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 techniqueÂ 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..
There are one or two curious lapses in the book. On page 177 Dr. Short speculates on the nature of a weapon called a “fleinn” or “heftisax” attested in Grettir’s Saga. Since the saga describes it as equally suited for cutting and thrusting, Dr. Short is obviously correct to deprecate the usual translation of “pike”. But he stops there, missing an obvious etymological cue: “sax” is the Old Norse word for a single-bladed knife, and “heft” is a transparent cognate of Old High German “heft” and the English word “haft”, both commonly used of spear and polearm shafts. Beyond reasonable doubt the “heftisax” is what is called in English a “glaive”, a bladed polearm – probably with a relatively short (5- to 7-foot) shaft (Asian-martial-arts types can think “naginata” and not be far off). Having fought duels in holmgang with this weapon myself, I can attest from experience that this weapon is well suited to the sort of fight described in the saga.
Dr. Short parses some fragmentary evidence that the Vikings may have known of and occasionally used Central-Asian-style composite bows in addition to the European-style self-bow and longbow. He appears to be unaware of an important fact bearing on this debate, namely that the animal-tendon-derived glues in composite bows degraded fairly rapidly in humid climates. Thus, these bows dominated warfare in the hot dry Central Asian steppes for more than a thousand years but never gained a serious foothold in the cooler and moister climate of Europe. As far north as Scandinavia and Iceland, they would have been ruined after a few winters.
Despite these minor nits, this is an excellent book certain to be interesting to any martial artist or historian of weaponscraft with even a glancing interest in the Viking period. One could wish it were thicker, but that would be possible only if we had more primary evidence than we do. The combination of careful textual analysis with consideration of archeological evidence and a healthy dose of experimentation with replica weapons could, I think, serve as a model of its kind. This book suggests, along with some costume histories my wife has been reading, a recent tendency to take the lessons of re-enactment more seriously than historians have in the past; I think this is a positive trend that will lead to a deeper understanding of how our ancestors actually lived.