Men of Terror

Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat provides in-depth research about Viking warfare and weaponry, complete with bar and pie charts for the serious Viking scholar.

A Comprehensive Analysis for Viking Combat

Book review

Laguna Woods, Calif.

A thousand years ago, a group of Danes raised a large runestone to honor a fallen warrior named Fraði, who was praised on the stone as “first among all Vikings” and “the terror of men.”  This brief epitaph on stone was the inspiration for the title of the new book Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat by William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson (Westholme Publishing, 2021). 

Short is an MIT-trained scientist and manager of Hurstwic, an organization that “seeks to advance the state of knowledge about Viking-related topics through rigorous testing and the use of the scientific method.” His co-author is an Icelandic martial arts instructor and one of the leading combat researchers at Hurstwic. Despite the authors’ emphasis on research and evidence in the study of Viking combat, the book is well written, and its findings are presented with clarity and skill. What is unique about this book is that the authors have been involved for years in the actual physical testing of Viking fighting techniques to see if they are feasible and would actually work on the dueling ground or battlefield.

After a brief and painless presentation of their research methods and historical sources, the authors delve into the mindset of the Viking warrior. How did they see the world and their place in it? Every honorable Viking sought to be a drengr; someone recognized by peers for exceptional courage, loyalty, generosity, and sense of fair play. The ultimate goal was to gain orðstirr (word-glory), namely “the immortality of a good name spoken often after a man’s death.” The opposite of a drengr was a niðingr, someone of bad character who could not be trusted either on the battlefield or in everyday life.

The book introduces Viking “empty-hand” combat, a variation of which has survived in Iceland to this day under the name glima, the national sport of Iceland. Glima is a direct descendant of fang, the Old Norse name for Viking-age wrestling or grappling. As the authors point out, the “core of fang centered on raw power, swift movement, and cunning” and mirrored the Viking approach to combat with actual weapons. What was valued on the battlefield was physical strength, agility, and guile. The aim of the Viking warrior was to destroy enemies swiftly and efficiently. Short and Óskarson make it clear “there was no place for flowery, highly technical moves” in either duels or on the battlefield. Viking combat was both brutal and lethal.

Next, the authors describe Viking weapons and their use in great detail and with plenty of informative illustrations. One of the most interesting observations they make is that both the historical sources and archeological finds suggest that swords were not just reserved for the elite. They were fairly common among the Vikings as valued and well used weapons. Yes, there were highly decorated and beautifully forged swords that were the “Rolls Royces” of their day for high-born fighters, but there were also “Ford” models that were more accessible to the everyday warrior. 

The book also goes beyond the offensive weapons and describes the use of shields and the types of protective gear worn by the Vikings. This includes a detailed discussion of Viking helmets that even provides a presentation of the results of computer simulations on the effectiveness of nose guards.

After the section on weapons and defensive gear, the authors turn to describing how large-scale battles were fought during the Viking Age, both on land and sea. Viking sea battles resembled land battles because the ships of both sides were lashed together to form floating fighting platforms for the warriors.

 Viking battles were not chaotic melees, at least not at the start of such engagements. The warriors usually arranged themselves in column formations led by the most experienced fighters and the highest-ranking leaders, each with their own battle standards or war flags. The Viking kings and other top leaders usually led from the front, though they were protected in battle by a “shield castle” (skjaldborg) of berserkers or other specially chosen fighters. The main goal of an opponent was to break through this shield wall, kill the king or leader, and take down his standard; this normally ended the fight. And it explains why so many Viking kings had short lives.

Drawing on close study of the sagas, the authors also describe Viking battle tactics as employed both in small skirmishes and in larger battles. They even explain why it makes good sense to attack your enemies while at home and why burning them alive in their longhouses makes for efficient killing. 

The authors then move on to cover the finer points of raiding and dueling. For the most part, smaller raids were carried out by teams (félag) with close bonds of friendship or kinship. Larger raids were conducted by multiple numbers of such teams under the leadership of a powerful chieftain or king. 

Dueling was also common among the Vikings because their sense of honor was easily bruised by a slight, and dueling was a legal and accepted method of resolving disputes over partners, property, and affronts to one’s character. Unlike open feuding and war, dueling was strictly regulated by law and local custom. Short and Óskarson argue that formal dueling actually saved lives in the Viking Era, for it generally resulted in death or injury to only one party, rather than many, in a dispute.

As a Viking “geek,” I loved this book for its wealth of information presented in both clean prose and in a well-designed array of easily understood bar and pie charts. If you have ever wondered about which Viking weapons were most lethal or which parts of the body were the most popular targets of Viking warriors, this is the book for you. My only criticism is that though the authors address the likelihood of women Viking warriors, they appear unfamiliar with some key historical and archeological evidence in support of such warriors.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.