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Michael Long





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PostPosted: Tue 22 May, 2018 12:57 pm    Post subject: Did the Vikings really fight behind a shield wall?         Reply with quote

See this article: http://sciencenordic.com/did-vikings-really-f...hield-wall

Leaving aside the core premise of the article, does anyone have a response to the assertion that there is no primary source evidence for use of shield walls in combat by the Norse? I assume the researcher was referred to a time period somewhat earlier than in the Viking Age.
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Steve Fabert





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PostPosted: Tue 22 May, 2018 7:32 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I've always assumed that the author's conclusion was more plausible than the converse for no other reason than the unsuitability of a round shield of moderate size for use as a stationary defense. Round shields of that size could only protect both the user's head and legs if they were light enough to be moved quickly upward or downward as needed to deflect blows. An oblong shield with a height greater than its width is much more suitable for a fixed defense. If round shields were light enough to be employed proactively then that's most likely how they were used. That would imply a more individualistic style of fighting than use of a phalanx formation. These practical considerations are entirely separate from whatever may be found in surviving historical records.
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Michael Long





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PostPosted: Tue 22 May, 2018 7:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Steve Fabert wrote:
I've always assumed that the author's conclusion was more plausible than the converse for no other reason than the unsuitability of a round shield of moderate size for use as a stationary defense. Round shields of that size could only protect both the user's head and legs if they were light enough to be moved quickly upward or downward as needed to deflect blows. An oblong shield with a height greater than its width is much more suitable for a fixed defense. If round shields were light enough to be employed proactively then that's most likely how they were used. That would imply a more individualistic style of fighting than use of a phalanx formation. These practical considerations are entirely separate from whatever may be found in surviving historical records.


On the other hand, the idea that the Vikings were attacking the enemy's shield wall in a loose skirmishing order seems very dubious.

I read elsewhere that the author may have been referring to an immobile, testudo-like multi-layer shield wall, rather than just a dense block of infantry who happen to be holding their shields in an overlapping manner.
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Andrew Gill





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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 3:43 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The media intended for mass-consumption often misconstrue the work or findings of researchers.
So I found this transcript of an interview with the archeologist in question:
http://sagy.vikingove.cz/interview-with-rolf-f-warming/
Here's what he actually said in the interview:

Rolf Warming wrote:
...there is, to my knowledge, no supportive evidence of static shield use, even when speaking of such concepts as “shield-walls”. The case is different in the medieval period where more robust shields are used.


So he is not dismissing out of hand the use of relatively close formations of men in a battle line, in favour of disorganized skirmishing tactics. He is merely saying that they probably wouldn't just stand dumbly with their shields locked together, taking blows on them without trying to do anything about it. This sounds fairly reasonable to me and certainly the idea of using a shield dynamically will not be news to most people here. Regarding how tightly packed the formation would be: from my limited research, it appears that the overlapped-shield, rugby-scrum-like phalanx used by the classical Greeks is a relatively unusual tactic for spear-and-shield armed heavy infantry throughout the course of history overall, and if I recall correctly even the romans are thought to have usually adopted a more spaced formation than was once believed, reserving the testudo for when the tactical situation demanded it (like during sieges, when numerous missiles were a big threat). Roman and ancient Greek experts, please correct as necessary!

The important point is that making any sort of blanket statement about combat techniques, tactics and formations is dangerous; in a competently commanded force, these will vary according to the tactical situation. The archeologist was probably aware of this, and certainly stated his case with proper scientific caution - the journalists interpreted this as "shield walls were never used".
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 6:11 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks, Andrew! From the dogma of the press, deliver us, Oh, Lord...

A couple other caveats spring to mind. First, I've been in a number of discussions in which some folks have very narrow ideas of what "shield wall" means. To me, it's any bunch of guys more or less lined up with shields. Might be loose, might be dense. Offensive, defensive, whatever. Other people see it as strictly dense and defensive, even immobile. So that can color all kinds of visualizations.

Next, while I applaud the researcher for pointing out that shields are NOT just static protection, I noted that he held it steady while someone hacked *at the shield*, with a SWORD. I strongly suspect most warriors back then would attack the *man*, and start with a SPEAR. Very different world.

He also uses the word "weak" for the shield, which just makes me cringe. I know what he means, of course, but it's a description which will fly across the Internet at light speed, growing and spreading and mutating like a plague, and we may never be free of the repercussions.

