Viking shields—how did they fight with them?

It doesn’t matter if you’re watching the last few episodes of Vikings in Australia or counting down the days for series 2 of The Last Kingdom in Britain, there’s one thing I bet is niggling away at the back of your mind: how did they really fight with those shields?

Now for something like this you’ve actually got to break it down into two parts: how they used their shields one-on-one and how they used them in their famous, “SHIELDWALL!!!”

Let’s start with-one-on one. Once upon a time, re-enactors used to hold the shield flat against their body and hack around it, thinking this brutal method was thoroughly Viking. Then Paul Wagner (A fellow Aussie!) made a case for holding the shield out in front of you with the edge roughly facing your opponent. His idea took off! And most people in HEMA as well as many other groups (SCA, LARP etc.) now follow this premise.

Then one day, a man by the name of Roland Warzecha had a further thought. Building upon Wagner’s work, he was fascinated by the idea that the shield itself might be the primary weapon in the fight. He thought that you used the shield to gain an advantage over your opponent and then the sword followed up afterwards, exploiting the opening created with the shield. This led Warzecha to consider solo Viking combat as primarily a kind of shield bind duel—where opposing shield edges met like two swords pushing against each other, and the  one who controlled the movement of the shields would create an opening to hurt his opponent.

Really cool stuff if you ask me. I learnt a lot from these two men when I started out sparring with a Viking shield. Their edge-forward approach is definitely the way to go. As anyone who has tried it will tell you, you keep it on a slight angle towards your weapon hand so it covers more of your body. This way, if they attack you to your shield side, you just block with it and strike, and if they attack the edge or try to go around it, you pivot the shield in your hand, so it covers the side they’re now striking to, and step forward and strike the side the shield used to be. Might not be all, but that’s a fair gist of the basics. And they work, definitely.

But here’s the kicker, remember I said Warzecha thought it was primarily a duel where the shields were binding (touching) each other? I think he’s wrong, though perhaps only to the degree that he thinks it happened. His techniques definitely work—no doubt about that—but he’s fallen prey to applying his own school of swordsmanship to somewhere it doesn’t necessarily belong. There are many different valid approaches, shall we say underlying philosophies, in swordsmanship and Warzecha is focused on controlling the centre and binding (see his stuff on i.33). Problem is, that’s not the only way to fight. It is a fair interpretation of the German i.33 and Longsword traditions but we have no proof that that particular tradition was in the Nordic countries at this time.

There is another approach, however, which is not only more natural but, in my opinion, gives you more options. This is to strike with the sword and cover yourself with the shield most of the time. It is to not attack their shield directly but attack around it, and even use their own shield against them by recognising it limits their lines of attack. The key difference with this approach is that you don’t need to seek the shield bind and you can use that against people who do. If you stay even just slightly out of distance, they can’t create the bind they need and are at a loss if they don’t have other methods to fall back on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in plenty of situations, at the perfect distance, against an opponent not wanting to strike but covering themselves well, where using Warzecha’s shield bind would have worked. But to me, it’s a tool you use to exploit a situation, not the main way of sparring. I take the edge-forward approach, I just think it can be more flexible than just the binding Warzecha seems to focus on. I guess that just shows my underlying method in swordsmanship, but more on that another time.

Onto shieldwall combat, which is possibly why you’re really here. There are two main re-constructions of this which seem viable. Luckily for us we can see them in the two most popular Viking shows on TV. Vikings primarily shows the shieldwall as a row of interlocked shields, whereas The Last Kingdom has almost a Roman Testudo of at least three layers of interlocked shields; one at the feet, one in the middle, one at the top. I’m here to say, while I think The Last Kingdom’s depiction is interesting and probably technically safer, I still consider the Vikings’ one to be more accurate. And  here’s why:

It’s true that if you have two Vikings styled shieldwalls charge into each other, then your legs are vulnerable. I would go further though. EVERYTHING is vulnerable if your shields are literally touching your enemies’. Not only can the person directly opposite you stab you above or below your shield, but the person to the left or right can too, and probably the person directly behind can as well. You have up to four people who can attack you at such a close distance and you won’t know where or be able to react in time.

That’s crazy?! Surely they fought The Last Kingdom style then? Well, there’s something else to consider. I’ve been sparring and taking part in group combat regularly for around two years now and there’s something I only realised from doing so. If your shieldwalls are a few feet apart, you’re at an optimum distance where you have just enough reach to try and strike someone but you’re not so close you can be hit everywhere. Not only is George Silver’s “time of the hand” at play: basically, if you’re too close to someone, they can hit you before you can respond and therefore you’re safer at a distance; but the shield itself (this time held horizontal but still forward) has a cone of protection that increases the further away it is both from you and the opponent. I was terrible at explaining physics in school but hopefully the “cone” analogy makes sense. My key point is that both sides are safer (but can still attack) if you stand a little distance apart rather than shields bashing into shields.

But… but… charge!? I get it. It’s really satisfying to watch people with shields running into each other. You have to realise though, most people who go to war don’t want to die (I think we can call that a fair assumption), and your chances of survival decrease rapidly when you have two lines charging headlong into each other. Did it ever happen? Probably. Sometimes. But I reckon most of the time they would have fought the way most battle re-enactment people fight these days: two walls standing apart from each other but close enough to strike.

Wouldn’t this work with The Last Kingdom style as well? Probably, but it seems to me to be a great deal more effort to organise three rows and keep them interlocked and moving forward all down a battle line. It also looks less mobile, for similar reasons, which, in the heat of battle, is big weakness. Moreover, the people at the bottom have close to zero visibility and little room to manoeuvre and are left with striking blind or putting your face in the gaps the enemy is aiming for. Either way, not an ideal situation. Forming a Testudo to protect yourselves from arrows is a smart way to use it, or if you’re surrounded (both shown in Vikings), but otherwise, it seems detrimental. Given the greater visibility for the greater number, more strategic as well as individual manoeuvrability, and alternative of just standing back a bit and maybe even getting out of it alive, I reckon a cautious, distance-keeping Vikings style shieldwall is overall more preferable and more likely.

In my last post I talked about the worth of HEMA in using historical manuals to train from. This whole post does need a caveat that we don’t have manuals from the Vikings themselves so Viking combat is more guesswork and reconstruction that other forms of HEMA. Still, saying that, I think we’re getting fairly close to understanding how it worked overall, but feel free to disagree.

(I haven’t been able to find everything I’ve read or seen by Wagner and Warzecha but if you take a look at their respective YouTube channels (see links) that should be a good start. Photo by Antony McCallum, sourced from Wikimedia Commons)

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