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 Sigurður 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/.

Review of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques by William Short

My review of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques has been published in the latest issue of The Heroic Age.

The Heroic Age is a fully peer-reviewed academic journal, focusing on Northwestern Europe during the early medieval period (from the early 4th through 13th centuries). The journal’s mission is to foster dialogue between all scholars of this period across ethnic and disciplinary boundaries, including—but not limited to—history, archaeology, and literature pertaining to the period. The Heroic Age was founded in 1998.

I want to give a special thanks to Larry Swain, a member of the editorial board of The Heroic Age, for asking me to read and review Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques. Short’s book is well-researched, and I highly recommend it.

A Stone Says More Than a Thousand Runes

ScienceDaily (May 28, 2010) — “It was not necessary to be literate to be able to access rune carvings in the 11th century. At the same time those who could read were able to glean much more information from a rune stone than merely what was written in runes. This is shown in new research from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Rune stones are an important part of the Swedish cultural environment. Many of them are still standing in their original places and still bear witness about the inhabitants of the area from a thousand years ago. They thereby represent a unique source of knowledge about the Viking Age, providing us with glimpses of a period we otherwise would have known very little about. Among other themes, they tell us about family relations, travels, or matters of faith, and all of it in a language that scholars can understand fairly readily.”

Read more …

Mel Gibson to direct Viking film

“Mel Gibson will direct and Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an untitled period drama set in the world of Viking culture. William Monahan is writing the script.

Graham King will produce with Gibson and Tim Headington in a co-production between King’s GK Films and Gibson’s Icon Productions. Shooting is expected to begin fall, 2010, meaning that if everything falls into place, it would be the next directing effort for Gibson.”

Read more …

Viking Anchor Discovered on the Isle of Skye

From the BBC:

A crofter has uncovered what is believed to be a Viking anchor while digging a drain on the Isle of Skye.

Graeme Mackenzie, 47, made the find after hiring an excavator to open the drain on rough pastureland 50yds (48m) from his home near Sleat …

… Mr Mackenzie levered it out and was “stunned” as the ancient anchor gradually emerged.

Read more …

Today in Medieval History: The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Battle of Stamford Bridge - Medieval England - Medieval History - Middle Ages - Harold Godwinson - Harald HardradaThe Battle of Stamford Bridge took place on September 25th, 1066, between Harold Godwinson (Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England) and his brother Tostig, who had allied himself with Harald Sigurdsson (“Hardrada”), the King of Norway. This battle proceeded the famous Battle of Hastings between Duke William of Normandy and King Harold, and some historians believe had Harold not had to fight off his brother and then force march from York to Hastings to defend London against William, the Norman invasion of England might have turned out quite differently.

Tostig, prone to rebellion against his brother, was formerly the earl of Northumbria, but Harold had exiled him to Flanders, and still seething over his expulsion, Tostig raised an army and descended on the Isle of Wight. Harold’s fleet, already being built up in preparation for Duke William’s invasion, drove Tostig back, and so Tostig sailed around the coast of Lincolnshire and then up the Humber River and began ravaging the surrounding countryside. Two northern earls, Edwin and Morkere, gathered the fyrd and met Tostig in battle and succeeded in pushing him out of the region. Tostig then sailed north along the coast to Scotland, where the Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, gave him protection and provisions, and Tostig remained there through the rest of the summer of 1066.

Near summer’s end, Tostig left Scotland and went to Denmark to seek an alliance with the Danish king, who refused the offer, and so Tostig then turned to Hardrada for an alliance with Norway. Hardrada accepted, and eager to take English lands, the King of Norway swooped down on the northern coast of England with a fleet of more than three hundred ships, by some accounts.

Hardrada was a battle-hardened warrior. He had fought with his half-brother Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestadt when he was only fifteen years old, and by stature, he was quite imposing, standing at nearly seven feet tall, though this is probably an exaggeration. He first made for the Orkney Islands, which at the time was under the rule of the sons of Norseman Earl Thorfinn. He then sailed down the coast of Scotland to meet Tostig, and together they continued on to Cleveland and Scarborough, sacking both cities, and then on to the mouth of the Humber and up that river and the Ouse, and they landed at York.

The two earls Edwin and Morkere, who had challenged Tostig earlier, came out to meet the invading army, and at the Battle of Fulford, Tostig and Hardrada utterly defeated the two earls, who escaped alive but could do nothing from that point forward. Tostig and Hardrada easily entered York and captured the city.

Harold Godwinson, hearing of the invasion and the sack of York, gathered together the fyrd with lightning speed and marched to Tadcaster and then on to York.

On September 25th, 1066, Harold met his brother and the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge, seven or eight miles east of York on the Derwent River. There, King Harold of England took them by surprise. Tostig and Hardrada were expecting to receive hostages offered by Yorkshire for its loyalty, but instead, they saw the mighty fyrd of Harold along with his housecarls marching to meet them, axes and spears flashing in the sunlight.

Before the battle commenced, Harold offered his brother a third of his kingdom in return for peace, but Tostig refused, and the great slaughter began. The battle lasted the entire day, and finally, the English — fighting in their column and line formation — smashed through the enemy’s shield wall and surrounded Tostig and Hardrada’s armies. The English then rained arrows down upon them, and Hardrada — mad with the bloodlust of battle — surged forward to the front of his line, axe swinging wildly, eyes flaring with anger as he cut into the English ranks. In the end, an arrow pierced Hardrada through the throat, and he fell dead upon the field of battle.

There was a brief respite in the fighting then, and Harold Godwinson offered his brother peace once more, but Tostig refused, and the remaining army of Norwegians refused, and they came at the English one last time. Tostig died in this second assault, and the English scattered his army and what was left of Hardrada’s army, and Harold took the bridge and took back Yorkshire, and the Battle of Stamford Bridge was done.

And England was safe … for only a few weeks.

Sources:

Hunt, William. The Political History of England. Longmans, Green, 1906.

Ridpath, John Clark, Ridpath’s History of the World. The Jones Brothers Publishing Company, 1940.

*Painting by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892)