New Season, New post

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So, after a winter hibernation it was time to dust off the kit, polish the blades and head to the traditional beginning of the re-enactment season in Britain- the York Viking Festival.

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For a lot of re-enactors this is not the first show of the year (taking place on the last week of February), but thanks to its size, atmosphere and Viking feel many of us consider this the kick-off of the season. The Yorvik show, as it affectionately known, is a multi-society event, hosted by Regia Anglorum and attended by several of other societies. Of these the Vikings are the largest one by far, followed other, smaller societies from around Britain and guests from abroad. The big plus of the event is a large trader’s market, where traders from across Europe ply their wares and many a re-enactor goes there to purchase new kit or get replacements, before the new season starts off properly in the second half of Spring.

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I myself have made a few purchases there this year, though I had to show some brazen cheek to get myself in… Having considered a meal and a cup of tea a more urgent priority, I have arrived at the market just as it was closing down and no one was allowed in. Myself and my good friend Sven the Short had to do a good bit of blagging, with Sven explaining how I arrived all the way from Poland for this (much more impressive than a town few hours drive away), while I looked doe-eyed at the Steward in charge… Let’s just say that after some shameless begging we were allowed in, followed by stares of righteous condemnation from those that were denied entry. But hey, since when did the Vikings bother with such things as queues or closing times?

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I have of course written about the Yorvik festival before. Some of you may remember that it lasts all week, with the final day being the culmination of the event. This was the day that we attended (as is the case with most re-enactors, there aren’t that many of them around for the whole week, but they descend en-masse for the final day, when the battles take place) and as every year the day consisted of a mid-day competitive fight, followed by a grand finale in the evening, where the re-enactors would recreate a story that serves as background for an epic battle. The theme of the grand finale changes every year- two years ago it was a war between the Norse Gods, last year it was the fall of Erik Bloodaxe and this year it was the invasion of the Great Heathen Army and the death of king Aella of Northumbria.

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I will only talk about this epic evening battle shortly, as from my personal perspective, it was not much of an attraction, fun as it was. The acting and talking bit at the start went on for too long to my liking, resulting in some 30 minutes of standing in the cold, awaiting a signal to enter the battle arena. Armies formed, and a mighty battle ensued, at which point, the real the fun began. This evening fight is purely for show and all that is expected of us is to stick to the script and give a good show, while trashing each other. We are not expected to take or make kills, unless the script calls for it, we know what will happen before hand and we can just have fun with the fight. It’s just that this year the fight was somewhat too short (the acting bit cut into it too much) and the organisers decided to use a lot of smoke machines, blowing smoke all across the battlefield. Whilst great for mood, it did not help the fighters (especially my group, who were right by the machines and could hardly see through the damn smoke). It was a fun fight and there was a great fireworks display at the end, but I’ve seen better show fights.

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The competitive mid-day battle was what the show was all about. As usual, we had 3 rounds, re-setting the battle each time. The armies consisted of Regia Anglorum (the hosts) on one side and the Vikings and other societies on the other, with numbers pretty much equal ( a fact hotly contested each year, usually by the defeated side’s grumpiest few or the winning side’s most boisterous few). As Regia were the hosts, it was their combat rules we were using when it came to the fighting (pretty much every society has different combat rules). Without going into details, Regia system greatly favours spears and results in armies consisting mostly of lightly armed spearmen supported by a few mailed swordsmen. The Vikings and other societies rely more on close-quarters and are not as adept in using spears en-masse or at a distance Regia warriors are most comfortable with (they use a LOT of long, two-handed spears). In previous years, many a battle was lost by the Away team by trying to win with Regia at their own game. The line would advance forward, then stop and engage in spear-range fight, which they would inevitably loose. Usually, one or two groups (usually Y Ddraig, my group) would try to charge past the spear-points and pin the Regia warriors in close-quarters, where it was us who held the advantage. This ended, more often than not, in one band of warriors breaking through the enemy line and then being cut down by their reserve, whilst the rest of the line were content with being poked to death by massed spears.

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This year common sense prevailed and an agreement was reached, where all the Away line would charge down the Regia lines and bring the fight to them on our own terms.

