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A while back I was watching some show on cable that was centered on recreating ancient combat (sorry, don't recall which of the many clones it was).

One thing they stressed was that Vikings did NOT use the bladed weapon as an offensive weapon and shield as purely defensive - instead they used the shield as offensive weapon as well - slamming, using shield edge for strikes etc...

Is there any historical research on just how much offense was done using the shield? (e.g. amount of casualties inflicted by shields vs. bladed weapons? # of strikes with each?) in Viking combat? If so, does it support the show's point?

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The Shield is primarily used to try and knock the opponent off balance, or daze him; if he stumbles or stuns for a moment, he is often toast. Does that count as shield damage? –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 14 '13 at 4:26
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Dual Wielding Shields –  LateralFractal Oct 14 '13 at 5:09
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@PieterGeerkens - Hm... hard to say. If it's not the real cause of the toasting (e.g. what causes the final wound), it probably shouldn't count. But may be we can measure # of strikes? –  DVK Oct 14 '13 at 5:31
    
IIRC, the shield wall was a common formation (If it can be called that) at this time so I could imagine a fair few people being finished off by a shield in one way or another. –  Kobunite Oct 14 '13 at 9:19

2 Answers 2

Interesting question.

Firstly, it's impossible to know for certain how the traditional round shield was used, but we can make a number of assumptions based on evidence from literature (the sagas), the archaeology of construction and wounds suffered in battle and by looking at later fight books such as MS I.33, Talhoffer's duelling shields etc.

Taking the shield discovered in the Gokstad Ship Burial as a base line, we can determine certain characteristics of the Viking-Age Shield.

First, the shield is large: over 35" (90cm) in diameter. Given the average height in 12thC Norway (just after the traditional end of the Viking Age) is around 5'6" (~165 cm), this shield size can potentially cover nearly all of the body of its user.

Secondly, they were thin, around 8-10mm and tapered to the edge. The edge in the Viking Age may have been protected with leather, but there is no evidence of any protection save for bore holes where something may have been attached. The metal clamps of the Vendel period do not seem to have survived into the Viking Age.

Thirdly, the shields were of planked construction, using light-weight wood such as pine and linden.

Finally, they had a small iron boss enveloping the hand and had a centre-gripped handle. The latter point will be particularly important later.

The Teutonic peoples of Northern Europe had a culture of feuding and duelling to settle disputes that lasted far into the middle ages. In Scandinavia, the Holmgang was perhaps the most codified (and perhaps the most well known to us). These duels form a single-combat supremacy amongst warriors, where winning these duels could cement your reputation as a man int he gaze of the gods. Indeed, characters such as Holmgangu Hrafn made a living of duelling.

The use of duelling in Kormaks Saga and Egils Saga shows us the import of this kind of combat, and the Viking feeling towards it.

In the single combat of a duel the shield would be used differently from the use within close-order battle formation. The biggest factor in looking at its use is the grip.

When the grip of the shield is in the centre, the wielder can turn the shield to cover lines of attack on his outside or inside line easily. Thanks to human biomechanics, the use of both lateral and push/pull movements give the wielder great versatility to displace incoming shots. I have deliberately used the word displace rather than block as I see the function of the thinly constructed Viking shield to mitigate the energy of attacks rather than act as a static wall.

This strength and versatility of the centre gripped shield also has a large drawback - a push to the edge of the shield (by a spear for example) can easily turn it in the hand of its wielder. I hypothesize that this why in battle the Vikings fought in their shieldwall of interlocking shields.

Tests done by the folks at Hurstwic show the fragility of the shield against head on attacks.

In single combat, the starting position for most wards would be to cover the line of attack to the head from the outside with the shield turned slightly inwards to displace shots on the shields face. The mostly unprotected and tapered shield rim would sustain significant damage if blows were blocked in any other way - and with the planked construction, they would likely split under a heavy blow. In chapter 150 of Brennu-Njals Saga Kari deflects blows with the face of the shield. On the other hand, such a weak edge seems to have value; in chapter 30 A sword is caught in the edge of Gunnar's shield which he uses (thanks to the centre grip) to twist the sword and snap it. In both cases, the shield is used defensively.

The weapon hand would be out of the way, either protected behind the shield, or behind the body line. In the sword and buckler work of MS I.33, the shield is used to protect the hand in lines of attack, and for the 'shield-knock' or schiltschlac. The shield-knock is a proactive defensive method where the shield is used to bind the opponents sword arm.

