I expected to enjoy Dr. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (Westholme Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59416-076-9), and I was not disappointed. I am a historical fencer and martial artist who has spent many hours sparring with weapons very similar to those Dr. Short describes, and I have long had an active interest in the Viking era. I had previously read many of the primary saga sources (such as Njal’s Saga Egil’s Saga, and the Saga of Grettir the Strong) that Dr. Short mines for information on Viking weaponscraft, but I had not realized how informative they can be when the many descriptions of fights in them are set beside each other and correlated with the archeological evidence.
For those who don’t regularly follow my blog, my wife Cathy and I train in a fighting tradition based around sword and shield, rooted in southern Italian cut-and-thrust fencing from around 1500. It is a battlefield rather than a dueling style. Our training weapons simulate cut-and-thrust swords similar in weight and length to Viking-era weapons, usually cross-hilted but occasionally basket-hilted after the manner of a schiavona; our shields are round, bossless, and slightly smaller than Viking-era shields. We also learn to fight single-sword, two-sword, and with polearms and spears. The swordmaster’s family descended from Sicilo-Norman nobles; when some obvious Renaissance Italian overlays such as the basket hilts are lain aside, the continuity of our weapons with well-attested Norman patterns and with pre-Norman Viking weapons is clear and obvious. Thus my close interest in the subject matter of Dr. Short’s book.
Dr. Short provides an invaluable service by gathering all this literary evidence and juxtaposing it with pictures and reconstructions of Viking-age weapons, and with sequences of re-enactors experimenting with replicas. He is careful and scholarly in his approach, emphasizing the limits of the evidence and the occasional flat-out contradictions between saga and archeological evidence. I was pleased that he does not shy from citing his own and his colleagues’ direct physical experience with replica weapons as evidence; indeed, at many points in the text, .the techniques they found by exploring the affordances of these weapons struck me as instantly familiar from my own fighting experience.
Though Dr. Short attempts to draw some support for his reconstructions of techniques from the earliest surviving European manuals of arms, such as the Talhoffer book and Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat, his own warnings that these are from a much later period and addressing very different weapons are apposite. Only the most tentative sort of guesses can be justified from them, and I frankly think Dr. Short’s book would have been as strong if those references were entirely omitted. I suspect they were added mostly as a gesture aimed at mollifying academics suspicious of combat re-enactment as an investigative technique, by giving them a more conventional sort of scholarship to mull over.
Indeed, if this book has any continuing flaw, I think it’s that Dr. Short ought to trust his martial-arts experience more. He puzzles, for example, at what I consider excessive length over the question of whether Vikings used “thumb-leader” cuts with the back edge of a sword. Based on my own martial-arts experience, I think we may take it for granted that a warrior culture will explore and routinely use every affordance of its weapons. The Vikings were, by all accounts, brutally pragmatic fighters; the limits of their technique were, I am certain, set only by the limits of their weapons. Thus, the right question, in my opinion, is less “What can we prove they did?” than “What affordances are implied by the most accurate possible reconstructions of the tools they fought with?”.
As an example of this sort of thinking, I don’t think there is any room for doubt that the Viking shield was used aggressively, with an active parrying technique — and to bind opponents’ weapons. To see this, compare it to the wall shields used by Roman legionaries and also in the later Renaissance along with longswords, or with the “heater”-style jousting shields of the High Medieval period. Compared to these, everything about the Viking design – the relatively light weight, the boss, the style of the handgrip – says it was designed to move. Dr. Short documents the fact that his crew of experimental re-enactors found themselves using active shield guards (indistinguishable, by the way from my school’s); I wish he had felt the confidence to assert flat-out that this is what the Vikings did with the shield because this is what the shield clearly wants to do…
Eric S. Raymond, “Dr. William Short’s ‘Viking Weapons and Combat’: A Review”, Armed and Dangerous, 2009-08-13.
October 25, 2016
August 19, 2016
Published on 30 Jul 2016
Bishops. Manuscripts. Pilgrimage. Wealth. In 793 CE, the island monastery of Lindisfarne thrived in a state of harmony. Then, everything changed when the Viking raiders attacked. Once they discovered Europe’s weakness, not even mighty kings like Charlemagne could stop them. They transformed their power at sea into an avenue for conquest and expansion: the Viking Age had begun.