We're going to see some of that with those who catch this headline and start declaring that "Vikings never fought in shield walls." So good research has been presented badly, and will lead to bad conclusions. Sigh....

Matthew
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Neal Matheson




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 6:25 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

"I noted that he held it steady while someone hacked *at the shield*, with a SWORD. I strongly suspect most warriors back then would attack the *man*, and start with a SPEAR. Very different world. "
Very seconded.
The sagas (among other sources) are full of weapons getting stuck in shields. I'm doubtful there was too much deliberated bludgeoning of shields going on with edged weapons.

http://www.seeknottheancestors.com/
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 6:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Exactly. Though it should be noted that at least one type of duel allowed each man 3 shields--so they knew very well that a shield could be chopped to uselessness.

Matthew
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Philip Dyer





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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 7:25 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matthew Amt wrote:
Exactly. Though it should be noted that at least one type of duel allowed each man 3 shields--so they knew very well that a shield could be chopped to uselessness.

Matthew

Yeah, but that was for specific type of duel, the shields could have been constructed differently, like the shield could have been made without a cloth or rawhide covering, just bare planks, drastically reducing their strength in order to create a even playing field. Not to say that shields couldn't been chopped, just that it would take allot more effort to render a shield not made for that type of duel useless.
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 9:11 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Philip Dyer wrote:
Matthew Amt wrote:
Exactly. Though it should be noted that at least one type of duel allowed each man 3 shields--so they knew very well that a shield could be chopped to uselessness.

Matthew

Yeah, but that was for specific type of duel, the shields could have been constructed differently, like the shield could have been made without a cloth or rawhide covering, just bare planks, drastically reducing their strength in order to create a even playing field. Not to say that shields couldn't been chopped, just that it would take allot more effort to render a shield not made for that type of duel useless.


Is there any suggestion in the literature of specially-made shields for dueling? Honest question! If not, then it's pure speculation, and there would be no reason to suspect that these were not regular battle shields. Which we already know were not made to hold up to heavy abuse.

Matthew
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Lin Robinson




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 11:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Paddy Griffin, in The Viking Art of War mentions the shield wall, almost as an aside. He thinks that they did use the tactic, at least at the outset of a battle but that it was probably disassembled after the initial contact, with fighting breaking up into single combat and small groups. This would certainly be in keeping with the actions of most irregular military formations of the Dark Ages. Griffin also mentions the "Shieldburg" which, in his view, was similar to the Roman Testudo and probably reserved for the protection of leadership as much as a mobile fighting formation.

If you have not read Griffin's book I would recommend it, although a few things in it did not mesh with my own opinions. He does attempt to explain away some of the more cherished views of Vikings, at least in modern times; The Blood Eagle, Raven Banners, Viking expertise at navigation, etc. And he has come in for some criticism from time to time. Still a good read.

Lin Robinson

"The best thing in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women." Conan the Barbarian, 1982
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Steve Fabert





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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 11:45 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Michael Long wrote:

On the other hand, the idea that the Vikings were attacking the enemy's shield wall in a loose skirmishing order seems very dubious.



Sometimes the available weapons constrain the tactics, other times the preferred tactics guide the selection of weapons. Not pretending to have any special knowledge of Viking practices, but I had always taken at face value the tales of Berserkr individualism. Did they instead field organized platoons of disciplined troops all of whom employed coordinated tactics? How many of their opponents forced the Vikings to confront a shield wall, or anything resembling one?

No matter who carried them, round shields don't seem to me to lend themselves very well to coordinated tactics, not nearly so well as oblong/rectangular shields. Do we know for a fact that any other warrior culture made orchestrated, choreographed use of round shields rather than letting the individual take advantage of their flexibility? I'm prepared to be instructed on this matter.
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Mikko Kuusirati




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 12:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Steve Fabert wrote:
Michael Long wrote:

On the other hand, the idea that the Vikings were attacking the enemy's shield wall in a loose skirmishing order seems very dubious.



Sometimes the available weapons constrain the tactics, other times the preferred tactics guide the selection of weapons. Not pretending to have any special knowledge of Viking practices, but I had always taken at face value the tales of Berserkr individualism. Did they instead field organized platoons of disciplined troops all of whom employed coordinated tactics? How many of their opponents forced the Vikings to confront a shield wall, or anything resembling one?

