The most prevalent form of transportation during our era was by foot. This was not only inexpensive, but most people never traveled more than ten miles away from home! Skis and skates (both used with ski poles) were known for balance and propulsion across the snow and ice in the North.
Asses, Horses and Mules
Other animals were used for locomotion, no doubt. Dogs and goats were used to draw such things as buggies, carts and sleds, both then and in later times, but for the most part oxen, asses and horses were used to pull waggons and perhaps carts. When it came to riding, asses and horses were predominantly used. We can see them being used in illustrations such as the Bayeux Embroidery, the Oseberg Tapestry and the picture stone from Gotland.
Saddles had an ancient pedigree, and the invention and dissemination of stirrups in the eight century made riding on the beasts more convenient and led to mounted warfare (soldiers used their mounts to travel to a battle site before then, but then dismounted for combat, sort of like dismounted cavalry later. These were sometimes very ornamented and like the horses themselves were an indicator of wealth and social status.
Prior to the introduction of the larger Arabian horses and the development of palfreys in the eleventh century, the horses were primarily small. Hybridization and breeding changed the size of the animals, and today the closest horse to what was used in the early middle ages is probably the small, intelligent and agile Icelandic horse. No other type of horse has been allowed on the island, and any Icelandic horse that leaves the island or that is born elsewhere is not allowed to return.
Camels and elephants, while known in other cultures for providing transportation, were almost certainly not used in Northern Europe, though these animals might have been used as modes of transportation when the northern Europeans were in the Mid-East. The offspring of an ass and a horse, the mule, has an ancient pedigree and was no doubt used this time. The Old English word for a mule was mul while the Old Norse was múli, indicating that the hybrid was used in those cultures.
This was a common design that dated both to earlier times and to later. The waggons were plain in some cases, but they could also be carved and decorated. See, for example, the waggons in the Oseberg tapestry, as well as the one found in that burial.
The waggons were large and cumbersome, able to carry large loads but were drawn by oxen and by horses, not by human power.
Sleighs or Sledges
Especially in Scandinavia, sleighs appear to have been popular. In many aspects, they were similar to waggons, being used for both transportation of people and goods, pulled by draft animals. The popularity of sleighs might be indicated by the presence of four separate sleighs in the Oseberg burial. Three of these were carved and decorated.
The “Viking ship”—the drakkar, the knarr and other sorts designed for special purposes—was important enough that it gave the name to an entire era. It was the most advanced technology of the time; the Viking Ship was exemplified by its low draft (generally no more than three feet when loaded), was swift (as swift under the right conditions as modern racing yachts), moved in both directions (which allowed quick raids) and was propelled both by oars and—the thing that made the ships really unique—wind. The clinker construction—where boards were laid atop each other, made water tight with caulking or rags, and this method of construction seems to have created an airfoil kind of effect.
The design was developed by the Norse and copied by many other cultures, some related to the Norse and some not. The ships seen in the Bayeux Embroidery are examples. Earlier designs did not use the sail as well as the Viking ship did. There are many examples of these ships, for example the ship used in the burial at Sutton Hoo. Some earlier and later ships were propelled by slave power at the oars, but the oarsmen on Viking ships all appear to have been freemen.
The predominance of Viking ships was overtaken when cogs started to be built in the early new millennium. In earlier combat, the ships were brought together, and warfare ranged over the ships in pretty much the same way that land warfare was waged. The higher towers of the cogs meant that ships drawing close to each other could engage, throwing rocks and shooting arrows down from the towers. The Viking ships tried to get the best of both and started to build towers on their decks, but they succeeded only in creating ships that were easily toppled. The cogs were predominant by the twelfth century. Viking-style ships were still being built, and they are still built today, but they are no longer the size of the stereotypical drakkar or knarr.
The cogs were phased out by the development of gunpowder and the use of cannon on shipboard. The new ships were more in the style of later galleons.
Two-wheeled vehicles were most frequently seen at this time, mainly for poorer people, since they were less expensive. Some define carts as conveyances that are propelled by only human labor, and carried timber, vegetables and other goods. See, for example, the June illustration of the Julius Work Calendar; this cart might well not be human-propelled, since we see oxen waiting nearby as the coach is loaded.
Chariots were popular in many civilizations early than the Viking Age, including the Roman, but had largely fallen out of use and popularity by this time, although once again semantics and definitions are important.