The Black Sails – Pomeranian Chronicles
Black Sails on Baltic winds – The Naval Forces of Early Medieval and Medieval Pomerania
Pomeranian culture was built upon older cultures, as ancient as the Corded Ware Culture, or the later Lusatian Culture, as well as upon the numerous younger local cultures derived from the Wielbark Culture (some as small as the Oksywie Culture from the territories of modern day Gdynia). Yet their tribal consciousness was built on the shores of the Baltic sea, and with time, the great waters became a more natural environment for them than the vast lands they controlled.
The sea was not only a source of food and resources for them, but also, or rather most of all, the way to wealth and military strength.
Everybody knows the term created in the 19th century – the vikings; used to refer to the Scandinavian pirates and traders,
romanticized to a pop-cultural level. Viking was a name unknown before the 19th century. It was a term meaning “piracy”. People were doing “viking” , they could not be “viking”.
Linguistic nuances over the modern use of the word ‘Viking’ aside, the fact is that the historical group known as “Vikings” were not a homogeneous people. The original meaning of the word Viking wasn’t a nationality. The runic inscriptions suggest that a viking was a man who left his homeland for adventure and profit abroad, with the implication that he planned to return home with his newly-won fortune and fame. The word existed in both a noun form (víkingr, the person traveling for adventure) and a verb form (víking, to travel or participate in one of these adventures). Even the origin of the word is debated. In the old Norse language, víkingr means a man from vík, where vík may have the sense of a bay, or the specific bay called Víkin in the south of Norway. Perhaps the name was applied because the first Viking raiders were from Víkin, or perhaps because the raiders waited in sheltered bays for their victims.
By the time the Sagas of Icelanders came to be written after the end of the Viking age, the word víkingr still had the sense of a raider, or an adventurer, who traveled overseas looking for fame and fortune.
For Pomeranians, Scandinavian pirates (with which they had rather good relations) were called Skandowie (people from Scandia), or simply Niemcy, which now refers to Germans, and roughly translates to “mutes,” but in the past it could be used for people with some kind of retardation – from niemoc – “unableness,” i.e. lack of physical power and vitality, and which in modern Czech means simply “illness”. Niemcy was generally the collective name for all the people who didn’t speak a Slavic language. In contrast, all those who did speak a Slavic language and were mutually intelligible were by default Slavs. This isn’t at all strange: Slavic languages started to separate very late, as late as the 10th century.
Pomeranian pirates are usually referred to as Chąśnicy, which may be etymologically translated as “sea attack,” and by some historians as Wiciędze, which is a rare name, most probably derived from the word Witeź (meaning a knight), used for heroes or kings. A not so popular theory suggests that the name comes from the word “viking”. In foreign sources (mostly Saxon and Scandinavian), Pomeranians and Polabians are referred to as Vinds or Wends, and pirates are referred to as Vindafrelsi. Pomerania is called Vindland (sometimes used also for Poland), but rarely also Slavia.
Scandinavian and Slavic pirates were obvious rivals, however, their motivations and goals were completely different. The Scandinavians needed new lands and people because of their internal problems. They lacked the resources to sustain their small but growing population and they suffered health problems because of the inbreeding caused by harsh terrain which separated even the relatively close villages and cities. Conversely, Pomeranians had all they needed for a prosperous life; the only motives they shared with the Norsemen were passion for wealth and glory. Even though Pomeranians had no colonial ambitions, we may say that what are now southern Danish islands, which were under their control at the time, had the status of colonies. Probably the biggest difference between Slavic and Norman pirates is the fact that Slavs continued this craft even after Christianization; their “golden age” of piracy is dated between the 10th and 12th centuries. As a matter of fact, for some of the Pomeranian tribes piracy was the main source of economic growth – namely the Ruyani (Rani).
The nature of the terrain is such that most pirate bases were located in Western Pomerania and on the Obodritic coast, right under the nose of their main victims – the Danes. The mouth of the Odra river into the Baltic sea is full of small branches, hidden lakes and other places to hide. It is also sheltered by the islands of Wolin and Uznam. There were similar conditions in the region of Ruyana island, and as far west as Vagria. Danish Christian chroniclers complain in their writings of Slavic pirates who use their knowledge of secret passages and hidden trails to make ambushes and raid the coast by appearing in totally unexpected places. The base hidden next to the confluence of the Krempina river remained active and unknown until the half of the 12th century. What’s interesting is that sometimes there were priests living in such bases.
Still, the biggest pirate forces were stationed in main port cities and trade emporiums because quite frequently, the pirates were also traders. One such example is one of the most popular citizens of Szczecin. Wyszak was one of the wealthiest and most respected people in the city, a trader, but also secretly a pirate. He once got captured by the Danes, escaped on the first night, stole a primitive kayak made out of a single piece of wood, and sailed on it from Denmark back to Szczecin.
