In an earlier article concerning spears, I wrote that the javelin could be thought of as a light spear meant to be thrown as a missile weapon. While the already discussed 'Angon' heavy javelin fell out of use by the later period, lighter javelins seem to have seen longer use. The Old English name for such a weapon was "daroð", from which the modern term ‘dart’ derives. Such a universal weapon deserves a more in-depth review.
‘Forlet þa drenga sum daroð of handa,
fleogan of folman, þæt se to forð gewat
þurh ðone æþelan æþelredes þegen.’
‘Then a certain Dreng set a dart from his hand,Although any spear can be thrown at the enemy, in extremis, it was usual to have lighter, shorter-shafted spears for use as missiles. Most Anglo-Saxon javelin heads would have been around four to six inches long, with a streamlined leaf-shaped or triangular blade and an open, non-welded socket. This last feature would have made replacing broken shafts easier. These iron dart-heads would have weighed between 1½-3 oz.
flying from his fist so that it sped forwards
through the noble thane of Æthelred. (‘Battle of Maldon’ 149-151)
The shaft (daroðsceaft) would have been made from a strong, straight-grained wood such as ash. This is hinted to in the Old-English poem ‘Elene’, where the term daroþæsc ‘ash-darts’ is used.
M.J.Swanton, famous for his classification of spears, used the Old English term wigar (vigr in Old Norse) for the very cheapest form of light javelin, where a crudely formed spearhead might have been loosely bound to a withy. As wooden spear-shafts rarely survive in the ground, this remains conjectural at best. At Illerup Ådal in Denmark, by happy chance, many ash shafts survived in the anaerobic conditions. These Iron-Age finds date to between 250-500 CE, so not too divorced from the Anglo-Saxon period. Most of these spear and javelin shafts are beautifully straight and have been shaped to improve their aerodynamic efficiency, being slightly thicker in the middle of their length. It seems unlikely that the Englisc warrior would not have taken the same care.
Development and Role
It is likely that the first javelins were used for hunting and then co-opted for use in war. In the ancient world, light throwing spears were carried by light infantry such as the Greek Peltast. The pre-Marian Roman army also utilised javelin-armed light infantry called Velites, who were armed with the hasta velitares or verútum, a light version of the classic pilum. This weapon was about 4 feet long with a 6 inch long iron head.
Gallic and Iberian cavalry were also armed with javelins, which continued when they became auxiliary Roman cavalry. Just as the Germanic heavy javelin, the angon, would seem to have evolved from the Roman pilum, the Germanic daruþuz of the Migration would also have been influenced by late Roman weapons. Further, these equivalent weapons served simlar purposes on the battlefield; Just as the Roman legionary would aim to soften up his opponent with one or more pilum volleys, the Anglo-Saxon warrior would hurl several volleys of javelins at the opposing line of battle, seeking to disrupt the critical cohesion of the shield-wall.
When considering the efficacy of such weapons, it is important to consider that most Anglo-Saxon and Viking warriors would not have metal armour. Only rich þegns and æþelings would have hringnett byrnan (ring-mail corslets), and thus most javelins would only need to be able to penetrate leather and cloth. In the early Anglo-Saxon period, the heavy armour-piercing angon was used by wealthy warriors against others of their own status but this expensive weapon seems to have gone out of fashion by the 8th century CE. This is likely to be linked with the use of less armour.
The exchange of missles would be an important stage of battle as opposing armies closed, conducted before the clash of shield-walls, and contemporary depictions often show warriors approaching holding a number of spears in the shield hand. Probably three would be the maximum which could be carried in this way.
|Reconstructed Anglo-Saxon Light Throwing-Spear or 'Daroð'|
The maximum range that could reasonably be expected from an Anglo-Saxon daroð would be about 35 metres (or 38 yards) but the effective range was probably more like 15-20 metres (or 16-22 yards). Javelins would most likely have been cast over the heads of one’s own shieldwall. It has been said that a man could easily see a javelin flying towards them and dodge and this is true for individual combat but warriors standing shield to shield would have had little option but to stand firm and hope to field the iron-shower with their shields. Thus it would be best if an attacking army launched their javelins in concerted volleys, so that the defending shieldwall would be swamped. As the ísenscúr fell, a dart was bound to injure someone and many would pierce shields, rendering them unwieldy. A man reaching out to pull a javelin from his shield would make a tempting target for further attacks.