Troubling omens were recorded in Lindisfarne prior to the Viking invasion on June 8, 793 CE. It was the seat of the bishop for much of Northeastern Britain. Monks in the scriptorium produced some of the most celebrated illustrated manuscripts, and abroad they helped convert the pagans of Britain. Lindisfarne had been the final resting place of St. Cuthbert, so pilgrims often came and enriched the priory and the town. It never occurred to anyone that when strange ships appeared on the horizon, that they might be hostile. The men who disembarked were fierce, unknown, and merciless. They cut down monks in the churches and looted the church… then left. Bishop Higbald survived, and sent the news across Europe. From there, the frequency of raids only increased and raged across all of Europe. The burgeoning flame of Lindisfarne was almost snuffed out. It was the first time in history that the reach of Christianity shrank, rather than expanded. But what about the other side of the story? These “barbarians,” who would become known as Vikings, were striking back at a culture that looked down on them, insulted their faith, and tried to swindle them at trade. They had realized how poorly defended these both the British Isles and mainland Europe were, and how rich they were in fertile land. They put their vast knowledge of shipcraft to work and turned trading routes into raiding routes, finding new lands for them to settle. The Viking Age had begun.
June 20, 2016
A few days back, “Weirddave” posted a little account of his recent visit to L’Anse Aux Meadows:
You can fly into Gander, but it’s expensive AF and you’ll have to make a jillion connections and live in airports for 2 days. Driving from the US means taking I-95 as far as it goes, then transiting New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to North Sydney. There you get on a ferry for an 8 hour trip to Port Aux Basque. Do it overnight and splurge for a cabin (trust me on this). Even then, you can’t get into Port Aux Basque if it’s too windy (a not uncommon occurrence in the North Atlantic). Our ferry sailed in a circle off Port Aux Basque for 12 hours until it was calm enough to go in, costing us a whole day (you don’t drive at night in Newfoundland because the island is infested with moose and you’ll hit one). There is no WiFi on the ferry.
From Port Aux Basque it’s 699 kilometers to L’Anse Aux Meadow, 699 kilometers of 2 lane highway with lots of potholes. If you love scrub pine and birch, you’ll be in heaven. It’s very pretty, and Gros Morne National Park, which you’ll go through about halfway, is gorgeous. The drive is miserable when it’s raining, and it’s always raining in Newfoundland. As a bonus it was 2 degrees C today. After you’ve seen L’Anse Aux Meadow ( a day at most ) you have to do it all over again going the other way. The local hootch is a rum called Screech that aspires to be Val-U-Rite. On the plus side, the locals are friendly, if occasionally unintelligible, and I ate 6 lobsters in four days, so yum.
If you find yourself in Newfoundland, you must go to L’Anse Aux Meadow. If you’re thinking of going, my advice would be to take an RV and make it a leisurely trip across the Maritimes. Take 2 weeks off and really enjoy yourself.
October 30, 2015
After the fiancée-punching scandal the NFL suffered this fall, the league is working on an anti-domestic-violence campaign; a new public-service announcement featuring about two dozen pro footballers debuted this Thursday during the Chargers–Broncos game. But the question persists: How can the NFL paint itself as progressive while it permits one of its franchises to use a patently offensive team name? Calling a team “the Vikings” is grotesquely insensitive to everyone concerned about domestic abuse. Minnesota might as well call its team “the Pillagers” or “the Rapists.”
Of course, the public’s attitude toward Vikings has changed over the years. According to a piece in The Spectator by Melanie McDonagh, “the Vikings-as-peaceful-traders approach has now been academic orthodoxy for two generations.” But according to an Aberdeen University historian named David Dumville, whom the piece quotes, “We’re being invited to forget vast amounts.” Dumville “puts the fashion for cuddly Vikings squarely down to ‘Swedish war guilt about not participating in the [second world] war and American political correctness.’” In fact, McDonagh writes, “the Vikings’ cruelty and joy in battle put them in a class of their own.” Per the article’s title, “the Vikings really were that bad.” And according to the Huffington Post, new research done at the University of Oslo suggests that Vikings’ slaves and sex slaves would be beheaded and buried with their deceased masters. Is the NFL promoting rape culture?
Josh Gelernter, “Cleaning up the NFL”, National Review, 2014-10-25.
July 28, 2015
In Nautilis, Adam Piore talks about the project to thoroughly map Icelanders’ DNA:
In the ninth century there was a Norwegian Viking named Kveldulf, so big and strong that no man could defeat him. He sailed the seas in a long-ship and raided and plundered towns and homesteads of distant lands for many years. He settled down to farm, a very wealthy man.