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This resulted in one of the best, hardest and most enjoyable free-fighting I have taken part in. No one likes an easy battle that’s over in a minute. This time, in each of three clashes that made up the competitive battle, we had a real fight on our hands, with neither side giving a quarter and all of the warriors coming back with a sense of a battle well-fought and a victory hard-earned (or a defeat that was by a narrow margin).

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Instead of talking through the whole of the battle, I will simply post a few links to some great videos, showing all the clashes- you will find the at the end of the article. There, better than any of my words can describe, you will see on your own, how the battle unfolded. What I will mention, is that the Vikings and Others did not do enough on their left flank- there were too few men there (especially in the last of the three clashes) and they did not advance or pressed the enemy hard enough. More men should have been moved from the centre, where they were not needed and more effort should have been made to get stuck in and push on. Other than that however, the Viking plan worked great and gave Regia a great deal of trouble. The Hosts did win 2-1 in the end, but  you will see yourself, how close the final clash was and how close Regia came to defeat. Especially after a few years of the Away team getting beaten flat each time, this felt great.

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I will tell you in more detail about the exploits of the right flank of the Vikings army, where me and my comrades from Y Ddraig fought. We formed the first line of our flank, with another group behind, ready to charge in after us. The plan was simple- advance, then as one bear down on the enemy, past their deadly spear points and into close range. Move as one, keep pushing and never stop, whilst killing as many opponents as we could. Once through their line, flank their centre and get them from the side and from behind.

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The plan was the same for all three clashes. Three times, me and my friends of Y Ddraig were at the vanguard. Each time we advanced towards the enemy, spears waiting. Thanks to discipline and momentum, we pushed on hard. All of the front line dispensed with spears entirely, this would be a closely-fought affair after all. All armed with hand weapons, our first task was to parry the spears and get them down. An axe is the best weapon for this, thanks to it’s shape and balance. Was I glad I brought mine with me… After pushing through the spears, we then had to keep going, until we were in reach of hand weapons. Then, we had to keep going and keep pushing to drive the enemy back, to make them lose their fortitude, their balance, maybe even fall over under the pressure of our advance.

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Some of us concentrated on controlling opponent’s weapons and parrying any attacks that came- I was one of those. My job, as an axe man, was also to pull down enemy shields and open them to attack. It is not an easy job to do under pressure and whilst under attack, but when your timing is right and when you keep with your unit and if you remember to keep your defences up- it works a cinch. The press of bodies was considerable, especially when our secondary unit charged in and we kept on going, without stopping.

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Three times it was us, Y Ddraig, to form the first line. Each time, we pushed past the spears and into the enemy line. Three times we pushed them back and hewed them down, forcing Regia to send reinforcement and deplete their reserve. Each time we pushed as far as we could, coming out on the enemy rear. We earned a lot of glory that day. It was not quite enough to win all three clashes- our left was not as lucky and whilst on the first clash it fared well, on the other two it fell and so what we had achieved on the right, was undone on the left. It was a hard fight and we fought well as a unit. Each time I pulled down a  shield with my axe a mate of mine would find a way to put an attack in at the exposed enemy. As I was holding down spears or weapons with my axe, others kept pace as a unit, allowing us to push forward. We all pressed hard, always keeping the enemy on the back foot. And once the lines broke, we stayed together, to attach the enemy rear. Regia fought back well and fought hard, putting enough resistance in the centre to keep it at standstill and fighting back our left, routing it in 2 of the 3 clashes.

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The battles were exhilarating. Win or lose, this was the most fun I have had at York ever. An OK scripted battle, successful market visit and a fantastic competitive fight. A good start to the season- now, time to finish off some kit…

As promised, here are some videos taken during the competitive battles (both are filmed from behind the Away team lines, mostly from the left wing perspective. Look for Y Ddraig on the extreme right, duded with white shields with red circles):

 

Videos filmed by Gordon Bailey, published on Ost Centigas channel. Photo credit to Jon Brownridge and Max William, from whom I have shamelesly pillaged the photos.

