Approaching the study of Viking sword and shield

Many people are interested in the practice of Viking sword and shield, and expect that other HEMA clubs will share their interest in this system. It can result in surprise and confusion when other people and clubs then have very little interest in the system, and perhaps do not even consider Viking sword and shield to be an example of HEMA. Why might this be? And how can we approach such a study in a constructive fashion?

Is it HEMA?

In my opinion, trying to recreate a “Viking sword and shield” fighting system is not really HEMA. It is close, but just not quite there. It can be a fun exercise, and it can be a good physical workout, but it fails to be HEMA when we have no treatise (or other technical literature) recording the method of use. Without such sources, all it can be is what I have called in the past an “interpretive system“, what Michael Chidester calls a “Type III WMA”, and therefore it falls outwith my personal definition of HEMA.

What can we utilise from a good HEMA methodology, however? A healthy approach to HEMA will involve a sensible methodology, as I describe in my article on beginning to work with a HEMA source. We can collect a variety of sources so that there is at least some evidence for what we might be doing. We can observe similarities and differences between sources and accounts, to evolve a hypothesis. We can then implement sensible experiments to see how well the hypotheses hold up. We can practice by using proper protective equipment, proper training tools, and a sensible approach to instruction that renders the activity as a proper martial art.

Is it experimental archaeology?

It could be experimental archaeology, but it is still important to approach this properly. Simply picking up a sword and shield and trying to “find out what works” is not experimental archaeology, it is just dabbling.

To do experimental archaeology properly, we must follow proper scientific method:

  • propose a hypothesis;
  • design an experiment to test the hypothesis;
  • perform the experiment under controlled conditions;
  • record data from the experiment;
  • analyse the data to draw conclusions about whether or not the hypothesis was correct.

In short, working with Viking sword and shield can be a good example of experimental archaeology, if it follows a sensible methodology. There are several books and articles that discuss experimental archaeology, a small selection of which I have included in the bibliography below.

However, it is no longer an example experimental archaeology if people just pick up the swords and shields and spar with them, in an attempt to “find out what works”.

What clues are there?

Although there is no technical literature recording exactly what the Viking fighting methods involved, there are some other sources that can give us clues and hints that could inform a study.

For example, the sagas do hold clues, because some of the characters wield sword and shield, and their activities are described in the stories. However, sagas are stories, that may not have been recorded in their original form, and may have been written down several hundred years afterwards (when equipment, methods, context, and society had changed).

There are some accounts of battles that occurred, and these accounts were recorded before many of the sagas were written down in the form that have survived until today. However, these accounts tend to be more about troop movements and general happenings than technical analyses of hand to hand fighting methods.

There are also some illustrations in books and other mediums (you could look at the Bayeux Tapestry for information about the Anglo-Saxon army and its methods when fighting against the Normans, as the Anglo-Saxons shared many similarities with the Vikings), but again, they were not technical drawings striving for accuracy.

We can use these sorts of things to inform guesses, but none of them can tell us explicitly how hand-to-hand fighting was conducted, why this technique was a better choice than that technique. Such sources are important as supporting information, but unfortunately there is still no technical literature for them to support.

Some thoughts about fighting systems

Even if these supporting sources suggest techniques or concepts, they cannot inform about a “system”. A “system” is much more than a collection of techniques, it is the rationale that holds everything together, it is the style that makes it all actually work in a cohesive fashion. A system may well choose to exclude techniques for some reason, it may choose deliberately not to use part of the sword for some reason, and it may choose to ignore certain footwork motions for some reason.

So, if these various non-technical sources suggest things about what techniques were used, we then have to consider that the “Viking age” could be considered to span from 793 (the raid on Lindisfarne) to 1066 (the Battle of Stamford Bridge), or even until 1263 (the Battle of Largs). Depending how strictly or loosely you define “Viking” and “Viking age”, you could even extend the “Viking martial traditions” until 1361 (the Battle of Wisby), or until the late 1390s and early 1400s (according to Mark Bartusis in The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society 1204-1453, some inhabitants of Constantinople still identified as Varangian at this time).

With time period of 280-570 years (depending on how you choose to calculate the end date of the “Viking age”), spanning the countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and potentially the Rus kingdoms of Novgorod, all the way down south to Constantinople (and therefore linking the Vikings with the eastern world through the Rus traders and the Varangian Guard), we cannot say that there was a single “Viking” method of fighting that spanned all these times and places. There were doubtless several “Viking” people who were considered to be the something like a “fencing master”, who taught people who to fight according to their preferred system (with everything that comes with systematising a combative method). Thus, there were probably several different systems, at different times and places, and quite probably different traditions that developed.

However, since nothing was ever recorded, this is all lost. We cannot recreate any one single system, let alone a full tradition, and we cannot even imagine being able to recreate several competing schools/traditions and being able to have a critical discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

We can do all of that for longsword, for sword and buckler, for rapier, for smallsword, for sabre, for staff, for dagger, for wrestling, and for all of the HEMA disciplines that have proper technical literature.

Conclusion

When attempting to recreate Viking sword and shield fighting methods, the best that most people can do today is to make up some techniques and try to use them when playing with sword and shield. That is not to belittle what people did in history with sword and shield, rather to point out the shortcomings of most modern attempts at recreation.

There are some excellent interpretations in the modern HEMA community, such as the work done by Roland Warzecha and Colin Richards. This article is not intended to belittle their work either, as such work follows a proper methodology and involves a wide variety of source material to inform far more than just the blows and parries.

This article is about the approach to studying Viking sword and shield. It can be good fun, but it requires significantly more effort and investigation than simply playing with sword and shield and hoping that that will result in a good system representative of Viking sword shield.

Bibliography (Vikings)

Gwyn Jones. A History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press, 1984.

Else Roesdahl. The Vikings. 2nd edition. Penguin Books, 1998.

Magnus Magnusson. The Vikings. Tempus Publishing, 2000.

Mark Bartusis. The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society 1204–1453. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Bibliography (experimental archaeology)

James Mathieu (ed.). Experimental Archaeology: Replicating past objects, behaviors and processes. British Archaeological Reports Oxford, 2002.

Daniel Jaquet and Nicolas Baptiste (eds.). Expérimenter le maniement des armes à la fin du Moyen Age / Experimente zur Waffenhandhabung im Spätmittelalter. Schwabe, 2016.

Daniel Jaquet, Claus Frederik Sorenson, Fabrice Cognot. “Historical European Martial Art. A crossroad between academic research, martial heritage re-creation and martial sport practices.Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol 3, 2015, pp. 5-35.

Eric Burkart. “Limits of Understanding in the Study of Lost Martial Arts.Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol 4(2), 2016, pp. 5-30.

Daniel Jaquet. “Experimenting Historical European Martial Arts, a Scientific Method?” In: Daniel Jaquet, Karin Verelst, Timothy Dawson (eds.). Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books. Brill, 2016.

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.