Reply To: King Canute’s use of ships designed by Vikings in the English Navy

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Geoffrey Brooks

I am answering the above query in twoparts, herewith Part One of Two, being the main points from an article by Nancy Bazilchuk: “Recreating Sails Used on Viking Ships”.

“Missing even from well-presevered Viking ships are the sails: such old cloth rarely survives in the environments that preserve wood. After delving into old documents, Jon Godal and Eric Andersen from the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde/Denmark decided that old sails might be preserved elsewhere. They found a Viking law dating fropm about 1000 AD stating: “The man upon whom responsibility falls shall store the sail in the church. If the church burns, this man is responsible for the sail…” As a result of their search, a fragment of woollen sail was found between the walls and roof of the church at Trondenes.

Amy Lightfoot, head of the Tommervik Textile Trust at Hitra/Norway, had been studying coastal people’s use of a tough lanolin-rich wool to weave vadmal, a thick woollen cloth used to make durable clothing. When in 1991 the coastal museum at Hitra decided to build a replica of a boat used locally in the 1300s, it was also decided it should have a woollen sail based on the Trondenes fragment, and Amy Lightfoot was chosen for the task. Because there was no knowledge of the technique, she consulted the people who still made vadmal.

Even the simplest sail is a highly complex tensile structure. The fabric must be heavy enough to withstand strong winds, but not so heavy that it slows the ship. The balance is found in the strength of the different threads, the tightness of their twist, and watertightness. The Trondenes fragment allowed the intricacies to be examined in Viking-age cloth. Analysis of the sail showed that its strength came from the long, coarse outer hairs of a primitive breed of Northern European short-tailed sheep called ‘villsau’. This breed can still be found in Finland and Iceland. They need no shelter in winter as their wool is saturated with water-repellent lanolin. The quality of their wool owes much to their diet of new grass in summer and heather in winter.

Historical and radiocarbon data from as early as 1400 BC show that Norwegian coastal farmers burnt the heather every year in spring. This kept down the heather and also prevented the invasion of young pine trees that would eventually turn the famers’ grazing land to forest. The villsau thrived on the summer grass and in fact helped to encourage its growth. The flocks gained enough weight to overwinter on heather.

Lightfoot was able to provide a limited amopunt of villsau wool for the coastal museum’s boat “Sara Kjerstine” from 25 sheep she kept herself. The remainder came from a modern relative called the ‘spelsau’. Both types of wool had to be worked by hand to preserve the lanolin and to separate tje long, strong outer hairs from the weaker, inner wool.

The 85-square metre sail required 2 tonnes of wool, a year’s production from 2,000 sheep. Lightfoot and three helpers spent six months pulling wool from the villsau. Spinning the wool into 165,000 metres of yarn and weaving the sail took another two years.

In 1997 Lightfoot joined forces with the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde which required a woollen sail for the replica of a cargo ship. This time the wool was sheared. The Danish king Knut II is believed by historians to have had over 1700 ships in 1085. “If you think about the Vikings’ western expansion, you have to think maybe the sheep had something to do with it. But without women ashore making sails, the Vikings could never have sailed anywhere.”

Lightfoot’s sails have provided unexpected insight into the handling of Viking ships. Woollen sails power Viking ships about ten per cent faster upwind than modern sails, and also allow the ships to be sailed far closer to the wind than anyone guessed previously.

The Roskilde replicas have not been equipped with woollen sails because the museum does not have huge flocks of wild sheep or an army of women to provide the material.”

End of quote. In Part Two, the evidence for the Danish Viking presence in South America.