Recreating Combat in the Viking Age
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Categories: Medieval

Recreating Combat in the Viking Age

A number of people are trying to recreate prehistoric European martial arts: ones which have left neither a living tradition, nor manuals. One of the most serious attempts focuses on early medieval combat with sword and shield and is lead by Roland Warzecha:

As a fencer I have few problems with what the Dimicatores are doing, and I would recommend that anyone take Roland’s word over mine about what constitutes effective fencing in any case. As an aesthete I think that seeing him move is a gift. As an academic I have more concerns.

The methodological problems with recreating prehistoric martial arts are profound, not least because established academic disciplines provide few models. Whereas recreating a martial art from handbooks can draw on skills taught by historians, art historians, philologists, and experimental archaeologists, it is much less obvious about how one could recreate such a complex cultural artifact as a martial art from pictures and nontechnical descriptions and knowledge of physics and anatomy. Martial artists with a background in traditional martial arts (ones passed on from teacher to student until the present) are often skeptical of attempts to recreate martial arts from manuals, and while as a historian I obviously have more faith in texts and less in oral tradition than they do, I think that their doubts are reasonable ones. Manuals from the late sixteenth century show that Europeans with a common culture used broadly similar swords in a wide variety of different ways, and given the same weapon a Persian or a Han would probably have used them yet differently. I also wonder why these groups focus so much on fights where sword crossed sword, since that may not have been a common situation in early medieval Europe. Most close-range fighting seems to have been done with spears, and the sword was probably drawn when the last spear was hurled or broken, at which point it would have been as likely to face a spear or an axe as another sword. Still, enough smart people might be able to overcome these problems given time, just as linguists have learned to recreate stages of languages before they are first documented in writing.

I do not think that Roland is recreating how early medieval people fought, but I think that his praxis is beautiful and effective, and beautiful purposeful motion is a precious thing. And if we can ever say anything about how Norse jarls (or Ionian kaloi k’agathoi!) used their weapons, it will be because of people who tried to find an answer using any tool which seemed like it might help, not the people who looked at the problems, pondered, then walked quickly in the opposite direction.

Disclaimer: I have briefly met Roland Warzecha at events in North America, and, again, would recommend that anyone take his word over mine about what constitutes effective fencing. It is just that historical fencing was not always effective (because in any age plenty of people earnestly practice things which would never work in a fight or don’t bother to practice at all), and effective fencing is not always historical (because there are many ways to use a given set of weapons effectively).

Further Reading: An article on recreating early medieval shields by Richard Underwood, “The Early Anglo-Saxon shield: Reconstruction as an aid to interpretation,” in Barry Molloy ed., The Cutting Edge (Tempus Publishing: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2007) pp. 134-143 gives an idea of how hard it is to understand the properties of early medieval weapons. Hurstwic in New England relies more on fight scenes in the sagas than on knowledge of martial arts to recreate combat in the Viking Age (link). For sixteenth-century fencing with long slender two-edged swords with complex hilts compare the manuals by Henry de Sainct Didier, Nicoletto Giganti, and the earliest writers in the Iberian Destreza tradition. Many videos of Roland fencing with langes Messer or sword and buckler are available on YouTube, so one can compare how he moves when he is trying to imitate a 15th century burgher and when he is trying to imitate a 9th century warrior and decide whether they are as different as one would expect. Roland’s own website is Dimicator.

Edit 2016/07/24: Keith Farrell has similar concerns with attempts to reconstruct 17th century Polish sabre fencing, another system which died and is not documented in any manuals: “In fact, it is quite possible to see some people ‘doing Polish sabre’ and for the resulting fencing to look no different from how they ‘do British sabre’ or indeed how they ‘do messer’.” (Curved Swords and ‘Polish Sabre’ Encased in Steel)

Edit 2016/11/02: Some other important names in the study of Viking Age combat are Sixt Wetzler {focuses on philology, skeptical that prehistorical martial arts can be revived, contributes to the journal Martial Arts Studies and JOMEC Journal} and Rolf Warming of Combat Archaeology in Denmark {focuses on experimental archaeology}.

Edit 2017/08/02: Matt Easton makes a similar point in “Khyber knife, gladius, bronze age swords and experimental archaeology” {Warning: YouTube!} … his khyber knife (an overgrown kitchen knife with a straight back and single curved edge) seems like a great stabbing weapon, but British soldiers who fought against them sad that the Afghans preferred to cut with them, so he wonders whether Afghan cutlers thought differently than he did, or the average Afghan farmer in 1843 was relying on instinct and adrenaline not carefully worked-out techniques?

Edit 2018/06/02: Redirected the Encased in Steel link to the Wayback Machine after the owner took it down (!!!) Word of the king: cool URIs don’t change!

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1 thought on “Recreating Combat in the Viking Age

  1. Three Swords | Book and Sword says:

    […] swords are sharp, and the only hints about how people in the Late Bronze Age used their weapons are the two-faced evidence of art and the weapons themselves and parallels in later martial arts. Burridge’s swords tend to be bought by collectors and museums to display, by archaeologists […]

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