No matter who carried them, round shields don't seem to me to lend themselves very well to coordinated tactics, not nearly so well as oblong/rectangular shields. Do we know for a fact that any other warrior culture made orchestrated, choreographed use of round shields rather than letting the individual take advantage of their flexibility? I'm prepared to be instructed on this matter.

Large round shields were used all around the ancient Mediterranean by organized formations and heroic individuals alike (the Iliad is full of them, for example; Dan Howard's Bronze Age Military Equipment has a lengthy discussion on Homeric shields), and later on there's the aspis of Greek hoplite fame. For a few examples off the top of my head.

The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs -- I was a man before I was a king.
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Mikko Kuusirati




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 12:15 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'd also like to note that the strength of a "viking" shield depends greatly on the angle of attack. Being made of wooden planks, if the edge is struck on the end grain, the wood will readily split (though only to an extent, being laminated between layers of glue and hide and/or cloth, and possibly edged with more of the same) and trap the weapon; but if it's struck across the grain, it offers significantly more resistance. And the real trick here is that while the man holding the shield will always know which way the grain is oriented, due to the grip being set at right angles to the planks (further reinforcing the assembly), the opponent who only sees the clothed and painted face of the shield will have no idea. Happy
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs -- I was a man before I was a king.
-- R. E. Howard, The Road of Kings
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Sean Manning




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 1:30 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matthew Amt wrote:
Thanks, Andrew! From the dogma of the press, deliver us, Oh, Lord...

A couple other caveats spring to mind. First, I've been in a number of discussions in which some folks have very narrow ideas of what "shield wall" means. To me, it's any bunch of guys more or less lined up with shields. Might be loose, might be dense. Offensive, defensive, whatever. Other people see it as strictly dense and defensive, even immobile. So that can color all kinds of visualizations.

Next, while I applaud the researcher for pointing out that shields are NOT just static protection, I noted that he held it steady while someone hacked *at the shield*, with a SWORD. I strongly suspect most warriors back then would attack the *man*, and start with a SPEAR. Very different world.

He also uses the word "weak" for the shield, which just makes me cringe. I know what he means, of course, but it's a description which will fly across the Internet at light speed, growing and spreading and mutating like a plague, and we may never be free of the repercussions.

We're going to see some of that with those who catch this headline and start declaring that "Vikings never fought in shield walls." So good research has been presented badly, and will lead to bad conclusions. Sigh....

Matthew

Yes, to me, whether lining up with the shields flat-out and overlapping is a good idea depends more on whether you can throw a spear through a shield like that and still wound the man behind!

I am just an ancient guy, but it seems that what the Viking combat researchers say about the construction of Norse shields sounds a lot like the construction of many ancient shields. The Roman shields from Dura Europos were about 6-8 mm thick at the centre and 3-5 mm at the rim and covered in glued hide or cloth. My memory is rusty, but I don't think that the earlier Roman shield from Fayum was a lot thicker. Blyth estimated that the wood of the Etruscan shield in the Museo Gregoriano was 7-9 mm thick when it was new (although it is covered in about 0.5 mm of bronze). It seems that most people who build careful replicas of ancient and early medieval shields find that they are lighter and more mobile than they expected, but I am not sure that Norse shields were so much lighter than shields in other cultures that they had to be used in a different way.

When researchers got serious about understanding Greek and Roman combat, they found many problems with existing theories. Now that the medieval archaeologists and living historians are looking at the Viking age combat, I am interested to see what they come up with! I would like to hear more about what the idea of continuous walls of overlapping shields is based on, and why people like Rolf Warming doubt it.
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Charles Dooley





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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 7:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The Medieval Irish adopted a word "scellbolg" - “shield-wall; testudo” from either Old Norse "skjaldborg" or Anglo-Saxon "sceldburh". I wonder if they are describing a formation that they associated particularly with Norsemen.

http://www.dil.ie/search?q=scellbolg

Interestingly, the citations are all for translations of Classical Latin works into Middle Irish (Lucan's 'Pharsalia', 'The Thebiad' of Statius and Virgil's 'Aeneid').

