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Equipment & Tactics

By Norman Descendants August 15, 2017 0 comments

During the Viking Age (8th-11th century Northern Europe and England), the Norsemen, Franks, Saxons, and other Germanic peoples, went to war usually as unarmoured infantrymen equipped with spears and round shields, who fought in the form of a shield wall, standing shoulder to shoulder and overlapping their shields, creating a strong defense against charging enemies and projectiles. A shield wall usually was quick to arrange especially by a trained force, and could also change direction easily with some training. When two opposing shield walls met, it was up to the strength, stamina, teamwork, formation, footing, and determination to decide which side won. If a shield wall broke, the breaking side would potentially fall over and be trampled, and could lead to disaster. Fighting against a shield wall would not be easy, as the shields were also used to mask or hide the weapon behind it, allowing the wielder to form sudden surprise attacks when the shield was tilted and the weapon utilized over, around, over the top, or in conjunction with the shield to attack an enemy. The shield was an extremely important piece of equipment during this time, and could mean the difference between life and death.

Most levies would be armed with spears and shields well into the Middle Ages, and they would probably also have a knife (such as a seax, scramasax or langseax, or a dagger into the Middle Ages) as a sidearm. Spears were generally the cheaper weapons to produce, as suggested by the laws of Canute the Great, who stipulated twice as many spears as swords. An earl's heriot was 8 horses, 4 saddles and 4 unsaddled, 4 helmets, 4 coats of mail, and 8 spears, 8 shields, 4 swords, and 200 mancuses of gold. Swords were status weapons and usually wielded by freemen, soldiers, retainers and nobles, but not peasantry. Axes, especially bearded axes, were also wielded by Norsemen, but two-handed axes seem to have been wielded by huscarls only. The berserkers are peculiar in that they went into battle wearing the pelt of a wolf or bear, generally armed with spears, swords, and shields, and fought with unrestrained aggression.

The Franks, unlike the Norse, had an emphasis on elite horsemen, such as the paladins, echoed in the Song of Roland instead of a saga, who unlike the huscarls, fought on horseback equipped with lances, swords, shields, daggers, mail shirts, and open-faced helmets (just as contemporary heavy cavalry of the Franks seemed to). Although paladins for the most part are a fictionalized subject, they do have a historic basis at least of being Charlemagne's bodyguards or companions. There does not seem to be written accounts of paladins fighting huscarls, and it is a curious thought to ponder if paladins could have defeated Viking huscarls in France if such a battle involved the two. Nevertheless, the bond of loyalty and honour of the paladin or huscarl to his lord is obvious, and the merging of these two ideas will eventually become the Norman knight. Finally, it would be important to mention the Battle of Tours of 732, where Charles Martel arranged his men amidst forests to better counter the cavalry charges of the Muslims fighting for Abdul Rahman. The Franks, despite not having tents as the Muslims did, were used to the cold weather. Firmly planted like a glacier of spears and shields, the Franks completely resisted the charges of the Arabs and Berbers, and gave them great slaughter, even killing the Muslim commander, Abdul Rahman, and forcing the Muslims to abandon their camps and flee in the night after great slaughter, which the Muslims considered martyrdom as they often did, an excuse of sacrifice to politically feel less shame and so conserve some honour that was held so dearly back then. The conflict between Christendom and the caliphates would continue in later centuries, involving the Franks and their Norman descendants yet again.

The Saxons do not seem to have made extensive use of archers or horsemen, and similarly, Vikings and other Norsemen do not seem to have made extensive use of archers or cavalry but still were utilized at times during the Viking Age. Lighter infantry often were at the front and used to pursue fleeing enemies who failed to breach the shield wall, however, plans, tactics, and formations adjusted accordingly to the environment and battlefield. Horsemen sometimes threw javelins while riding around to harass the enemy, but most of those with horses would dismount to fight on foot in formation with the rest of the army. Like other peoples, Vikings and Norsemen utilized scouts prior and during battle, and guards to watch the night while most of the army slept.

Huscarls, who were household retainers of nobles and lords, generally were more heavily equipped than commoners, having mail shirts and helmets, and potentially armed with two-handed axes and better quality shields, swords and spears. Huscarls were the elite warriors of Anglo-Saxon, Saxon, and Nordic lords. As such, the elite Norman troops during their early days were probably based on the huscarls, who would, within a century, develop into knighthood. Although the glorified berserkers could be champions of a ruler or lord, berserkers do not seem to have been as popular as huscarls, and there appears to be no correlation between berserkers and Normans. Therefore, there will be little focus on those frenzied Norse warriors. Another important point is that some Norsemen, Anglo-Saxons and Viking-descent Russians went to Byzantium to serve as the bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors, to become known as the Varangian Guard; clearly, the fighting prowess of the Viking was legendary and highly valued by those who could afford them as mercenaries, just as Canute the Great and the Byzantine emperors had. Norsemen sometimes would simply march about, collecting money from cities and towns by intimidation alone.

Commoners and freemen could also have axes or swords as their main weapon, and Vikings may have thrown axes in battle (various Germanic peoples did throw axes, such as the famous francisca used by the Franks, but throwing axes seem to have diminished in use towards the arrival of the Middle Ages due to lack of evidence depicting thrown axes, but axes nevertheless could swill be thrown). Javelins and bows also made an appearance; bows used by the Norsemen and Vikings were probably simple due to the cold climate and probably did not have much range or power but still could cause damage and wounds.

Viking Age weapons, armour and shields can be found in most museums throughout Scandinavia today, such as at the Statens Historical Museum, Stockholm, providing archaeological evidence to study from. The Viking sagas and Skaldic poems provide a wealth of information to read and study from as well and are easily found and read online. Archaeological finds of Viking Age swords, shields, spears and crafts are also easily found with search engines.

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