressively.

"Your bug escapes" observed the crusader as the gnat flew out a window.
"Indeed", replied the Frenchman. "But he will never have children."
posted by Lorc at 1:59 PM on March 6, 2013 [19 favorites]


So... I forgot what I was going to say.
posted by VikingSword at 2:09 PM on March 6, 2013 [16 favorites]


This was a fairly entertaining PBS documentary. I love how expansive and far reaching trade routes were in the past, something a lot of people are completely ignorant of. More so how far ranging the vikings were, be it landing in North America or attacking places on the black sea after taking the rivers from the north as their highway.
posted by Atreides at 2:09 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


A timely post as I start to follow Ragnar Lothbrok.
posted by unliteral at 2:57 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it's cute the way they try to infuse drama into these things. "Will the sword 'ping' in the quench?!" Well, no, because then your show would suck.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 3:01 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wish I could remember what terrible sword-and-sandals movie this is from, but I vividly remember a scene from one in my childhood, wherein the superstudly Crusader was comparing weapons with a fey Infidel from the Mysterious Orient. The Crusader dude whacked his monstrous sword into a log and cut it in half with one blow; such strength! And then the Infidel wafted a diaphanous silk scarf into the air, and held out his sword, which parted the scarf in two with no effort at all.
My... seventh grade? history teacher told the class this story, but as a real thing, not as something from a movie. He claimed that the "infidel" in question was Saladin himself.

To be absolutely clear: I am not saying that my history teacher was correct.
posted by Flunkie at 3:06 PM on March 6, 2013


+ULFBERH+T

Are we sure they weren't made by early coldwave bands?
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:12 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fnarf, Flunkie:
I've seen that story aboiut Richard and Saladin in a lot of different places, but the oldest version I've ever seen is from The Talisman, by Sir Walter Scott. The movie you saw was PROBABLY called "King Richard and the Crusaders"
posted by Morriscat at 3:39 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


And then the Infidel wafted a diaphanous silk scarf into the air, and held out his sword, which parted the scarf in two with no effort at all.

I'm pretty sure the Infidel was Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard.

The documentary goes into the matter of sharpness and how what it really came down to in a melee is just how much punishment your sword could take.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:42 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm all like son,

So have you ever watched New Yankee Workshop? Maybe, if you're into actually seeing how the cabinet is made, you'd nerd out on the entire thing, but it doesn't really hold for great, mainstream educational TV. Here we have an hour-long program that while subsidized is still supposed to attract an audience so they appeal to many, not just those interested in the skilled smithy and his assistant, who alone could not hold the entire show even if they were to get into a molten pig iron fight out in the barn, so they add in some history, some research, a gaddamned electron microscope, some swordsmanship and of course a viking battle scene, all contributing to a full hour of entertainment.

tl;dr: actual life on TV is boring so they have to jazz it up in order to compete.
posted by jsavimbi at 3:50 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Will the sword 'ping' in the quench?!"

the moment in question. spoiler: dude puts a glowey orange sword into oil and pulls out a flaming sword. if that's not badassery...
posted by twist my arm at 3:54 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, for a badass Damascus steel knife maker, check out John Hounslow-Robinson from Tasmania.
posted by unliteral at 4:08 PM on March 6, 2013


I was going to ask "didn't the Saxons make steel?" Googling that first I found these two great forum threads, both at Bladesmith's forum.
posted by Chuckles at 4:21 PM on March 6, 2013


argh popeguilty I was just about to make a witch house joke :( (or I suppose I could actually read this well-crafted post)
posted by en forme de poire at 4:23 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


'Viking sunstone' found in shipwreck: A crystal found in a shipwreck could be similar to a sunstone - a mythical navigational aid said to have been used by Viking mariners, scientists believe.
posted by homunculus at 4:24 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Saladin and Richard I the Lion-Hearted version of that story goes back at least to Sir Walter Scott near the turn of the 19th century, and may be much older than that. But of course, Saladin and Richard I never actually met, so who knows?
posted by CHoldredge at 4:29 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this.


+WIGGU+M


From brilliant material science to some of the descendants now famous for having horse meat and fecal matter in meatballs served at a store selling confounding furniture made of indeterminate materials.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:32 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


spoiler: dude puts a glowey orange sword into oil and pulls out a flaming sword. if that's not badassery...

I have to admit, I had a Beric Dondarrion moment there.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:43 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Such an awesome post!
posted by JHarris at 8:19 PM on March 6, 2013


Researchers have found steel making among the Haya of Tanzania, Africa, that goes back 2000 years.
posted by eye of newt at 8:44 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


So does this mean the sword is literally a Viking, or that it's just really good at being a sword?
posted by MrBadExample at 9:51 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


@1:26 Major funding for nova is provided by the following The David H Koch fund for science ... promoting public understanding of science

Lol.
posted by delmoi at 10:37 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have to admit, I had a Beric Dondarrion moment there.

If you run into Azor Ahai, make sure to blow lightly on his sword in order to protect yourself from its flames!
posted by flaterik at 12:57 AM on March 7, 2013


Kudos for the title.
posted by ersatz at 8:47 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


For me, the pure magic moment was when he rubs the acid on the polished blade and the letters start to appear and... OOOH! I knew he was a witch!

Also, The Annual Vikings & Slavs festival on Wolin Island, Poland

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:28 AM on March 8, 2013


Here’s Why You Should Start Watching Vikings Right Now
posted by homunculus at 8:51 PM on March 8, 2013


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