I recently enjoyed watching this Nova documentary on Viking swords, in particular the Ulfberht swords, which were of surprisingly good quality, given the state of metallurgy in Europe at the time (good enough that they even inspired poor quality imitations with a misspelled Ulfberht signature, most likely sold in dark alleyways by sleazy men in trench coats). I’d heard of the Ulfberht swords before, but I am not an archaeologist and have never really worked with swords inside or outside of literature before, so learned a lot about these swords that I hadn’t expected. I loved the idea of swords as a teenager of course (and still think they are pretty awesome, though I don’t really care for what they were made for), and my dissertation dealt with their counterparts, shields (hm, maybe time for a new research project…). I would go through my brother’s Museum Replicas catalog (never bought anything), where, incidentally, you can buy your own replica of the Ulfberht, and would hang out at the blacksmith’s booth those few times I made it to a Renaissance Faire. Actually, I was really into blacksmithing for a while, as a result of reading Michael Scott Rohan‘s The Anvil of Ice back in 6th grade (the magic in the series is closely tied to blacksmithing and other crafts), and after reading that found Bealer’s The Art of Blacksmithing. Despite being the son of a carpenter, I’m afraid I have never actually been much of a handy man, and my plans of learning to blacksmith in my free time came to naught–but I did enjoy reading all about pattern welding and forges and cool stuff like that, and incorporated a lot of that (way too much) into a never-finished fantasy novel in high school.
Swords were aristocratic weapons during the Viking age (less wealthy freemen would have to do their work with axes and spears), but of course we hear most about them in the sagas and myths (and still obsess with them today) because those stories that were written down deal, naturally, with the aristocracy that wrote them down, or at least with those they understood as their historical or mythical predecessors. Famous, old named swords come up here and there throughout the literature–but wait, you say, why would old swords be so prominent? Wouldn’t people want brand-spanking-new swords when they go into battle? Well, as my advisor once pointed out, in a world where the quality of the metal is more or less up to chance, one recognizes a good sword by the fact that it survives–so the age of a sword is going to be an indicator of its quality, and will give it a chance to acquire a reputation and a name. So no wonder Hervör travels all the way to the distant grave of her berserkr father Angantyr to talk his ghost into giving her his sword Tyrfing! The combination of oldness and quality, as well as the typically aristocratic connotations of the sword as a weapon, all come into the opening chapter of Gísla saga Súrssonar, in which a slave, of all people (it is the fact that he is a slave who has a sword that tells us something odd is going on), possesses a special sword which allows the aristocratic ancestors of our protagonists to defeat a berserkr. When the sword is not returned to him, he and the namesake of our eventual hero kill each other, and sword is broken (but can only be broken on the head of the slave whose it was–otherwise, the person using it always wins), until it is reforged as a spear and used as the murder weapon in a killing within an extended family (in other words, it lines up pretty well as a cursed treasure story, and as I argued in my very first conference paper ever, it follows the same pattern that we see in a few other significant places in Old Norse literature).
Fun as the History channel and the Discovery channel are, the “documentaries” they run are for the most part just entertainment, capitalizing on the idea of their topics rather than really trying to “get” a topic, and I don’t particularly recommend them if your priority is actually learning something (you may want to see some of my notes on the first episode of the History Channel’s Vikings Miniseries). Nova documentaries are still about entertainment as well, sure, but generally do a better job of getting across something about what scholars are actually learning, even if they dramatize that a bit. I’ve also enjoyed Nova’s special on the Vinland map, which primarily approaches the issue from the perspective of materials science, something I’m obviously less familiar with. The full Viking Sword documentary is viewable online, though I don’t know whether it will stay that way or not.