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Scott Hanson




Location: La Crosse, WI
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PostPosted: Sat 23 Apr, 2011 3:41 pm    Post subject: Hewing spear candidates         Reply with quote

I picked up a museum replicas hewing spear head quite some time ago, and I'm finally getting around to mounting it on a shaft. That got me thinking about the historic weapon, and how little we seem to know about it. Browsing here and other forums has me wondering: has the winged spear on the far right of the attached picture ever been considered?

I thought of that upon reading about them being described as having barbs or hooks, and the wings on that sort of spear remind me of the "parrying hooks" on later zweihanders/doppelhanders. I don't know if spears such as this have ever been dated to a similar period as the sagas describing hewing spears, so I may be way off. I'm assuming someone in the community here will have a lot more knowledge of it than me, and could enlighten me a bit.

Thanks!



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Simon G.




Location: Lyons, France
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PostPosted: Sat 23 Apr, 2011 4:45 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Scott,

In the saga of Egill Skallagrimsson, there is the description of this weapon:

Egils Saga, trans. W.C. Green wrote:
In his hand he had a halberd, whereof the feather-formed blade was two ells [4-5 feet, 120-152 cm] long, ending in a four-edged spike; the blade was broad above, the socket both long and thick. The shaft stood just high enough for the hand to grasp the socket, and was remarkably thick. The socket fitted with iron prong on the shaft, which was also wound round with iron. Such weapons were called mail-piercers [brynţvarar].

English translation of the whole saga : http://sagadb.org/egils_saga.en
Kelly deVries in Medieval weapons discusses this description; see on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=jdcrsCOB-VcC...mp;f=false

The description (at least as interpreted by deVries) suggests an impressively long blade (far longer than the "Windlass Hewing spear") fitted with a side prong/spike in the socket; thus not a lugged spear, but something perhaps more akin to the side spike found on roncones (your no.47) and on some voulges, although here it is situated lower (not at the middle of the blade but at the socket).

"Halberd" here is a translation for Old Norse kesja, of uncertain exact meaning, except that it is a weapon with which one can stab, and apparently closely related or identical to the atgeir (also often translated as "halberd") and the höggspjót (literally "hewing/beheading spear"). Kesja might come from celto-latin gaesum, itself a spear or long javelin of uncertain shape. Anyhow, given the long blade and the side spike, the weapon described in Egils saga might actually be closer to the no.47 on your pic, ie like a roncone with a long blade but only one side spike...

I would actually be very curious to see a talented smith try and create a weapon based on the description in Egils Saga. Perhaps this would make for an interesting custom order. Happy

Of course, the problem with relying on sagas for precise details about weaponry is that many sagas take place around the 9th-10th century AD, but were written hundreds of years later around the 13th c. (there are of course many exceptions, there are legendary sagas that are not meant to be historical, and sagas about more recent events such as the Sturlunga saga, but Egils saga takes place in the 9th-10th c.) Recent historiography has emphasised the sagas as a rather reliable and in any case interesting source on the Icelandic society of the viking era, but I'd suggest that regarding precise elements such as weapon shapes, they are much more slippery ground. The author(s) of Egils saga might have gotten a bit inventive with that kesja ; perhaps it is the equivalent of movie directors giving the hero a rather strange, ahistorical sword because it "looks cool" and makes for an identifying accessory.

Many other interesting info at http://www.valhs.org/history/articles/manufac...eapons.htm
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Elling Polden




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PostPosted: Sun 24 Apr, 2011 2:13 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There was a looong thread about this some years back. The conclusion was pretty much what Simon says.

The Atgeir, whatever they where, where definitely in use in the 13th c. They are mentioned in contemporary works such as the Kingsmirror.

Winged spearheads exist in more or less all periods; they are however more common in the early Viking age, probably as a result of frankish influence. In the later viking age, or middle ages, winged spears where probably a matter of personal taste.

One thing that should be noted about viking age spears are that most of them have remarkably narrow sockets; often around 20 mm (0.8 in). This goes for even the long, broad winged types of the 8th century. Such a spear would break if used for cutting, even if the edge is long enough. The longer the head, the greater the stress on the shaft when striking.
Thus, a hewing spear should be relatively broad, and have a strudy socket. The best viking age candidate is thus Pettersens type G. This spear does not have wings, but individual weapons scertainly could have them.
The broad, patternwelded spearhead is an example;

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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Scott Hanson




Location: La Crosse, WI
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PostPosted: Sun 24 Apr, 2011 8:14 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for the info gentlemen!