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Viking (and Dark Age) Combat Training Exercises

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So far, on my blog I have discussed various weapons and the more (and less) advanced techniques of using them in combat. I have discussed weapons individually, I talked about shields, there was even a generic training post in the early days. But what I have missed out up until now, was the training regime itself, other than mentioned in rather generic terms. As we all know, practice makes perfect. I heard once, that Olympic athletes say, you must repeat a motion 20,000 times, before your body and mind truly master it. With this in mind, I am going to talk about exercises, techniques and ideas for training in Dark Age combat. Without further ado, let us delve right into the long topic of training…

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1. Individual and Pair Exercises:

a) Sparring

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Simplest and most common way of getting better, at any kind of combat. Find an opponent and go at it. Again, and again. To keep things more organised, it is good to have a third person watching and telling you from an outsider’s point of view what you are doing right and what you should do differently. Swap partners as often as possible, to get a wider spectrum of opponents and challenges.

b) Half-Speed Sparring

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This is when things get a little different. Just as before, find an opponent, and go at it- only this time, do EVERY move at half the normal speed. The idea here, is to build up muscle memory, so the moves you make come out naturally, almost as a reflex; but also to give you and your opponent time to think through and observe each action and it’s effects. Everything is much slower, so you have plenty of time to analyse, think about each move and see exactly where the move is or isn’t working. It is important (and a tad difficult) to make sure EACH AND EVERY move is done at half speed, by both opponents. It is harder, and more tiring , than might seem at first! Again, it is a good idea to have an outsider watching and giving you feedback.

c) Figure of Eight- Standing and Moving

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As an individual, practice both your footwork and your attacks and defense in this simple exercise. Walk forwards and backwards performing the eight basics attacks (head, shoulders, sides, legs, thrust), then do this whilst standing still. While it may seem it is not doing much, you are still practicing your footwork, and control of your weapon and shield, as well as your general stance. Use both “shield” and “sword” stance, “shuffle” and “waddle” walk, stationary position, moving backwards and forwards. Never underestimate the importance of this exercise, because, as any combat specialist will tell you, if your feet are in the wrong place, chances are everything else is. Strength, control and balance all come from the roots: make sure you train yours!

d) Accuracy Training

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On a flat surface, put some suitable targets, you can hit with your weapon. Cones, sticks stuck in the ground, old furniture, punching bag or even a cardboard cutout of yourself- anything will do. Take your weapon and hit the targets, in a random order, making sure you hit SAME EXACT SPOT each time (mark it maybe, or just try to hit top of a target, or some specific part of it, as long as you know exactly where your blow is supposed to land). Spread the targets around, so you are forced to turn and move as you strike. The aim of this exercise is to develop accuracy and confidence in delivering an attack. If you can consistently hit top of a cone whilst striking fast and moving around, you should be able to hit an exposed part of an opponent’s body with equal precision. When repeated enough, this exercise will help you to hit where yo aim, and make sure each blow lands where it is supposed to, safely and accurately, as well as with lethal speed. Repeat the exercise at half speed and full speed, making sure you do not form a pattern, but strike randomly. The more often you do this, the better.

e) Play with weapons

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Try different stances, and weapons, Try different grips, Spin a weapon around, jab it in the air, practice pirouettes, try out new moves on imaginary opponents. Any form of “play” will do, as long as you keep doing it. A warrior must be intimately familiar with his weapons and protective equipment, to use it effectively. You weapons and shield should be extensions of your body, your armour should feel like second skin. Make sure you know the feel and the balance of all of them and that you are used to wielding them; otherwise, handling something you only use twice a month, you will never achieve the result you aim for.

2. Group exercises:

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And now, let us take a look, at training exercises done in groups. The more, the merrier, and I would recommend group size of 8-16 as ideal, but let’s face it; you will want to use as many people as you have available, and if your group has 50 members ready to train, then good on you!

a) Circles- with and without Honour

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This is simply sparring, but on a bigger scale. We start, by getting all the participants to form a rough circle and raise their weapons, once they are ready. If the Circle is with Honour, contestants will engage in honourable one-on-one duels, with no backstabbing, ganging-up and no alliances. Each duel lasts till the first Valid Hit scored on your opponent- losers lie down dead or leave the circle, while the winners find a new opponent. This goes on, until a lone victor remains, who is the overall winner of the circle. With the Circle is Without Honour, anything goes, and every dirty trick imaginable is allowed.

b) Circle of Infinity- individual and warbands

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The idea is exactly the same, as above, but with one important difference- when the person who killed you, is in turn killed by someone else, you are allowed to go back into the Circle and fight again. When you are killed, all those whom you have defeated are going back into the Circle. This takes a lot longer to find a victor, and sometimes may go on for what like seems forever (hence the name). There comes a point though, at which one person manages to defeat all of their opponents, and win the Circle. This exercise, while a lot longer, does allow for more fun for all the participants, and it does mean, you get several chances to win, and ultimately more practice.