A little Mathematics
(ηEs = ½mv²)The typical throwing spear weighs around 1-2 lbs (or 0.5 to1.0kg) and can be cast around 35 metres; compared with modern Olympic javelin which weighs 800g and which can be thrown (by an Olympic athlete) over 50 metres with a release velocity of 24m/s. The maximum achievable release velocity for a javelin would seem to be around 30m/s, so (if we ignore air resistance) range should be a function of initial velocity squared divided by the effect of gravity pulling the spear down to earth at 9.8m/s. Assuming a release velocity of 25m/s (an impressive 55 mph) a range of about 64 m should be possible. Of course air resistance is a factor, so the missile will have less energy at the termination of its flight than at the beginning. Its kinetic energy is still quite impressive and so it should not be surprising that a throwing spear can go clean through a shield board and possibly into the shield holder as well. Modern re-enactment experiments (using pig carcasses) have demonstrated that such a javelin has enough energy to impale an unarmoured body. Mail armour gives some protection, limiting the penetration to a few inches, although as our fathers and grand-fathers knew well, it takes only the first four inches of the bayonet to be lethal.
|Modern Javelin-Thrower demonstrating 40° release angle|
Maximum range is achieved if the release angle is close to 45°. This can be achieved with a bow but is almost impossible with a javelin; the natural throwing angle for a spear being between 30 - 40°.
The modern term ‘javelin’ derives from the Middle French javeline, which is a diminutive of the Old French javelot, probably from Gaulish. The rare Old English term for a spear ‘gafoluc’, of Celtic origin, is probably related, as is the Old Icelandic gaflak.
The Anglo-Saxon term for a throwing-spear was daroð or daroþ. This is cognate with the Old Norse darraþr. Both derive from the Proto-Germanic *daroþuz.
The generic Germanic term for spear, ‘gár’, can also be used to denote a throwing spear as is evidenced below :
‘Hi leton þa of folman feolhearde speru,
gegrundene garas fleogan;’
‘They sent file-hardened spears from their fists,
grimly-ground javelins flying forth;’ (Battle of Maldon 108-9)
In Völuspá (from the Norse Poetic Edda) line 24 onwards -we read :
Fleygði Óðinn ok í folk of skaut,During the War between the Æsir and the Vanir, Óðinn threw a javelin into the Vanir host to signal the commencement of hostilities. The practice of symbolically throwing a spear into the enemy ranks at the start of a battle was sometimes used in historic clashes, to seek Óðinn’s blessing.
þat var enn folkvíg fyrst í heimi;
brotinn var borðveggr borgar ása,
knáttu vanir vígspá völlu sporna.
‘Óðinn let fly a spear, hurled it over the host;
that was still the first war in the world,
the palisade surrounding the Æsir's stronghold was breached
by the Vanir battle-magic, as they strode the plain.’
|Óðinn casting a throwing spear|
From both the Prose and Poetic Eddas comes the story of the death of Baldr. To protect him, his mother Frigg had all creation swear not to harm him. The next day, the gods find him invulnerable and, begin to cast missiles at him for the fun of seeing them bounce off harmlessly. Unbeknownst to them, Loki had found that Frigg has neglected to have the Mistletoe plant swear, because the tender shoot looked too young. Loki took a sprig of mistletoe and, by his arts, turned it into a dart. As it says in Völuspá (line 30 onwards):
stóð of vaxinn völlum hæriThe story then tells that Baldr’s brother Höðr stood outside the ring of men, because he was blind. Loki asked him why he did not take part in the sport.
mjór ok mjök fagr mistilteinn.
Varð af þeim meiði, er mær sýndisk,
harmflaug hættlig, Höðr nam skjóta;
“there stood all grown up higher than the plain,
slender and very beautiful, the mistletoe.
There came to be of that pole, which seemed slender,
a dangerous flying dart, which Höðr did shoot;”
“Because I cannot see where Baldr is clearly and also because I lack a weapon!” he answered bitterly.
Then Loki placed the mistletoe dart in Höðr’s hand and offered to direct his aim. So then did the blind god cast the baneful shaft, which struck Baldr in the chest, so that he fell down dead to the earth. Then the gods were grieved, not only for Baldr but for themselves, for they knew that this event presaged Ragnarök.
The throwing spear, javelin or dart cannot be dismissed as a minor weapon. It would have played a major role at the commencement of most Anglo-Saxon battles. Until the advent of the war-bow in the High Medieval period, it was the best distance killing weapon available, particularly effective against unarmoured warriors. Skilled men armed with a few javelins would make good skirmishing troops and be cheap to equip.
However, the thrown spear has always been a deadly weapon and,
as with realistic archery, today the use of anything other than hopelessly unrealistic padded javelins is difficult to integrate into modern re-enactment, where it is important that ‘dead’ warriors reliably arise to fight again at the end of a battle.
‘The Spearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements’ M.J. Swanton.
'Anglo-Saxon Weapons & Warfare’ Dr Richard Underwood.
‘Barbarian Warriors’ by Dan & Susanna Shadrake.
‘Viking Weapons & Warfare’ by J. Kim Siddorn.
‘The English Warrior’ and ‘The Warrior’s Way’ by Stephen Pollington.
‘Longbow’ by Robert Hardy.