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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Tue 09 Feb, 2010 6:12 pm    Post subject: Makeup of a Saxon/Viking shieldwall?         Reply with quote

Hey all. This is my first time writing here, but I've always loved reading the reviews and the in-progress forum postings and the discussions. The site's awesome!
Anyway, I have a question regarding the composition of Saxon and Viking era armed companies. I'm writing a little fantasty-fiction here and there, and I'm drawing on early northern European cultures for a ton of inspiration. Also, I just read Robert Low's The Whale Road and he talks about a wall of swordsmen with shields, backed by a row of lightly armored spearmen, with a Dane axe or two on the flanks. Is this accurate? Any thoughts on what the makeup of the shieldwall would be, and what sort of gear would be seen?
I'm specifically interested in the role of the Dane axe in what otherwise appears to be a tightly locked military unit--I can't envision the wielder of a Dane axe being capable of standing tight in formation, eh?
Any input is great! Thanks, folks.

Connor
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Gregory J. Liebau




Location: Dinuba, CA
Joined: 27 Nov 2004

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PostPosted: Tue 09 Feb, 2010 6:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The shield wall would consist of a line of men with shields (der) and spears. As men locked in close combat axes and swords would also come into use, but the array of weapons would not be organized as you've stated, nor in any such methodological manner. Each man in these armies was an infantryman and besides being placed in the left, middle or right side of the force he'd typically have the same role as any other man. Stay in line and fight! Spears were the obvious primary weapon of any Saxon or Viking soldier, except perhaps a long 'Dane' axe here and there to replace this. Swords, daggers and hand axes were secondary weapons used with necessity.

Archers would probably be as close to "auxiliary" soldiers as you could get in an Anglo-Saxon or Danish army before the infamous events of 1066, and these would be spread out in front of the shield wall prior to engagement, take some pot shots to start things off and then retreat behind the lines to continue firing or exchange their weapons, most likely. Cavalry also played no critical role in the battle formations of these peoples.

I regret not having any citations nearby for you, but I've read so much on the subject that this has all rather just been beat into my head... So I'm merely reciting what I know! If you require citation I'm sure some other members will pop up or I'll gladly do some digging for you and provide some stuff tomorrow when I have some time. Cheers, and welcome to the forum as a participating patron!

-Gregory

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Last edited by Gregory J. Liebau on Tue 09 Feb, 2010 6:41 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Jeff Kauffeldt




Location: Nova Scotia, Canada
Joined: 16 May 2005

Posts: 64

PostPosted: Tue 09 Feb, 2010 6:40 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

For the most part the Dan Axe was used by the braver, stranger, more experienced men when charging another shield wall. Because of the long shaft it would have required two hands to wield but could cut through most shields, breaking the cohesion of and apposing shield wall. If I were to wield one I would use a lanyard to sling it across my back when standing in the wall with sword and shield but when charging I would leave the shield or sling it on my back and use the axe. However an alternate configuration would be to have axe men out front backed by shield men since the axes can cut through the shields of an approaching attacker. But this would make the axe men susceptible to arrows.
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Philip C. Ryan




Location: Omaha, NE
Joined: 04 Nov 2005
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PostPosted: Tue 09 Feb, 2010 7:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Another viable tactic my organization has had success with, is to put a Dane Axe-man in the "second" row directly behind the shields. He can then use the Dane Axe in the manner of a spear, over the top of the front row of shields. However, instead of thrusting as with a spear, he can chop at heads, and he can hook the tops of the enemy's shields, pulling them down, and creating a "hole", so that the front row of fighters with swords, seaxes, and axes, and the spear-men as well, can hit the enemy.

Dane Axe-men are also effective at the ends of a shield wall. They are formidable at deterring the enemy from flanking the end of the wall, yet mobile enough to quickly retreat if things get to "hairy", and to let the shield men reposition to hold off the enemy.

