Ulfberht swords

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Ulfberht swords
+VLFBEHT+ inscription on the blade of a 9th-century sword (Germanisches Nationalmuseum FG 2187) found in 1960 in the Old Rhine close to Friesenheimer Insel, Mannheim[1]
Production history
Produced9th to 11th centuries
Massavg. 1.2 kg (2.7 lb)
Lengthavg. 91 cm (36 in)
Width5 cm (2 in)

Blade typeDouble-edged, straight bladed, slight taper
Hilt typeOne-handed with pommel, variable guard
Head typeAcute distal taper, and point
One of three Ulfberht swords found in the territory of the Volga Bulgars. Its hilt (classified as Petersen type T-2) is decorated with three lines of round holes inlaid with twisted silver wire.[2]
Four Ulfberht swords found in Norway (drawings from Lorange 1889)

The Ulfberht swords are a group of about 170 medieval swords found primarily in Northern Europe,[3][4] dated to the 9th to 11th centuries, with blades inlaid with the inscription +VLFBERH+T or +VLFBERHT+.[3][5] The word "Ulfberht" is a Frankish personal name, possibly indicating the origin of the blades.


The swords are at the transitional point between the Viking sword and the high medieval knightly sword. Most have blades of Oakeshott type X. They are also the starting point of the much more varied high medieval tradition of blade inscriptions. The reverse sides of the blades are inlaid with a geometric pattern, usually a braid pattern between vertical strokes. Numerous blades also bear this type of geometric pattern but no Vlfberht inscription.[6]

Ulfberht swords were made during a period when European swords were still predominantly pattern welded ("false Damascus"),[7][8] but with larger blooms of steel gradually becoming available, so that higher quality swords made after AD 1000 are increasingly likely to have crucible steel blades. The group of Ulfberht swords includes a wide spectrum of steel and production methods. One example from a 10th-century grave in Nemilany, Moravia, has a pattern welded core with welded-on hardened cutting edges. Another example appears to have been made from high-quality hypoeutectoid steel possibly imported from Central Asia.[9]


Ulfberht swords most likely originated in the Rhineland region (i.e., in Austrasia, the core region of the Frankish realm, later part of the Franconian stem duchy). Frankish origin of the swords has long been assumed because of the form of the personal name Ulfberht.[10]

Despite their assumed Frankish origin, the majority of the swords have been found in Northern Europe. Rather than being traded items, the swords were most likely exported as loot, ransom, or contraband – prohibitions in the Carolingian capitularia made it illegal to sell to foreigners at the time.[11] Three specimens have been found as far afield as Volga Bulgaria (at the time part of the Volga trade route).[2]

Number and distribution[edit]

A total of 167 Ulfberht swords have been found, mostly in Scandinavia and around the Baltic Sea.[12][13] The number of swords found in Finland is unclear; Stalsberg identifies 14 Finnish Ulfberht swords, but Moilanen identifies 31.[14] In general, the exact number of swords found is debatable due to the fragmentary condition of some artefacts, and because some inscriptions appear to refer to the Ulfberht type rather than indicating that a specimen actually belongs to the type.[3][15]

The prevalence of Ulfberht swords in the archaeological record of Northern Europe does not imply that such swords were more widely used there than in Francia; the pagan practice of placing weapons in warrior graves greatly favours the archaeological record in regions of Europe that were still pagan (and indeed most of the Ulfberht swords found in Norway are from warrior graves), while swords found in continental Europe and England after the 7th century are mostly limited to stray finds; e.g., in riverbeds.[16] This is supported by the change in geographical distribution noted in the late Viking Age, when much of previously Pagan Europe was Christianized. None of the Norwegian Ulfberht swords are dated later than the early—middle 11th century, which coincides with the end of Pagan burial rites in the area.[17]

Location and dating of known Ulfberht swords[18][17][4]
Country Early Viking Age (8th - 9th ce.) Middle Viking Age (10th ce.) Late Viking Age (10th - 11th ce.) Undated Total
Norway 17 19 5 3 44
Sweden 9 3 1 4 17
Finland 2 3 2 7 14[Note 1]
Estonia 2 3 1 3 9
Latvia 1 1 4 1 7
Lithuania - 1 - 1 2
Belarus - 1 - - 1
Ukraine 1 5 - - 6
Russia 4 5 1 1 11
Russia (Kaliningrad Oblast) 2 4 2 4 12
Poland - 3 3 1 7
Czechia - 1 1 - 2
Croatia 2 - - - 2
Italy - - - 1 1
Switzerland - - 1 - 1
Germany 2 2 9 - 13
Denmark - 3 - - 3
Netherlands 2 - - 1 3
Belgium - - 2 - 2
England 1 1 2 - 4
Ireland 2 - - - 2
Iceland - 2 - - 2
Spain - - 1 - 1
France - - 1 - 1
Total 47 57 36 27 167


The original Ulfberht sword type dates to the 9th or 10th century, but swords with the Ulfberht inscription continued to be made at least until the end of the Viking Age in the 11th century. A notable late example found in Eastern Germany, dated to the 11th or possibly early 12th century, represents the only specimen that combines the Vlfberht signature with a Christian "in nomine domini" inscription (+IINIOMINEDMN).[19] As a given name, Wulfbert (Old High German Wolfbert, Wolfbrecht, Wolfpert, Wolfperht, Vulpert) is recorded from the 8th to 10th centuries.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to Stalsberg (2008, p. 11, map 1) the number of swords is 14. However, according to Moilanen (2015, p. 126) the number of swords is 31. The reason for the discrepancy between the two sources is unclear, but may be due to the fragmentary nature of some specimens outlined in Moilanen.


