Book Review: "Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques"

Viking, Saxon, and Early Christian Irish cultures

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Book Review: "Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques"

Postby the_power on Sun Jan 24, 2010 9:09 pm

The recently-released "Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques"
by William R. Short is a great read. I have to admit, it hits every mental category I look for in history books; it's short, focused, entertaining, accurate, a good balance of references and supposition, and it aims to fill a specific gap - namely early period combat information. I feel it's aimed at a broad spectrum of history enthusiasts from the 'idly curious with a three-lobe wall-hanger' to the hardcore re-enactor who isn't that interested in living history, but wants to look - and fight - more like a Viking would have.

Aesthetically, it has a good balance of photos/drawings of historic items vs. photos of reenactors with their favourite kit looking hard. As written sources of Viking combat are almost exclusively sagas, the writer tries to tie saga references to historical artifacts or more recent fight-books whenever possible. He treats the sagas with the enlightened skepticism they deserve, and you can feel him fight his personal flights of fancy (like 'Did Icelanders have mongolian-style recurve bows ?') on occasion. Given the scant physical evidence for a lot of the saga references, he does a really good job of debating all possible meanings.

He starts with an overview of viking society; it's not exhaustive and hardly controversial, but it's a great summary for 10 pages. All you would need if you wanted to talk to a punter at a viking event for 10 minutes. I really loved his examples of Vikings wearing arms & armour going around their daily chores. For instance, Skúta is stabbed while checking his fishing nets, but his mail under his cloak stopped the blow. Sokki is stabbed while having a beer by his fire at home one night - unfortunately, in his case, they knew he would have mail on, so stabbed up under it.

He gives a full chapter to each of shields, helmets, swords, shields, axes, seaxes, spears. He also has intriguing chapters on various odd defences and weapons like the Atgeir (maybe a glaive?) and gambesons (he reckons unlikely, despite the Vendels using them just before and the Normans using them just after). These chapters really are excellent, offering musings on the paucity of helmet finds and the prevalence of seaxes and spears over swords in grave-finds.

The book is well seasoned with appropriate 'romantic' paintings, mostly from the 1800s of various scenes from the sagas. Great stuff, if possibly a little misleading for novices. I *loved* the dozens, if not hundreds, of short saga references the author uses to make the text come alive. It really makes the book as a whole accessible and entertaining.

Toward the end of the book is a 40 page chapter on "Viking-Age sword and shield combat techniques". This is a wonderful addition to the book that I've not seen in any other book. The author tries to draw on various late medieval fightbooks and tries to show which ideas are appropriate, and which ones are not. For instance, he points out that the I.33 manuscript shows mainly how to protect the hand with the buckler, so is completely inappropriate for the viking shield. Talhoffer's 'Duelling shield and sword' is much better, and the author shows some folios from Talhoffer and Meyer. While it is a wonderful start for a beginner, perhaps even someone using the sword & shield for a few years, it also strongly recommends that people go practice and read the other fightbooks. People who are looking for information on using the spear are better off going to the spear tutorials I'm afraid.

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