Like most seminars, this one was a bit of a blur. Not the least of which reason was that I’m new staff for Asfolk.
Asfolk? It’s a group that is one of several that attempts to rediscover, train, and teach what is basically a lost martial arts style – that of the Vikings of roughly 700-1,000AD. There’s not exactly – real or apocryphal – a fight manual that you can look at to discuss these particular forms. What there is, though, are the Sagas, such as The Sagas of the Icelanders, and the Poetic and Prose Eddas (available for free on Kindle; you might want to do some research on which translations are the best – I’d suggest heading over to the Iceland Reddit.
A word on these guys. I have been to many Reddits, as I’m sure you have as well. Mostly, the best way to get info from, say, an RPG Reddit, such as those concerning DnD, is to purposefully post something wrong, and let folks come and correct you, mostly in the most condescending, patronizing, and abusive way possible. Strip that out, though, and you get a pile of usually contradictory information that will most often advance your state of knowledge, though you must filter and sort yourself, like any good researcher should.
Not so over at the Iceland Reddit. When I had questions on Icelandic names and grammar, I got great answers, and they were not afraid to converse and amplify. There was no sniping or rudeness, just a genuine interest in helping me, even though my questions were about Dragon Heresy and “faux Norse” information rather than truly Icelandic history and culture. So it’s woth a trip over if you have questions.
Anyway, our guests for the weekend included William Short and Reynir A., both of Hurstwic Viking Combat. We also had a guest from the Oakeshott Institute, as well as Darrell Markewitz of the Wareham Forge.
So, what did I do? What did I learn? Tons of stuff. Again: jumble. So I’ll just write some things, and see what my memory jogs up.
First Time for Everything
So many things I got to do I’ve never done before.
I’d done target shooting at paper and hay, of course. But for the first time, I had a bow and padded arrows put in my hand and was told to take (pretend) lethal aim at my fellow students. One archer, and maybe three to five melee fighters. The bows were only 15-20 lbs (in fact, one of them was my daughter’s bow we got her when she was five), but were sufficient to the task. I offered to bring out my 50# olympic recurve, and was told “no” with a smile. Not, at least, for a seminar.
What did I learn? Well, this archery stuff works. Even with the large, slow arrows we were launching, in our first game I think I took out three of four of the other guys (Reynir was unscathed), who were armed with spears. Yes, spears. We were throwing full-weight spears at each other with rubber tips.
It was glorious.
“The whole dynamic would have changed if we even had one shield,” I noted at the end.
“The wall, it is full of shields. Why didn’t you take one?” says Reynir.
“Well . . .”
“There is no well. If it does not stain your honor, a viking does whatever is needed. If you needed a shield, take a shield.”
That was a theme that would repeat itself more than once over the two days.
As with the archery, one thing I’d never done before in over a decade of martial arts combat was fighting many-on-many. We fought four-on-four on day 1, in the spear drill, and up to six on six outside on day 2.
That kind of battle is . . . different. While form and style and good lines are all important, the chaos and adrenaline flowing with many folks fighting at once is intense, and insane. Suddenly you could find yourself one-on-three, or see that a foe’s back was to you unprotected. We were all dressed basically alike, and if (like me) you had practice ignoring the grille in front of you (me with Korean kumtoogi, but I’ve fenced before too, so was used to the masks we used) it was OK, but more than one person was obviously killed by not realizing that the person standing next to him was not an ally.
My fellow instructor Jaden and I did this purposefully, even. I had a spear I was using in . . . two hands, I think, that time. I came up to Mick, who had been busy harvesting a whale that had washed up on the beach, but had armed himself quickly with shield and . . . sword, I think. I deliberately poked my spear at his face, and he turned to defend against it, ignoring Jaden, who came up behind him from his shielded side and gave him a good poke with his spear. When Mick turned to defend against that – we had a “two hit” rule, I finished him off.
That was also the battle where we very deliberately tried some tactics. We sent half our team way off to the side of the lot in which we were fighting, while Jaden and I flanked around to the foe’s left. Sure enough – they fixated on the “away team,” and the two of us wreaked horrible carnage from the rear.
It just doesn’t take that much to employ tactics at the skirmish level.
What else? Oh, defense and attack over a “ditch.”
One of the sagas has a fight take place over a drainage ditch. These are perhaps 1-2m wide, and can be 2-3m deep – these are serious “deep shit” obstacles. Well, a five-on-five fight gets real interesting real quick when you’re “out” if you step a foot into that zone, and even more so when you have to leap over it, and that first person across is suddenly facing five-to-one odds, at least for a moment.
I also discovered that yes, you absolutely can knock aside or down a thrown spear (again – full weight, six-foot rigid spear shaft, with a rubber training tip on it) with a weapon parry.