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When the Circle of Infinity is played with warbands, the difference id, that warriors group into bands of between 3 to 6 warriors, and fight it out as units. Each time a warrior is killed, he/she goes to a designated spot known as “the dead-pile” or “the re-spawn”. Once there are enough dead warriors there, they form a new warband, and enter the competition again. This time, there is no single unit which wins, but rather the exercise goes on, until everyone has had enough. The idea here, is that not only you learn to work in a unit, you also learn to work with a variety of warriors and weapon combinations, against largest possible variety of opponents.

c) Hunting Parties

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Very simple exercise, where bands of between 3 to 6 warriors compete against each other, just as they would in a Circle of Honour. Warriors practice tactics, mobility, battlefield awareness and working as a small unit, as well as finding solutions for problems encountered in combat. It is important, while fighting other warbands, to have some sort of a plan- this exercise helps warriors to practice coming up with various stratagems, as well as honing their leadership skills.

d) Shieldwall- Infinite Shieldwall

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This time, two opposing groups form their respective shieldwalls, and fight it out, until one side is vanquished. Just like with the Hunting Parties, warriors practice the most essential skills with combat, and this form of fighting is the most common and important to Dark Age combat. Formation, tactics, battlefield awareness, individual skills, team work- they all come into play in the shieldwall, and it is in the shieldwall, that the warriors are truly tested. Infinite shieldwall means, that units behave, as if they were in the middle of a huge shieldwall, with no flanking, running round sides etc. The only way to go is forward- towards the enemy and their blades. Most essential exercise for any group that takes reenactment combat seriously, shieldwall must be practiced at every conceivable opportunity, as often, and for as long as possible.

e) Formation Practice

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This set of exercises focuses on various aspects of what one might call a “Viking Age military drill”. Shieldwall is more than just two straight lines clashing, and there are various manoeuvres involved, some more, some less common. Wheel, about-turn, advancing, retreating, reforming, receiving a berserker, forming two lines, forming one line, adopting shield-burh formation, forming a boar-snout… Things can get pretty complicated! It is important to have a person (preferably multiple people) in the group, who know how to perform these maneuvers and who can instruct and drill the others. Formation practice is equally as important as combat practice, as without it, it is very hard to keep discipline and cohesion within a fighting unit, not to mention that if you never practice, say, about-turn, you will not be able to perform one, when called upon to do so. Now, wouldn’t that be embarrassing…

f) Rotating Shieldwall

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It is a variation of the traditional shieldwall, where warriors, after each clash is concluded, rotate clock-wise, to shift places within their formation, and ultimately join the opposing team. Say you start in the middle of a 6 man wall. After first clash is finished and one side has won, each warrior moves along one space clockwise, so you will end up second from left. One more clash, you end up at the end of your line. After one more clash, you will join the opposing team, while a warrior from the opposition’s left-most flank will join yours. Usually this goes on, until everyone is back in their original spot. What makes this exercise great, is that you sometimes end up with uneven, or bizarrely arranged sides, teaching you to fight when odds are stack-up against you, or in your favour, and to deal with a variety of opponents and weapons combinations, as well as how to cope when forced into a certain spot in a formation.

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And there we go: a run down of some of the most important (and my favourite) exercises and training regimes. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I have encountered many exercises I have not mentioned here, and I am sure there are some I have not yet heard of. For the sake of keeping things manageable, I have not gone into too much detail about each training technique, and I rely on the reader’s common sense and experience when attempting to replicate any of the above. Do you have any comments on these exercises? Have you got any you would like to share, which I have not included? Feel free to comment and discuss below. Until next time!