Another effective use of the Dane-Axe is to hold off the enemy at a choke point, i.e. a bridge. There is legend of a Viking at Stamford Bridge in 1066 holding off King Harold's men at the bridge for quite awhile. So much so, that there was a pile of bodies making a sort of barrier that the English had to cross over to get onto the bridge. Of course, this could just be nothing more than legend, but from personal experience, I can see that it could actually be possible with a skilled Axe-man!

As far as reading, in addition to The Whale Road, you should definitely read Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Tales. He is very accomplished at writing historical fiction. The first book is The Last Kingdom. It, and consecutive books, follow the main character through Alfred the Great's battles/ reign.

Skjaldborg Viking Age Living History and Martial Combat
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Tue 09 Feb, 2010 10:11 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thank you, Philip, for the reading recommendation. I've heard really good things about the entirety of the Saxon tales series. I'll definitely have to check that out.

Gregory, some citation would be spectacular, or anybody else who knows about the subject. Robert Low, the author of Whale Road, is also a reenactor, so it seems that many of the battle tactics he details in his book may have arisen from practical experience on modern reenactment battlefields. It sounds like Philip is also speaking from experience. So I have a question... Does this make their ideas about battle tactics more or less valid? Gregory, you're speaking from historical research, it sounds like, but I can't help but think that the Vikings, when forced to line up in battle array, would have a slightly different organization? Would the specialization of the weapons, such as the Dane axe, not have specific roles? To me, the idea that axemen would be stronger soldiers that covered flanks on the defense or broke shield walls on the offense seems very practicable. I don't really know all that much about it, Gregory, so if you can enlighten me with some sources I'd appreciate it. You obviously know what you're talking about. The problem is, Philip seems to know what HE's talking about. Happy

Again, thanks for all the help and responses! I'm also interested in the role of the few bowmen in the forces. Do you fellows think the bowmen were seen as less manly than the other fighters? Hmm... So much to think about! Thanks, everybody.
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Sam Gordon Campbell




Location: Australia.
Joined: 16 Nov 2008

Posts: 677

PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 3:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Don't quote me on this but:
From what I've heard and read (or rather been taught), is that, depending on the size of a fight, a 'warlord' or what not may not even deploy his best troops.
But assuming this is a a good old big battle and not a more common skirmish, I'd assume you'd have your big guys and better armoured guys at the front armed with spears (until they brake) and training (assuming these guys are actual warriors/soliders), then the "Swine Herd" behind that.
I'd probably say that a 'Dane' axe was pretty rare and hard to use, so they'd probably be the 'warlords' bodyguard and not much else unless called for.
And save a few Berzekers for a snatch squad.
Archers, pft, unless he uses them to snipe/harass or has a large mass of them, I'd say keep them on the flanks or rear.
This is all assuming a 'Shield wall' situation.
That's just my uneducated 2 cents. Laughing Out Loud

Member of Australia's Stoccata School of Defence since 2008.
Host of Crash Course HEMA.
Founder of The Van Dieman's Land Stage Gladiators.
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Luka Borscak




Location: Croatia
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PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 4:46 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Viking chieftains didn't have as much power over their followers a later medieval commanders and I think they couldn't really say to proud vikings "you stay here, you stay here, you go there etc". Every man in a shieldwall fought with what he was skilled with and what worked in a situation. Or just what he could afford to have. And personal bodyguard would any chieftan keep close to him to protect him in a tight situations. Dane axe doesn't need that much space because in a shieldwall you use it with downward strikes, not swinging it left or right where your co-fighters are. An to use a dane axe you have to be very well armored because you can't defend with your shield as well even if it is strapped to your left hand. Dane axe weren't even that popular before about year 1000AD. Huscarls of danish kings were first to use it in greater numbers.
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Ken Speed





Joined: 09 Oct 2006

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PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 6:48 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Connor,

Read the description on the Battle of Hastings here in the features section. It will, at least, indicate that the Dane axe was a fearsome weapon.
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 7:26 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

So most agree the Dane axe could be used within the shieldwall, perhaps in the second rank, to swipe downwards against the shields, weapons, and bodies of attackers? I'd be a little worried were I the guy in front of the axeman. Happy Heheh.