I believe I have read some of that previous thread, but I didn't see anything about the blade being 4-5 feet long. That's quite the long blade, particularly for the period. As I understand it, iron was scarce enough in 900 AD that most of your common Norse warriors were armed with spear and axe or seax, and didn't really wear much armor. Maille and sword were reserved more for the wealthy. That makes me wonder if Simon's thought might not be closer to the truth: that the author of the saga was just giving the hero a ridiculously big (and expensive) weapon for the "cool factor".

Elling, I have heard that some of the later polearms had a central spike that was more important to fix it to the shaft than the socket was. Do you know if that is the case, and if the earlier winged spear ever used such a method? If so, that would allow it to survive the stress of cutting, or at least might. I will readily admit I haven't run any numbers on this sort of thing, but now I'm curious and might just have to dust off my old textbooks a bit and give it a try.

Also, I'm curious, is there any consensus on the shaft length? From the quote Simon posted, I would expect it to be quite short, as I read that as being from the ground to your grip, with your hand at roughly waist height. I suppose it could be read with your hand above your head though, which makes quite a long weapon in my estimation.
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Simon G.




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PostPosted: Sun 24 Apr, 2011 9:40 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Quote:
Also, I'm curious, is there any consensus on the shaft length? From the quote Simon posted, I would expect it to be quite short, as I read that as being from the ground to your grip, with your hand at roughly waist height. I suppose it could be read with your hand above your head though, which makes quite a long weapon in my estimation.


Kelly deVries suggests another meaning (although he does not adopt it outright, just points out the possibility) : just long enough to be grasped in one hand, and thus, no bigger than a sword's hilt. I'll admit I don't quite see how he gets that out of the text, but there you have it.

The socket at hand-outstreched-above-head length + a 4-feet blade would indeed make a quite long weapon... Again the text might be exaggerating. It is not the only instance where a polearm is described as being so tall that the hand just reached the socket. In Gisla saga there is this about a spear:

Gisla saga chap. 4, DaSent transl. wrote:
a spear scored with runes, so tall that a man might lay his hand on the socket of the spear-head


So, maybe that was some kind of cliché in saga literature, or the general idea the Icelanders had of a long lance (which doesn't seem too unreasonable with a standard spear head); the author(s) of Egils saga might have taken that but adding a very long blade on top of it ("and now it sounds even more impressive!"). But there also could be a perfectly plausible interpretation to the text, it's hard to say. Italian authors on the roncone (much later than the Viking age, to be sure) recommand that the outstreched hand reach the tip of the blade itself.

Quote:
that the author of the saga was just giving the hero a ridiculously big (and expensive) weapon for the "cool factor".

Another fact that might add to that theory (yet it is still only a theory) is that humor in the sagas is often some odd sort of slapstick, but with blades instead of sticks (and thus rather morbid jokes). I can't resist to quoting this passage of Brennu-Njals saga, which recounts one of the deeds of Gunnar with his atgeir (a hewing-spear/bill/halberd ?). This weapon is perhaps one of the best examples of "cool weapon" in the sagas ; it comes with a whole legend attached to it, and the story is told of how Gunnar acquires it in battle and vows never to part from it ; afterwards he is always associated with the bill.

Njals saga chap. 76, DaSent transl. wrote:
Now when they were come near to the house they knew not whether Gunnar were at home, and bade that some one would go straight up to the house and see if he could find out. But the rest sat them down on the ground.

Thorgrim the Easterling went and began to climb up on the hall; Gunnar sees that a red kirtle passed before the windowslit, and thrusts out the bill [atgeir], and smote him on the middle. Thorgrim's feet slipped from under him, and he dropped his shield, and down he toppled from the roof.

Then he goes to Gizur and his band as they sat on the ground.

Gizur looked at him and said -

"Well, is Gunnar at home?"

"Find that out for yourselves," said Thorgrim; "but this I am sure of, that his bill [atgeir] is at home," and with that he fell down dead.


Considering this, there might be a reason in giving the heroes a big, unusual stick : it makes the deaths of their victims more impressive (and funnier ?). See these other deeds of Gunnar's with his atgeir for examples of both use of this weapon and the appetite for gruesome deaths in sagas:

Quote:
After that, he clutches his bill [atgeir] with both hands; just then Thorgeir Otkell's son had come near him with a drawn sword, and Gunnar turns on him in great wrath, and drives the bill [atgeir] through him, and lifts him up aloft, and casts him out into Rangriver, and he drifts down towards the ford, and stuck fast there on a stone; and the name of that ford has since been Thorgeir's ford.