In Hand's 'SPADA 2' he demonstrates the use of a shield-knock in the context of a Viking Large Round Shield. Where the opponent attacks in the most obvious way - a swing from his right side to the head of the opponent (the vom-tag or 'from the roof') - the shield edge is thrust forward to meet the weapon-arm shoulder of the opponent, thus binding his arm on the outside of the shield, and prevent the weapon moving over the boss. This maneuver instantly opens options to attack the opponents head.

I think that the shield was used proactively in single combat to displace shots and to bind the opponents weapon-arm.

I do not think it would be used offensively as a weapon to cause damage because of its large size - it would be trivial for an experienced combatant to dodge and use the space provided to attack with their weapon. this isn't to say that it couldn't be used as a weapon, but beyond reasonable doubt, I expect it would be a secondary concern.

In close-order formation, the use of the shield as a weapon would be problematic to the whole formation. In the poem The Battle of Maldon (990AD), the warriors fight in a 'shield wall' which suggests a close order formation of interlocking shield to counter the ease of turning a shield aside with a spear in a 1-on-1 combat. (eg. hold a centre-gripped large shield and have someone push the edge with their pinky - you will not hold it straight!)

References

The 'Viking Shield' from Archaeology

Hand, S. eds "SPADA 2: Anthology of Swordsmanship" (2010)

Hanson, C. "Population-Specific Stature Reconstruction for Medieval Trondheim, Norway." International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 2 (1992), pp. 289-95.

Hólmgang and Einvigi: Scandinavian Forms of the Duel

Guards of the I.33 or Tower Fightbook - thearma.org/Manuals/I33-guards.html

The story of Burnt Njal (Chapter 150) - sagadb.org/brennu-njals_saga.en#141

Shield Tests - hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/viking_shields.htm

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Fantastic answer. Includes facts, references, analysis, answers a question that I didn't think could be answered. Wish I could award +10 –  Mark C. Wallace Feb 17 at 12:57
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I thought I'd revisit this - I have since tried out a shield-rim hit to an opponent (like those seen on 'deadliest warrior') in HEMA several times. In each case it's been pretty easy for my opponent to cut at my exposed arm, or sidestep and swing to the cavernous space I leave open. Anecdotal, I know, but seems to help back up my previous claim. –  Alan Kael Ball Apr 29 at 15:01
    
The shields on the Gokstad Ship were not real shields, they were just decorative imitations made out of pine wood. The type of shield which they imitate are arrow shields, not combat shields. Arrow shields are used in scenarios where you might get shot at with arrows. They are discarded as soon as hand-to-hand combat takes place. –  Tyler Durden Apr 29 at 15:55
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Do you have citation/reference for the claim that the gokstad shields were 'arrow shields'? I think you may have been reenactorismed. –  Alan Kael Ball Apr 30 at 10:35

One of the hallmarks of the vikings was the buckler, a small shield, often with a metal boss that could be used for striking as well as defense.

Bucklers were originally used by the Gaels and were well known to the Romans, for example, especially from their use by the Balaeres. The Balaeres were excellent slingers and mobile auxiliary troops that were a very effective foreign part of the Roman army. By using a small buckler instead of a big shield, the Balaeres could run around the battlefield, sling their stones, then run away.

Vikings used bucklers for a similar reason: mobility. They could raid faster with small, light, metallic shields. This was perfect for their hit-and-run, marauding style. Also, on a galley, space is at a premium. In naval transport and combat, large shields can be awkward. Using smaller, offensive bucklers makes it easier to man and operate a ship.

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Citation re. sizes? out of the 13 known examples of viking age shield sizes, they range from 60-90cm in diametre. Bellatare-Man: 75cm, Birka-Sweden: 5 shields between 70-95cm, Grimstrup-Denmark: 95cm, Gokstad-Norway: 90cm, Krymilda-Latvia: 80cm, Rends-Denmark: >63cm, Tira-Latvia: 2 shields >73cm. –  Alan Kael Ball Apr 30 at 10:14
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Also, in literature, there was enough difference between the skjöldr (shield) and targa (buckler) to warrant a seperate term for each. In single combat and in battle men fight with skjöldr. In the poem, The Battle of Maldon the warriors form a Shield Wall - something that is impossible to do with a buckler unless you want to get killed (it's very easy to hit a man with a buckler using a spear, the primary viking age weapon. There is no evidence of anything but the use of a large shield in naval warfare - shields found with boats have all been 80-90cm. –  Alan Kael Ball Apr 30 at 10:18
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The point about the Roman auxiliary troops does harm the argument you present - they were backed up by heavy infantry with large shields. Going to battle in skirmish formation only simply leads to defeat, or at the very best, high casualties in victory. The Vikings perhaps did use bucklers - but you will need to provide some evidence to substantiate the claims. –  Alan Kael Ball Apr 30 at 10:26

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