The Ulfberht swords is a collection of about 170 medieval swords found in different places, but mainly in Northern Europe. The time of their production is dated from the 9th to the 11th century, with blades inlaid with the curious inscription +VLFBERH+T or +VLFBERHT+. The Ulfberht swords most likely originated in the Rhineland region (the core region of the Frankish kingdom, later part of the Frankish duchy).
The Frankish origin of the swords is the most common theory, due to the form of the personal name Ulfberht. It is believed that from a family name, the word has become a kind of brand of sword.
Despite the supposed origin of the name, the largest number of Ulfberht swords was found in what is now Norway with 44 swords, followed by Sweden – 17 and Finland – 14. An interesting fact is that three swords were found on the territory of the former Volga Bulgaria.
When we think of medieval battles, usually the first thing that comes to mind is swords. In the age before gunpowder, the best way to kill your enemy was generally to stab him with a piece of steel or to pierce him with an arrow.
However, this does not mean that they all used swords. Swords were incredibly expensive. Depending on the region, it is believed that a good sword could cost from about $1,200 to $24,000 in today’s money. Well, if you want a good sword, it wasn’t coming cheap.
The Ulfberht swords are one-handed swords with hilts and double-edged straight blades and are considered to be the finest swords found from this era. As a design, they are a transitional point between the Viking sword and the knight’s sword from the so-called advanced Middle Ages (1000 – 1250).
Most of the Ulfberht swords have X-type blades according to the Oakeshott sword shape classification. The Ulfberht swords are also the starting point of a much more diverse tradition than the developed Middle Ages of blade inscription. The reverse side of the blades is carved with a geometric pattern, usually looking like a braid situated between the vertical strokes.
The Ulfberht swords were made during a period when European swords were still mostly forged in the so-called Pattern welding method, which is the forging of steel sheets, including bending and twisting, in which a characteristic pattern is obtained (the so-called “false damask steel”). The idea of Pattern welding is to combine steels with different carbon contents, thus providing a desired combination of hardness and durability.
What makes Ulfberht swords so famous and mysterious today is the thickness and purity of the blade. In the iron forging process, the ore must be heated to over 1,600 degrees Celsius to remove impurities. Given that the Ulfberht swords found so far have almost no impurities, and the medieval technology of the time did not allow the iron to be heated to such a high temperature, it remains a mystery how exactly they were forged. Even today this blade quality is very difficult to reproduce.
The various exposed swords of this brand are forged from steels of different compositions, some being for example from Central Asia. Another theory is that the material and know-how may have come from the Near East, as the Volga trade route between Viking settlements and the Near East became popular at the same time as the first finds of the Ulfbert swords.
The manganese and arsenic content of the iron, on the other hand, suggests a European origin. Were they made by German monks? An import from the Middle East? We continue to not know and may never know.