Q&A with William Short, Author of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques

A special thanks to William Short, author of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques, for his time in graciously agreeing to answer a few questions:

1) How did you become interested in “Viking” history?

I don’t know. My educational and professional background had a heavy emphasis on technical topics and was very light on history and literature. At some point, I became aware of the Sagas of Icelanders, and I became entranced. Subsequently, I took a summer course in medieval Icelandic literature offered by SigurĂ°ur Nordal Institute at the University of Iceland in 1998. My fate was sealed. I have been a enthusiastic student of the sagas ever since.

I briefly was involved with a Viking-age living history organization, which led to a long-term affiliation with the Higgins Armory Museum, a museum of arms and armor in Worcester, MA, USA. That connection sparked my interest in Viking weapons and their use.

2) For our readers, can you briefly explain how the term “Viking” became attributed to the Norse people.

The word appears on contemporary rune stones, and in later medieval literature, in both the verb form and the noun form. It was used to describe an activity and the people who participated in that activity: voyaging for adventure.

The word fell out of use in the later medieval, only to be revived by the 19th century Romantic movement. Now, this word has come to refer to an entire society, even though only a small percentage of these ancient northern people participated in Viking adventures.

3) What is one misconception about the Norse people that you commonly find when discussing their culture?

Many people seem to have the impression that the Norse people were hairy, uncivilized brutes. It surprises them to learn that these northern people had a rich and interesting culture, and that they made significant contributions in the arts, in poetry, in government and law, and in trade.

4) Were there any surprises for you about the Viking culture that you uncovered after doing research and writing your book? Did you go in with any previous knowledge or expectations that turned out to be the opposite from what you expected to find?

The simple answer is that there were many surprises, but over time, they have blended together, and no single one stands out.

I think my impression going in to these studies was that theirs was a lawless culture where “might makes right.” Instead, I found a culture in which law and adherence to law was a central tenet, and whose people operated under strict moral principles that differed greatly from ours today.

I think that I, too, expected the Norse people to be hairy brutes. I was surprised by the depth and breadth of what they accomplished, and by the subtlety and sophistication of their culture, and most of all, by their sense of humor, which is what attracted me to the sagas in the first place.

5) When studying any period of history, what is your recommended approach when first beginning your research? What is your process?

As a university student, I was fortunate to connect with a mentor who had a unique approach to research. He felt that anyone, armed with a small set of tools and some fundamental knowledge, could enter a new field and make significant contributions. I attempted to learn his tools and to apply them to my work, not only in my technical career, but more recently, in my study of Viking-age topics.

I have no doubt that I have made mistakes along the way, but I think the collection of tools has stood me in good stead. Without going into details, it’s a bootstrap process. The tools allow forward progress without drowning in a sea of confusion and ignorance.

The process has allowed me to make contributions in a number of technical fields. I hope it continues to be useful as I explore Viking topics.

6) What other projects are you working on next?

I finished another book, Icelanders in the Viking Age, which was published by McFarland & Company earlier this year.

The book is a companion to the Sagas of Icelanders, written to help modern English-speaking readers to share some of the enjoyment and delight that captivated medieval audiences of these tales.

I’m working on my next book, an analysis of Viking-age warriors, and particularly, an examination of the warrior code of the saga-age Icelanders. Theirs was a farming society, not a military society, yet prowess with weapons was admired, and fighting men seem to have been guided by a strict moral compass.

We’re expanding our Viking programs at Higgins Armory Museum, with a growing series of combat demonstrations, classes on introductory Viking fighting techniques, and practice sessions where we explore the more advanced fighting techniques of the Vikings. We’re using a new approach to the study and practice of historical European martial arts (HEMA), an approach that is paying big dividends in our understanding of Viking combat techniques.

I continue to travel regularly to Iceland, to learn more about the sagas and the people who populate them. On an upcoming trip this fall, I’ve been invited to help a museum set up a game of knattleikur, the Viking-age ball game, using rules reconstructed from the descriptions of the game in the sagas.

http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/knattleikr.htm

http://www.minjasafn.is/

I’m not aware of any attempts to play the game there in recent times; it may be the first knattleikur game played in Iceland for centuries. I look forward to it.

***To learn more about William Short and his work, please visit his Web site at http://www.williamrshort.com/.

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