Quote:
Gunnar hurled the bill [atgeir] at him, and it fell on his shield and clove it in twain, but the bill [atgeir] rushed through Aunund.


Quote:
A little while after Gunnar hurls the bill [atgeir] at Bork, and struck him in the middle, and the bill [atgeir] went through him and stuck in the ground.


Quote:
But when Egil sees this, he runs at Gunnar and makes a cut at him; Gunnar thrusts at him with the bill [atgeir] and struck him in the middle, and Gunnar hoists him up on the bill [atgeir] and hurls him out into Rangriver.

(yes, that seems to be a signature "finish him" technique of Gunnar's)

Quote:
Gunnar guarded himself with his bow and arrows as long as he could; after that he throws them down, and then he takes his bill [atgeir] and sword and fights with both hands. There is long the hardest fight, but still Gunnar and Kolskegg slew man after man.


Quote:
Gunnar gives another thrust with his bill [atgeir], and through Skamkell, and lifts him up and casts him down in the muddy path on his head.

(yet again...)

Quote:
Gunnar turned short round upon him and parries the blow with the bill [atgeir], and caught the axe under one of its horns with such a wrench that it flew out of Skamkell's hand away into the river.
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Sam Gordon Campbell




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PostPosted: Sun 24 Apr, 2011 10:15 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

And then Gunnar said "Get over here!" Laughing Out Loud
Member of Australia's Stoccata School of Defence since 2008.
Host of Crash Course HEMA.
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Kurt Scholz





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PostPosted: Mon 25 Apr, 2011 2:02 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Are you looking for the swordstaff ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swordstaff )? Contrary to its name it's not some kind of naginata with old sword blades, but a Scandinavian spear with the ability to strike and pierce like a sword. We have contemporary images, artifacts and descriptions of this weapon.
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Elling Polden




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PostPosted: Mon 25 Apr, 2011 5:24 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Scott; Iron was not THAT scarce in scandinavia. Iron production from bog ore was widespread. In fact, there are more finds of swords than fighting axes from the viking age, and the seax/fighting knife was also less widespread than in saxon england or the baltic region. That said, not all swords are GOOD swords. Then again, Iceland was a frontier backwater.

The Bryntvari/mail piercer is a seperate weapon from the atgeir, and seems to be have a weapon similar to the oxthounge. Nothing like it is found in a viking context, though.. It seems that the atgeir where rather short. There are instances when they are worn in the belt, indicating a weapon in the 1m+head range. Such a weapon could fill some of the same function as a long hafted axe, while also functioning as a extra spear or javelin.

The Kesje are occationaly described as "long hafted", and where thus more likely the regular reach-to-the-socet spear length. These are also described in the contemporary sagas (like Hĺkon Hĺkonsons saga) and thus where definitely in use in the 13th c.

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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E. Storesund





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PostPosted: Mon 25 Apr, 2011 7:14 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Here are my two cents on the matter. I agree with what Simon is saying here for the most part. I don't think the prose sagas are reliable sources for the material culture of the Viking Age, just look at any medieval manuscript depicting the near ancient past of the day: They really had little or no idea how their ancestors dressed or what kind of weapons they had. Presumably they just went along with guessing that their ancestors looked more or less like they did themselves, maybe wearing something around the lines of what their grandparents might have worn.

As a source of Viking Age material culture it would be more fruitful to look at the Skaldic poetry, as it is very conservative by nature of metre. Where the saga might describe what some monks' idea of what a viking looked like, the poetry (in many cases) was composed by a mind of the viking age for an audience of the same. Sadly the nature of their composition makes translation oftentimes tricky (or impossible).

And indeed Iceland was a bit of a "frontier backwater" as Elling comments. Some texts account some pretty simple and tough living up there in medieval times. In relation to the cult of saints we have some legends involving some pretty pathetic stuff, like peasants losing their only fish hook resulting in a lot of crying and praying to some saint (Probably Saint Ólafr or Ţorlákr, but I can't really remember) to get it returned. Sure it's a bit of theological onka bonka, but life was harsh none the less.
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Peter O Zwart




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PostPosted: Tue 26 Apr, 2011 1:33 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

ON the Vikverir resource page I found a number of large winged spear heads that dated from the viking age, they might not have been hewing spears per say but I think they could have been used as such.


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