The Vikings aren’t very special on paper. Their weapons and armor were similar to other European armies’ of the time. Their helmets were basic iron or leather (those iconic horned outfits were invented in 1870 by an opera costumer). So what made these medieval Norseman such legendary warriors?
In addition to superior maritime navigational skills, the Vikings possessed an important psychological advantage over their opponents.
According to National Geographic, Viking armies were organized into boat crews comprised of several dozen men from the same area. In between battles, the men lived together at sea for weeks at a time. “You row, pee, eat, drink, and fight together,” Viking expert Igor Gorewicz told National Geographic. “There’s a very close connection with people from the ship, and morale is very, very high.”
Those bonds carried over to the battlefield. A Viking could fight boldly, knowing that his comrades had his back. If he didn’t, he knew the shame of failing his neighbor-soldiers would travel home with him, literally.
Peer pressure is an important factor in battlefield cohesion. A 2009 University of California, Los Angeles analysis of 41,000 soldiers who fought in the US Civil War found that Union soldiers were most loyal to units made up of men similar to themselves in religion, race, hometown, or socioeconomic background. Desertions were lower in units of men from the same region—where soldiers knew that word of their cowardice would make it back home—than in more diverse units with higher levels of morale.
It seems that in battle, a friend can be mightier than a sword.