Fighting, viking-style! Posted by hulda on Nov 11, 2014 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history
Vikings fighting… I can’t begin to count how many movies get this one entirely wrong. There’s the age-old mistaken idea that Norsemen were some kind of mindless frothing-at-the-mouth barbarians, that fights mostly consisted of swords hitting swords, Hollywood-esque spins in the heat of a battle and a weird conviction that Medieval Norse warriors somehow had some kind of a moral code – most battles had any number of men attacking any number of men for example, often trying to overpower an enemy known to be a great fighter with numbers.
First of all Norsemen did not just blindly charge into a fight. They wore many types of armour, each type exceedingly well-suited for keeping the wearer as safe as possible while also giving them a free range of movement, or as much as was needed for a particular style of fighting (a war field is an entirely different manner than a one-on-one duel, for example). In large battles every warrior would likely have been wearing some, an assumption I base on the fact that berserkers were said to fight naked or just “in a shirt”, without armour, and were considered insane by most.
Safe to say viking era Norsemen’s armour really was easy enough to move in. Gunnar af Hlíðarendi comes to mind easily, a man who could even somersault while wearing full battle gear.
Swords in movies are highly overrated. Most of the men would not be using one, if they even owned one, as their first choice of weapon. An atgeir (= a very Iceland-typical spear/glaive), a more continental type of a spear or a long-handled axe would have been a better choice because it put some distance between the wielder and their opponent, spears having the additional bonus that they can be thrown as well. Then again spears also had a minus side. If you didn’t hit your target he was likely to pick it up and return it to sender, pointy bit first.
But why pick only one weapon? A sword and a shield is just one possible combo. How about two axes, a long-handled one and a short-handled one? A battle axe and a sword? Atgeir and a bow? A spear with an extra sword dangling from the wrist? All of the above combos can be found in sagas! Let’s also not forget that a shield could be used for far more than just a defense: you could throw it at someone, distracting them or injuring their legs. You could try to fool your opponent into lifting theirs in front of their field of vision for that split second it takes to spear them. You could even make a man’s own shield his bane: Grettir defeated a raging berserker by waiting until he bit the top of his shield* and then kicked the bottom of it, crushing his skull.
If you for some reason did fight with a sword the last thing you’d want to hit with it was a long piece of metal such as somebody else’s sword. Dents, dulling, even the whole sword bending out of form, swords were often damaged in a fight so the aim was to minimize the damage and to kill the opponent as fast as possible. Forget about lifting the sword high above your head to deliver a blow because that leaves the entire side open. A shield in the way? It was better to try to go around it than hit straight to it.
Finally, for all things holy, spinning in a fight is the silliest Hollywood idea ever. You can guess what would have happened if you turned your back to a skilled opponent in a battle. Medieval Norse warriors saw nothing wrong in sticking you in the back or ambushing you in any way of their liking, so trusting the other side to not fight dirty would send you to Hel’s home rather fast.** Medieval Norse men used any means possible when they were going to kill someone: they could attack from behind, hide in the toilet, hide in a bush for a, heh, bush-ambush***, pick up a rock to throw that at the opponents face, throw clothes over the opponent, pull his trousers down, yank his head back by hat, beard or hair, or to even sneak up to him while he was preparing for some private time with his wife.
Speaking of women, they were just as bad an opponent if not worse since they could easily command a large number of men: their own household, family members and servants. Some took this even further and picked up weapons themselves, but I’ll talk about the ladies’ fighting methods more in the next post – just trust me on this, you would not want to meet any of them in a fight either.
Here’s some related vocabulary – weapons that the Medieval Norsemen used and a few other related words I thought might be interesting.
* Berserkers bit their shields. I don’t know why but it seems to have been a thing that they did.
** Hel’s home, only great warriors go to Valhalla or Sessrúmnir. Dying out of gullibility is probably not something Óðinn or Freyja look for in a man.
***I’m so sorry.
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Want to see Medieval Norsemen fight using many of the techniques and weapons mentioned in this post? Check Viking Fighting Moves from the Sagas, a series of videos that are choreographed according to saga references and often use several different sagas to form an entire fight. My own favourites are 2, 3, 5 and especially 6 because it shows many moves we would now consider unfair. Another great one is Sword Fighting as It Was for the Vikings (link) because it demonstrates why Hollywood fighting is so useless in close combat.
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