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It's time for Battle: Viking and Anglo Saxon Weapons - YeOldeVillage

It’s time for Battle: Viking and Anglo Saxon Weapons

There are few historical sources in existence that help us get a glimpse into the weapons and battles of Early Medieval Britain. There are however two notable sources, one written in Britain of a Scandinavian legend, and one of a battle in Britain from this time.

Beowulf
Beowulf on Film

Beowulf

The first source I will discuss is Beowulf.

The general view of historians is that Beowulf is a mainly fictional story based on real characters. The kings described in the poem were real, excavations have proven the people and their belongings matching to the poem, in addition the buildings have been found,

Written in England at some point between AD 700 and 1000 Beowulf is the story of one man‘s fight against mythical beings across three battles.

This epic poem gives us a real insight into the battles of the time. Though we should expect to see exaggerated deeds of skill, bravado and heroism, the tools of the battlefield, methods of engagement and styles of battle are likely to be accurate for this period.

Beowulf
Beowulf

Beowulf wields many swords in his battles, all named, these are significant weapons, each with their own folklore. It is known that the skill, time and expense of making a sword renders it a very valuable item, something to be passed down through the generations and to be treated with great respect.

Swords are not the only weapon mentioned however. At one point in the Poem, Grendel’s mother pulls out a broad, whetted knife to attack Beowulf with. Later in the Poem Beowulf draws a stabbing knife carried on his belt, sharpened for battle.

These daggers are not named, or given much description, but this certainly shows a secondary weapon to be a common item, one the reader should expect.

Shields are mentioned often in Beowulf. Shields are not the solely defensive items as many films would lead you to believe however. Most often edged to strike with, spiked to hit with, and wielded much like a sword. Then a fight closes in, and the sword loses it’s usefulness, a warrior will drop his sword for a knife or dagger, keeping the shield as long as possible.

The other importance of shields is as a guide to the size of the swords. If any of you have seen the great swords depicted in the movies and modern illustrations of the Vikings, unfortunately this is not likely to be true. A sword cannot be wielded with a double handed weapon, and against multiple enemies, neither would you want to!

It is generally agreed that large swords such as the longsword, zweihander or claymore came along in late medieval times.

The Norse Invasion
The Norse Invasion

Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern

In addition to Beowulf, this battle is mentioned in several other sources. In Skáldskaparmál, the prose “geiri undaðr” is used, translated to  “Wounded with the spear”.

This battle is also mentioned in the now lost “Skjöldunga saga”. In this saga, following a fight upon the ice of Lake Vänern. King Adils of Sweden beat the Norwegian king Áli of Uppland, taking his helmet, chainmail and horse

This account of the battle differs from Beowulf, in that Beowulf describes the battle taking place entirely on foot, fighting with swords.

The Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon is a poem depicting the battle of the same name in 991. Unfortunately only 325 lines of the poem remain. It describes the Vikings invading and beating the Anglo-Saxons

The poem begins with the Anglo-Saxon warriors dismounting to prepare for battle. The weapons mentioned in this part of the poem  are of Spears, Shields (Bucklers) and Bows.

[Anglo Saxons] bade them their round shields rightly to hold

[Brithnoth] his buckler he grasped, Brandished his slender spear

Then loosed they from their hands the file-hard lance,
The sharp-ground spears to fly

Bows were busied – buckler met point

A Fancy Sword
A Fancy Sword

Most of the descriptions of the battle involve the fate of this Anglo Saxon Brithnoth, of whom the Vikings attack one at a time.

The first Viking to attack Brithnoth does so with a spear, from which Brithnoth is able to shear it in half with his shield. “But he shoved with his shield – so that the shaft burst, And the spear broke, and it sprang away. Wroth was the chieftain, he pierced with his spear.”

The next Viking to approach again does so with a spear. This time piercing his armour, mortally wounding him.

At the end of this section Brithnoth’s sword falls to the ground as he can no longer hold it.

Though swords are mentioned in some of the more unique fights between the leaders of the battle, in the main it is spears that are used in the battle.

Even Godric, to the battle – oft he cast a spear,
A spear of slaughter to go upon the Vikings

The spears are used as both missiles and wielded weapons, sometimes thrown and sometimes held, thrusting into the enemy ranks.

In both of these Poems other weapons are mentioned in passing, Battle Axes, Throwing Axes and Slings. However these references are few and far between.

Spear and Buckler
Earlier, a Dwarf.

Summation

To conclude this analysis, though we see the mention of other weapons, the method of battle is most often the shield, of which a round buckler is utilised, with initially and for most of the battle spears, then when one on one fighting ensues, the spear gives way to the sword, and finally as a last resort the dagger.

So if you want to try recreating a battle, don’t follow Hollywood’s great swords, instead get in some spear throwing and wielding practice with a buckler to boot.

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