Javelin- introduction to being a skirmisher

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After a long winter hibernation, it is high time for another post on the blog. This time, I am going to talk about a weapon which is not seen very often on the battlefield. It does however have a huge potential and is tremendous fun to use- the javelin.

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For thousands of years Javelineers were used in armies throughout the world and the dark age armies were no different. Javelins have been used by skirmishing units to harass the enemy, kill or encumber them and their mounts and in outflanking maneuvers. Mainline units also utilized the javelin, be it just prior to engaging in combat, or as a weapon of opportunity throughout the battle.

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Javelin is a very effective weapon, when used right. Heavier and larger than an arrow, but smaller than a spear, javelins could inflict some serious damage, even on an armoured foe. It did have it’s limitation: a shorter range and less power than an arrow or a sling, you could only take a limited number on a battlefield. It did have some serious advantages though, mainly that it was capable of rendering enemy shields near useless by getting stuck in them. It was good for killing horses, due to it’s superior weight. A man throwing a javelin could still benefit from a shield and fight in a shield wall, whereas an archer could not. Also, a javelin took a lot less practice than a bow and it did not require such strict maintenance, so it was easier to equip large number of warriors with them.

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But enough of a historical note- time to consider how a javelin is used in reenactment combat. The most important thing about it, is that a javelin IS NOT a competitive weapon. It is used FOR DISPLAY only and javelineers will never aim to “kill” their opponent- they will only ever throw their missiles against a shield. Why do they not use their javelins in competitive combat? The reasons for this are pretty obvious. A javelin is essentially a small spear, with a lot of weight behind it compared to an arrow or a slingshot. As opposed to reenactment arrow, it has a metal head. Even when used as a hand weapon it can cause grievous harm. In order to hit a target, a javelin must be thrown with a considerable force, otherwise it will fall short or loose direction. When thrown properly,  a javelin has enough force to easily break bone and pierce flesh. No one wants to be at a receiving end of a metal-tipped projectile, weighing some 2kg, moving at a speed approaching that of an arrow. In addition to that, a javelineer, once he has loosed the javelin, has no control over the projectile. This means, if anything untoward happens, there is no way to pull or stop the blow. It is for these reasons, that javelins are restricted as “display” weapons, only used against shields, in order to demonstrate a missile attack. It is also perhaps why javelins are seldom seen, as many warriors sadly deem them redundant.

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Despite the fact that it cannot be used in competitive battles (until the reenactors find a way to use a javelin safely, which we are working on for some time now and may eventually find an acceptable solution), a javelin is huge fun to use. It gives an extra dynamic to a fight, with a “missile” phase of the battle sometimes being just as exiting to watch and to participate in  as the hand-to-hand combat. Imagine advancing towards your enemy, as their archers loose waive after waive of arrows, and the slingers hurl their shots at your line. As you get closer, lightly armoured skirmishers approach and hurl javelins, which thud heavily against the shields in your line, only to retreat after discharging their missiles. Finally, as the lines are about to clash, more missiles come your way, with arrows flying high, slingshots going past your heads, or thumping warriors on their bodies and last of the javelins hitting your line, with maybe some even piercing weaker shields and getting stuck for good.

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It is a whole battle onto itself, never mind the combat! I know from experience, that a determined javelin assault can slow down, buckle or disrupt an advancing line, even though all those involved know that javelins cannot be used to score valid Kills. The sheer mass and force of the javelins, together with psychological effect of their use is enough, especially against less experienced warriors. Also, let’s not forget, that a javelin can achieve some impressive distances, up to even 25 meters (usually it is thrown from 4-7 meters) which is not that far off a small bow. Some of the best javelineers can even achieve longer distances, approaching those of actual athletes. Using a javelin is a test of skill, accuracy, daring and stamina. Not only that, you also get to show off some more, as javelineers often skirmish ahead of the main army and form a focal point of early stages of the battle. Javelin display is also one of the more impressive elements of a battle, with onlookers frequently excited (or frightened!) by a well done display. No longer are you confined to being just another shield in a wall! Instead you are a daring, dashing skirmisher, you dart in and out in front of your hapless foes, and pepper them with missiles, that often cause an advancing line of steel, wood and flesh to buckle, slow down or even retreat under fire. You get to be a hero for a short moment and you get the rush and the joy of standing out from the crowd, whilst performing some of the most dangerous and demanding tasks on a battlefield.