We also did a “burning longhouse” drill, where one person had to get through as many foes as possible, who were all hovering outside a notionally burning doorway. That was a good trust-building exercise, to be sure. Great fun, and very dynamic.
Everyone that studies martial arts that expects to be able to use it in a situation that doesn’t involve mats and points should do some of these drills. Get the adrenaline going, force your attention away from your foe, and see why the kind of situational awareness that is usually depicted and available in RPGs is worth limiting game-mechanically. Seriously: most frequently the thing that killed you was what you did not see.
Spear Throwing Requires Practice
That’s not a surprise – everything does. But I tossed a couple of spears during our practices and apparently the safest place to be when I’m throwing spears is directly in front of me. Worst case you get hit with a spear shaft slowly going sideways.
Still, chucking spears is cool, and if you can catch someone when they’re not looking, they’re in trouble. A well-thrown spear is a dangerous thing. Even more so would have been javelins, which we didn’t play with, but we have some and I’d definitely want to have two to four of them in my shield hand.
The other thing that was fun was during some of our one-on-one sparring that we did to show Reynir that we weren’t going to kill each other, I got to pull a “yah! Takedown!” moment. My partner was bigger than me (most are), but new to fighting and martial arts. We’d been encouraged to use seax-length weapons, and I’d picked up one. His, though, was more like three feet long – he’d opted out of the short weapons. After a few trials where he tried to determine his range (I let him), he went for a more determined swipe.
I batted it aside, and closed in quickly, seized his sword hand, and shot in for a leg pickup and takedown, ending up on top with my seax across his throat. Reynir (who was a wrestler, likely glima) was thrilled.
“I didn’t expect the grappling,” he said.
“I know,” I grinned. We didn’t really get a chance to do more of that on the mats (though we did a few gentle grapples and takedowns outside, but not really “rolling” so much as “dogpiling.”) but it was a nice demonstration of what happens when you mix weapons and grappling the way God intended.
Viking Battle, History, and Culture
There’s some that’s known, and more that isn’t. One thing, though, from an RPG perspective that bears more attention is the mindset and the attitudes from this culture. What we decry now as “murder-hoboism” might just have been daily life in that time and culture.
Your Fate is Known
The Norns weren’t just a distant story. If what Bill and Reynir says is true, the viking peoples believed very firmly that the Norns would speak your fate on the day you were born. Therefore, if you were going into battle, if your time was up, your time was up. There was nothing that you could do to alter your fate, and your thread would be snipped in due course. If your time was not up, there was nothing you could do that would cause you to die that day.
Can you imagine the release of tension knowing that your fate was already known? Not to you, sure. But since the other criterion for being Odin’s chosen was boldness and valor in battle . . . well, why not be bold? Insanely bold. Ridiculously bold! Because if you were going to fall, fall so covered in glory that the skalds would sing of it for years and for ever (and they did!); if it was not your day, well, it wasn’t going to be your day, so you might as well fight even harder since your death was simply not in the cards.
This attitude apparently permeated from both young to old, and from the first battle as a fairly young child to the last as an adult of indeterminate age, boldness and a certain confident fatalism were the order of the day.
Family Feud and Law
There wasn’t much government in Iceland, especially. The stratification into noble ranks that you see all the time in both fiction and history that was more common in stories from continental Europe never seemed to take hold much. You were expected to take care of yourself, and if you needed help, you’d go to family and friends to get it. If you had a dispute with a neighbor, you would try and work it out yourself, or failing that, you might to to a goði (gothi, or godi – sort of a priest, sort of not, but a man or woman, a gyðja, of respect, wealth, power, and influence) to help you sort it out.
Great – you won! He or she tells you that yes, you’re in the right. So . . . go collect what is owed to you!
Um, what? No state enforcement? No lawyers or subpoenas or anything? No. You were given acknowledgement that if you were warrior enough, powerful enough, influential enough . . . you could collect your own damn debt and be held to be righteous. So arm up, and go get what’s yours.
Oh, but sometimes going to a goði wasn’t the right thing to do – there were some stains on your honor that only a killing would absolve, but hey – the target of that vengeance extended in four relations (or four generations) in several directions. So you could be walking down the street, and some Norse berserker might suddenly try and hack you down because your cousin got drunk and made a move on his wife or something. And that was perfectly cool.
So a rule developed: never be more than one step from your weapons.
Let a man never stir on his road a step
without his weapons of war;
for unsure is the knowing when need shall arise
of a spear on the way without.