Kveldulf had two sons who grew up to become mighty warriors. One joined the service of King Harald Tangle Hair. But in time the King grew fearful of the son’s growing power and had him murdered. Kveldulf vowed revenge. With his surviving son and allies, Kveldulf caught up with the killers, and wielding a double-bladed ax, slew 50 men. He sent the paltriest survivors back to the king to recount his deed and fled toward the newly settled realm of Iceland. Kveldulf died on the journey. But his remaining son Skallagrim landed on Iceland’s west coast, prospered, and had children.
Skallagrim’s children had children. Those children had children. And the blood and genes of Kveldulf the Viking and Skallagrim his son were passed down the ages. Then, in 1949, in the capital of Reykjavik, a descendent named Kari Stefansson was born.
Like Kveldulf, Stefansson would grow to be a giant, 6’5”, with piercing eyes and a beard. As a young man, he set out for the distant lands of the universities of Chicago and Harvard in search of intellectual bounty. But at the dawn of modern genetics in the 1990s, Stefansson, a neurologist, was lured back to his homeland by an unlikely enticement — the very genes that he and his 300,000-plus countrymen had inherited from Kveldulf and the tiny band of settlers who gave birth to Iceland.
Stefansson had a bold vision. He would create a library of DNA from every single living descendent of his nation’s early inhabitants. This library, coupled with Iceland’s rich trove of genealogical data and meticulous medical records, would constitute an unparalleled resource that could reveal the causes — and point to cures — for human diseases.
In 1996, Stefansson founded a company called Decode, and thrust his tiny island nation into the center of the burgeoning field of gene hunting. “Our genetic heritage is a natural resource,” Stefansson declared after returning to Iceland. “Like fish and hot pools.”
April 17, 2015
Charlotte Persson looks at what happened to the Viking settlers in Greenland as the Little Ice Age set in:
In the middle of the 13th century the Vikings who had settled in Greenland encountered no less than ten years of harsh and cold winters and summers. The Norsemen, who were living as farmers, bid farewell to many of their cattle during that period.
The Greenland Vikings were also prevented from setting sail to fetch supplies from their homelands in Europe because they didn’t have enough timber to build trading ships. So when Scandinavian traders didn’t happen to pass by they were left entirely on their own.
But this didn’t knock them out; on the contrary they lived with the worsening climate for almost 200 years during what we later would call the Little Ice Age. This is the conclusion of a new Ph.D. thesis.
“The stories we have heard so far about the climate getting worse and the Norsemen disappearing simply don’t hold water. They actually survived for a long time and were far better at adapting than we previously thought,” says the author of the new study, Christian Koch Madsen, Ph.D. student at the National Museum of Denmark.
November 9, 2014
H/T to Never Yet Melted for the link.
September 3, 2014
In many video games, especially MMOs, you can do the same kind of combat with a male or female avatar (in other words, from a gaming perspective, the differences are literally cosmetic). This is not a reflection of physical reality, although it is a nod to sexual equality in other areas. That being said, it is silly to pretend that before gunpowder came along to diminish the advantages that upper body strength confers in hand-to-hand combat, women could be equally effective in combat. ESR calls bullshit on a recent article that goes out of its way to imply that half of Viking warriors were actually female:
Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at tor.com. It’s complete bullshit.
What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.
There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.
Supporting this, there is only very scant archeological evidence for female warriors (burials with weapons). There is almost no such evidence from Viking cultures, and what little we have is disputed; the Scythians and earlier Germanics from the Migration period have substantially more burials that might have been warrior women. Tellingly, they are almost always archers.
I’m excluding personal daggers for self-defense here and speaking of the battlefield contact weapons that go with the shieldmaidens of myth and legend. I also acknowledge that a very few exceptionally able women can fight on equal terms with men. My circle of friends contains several such exceptional women; alas, this tells us nothing about woman as a class but much about how I select my friends.
But it is a very few. And if a pre-industrial culture has chosen to train more than a tiny fraction of its women as shieldmaidens, it would have lost out to a culture that protected and used their reproductive capacity to birth more male warriors. Brynhilde may be a sexy idea, but she’s a bioenergetic gamble that is near certain to be a net waste.
Firearms changes all this, of course – some of the physiological differences that make them inferior with contact weapons are actual advantages at shooting (again I speak from experience, as I teach women to shoot). So much so that anyone who wants to suppress personal firearms is objectively anti-female and automatically oppressive of women.