A line from In Cath Catharda 68:
tucait scellbolg imdluit doscailte do sciataib cechadatha isindomun - “a close, indissoluble bulwark of bucklers was formed, having all the colors of the world”
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Wed 23 May, 2018 8:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Mikko Kuusirati wrote:
and later on there's the aspis of Greek hoplite fame. For a few examples off the top of my head.


Yep. The Attic shield (aspis) was specifically designed for shield wall combat and they chose to make them circular in shape. They obviously had a pretty good reason for doing so. Paul Bardunias' new book explores this in some detail.

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Philip Dyer





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PostPosted: Thu 24 May, 2018 11:22 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matthew Amt wrote:
Philip Dyer wrote:
Matthew Amt wrote:
Exactly. Though it should be noted that at least one type of duel allowed each man 3 shields--so they knew very well that a shield could be chopped to uselessness.

Matthew

Yeah, but that was for specific type of duel, the shields could have been constructed differently, like the shield could have been made without a cloth or rawhide covering, just bare planks, drastically reducing their strength in order to create a even playing field. Not to say that shields couldn't been chopped, just that it would take allot more effort to render a shield not made for that type of duel useless.


Is there any suggestion in the literature of specially-made shields for dueling? Honest question! If not, then it's pure speculation, and there would be no reason to suspect that these were not regular battle shields. Which we already know were not made to hold up to heavy abuse.

Matthew
Besides that it is fairly common to make shields, weapons, and clothing through history for dueling, from dueling pistols, giant German dueling shields, matching sets of smallswords, wierd leather outfits from the man v women painting, etc, no. It is muddy with fairness to have the fighters bright their own shields, a fighter could win Becuase their shield was better made, not becuase he was a better fighter, so a weak, same sized set of shields would serve to level the playing field between to fighters.
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Sean Manning




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PostPosted: Thu 24 May, 2018 1:19 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:
Mikko Kuusirati wrote:
and later on there's the aspis of Greek hoplite fame. For a few examples off the top of my head.


Yep. The Attic shield (aspis) was specifically designed for shield wall combat and they chose to make them circular in shape. They obviously had a pretty good reason for doing so. Paul Bardunias' new book explores this in some detail.

In fact Ancient Warfare XI-6 has an article where Paul explains his theory about early hoplite combat and medieval shield walls a bit better than in Hoplites at War.

I hope that there is more communication between the people rethinking ancient Greek warfare, and the people rethinking Viking fighting.
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Randall Moffett




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PostPosted: Thu 24 May, 2018 3:10 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm rereading some of the sagas right now and I am pretty sure as the translation is good there are likely some pretty good examples there of pretty static shield walls. I'll have to take better notes as I'm reading this for fun not research but pretty sure ones of the ones I just came across likens the bulwarks of the boat to a line of shields. Odd metaphor if they were not pretty solid.

RPM
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Thu 24 May, 2018 6:37 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Philip Dyer wrote:
Matthew Amt wrote:
Philip Dyer wrote:
Matthew Amt wrote:
Exactly. Though it should be noted that at least one type of duel allowed each man 3 shields--so they knew very well that a shield could be chopped to uselessness.

Matthew

Yeah, but that was for specific type of duel, the shields could have been constructed differently, like the shield could have been made without a cloth or rawhide covering, just bare planks, drastically reducing their strength in order to create a even playing field. Not to say that shields couldn't been chopped, just that it would take allot more effort to render a shield not made for that type of duel useless.


Is there any suggestion in the literature of specially-made shields for dueling? Honest question! If not, then it's pure speculation, and there would be no reason to suspect that these were not regular battle shields. Which we already know were not made to hold up to heavy abuse.

Matthew
Besides that it is fairly common to make shields, weapons, and clothing through history for dueling, from dueling pistols, giant German dueling shields, matching sets of smallswords, wierd leather outfits from the man v women painting, etc, no. It is muddy with fairness to have the fighters bright their own shields, a fighter could win Becuase their shield was better made, not becuase he was a better fighter, so a weak, same sized set of shields would serve to level the playing field between to fighters.


Okay, but those are all later examples. From times and cultures in which it was not common to carry weapons any more. Since we already know that Viking shields were not all that thick, and could be chopped up with some determined blade work, allowing 3 shields per man in a duel is no surprise. All the evidence works together. If there is any *mention* in period sources of specialized dueling equipment, then you have a valid case, certainly! Without that, there's no reason to speculate, no inconsistencies that need explaining.

Matthew
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