There’s a story related where a farmer goes out to plow his field, and he’s got his seed bag in one hand, and a battle-sword or axe in the other. They’d hang their weapons over their beds, so they’d be always ready to hand. Not too far removed from “I sleep in my armor.”
Thievery and Viking
If you fight a man for his stuff, it’s not theft.
Let me repeat that: If you face a man, covet his sword, and fight him for it, it’s not theft.
From Egil’s saga (the exact words below are taken from the Hurstwic website, but I just happened to read this story last night as well, and it’s correctly retold):
While raiding a coastal farm, Egill and his men were captured by the farmer and his family, who bound all of the raiders. In the night that followed, Egill was able to slip his bonds. He and his men grabbed their captors’ treasure and headed back to the ship. But along the way, Egill shamefully realized he was acting like a thief, saying, “This journey is terrible and hardly suitable for a warrior. We have stolen the farmer’s money without his knowledge. We should never allow such shame to befall us.”
So, Egill returned to his captors’ house, set it ablaze, and killed the occupants as they tried to escape the fire. He then returned to the ship with the treasure, this time as a hero. Because he had fought and won the battle, he could justly claim the booty.
So let’s get this straight: He had been captured and freed himself (by being so strong he was able to lift the house-pillar he was tied to!) and when he and his men took stuff and made their way back to their ships, this was shameful. It was theft, and not honorable. So he turned around – alone, actually – he dashed away from his men, so strong was his sense of shame, and then they followed, to return to his former-captors longhouse for a proper fight. What constituted an honorable battle?
Setting the house on fire, and killing the folks that ran screaming (though probably armed! see above) out of the door one at a time as they emerged.
I won’t use the term battle. And woe be unto him that uses the words fair and fight in succession. But seriously: taking without the former owner’s knowledge is theft and wrong, but burning down a house and killing the poor saps as they emerge was perfectly good, and a fine stratagem.
So long as it does not stain your honor, anything goes.
The gentleman who usually delivers pizza to my house when we order it happened to also deliver it one night when we were constructing/remodeling the interior of the training space. So we chatted last night again, and I was telling him about some of the cultural idiosyncrasies of the time. He just couldn’t process it. I’m finding it hard to integrate, but it’s fascinating. As much as we, again, tend to decry “murder-hoboism” as an RPG trope, here we have a society that basically not just embraces it, but celebrates it.
Five Pounds of Iron
One of the things that goes very much the other way is simply how much – or really, how little – metal was available to the typical household. I was told, and I’m having a hard time even wrapping my mind around it, that a typical house might have five pounds of iron, on the average, per inhabitant. That’s about 2,000-2,500 grams.
Think about how little that is. A battle axe head is maybe 400-500g if it’s historically accurate (see the image), and if you’ve got one or more of those, think about pots, pans, knives, the rivets of ships, etc.
Part of this was that the bloomery iron used was just so darn hard to make. And crap stuff, really – a bloom might have anywhere from “just about no” carbon in it, to as high as 1.5%, and neither of those are particularly useful (near-pure iron is very, very soft; 1.0-1.5% carbon is pushing “cast iron” or “wrought iron” and has graphitic inclusions large enough to be quite brittle). So . . . why pattern-welded steel for the rich? Much like the Japanese with the tamahagane . . . they did it because they had to.
A mail shirt, like the one I’m wearing to the right? Weighs 25 lbs (the one I’ve got; others might be 30-40 lbs)? That’s like a fortune on your shoulders.
I should note that the information provided, while stated occasionally as “this is the way it is,” was almost always delivered with the context of “we know very little, but . . . ” and then a hypothesis or conclusion was delivered. Other interpretations possible? You betcha. But this is the one that they came down on by studying the sagas, making and buying and using period-accurate weaponry and armor to the extent possible, and trying stuff out.
Nonetheless, it was a fascinating weekend, and the game-related information I’ve been able to extract from the few short days is vast, especially since I’m writing a book that’s “Norse-inspired.”
The stuff on culture, law, and the spirit of bravery and adventure that seemed to exist, and was recorded in the sagas, makes for a perfect culture from which great dungeon fantasy style adventurism would spring. Head north into the wild lands to carve out a farmstead, a power base, and wealth of your own? Absolutely. A raiding culture that would, year after year, send its warriors to face down hostile (or soon to be hostile) threats in bloody battle in order to bring home riches and make a name? Yes, more please.
Great stuff, and more next weekend! Roland Warzecha will be visiting and giving his own seminars and hands-on fight training, as well as other stuff. If you’re in the Twin Cities area or can get there, come by!
Also: It’s almost certain I’ve either contradicted someone or gotten something wrong. Maybe lots of things. Further, on some things there is little to no consensus. That’s all good, and I welcome additional sources to read and review to learn more.