All martial arts can be divided into three types, the traditional which have passed from master to student until the present, the historical which died leaving detailed instructions by a practitioner, and the prehistoric which died without leaving such instructions. Just as prehistory in Mongolia extends much later than prehistory in Iraq, prehistoric martial arts can be more recent than many historical or traditional ones.
People trying to reconstruct prehistoric martial arts such as Plato’s hoplomachia or 17th century Polish sabre fencing pay a lot of attention to the ergonomics of weapons. If a spear was balanced towards the butt, it probably was not meant to be thrown: if a sword builds up a lot of rotary momentum when it is swung, it was probably designed to move in circles rather than back and forth. Good weapons were expensive objects, and outside the Roman and some Chinese armies there were no committees forcing warriors to use one type of weapon, so we can take as an axiom that common long-lived forms of weapon were well designed to meet their users’ needs. If they were not, they would have fallen out of use.
Right now there are a lot of discussions about the ergonomics of Viking Age swords, and whether they were meant to be gripped perpendicular to the arm like an Indian tulwar, at a 45 degree angle to the arm like a handshake, or parallel to the arm like a 19th century European sabre. Of course a good fighter will vary their grip, but most have a default grip and some weapons strongly encourage or discourage particular grips. The first approach gives a firm grip on the weapon and fearsome drawing cuts and does not depend on fine motor skills, while the third maximizes reach and is good for ‘hatchet cuts’ like a cottager splitting kindling. The second is in between. All of these grips and more are recommended in many traditional and historical martial arts, so it is plausible that all of them were used in the Early Middle ages too. Striking with the sword parallel to the arm has some vocal advocates today, including Michael Edelson and Roland Warzecha. They make various rational and theoretical arguments. But the empirical evidence from martial arts around the world shows many different grips and not one driving out all others in the way that iron tools replaced bronze tools. If we are interested in how swords were used (rather than how we would use them) what matters is that there was no consensus about these grips in historical times, and that weapons were designed to encourage different grips.
I do not have a replica Viking sword handy, but I do have my Naue type II by Neil Burridge. The shape of the grip encourages a distinctive grip with the pointer finger hooked around the base of the blade. But the large mushroom-shaped pommel prevents me from bringing the blade as close to parallel to my forearm as I can with a 16th century European sword. So one of the first and most successful types of straight European cut-and-thrust sword does not want to be held parallel to the forearm.
Learning to fight is more like building a house than proving a theorem, more like an art than a science. There are many good ways to do anything, each with some limits or disadvantages, and people use judgement and experience to decide between them. So you can’t deduce very much about martial arts from universal principles and the weapons used. But I think you can tell some things about how weapons were meant to be used by studying their ergonomics or affordances. Nathan Clough and Craig Johnson at Arms & Armor (Minnesota) find that a short handle and big round pommel lets you strike powerfully with the back edge (false edge) of the sword and that matches my experience with this sword. And just knowing one good way of using a weapon that makes sense for your body is better than knowing none, even if its almost certainly not the same as people in another culture did things. If different people with different backgrounds keep talking, perhaps we will better understand what was generally accepted among good fighters and what was contentious.
- Insights from Experience, Excavation, and Reconstruction
- Roland Warzecha has an essay on his theories about Viking swords in Festschrift Alfred Geibig
- Matt Easton has some videos on how foreigners describe Indians and Central Asians using their curved sabres in the 19th century such as Curved swords and how to cut with them – kilij, shamshir, tulwar, sabre (YouTube 2019) or Tulwars! The typical Indian sword, famed for its awesome cutting power (YouTube 2013)
(planned and photographed October 2020, scheduled 7 May 2021)