Without a doubt, the most famous port and pirate base on the Baltic sea was Wolin. This island was the hub of trade, where one could find people from as far as Arabia or Greece. Its wealth and exotic, multi-ethnic nature was the reason why it came to be associated with the legendary island of Wineta (which we will cover in another article). It was also associated with Jomsborg, another legendary base of the so-called Jomsvikings, who were supposedly subjects to the Polish king and later died off with Harald Bluetooth. However, there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of any kind of viking base on Wolin or even in this area.
Size of Forces
In earlier times, raids were carried out by small groups of warriors, often on one or two ships. Wyszak was using only six ships and all his men finally ended up dead. With time, and especially when the occasional pirates became full time corsairs, their forces increased to dozens or even hundreds of ships, all of them able to transport horses as well. The biggest pirate raid in history was done under the lead of the Pomeranian Prince Racibor I of the House of Griffin. Some suggest that it was inspired by the Polish king to whom Racibor was a tributary, but most historians think that it was simply a case of defense by attack. The Danes had secretly united with the Saxons to end Slavic terror on the Baltic sea. Pomeranian spies discovered the plot, and Racibor gathered a giant fleet to lay waste to the Danish coast and destroy their whole fleet, after which he burned the Christian heart of Scandinavia, Konungahela, to the ground .
Pomeranian ships meant for piracy on the open sea were typically adaptations of trading ships. In this case, modifications were made to the wooden covers on the sides, which were further raised for protection from projectiles. A part of the vessel was reserved for keeping two horses on board. The biggest Pomeranian ships used for piracy in the 12th century could carry 44 men and 2 horses, and were approximately 20 m long. Of course, lighter and more specialized units were needed for rivers and coasts. The main advantage of Slavic over Danish ships was that they could sail through shallow waters. The pirates would fling long hooks to catch the enemy ships and drag them closer. They would sometimes tie a few ships together to create “walls” or bridges on the rivers, which they used to outsmart their enemies. For communication at night, they used flames lit in special boxes on top of the mast.
Pomeranian pirates were using impossible-to-mistake black sails. They would put skulls of animals or their enemies on the bow, or they would occasionally carve some kind of monster in the wood itself. They were clad in wild predator hides, mostly wolves, and rarely boars and bears, and they made howling sounds before attacking. They would splash their shields with sea water before the fight and rhythmically hit it with their weapons. Some groups chanted battle songs, but the more organised ones kept silence during fight to hear the orders better.
Pomeranians were generally shaven and kept their hair short by custom, which made them different from practically all their neighbours, and whether intentionally or not, eliminated potential weak spots. The beaten enemies would be enslaved, killed, or in the case of commanders, hanged on the mast (if the ship was rendered useless, for example).
Between the 11th and the 12th centuries there were nearly 20 bigger raids and uncountable smaller ones. Just in the first half of the 12th century, Roskilde was attacked several times, same as Ribe, Aarhus, Odensee, Southern Skania, Sund, Skagerrak. Actually, one of the raids on Sund ended up tragically – roughly 600 ships were destroyed in a storm.
The islands closest to Pomerania became colonies, and many times showed their independence from Denmark and loyalty to their continental relatives in Polabia and Pomerania. Some islands would be absolutely depopulated at times. Chroniclers say that some places raided by the Vinds were so utterly destroyed and pillaged that when pirates returned there after ten years there was still nothing but bare earth.
The main goal of raiding was acquiring slaves. Naturally, gold and silver, amber and expensive materials were very desirable, but those were rather rare, and the most valuable thing every fishing village had was its people. The Obodrites, after one of their visits to Denmark, put 700 Danes on sale in a market in Mechlin. It is said that this was a small catastrophe for the market, because the Obodrites had to drastically lower the prices in order to sell such a high amount of people. Pomeranian supreme god Svetovid/Svantevith had his share in all Pomeranian raids. A part of the slaves was always sacrificed to him.
- In 1153, the Danes created a knight order which was operating on sea, and which existed to protect
the Danish coast from pirates.
- Helmold describes that Danish soldiers were afraid of the crazy Ruyans, who, as he claims, took
special pleasure in fighting with the Danes, and would attacking in the dead of night.
- He also describes how one knight, famous for his bravery, when saw black sails on the open sea, raised his sails in the opposite direction and, as Helmold claims, even sewed additional pieces of material to it to catch more wind and escape faster.
- Fear was not always one-sided. Sometimes, there were quite ridiculous situations, when two fleets would wait until the mist had lifted, only to start fleeing on sight of the other fleet.
- On occasions, there were instances of “playing hunter and prey”. Pomeranian ships would hunt their Danish
victims as far as the shores of Skandia.
More articles from the Pomeranian Chronicles series:
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