The History Thread is Invaded by Vikings

One of the key components to the success of the Vikings during the Viking Age was the ship. And the greatest innovation of the Viking ship, beyond the shallow draught or the clinker construction, was the sail.

Sails first appeared on ships in northern Europe in the 8th century. They were an immense investment, requiring a great deal of wool as well as hemp or flax. Vikings used square sails woven in woolen twill, made from several strips of cloth combined together. Tallow, fish oil, or even tar would be used to seal the fibers and make them more resistant to air flow. The larger sailing ships of the Vikings, used in their raids against the English, Irish, and French coasts, required a heavy sail that weighed 0.95 – 1.05 kilograms per square meter. The average Norse sheep in the Viking Age produced 1-2.5 kilograms per year.

Textile archaeologists have determined that a mid-sized warship using a sail size of eighty square meters would have required two person-years of ten-hour days to make a single main sail. This is a bit of an ideal arrangement, more realistically one sail would take three to four person-years to complete. Of course, all this weaving and sewing would be done by teams (of women, and most of them slaves) but the amount of time required is still staggering to contemplate.

Archaeologists have determined that by the 11th century the total sailcloth requirements of all the ships in use by Norway and Denmark would equal about 1 million square meters, woven from the wool of roughly two million sheep. Massive land redistribution plans would have been needed to clear all that pasturage and history bears that out. When you are fielding fleets of up to two hundred ship for raiding up European river systems, you are already operating form an impressive seat of power within a sheep-based economy.

All data taken from Neil Price’s “Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings” pp 386-387

History is more than names and dates, wars and famines. Its all the invisible people who darned socks, shod horses, cooped barrels, set type, fixed bones, sowed seeds, reaped corn, sold books, or otherwise did their part to keep home and hearth alive and functioning for one more season. Behind every king or queen is an army of servants who did all the actual work but we only know them from what we can infer about them. There are no famous sail weavers, for example, but hundreds if not thousands of women literally slaved away to make the Viking Age possible.

Prompt: What’s a logistical puzzle from history you would like to know the solution to?