Interesting stuff everybody. I actually hadn't read that article yet, Ken, so thank you for pointing it out to me. I was surprised, because I'm nuts for early High Middle Ages stuff, especially the Norman invasion and the building of the first castles in England. It says in the article that the Norman archers weren't really effective. Is this because the Saxons had the heavily armored huscarls with shields locked out front? Perhaps compounded with the fact that the Saxons made the ground first and chose a great position atop the hill. I can't imagine that would be a very opportune situation for archers at the bottom of the hill.

Also, pertaining to the Dane axe, that one thumbnail in the article really speaks to the effectiveness of the few, fearsome fighters who wielded these weapons. The man is splitting a horse's skull in two--awesome. Thanks for all the input, guys. I can see there's probably quite a few others on this site interested in the early medieval era and the late viking era. Happy Home at last!

Connor
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 7:28 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Oh, and sorry to double post, but does anyone know where I can find a copy of Petersen's axe typology online? Or a good example of a company that sells battle axes? I've seen A&A's Hungarian axe, which is really cool, but nothing of the kind a sturdy, mailed huscarl might carry. Happy Something with that wicked, swept blade.
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Ken Speed





Joined: 09 Oct 2006

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PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 7:48 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I thought the Viking that held the Stamford bridge was a swordsman. Actually, I tend to think this story has some truth in it, it seems that a lot of chronicles of the battle agree about this point and that the way they killed him was to send guys under the bridge in a boat and stab him up through the bottom of the bridge ( presumably while he fought someone else).

The other interesting thing is that some of the Vikings who hadn't originally gone to the bridge ran to join the battle and died of either heart attack or heat exhaustion or so exhausted themselves trying to get to the battle that they were defenseless.
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Ken Speed





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PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 8:30 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I just took my own advice and read the feature about Stamford Bridge and it says that the Viking at the bridge was an axe wielder. Oh Well, I guess memory is the first thing to go!
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Sean Manning




Location: Austria
Joined: 23 Mar 2008

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PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 7:51 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Connor Ruebusch wrote:
Robert Low, the author of Whale Road, is also a reenactor, so it seems that many of the battle tactics he details in his book may have arisen from practical experience on modern reenactment battlefields.

I tend to be cautious about using what tactics work in sport/reenactment combat to figure out what would have worked in a real battle. The situations are just too different, and SCA tactics especially seem to be very different from those of most preindustrial cultures. I think reenactment is more valuable for things like what it feels like to move in armour, camp with low tech equipment, or stand in a line having things thrust and thrown at you.
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P. L. Gross




Location: Adirondacks, NY
Joined: 11 Jun 2009
Reading list: 2 books

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PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2010 9:22 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Most Viking and Saxon warriors were free farmers, called to battle by their chieftain. They would have brought whatever weapons they could afford with them. Laws stated that free men were required to own weapons, usually a spear, sword, or ax, a shield, and a bow. Given the number of spearheads of various types that have been found, and arrowheads, along with the many saga references to men being killed with thrown spears, I think a not inconsiderable number of pointy objects were flying through the air between opposing forces in viking age battles. Swords were relatively rare, at least among average warriors. Chieftains and their trained household men would have had them, but not many others. Horses were useful in getting to the battle, but were rarely ever used in the actual combat. I imagine a viking shield wall, especially early on, or in smaller scale battles, wasn't terribly well organized, men most likely jockeying for their places in, or behind, the front rank, depending on whether they valued more highly their personal glory and honor, or their skin. Nearly everyone, chieftains included, would have started out firing arrows, flinging spears, insults, etc., as they advanced on each other. Spears and long axes would have been the main players once the opposing walls came into contact, until one or the other of the shield walls gave way. While the walls were shoving at each other, swords would likely have had little play, there not being much room for anything other than thrusting or downward chopping, which are better handled by the spear, and ax, respectively. Once one of the walls was breached, it could become a general melee, or , more likely, the side whose wall broke first and lost cohesion would recall pressing business elsewhere and attempt to make their escape, while their opponents split into groups to hunt them. Those are my impressions of how the thing would have worked anyway. Your best bet for real information is to get hold of a copy of Paddy Griffith's book The Viking Art of War, and Gwen Jones' The Vikings. They are among the best books you'll find aimed at the general reader
From his weapons on the open road no man should step one pace away; you don't know for certain when you're on the open road when you might have need of your spear.
-Havamal
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Thu 11 Feb, 2010 11:47 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for the recommendations. Some reading material will be really nice to have, so I'll check those out.

