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The Battles

On any battlefield where The Vikings perform, you will see a highly-trained group of warriors making quick, confident attacks. These land without injuring their opponent but look as if they would have incapacitated or killed had the weapons been sharp.

In reality, the typical warrior of the Viking period was ill-trained, and it is likely that even the most experienced fought no more than three battles in their lifetime, rather than the eight or so each year which our members attend on average. The casualty rate on a Dark Age battlefield is likely to have run at around 10-20% - it would have been very rare for this rate to exceed 50%. Once an army was reduced to around three-quarters of its strength, its morale would be so low that the remainder would have lost the will to fight on, and would have fled the battlefield immediately. Where this was not possible, they may have attempted to surrender, or to break out through the enemy lines in a final rush.

Battles require thought

In most cases, our displays depict only a small section of the battlefield, rather than the whole. This allows us to bring you the edited highlights, rather than the four hours of blood, sweat and tears which actually occurred. The overall picture may be of interest to the historian, however two hours of manoeuvring for position is not a spectator sport in the modern age. We also re-enact the thickest part of the action, where casualties were necessarily higher, and where the battle was won and lost.
In the individual combats, warriors will attack in a variety of moves, including feints and counter-feints. All of these are based on a combat system which we have developed both for safety and to provide an effective display. This system consists of eight standard attacks, and eight corresponding parries. The combat of the Viking age is documented only in the Sagas, and in these cases only small-scale fights are described, with little suggestion of training or a combat system. It is only in the late 13th Century that combat manuals appear, first among the German, French and Italian states where warfare was a much more stylised and professional act than in Britain. These manuals document the standard techniques of sword use, but by this period it was becoming more common for the sword to be two-handed, and used without a shield, Thus, there is no direct evidence from the Viking age of the fighting style of the people we seek to represent.

Battles requrie skill and stamina

Later manuals reflect the changing times, with discussions of rapiers and sabres, and it is not until the 16th Century that material useful to us appears, with chapters on the use of broadsword and buckler (a small shield the size of a large dinner plate). From these, we can see that the greatsword attacks documented earlier remain the basis of swordplay, but that the shield is important to deflect the opponent's blade. It is on these instructions that our combat system is based, with attacks aimed at the vulnerable places on the opponent.

Our combat system allows us to depict a Viking battle as it may have been, but it cannot hope to do so fully since it would no longer be a suitable display for families. In reality, any combat system is based on killing your opponent, and the most effective methods are never the cleanest.

The main weapon on a Viking battlefield would have been the spear. As a missile used in combination with longer range archery, this may inflict horrendous casualties even before the sides meet, with perhaps 2-3% injured or killed in this initial exchange. With each side arrayed in the shield wall, contact may never actually have been made, with instead the lines halting at spear range and attempting to fight at this distance with over-arm thrusts until a breakthrough was made. At this range, and with shields available to most warriors, the natural targets are those which must be left exposed - the face and neck, or the lower legs.

Fleeing is not always an option

If a charge was attempted into the enemy line, some initial casualties would be taken from the opposing spear thrusts, with perhaps 5% injured. The force of the charge would then carry past the spear points, and permit those armed with swords and axes to slash from close range. In this sort of fighting, any concept of style or finesse is immediately swept away, and only strength and speed count. With several ranks deep on each side, spears could be used from the second or even third rank, adding yet another threat to those in the thick of combat.

What then was it like to fight in this sort of battle? The reality is much grimmer than that portrayed today; although there were generally lower casualty rates overall than we portray, the types of injury received were beyond imagining. The lucky few would die immediately, pierced through the neck by a spear point or smashed in the head with a sword or axe. The rest would be injured but not killed - a cut to the shoulder which felled the warrior, or leg slashes which would bring them to the ground in agony. Of those who started the battle, we may guess at 80-85% fleeing the field at the end of the day, but of these around half would have superficial injuries, a further quarter would never fight again due to a debilitating wound, and as many as 10% of the survivors may die of wound infections within a month.

Imagine then a scene of utter horror, with blood flowing from the field like a river whilst men almost mad with fear hacked at each other or attempted to spear their opponents in the face. All around the injured and dying screamed in agony or pleaded for someone to finish them off. Battles are likely to have been short once the armies came properly into contact, but that experience would doubtless have remained with the participants for the rest of their lives. Heroes in the Viking age are rare, but those who fight regularly and well, such as Egil Skallagrimsson or Eric Bloodaxe, are accorded prime places in the Sagas and in our memories. There is no honour in battle - but then there is no honour in death, and few will remember those who died in agony in their first fight.

After the battle

 Paul Murphy is the Society Edged Weapons Training Officer.

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