  1. ^ Treasures of German Art and History in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, 2001, p. 23.
  2. ^ a b Viacheslav Shpakovsky, David Nicolle, Gerry Embleton, Armies of the Volga Bulgars & Khanate of Kazan, 9th–16th centuries, Osprey Men-at-Arms 491 (2013), p. 23f.
  3. ^ a b c Moilanen, Mikko (2018). Viikinkimiekat Suomessa. Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura. pp. 169–175. ISBN 978-952-222-964-9.
  4. ^ a b Williams, Alan (2007). "Crucible steel in medieval swords" (PDF). Metals and Mines: Studies in Archeometallurgy. 35 (11). London: Archetype Publications: 233–241. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.06.020. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 June 2022. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  5. ^ Wegeli (1904), p. 12, fig. 3.; Stralsberg (2008:6) classifies the "correctly" spelled inscriptions into five classes, 1. +VLFBERH+T (46 to 51 examples), 2. +VLFBERHT+ (18 to 23 examples), 3. VLFBERH+T (4 to 6 examples), 4. +VLFBERH┼T+ (1 or 2 examples), 5. +VLFBERH+T (10 examples), with a sixth class of "misspellings" (+VLEBERHIT, +VLFBEHT+, +VLFBERH+, +VLFBER├┼┼T, +VLFBERTH, 17 examples) and a seventh class "not definable" (31 or 32 examples). Stalsberg (2008) explains the numerous misspellings in the inscriptions by the "use of illiterate slaves in the smithy".
  6. ^ Stalsberg (2008:2): "This indicates that geometrical and other marks were frequently welded into sword blades which have no signature, and it demonstrates that the technique of welding rods into the blade to make marks and signatures was known in many countries in Europe. This is a point to be kept in mind when discussing the question if Vlfberht blades or signatures may have been copied or falsified."
  7. ^ Maryon, Herbert (February 1960). "Pattern-Welding and Damascening of Sword-Blades—Part 1: Pattern-Welding". Studies in Conservation. 5 (1): 25–37. doi:10.2307/1505063. JSTOR 1505063.
  8. ^ Maryon, Herbert (May 1960). "Pattern-Welding and Damascening of Sword-Blades—Part 2: The Damascene Process". Studies in Conservation. 5 (2): 52–60. doi:10.2307/1504953. JSTOR 1504953.
  9. ^ David Edge, Alan Williams: Some early medieval swords in the Wallace Collection and elsewhere, Gladius XXIII, 2003, 191-210 (p. 203).
  10. ^ Cui, Alina (2020). "The Ulerht Sword (On Loan from Laird Landmann)". Bowdoin Journal of Art. 6. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  11. ^ Kalmring, Sven (2010). "Of Thieves, Counterfeiters and Homicides: Crime in Hedeby and Birka". Fornvännen. Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research. 105 (4). Stockholm: Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities: 281–290. CiteSeerX ISSN 0015-7813.
  12. ^ Stalsberg (2008:12): in terms of modern state borders: Norway: 44, Finland: 14, Germany: 13, Sweden: 12, Russia: 10 (excluding an additional c. 20 specimens found in Kaliningrad oblast, most of them at Linkuhnen cemetery), Estonia: 9, Latvia: 7, Poland: 7, Ukraine: 6, UK: 4; Denmark and Netherlands 3 each; Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Iceland, Ireland, Lithuania: 2 each; Belarus, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland: one each.
  13. ^ Moilanen, Mikko. Marks of Fire, Value and Faith, Swords with Ferrous Inlays in Finland during the Late Iron Age (ca. 700 AD1200 AD) (PDF)., p. 126: Moilanen identifies 31 Ulfberht-swords in Finland, which is more than double the number stated by Stalsberg. Stalsberg's numbers are based on Leppäaho's findings from the 1960s.
  14. ^ https://www.utupub.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/119919/diss2016Moilanen.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
  15. ^ see Wegeli, p. 12, fig. 3.
  16. ^ see e.g. E. A. Cameron, Sheaths and scabbards in England AD 400-1100 (2008), p. 34.
  17. ^ a b Petri, Ingo (25 March 2019). "VLFBERHT swords: Origin, material, and manufacture". History Compass. 17 (4): e12529. doi:10.1111/hic3.12529. S2CID 150426793.
  18. ^ Stalsberg, 2008. p. 9 for definition of Early, Middle and Late periods. pp. 11-14 for maps regarding location and age. Petri, 2019, contains a higher quality map detailing only the total swords found by country. Though Petri's map cites Stalsberg, it has different counts for Belarus and Russia. Stalsberg claims that 1 sword has been found in Belarus and 10 in Russia. Petri claims that 0 swords have been found in Belarus and 11 in Russia. The reason for this discrepancy is not stated.
  19. ^ Herrman, J. and Donat P. (eds.), Corpus archäologischer Quellen zur Frühgeschichte auf dem Gebiet der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (7.-12. Jahrhundert), Akademie-Verlag, Berlin (1985), p. 376.
  20. ^ Förstemann, Altdeutsches Namenbuch (1856) 1345.

Works cited[edit]

  • Anders Lorange, Den yngre jernalders sværd, Bergen (1889).
  • Rudolf Wegeli, Inschriften auf mittelalterlichen Schwertklingen, Leipzig (1904).
  • Anne Stalsberg, Herstellung und Verbreitung der Vlfberht-Schwertklingen. Eine Neubewertung, Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters, 36, 2008, 89-118 (English translation).
  • Mikko Moilanen, Marks of Fire, Value and Faith: Swords with Ferrous Inlays in Finland during the Late Iron Age (ca. 700–1200 AD), Turku (2015), ISBN 978-952-67329-6-1 (Online access).
  • M. Müller-Wille: Ein neues ULFBERHT-Schwert aus Hamburg. Verbreitung, Formenkunde und Herkunft, Offa 27, 1970, 65-91

External links[edit]