Connor
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Nick Bourne




Location: London, United Kingdom
Joined: 09 Nov 2008

Posts: 44

PostPosted: Thu 11 Feb, 2010 2:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I don't think its fair to completely write out re-enactment as a way of finding out how the sheildwall and various techniques to do with it worked in the real thing.
I know theres no fear factor (a bruise or cut at worse) but you still don't want to get 'killed'. In the many sheildwalls that i've been in have shown me, its not merely a job of getting a group of blokes and charging at each other, certain combinations of weapons can cut ribbons through an enemy and if we re-enactors have figured them out you can bet the more experienced of the warbands would have too.
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Robert Anderson




Location: NorCal
Joined: 16 Dec 2009

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PostPosted: Thu 11 Feb, 2010 3:52 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Connor Ruebusch wrote:
Oh, and sorry to double post, but does anyone know where I can find a copy of Petersen's axe typology online? Or a good example of a company that sells battle axes? I've seen A&A's Hungarian axe, which is really cool, but nothing of the kind a sturdy, mailed huscarl might carry. Happy Something with that wicked, swept blade.


is this what you meant http://armor.com/pole024.html
I have one, its pretty cool.
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Ken Speed





Joined: 09 Oct 2006

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PostPosted: Thu 11 Feb, 2010 7:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Nick,


Would you share with us what you've learned about the shield wall from your reenactment experiences?
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Fri 12 Feb, 2010 6:56 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Robert Anderson wrote:
Connor Ruebusch wrote:
Oh, and sorry to double post, but does anyone know where I can find a copy of Petersen's axe typology online? Or a good example of a company that sells battle axes? I've seen A&A's Hungarian axe, which is really cool, but nothing of the kind a sturdy, mailed huscarl might carry. Happy Something with that wicked, swept blade.


is this what you meant http://armor.com/pole024.html
I have one, its pretty cool.


Oh man, that is awesome! I had no idea they had an axe of that type. Very cool, thanks for letting me know.

Connor
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Nathan F




Location: ireland
Joined: 24 Dec 2008

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PostPosted: Fri 12 Feb, 2010 1:15 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

on the dane axe thing watch this vid it highlights what damge they could do from a tightly packed second rank. these guys hit to the head so for all purposes its pretty real and not to be ruled out and i know of some who use sharps as well.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj8PxOxuoiI
i know in the bayeux tapestry the dane axe men are seen stepping out of the wall to swing their axes and cutting up horses and men alike.
as for how the wall is made up just depends who is there on the day. the big shields will make up the centre with the most seasoned guys in the front row. key thing is if spears are being used a gap about the width of your spear MUST be left between the sheilds otherwise if one gets hit it can knock out the guys whose shoulders its going over. have had awful whacks from this. if there are no spears and only axes then the wall stays tight shields overlapping with the one on you right so noboby can punch a hole in.
there are lots of guys who can advise you on here. i have been reenacting about 3 years and have been writing fantasy like you so if you have any questions or anything just pm me and il get bask as soon as i can.
also if you want a wicked axe check out the London one was a monster but i find smaller ones mess up shields much more.
also the reenactment fighting i have done and fought with in Europe has been based on battle accounts etc not made up stuff such as the boar snouts and so on. the Bayeux tapestry is a good pictorial source for your quest though.

for here starts war carrion birds sing, and grey wolves howl
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