May 12, 2014
P.J. O’Rourke says we need to take the long view in regard to Vladimir Putin, and provides a rough history of Russia to back up his contention:
In the sixth century A.D. Russia was the middle of nowhere in the great Eurasian flat spot bounded by fuck-all on the north and east, barbarian hordes and the remains of the Byzantine Empire on the south, and the Dark Ages on the west.
Wandering around in here, up and down the watershed of the Dnieper River from Novgorod (which hadn’t been built yet) to Kiev (ditto) were disorganized tribes of Slavic pastoral herdsmen herding whatever was available, pastorally. They were harried by Goths, Huns, Khazars, and other people who had the name and nature of outlaw motorcycle gangs long before the motorcycle was invented.
The original Russian state, “Old Russia,” was established at Novgorod in A.D. 862 by marauding Vikings. They’d set off to discover Iceland, Greenland, and America, took a wrong turn, and wound up with their dragon boat stuck on a mud bar in the Dnieper. (Historians have their own theories, involving trade and colonization, but this sounds more likely.)
The first ruler of Old Russia was the Viking Prince Ryurik. Imagine being so disorganized that you need marauding Vikings to found your nation — them with their battle axes, crazed pillaging, riotous Meade Hall feasts, and horns on their helmets. (Actually, Vikings didn’t wear horns on their helmets — but they would have if they’d thought of it, just like they would have worn meade helmets if they’d thought of it.) Some government it must have been.
Viking Prince Ryurik: “Yah, let’s build Novgorod!”
Viking Chieftain Sven: “Yah, so we can burn it down and loot!”
April 21, 2014
– Spotted yesterday in the Times (which is behind a paywall) of the day before yesterday by 6k. “Very good” says he. Indeed.
Brian Micklethwait, “Samizdata quote of the day”, Samizdata, 2014-04-19.
January 30, 2014
You can always trust Duffelblog to give you the latest US military news:
Marines Convert To Norse Paganism, Demand Horns And Wings On Helmets
CAMP LEJEUNE, NC — An entire rifle squad which has converted to Asatru, or Northern European Heathenry, has expressed disappointment in new Pentagon dress code requirements claiming religious exemptions to military uniform standards are not inclusive enough.
The Asatru devotees complain they are not allowed to wear their religious clothing in uniform unlike Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish members. Focused on historical Norse paganism, the Marines want to affix horns and wings on their helmets in order to accommodate individual expression of their beliefs.
“It’s the only way Valkyrie can identify the Kindred if we fall righteously in battle,” said Sgt. Bram Gunbjorn, who serves as both squad leader and gothi (priest) of his squad of housescarls, otherwise known as 3rd Squad, Second Platoon, Charlie Company.
The squad believes upon their worthy death in combat, the Valkyrie will lead them to Valhalla, the mythological hall presided over by Odin, the Allfather.
“I think these clowns have been reading too many comic books,” said battalion Sgt. Maj. Mike Brooks. “There’s no actual historical evidence Vikings or any Northern European groups wore that garbage into battle.”
Soon after the sergeant major made this statement, the horrified Marines submitted a complaint to their Equal Opportunity Officer on the grounds of religious intolerance.
February 12, 2010
I’m just as happy that my area didn’t receive any of the snow that’s been blanketing areas to the south of us. Eric Raymond wasn’t as lucky:
Now I understand the Viking Era
So I’m sitting here, looking out my window at the 3-foot snow and the 5-foot icicles, reverting to ancestral type. Thinking:
“Fuck this. Let’s go sack Miklagard.”
And Ken Burnside points out even more opportunity for enriching historical knowledge:
The reason why Minnesota and Wisconsin were settled by Norwege and Swenske isn’t because the other cultures couldn’t hack the winters.
It’s because compared to 19th century Norway and Sweden, Upper Minneosta and Upper Wisconsin are *paradise*.
“Look! Farmland! Lakes for fishing! Timber and lumber to build from! And no morass of petty aristocracy to tell you no. And, hey, it only snows for five whole months here! They won’t believe THAT back in the old country!”
The only reason there weren’t more of them was because a lot of Norski STILL remember the marketing flimflam that was Greenland. They had a completely justified 900 year old mistrust of ANYONE telling them about ‘great farmland, only snows for five months of the year, plenty of timber…’