Viking Ships with Angular Stems: Did the Old Norse term beit refer to early sailing ships?

By Eldar Heide, Terje Planke, published February 2019


This article discusses a certain type of ship known from Scandinavian Viking Age and Merovingian Period iconography. This type of ship has a vertical stem and stern that meet the keel at right angles, sometimes with an extension filling the space under a sloping forefoot and a similar extension at the rear end of the keel. This design seems to be connected with the earliest sailing ships and it has been suggested that the extensions were invented to meet the increased need for lateral resistance when sailing. Additional arguments for this view are explored which suggest that this design was a transitional stage between rowing ships with steering oars at both ends and specialized sailing ships with more sophisticated designs for sideways resistance: the extensions are the steering oars’ anti-leeway properties ‘built into the hull’. The authors also suggest that this type of ship was referred to in Old Norse as beit, which is a term that seems to date from the Early Viking Age. In Modern Norwegian, lobeit ‘windward beit’ refers to a ship’s ability to avoid leeway and is probably related to the verb beita ‘to sail upwind’, which seems to derive from a comparison of the keel with a cutting tool. This would fit well with the discussed ship type and its extensions.

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Filed under: Early Middle Ages
Subjects include: Shipbuilding & Design

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