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So, now that I had have you hooked (hopefully!), time for some practical considerations. How does one use a javelin effectively? See some pointers below:

  1. Forget the usual stance and combat style. Whilst throwing a javelin, you will inevitably end up out of balance, not covered by shield, not facing the enemy the right way etc. This is fine. All you need to do, is be able to get away, or resume your fighting stance fast in things get too close and personal.
  2. Hold it right. Hold your javelin either like you would a dart (with tips of your fingers), or as athletes do, resting it on the palm of your hand. Hold the javelin at the balance point, or just behind. If throwing long distance, you might want to hold it slightly further back, this will allow you to generate more energy with same motion (try it as an experiment- hold the javelin close to its tip, then throw. With each throw hold it further back, until you hold it just a foot away from the end. You will notice, that the throw gets easier and the distance increases the further back you hold the javelin).
  3. Aim. Always keep eye on your target, but do not aim for too long, as this will throw you off. Just like with a bow- nock, draw, loose, no faffing about. Eye on the target, set and throw. Remember, that over distance javelin will tend to dip down, until it hits the ground, so take it into account (Personally I find it helpful to see the very tip of my javelin in the corner of my eye as I aim, but some find it distracting).
  4. Use the Force. A javelin must be thrown hard, in order to fly straight and true, otherwise it will fall short of it’s target, or change it’s course too easily. Do not be afraid to put some considerable force in the throw- after all, there is a plank of wood (also known as the shield) between you and your opponent, so they should be safe. It helps if you manage to put a spin on a javelin (especially for longer throws) as it flies more like an arrow, straighter and more accurately.
  5. Assess the risk. As a javelineer, you must be conscious that you can easily injure someone, especially if you take them unawares. ALWAYS make sure your target knows they are about to receive a javelin (usually a short moment of eye contact and a nod suffices). Do not throw, if you feel unsafe about it, if the target is too far, moving too fast, or does not know you are about to throw. Consider weather conditions, slippery grass, slope etc. and make your assessment. If in doubt- DO NOT THROW. And, just to reiterate, ALWAYS make eye contact with target before throwing. If your intended target indicates that they are not ready, or do not wish to receive the javelin, move on to someone else. Due to the nature of the weapon you could easily kill or maim with it, and each time you use it, you must use common sense and judgement. This is why javelin requires skill and experience and not many warriors choose to use it.
  6. Be like a flowing stream. By which I mean, move fast, with fluidity and try to avoid getting into sticky situations. Javelineers usually serve as skirmishers, so they move a lot, run fast, hit hard and retreat quickly. You are there to run around flanks, harass a main line, protect your archers, or delay an enemy. This is not the tank core! Welcome to the skirmishing world, where melee is avoided and keeping in line doesn’t matter. It is a different type of fight altogether and not suitable for everyone.
  7. Show some panache! Scream, make faces, shout insults and make as much noise as you like. Move fast and hit hard. You are there to make a show and to distract, so do it in style!
  8. Do not overburden yourself. Carry no more than 3-4 javelins, and do not bother with more than two other weapons. Not only does it look silly, it also impedes your own moves and effectiveness.
  9. Release the javelin at the right moment. Draw your arm back, stretch it out, then bring it forwards and throw. Release just as your hand passed your shoulders, and keep your arm straight as you do so. You do not want to send your javelin spinning to the side, but keep it flying straight, so make sure your arm moves in a straight line and not in a curve.
  10. Use your wrist. By giving the javelin a “flick” or a “push” with your wrist just as you release it, you add power to the throw. It is a hard move to explain, but see someone do it, or watch athletes compete in javelin throw and you will see what I mean.
  11. Aim at shields only. Never aim anywhere else than an opponents shield (ideally just under the boss) or just short of your opponent. Safety first!
  12. Make sure you have plenty of practice, to co-ordinate your arm and your eye. Just like when throwing a dart, the eye picks a target and the arm should adjust the height, angle and force of the throw to hit the intended target. Also make sure you practice in your wargear, as throwing a javelin while wearing a helmet, gauntlets and a shield is a lot different to what you may know from your sports class.

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Using a javelin is a demanding task, as it is actually a lot more dangerous than other weapons we use, due to the fact that it is being thrown and not directly in your control. It requires skill, co-ordination and practice, but it is HUGE fun to use. It is a different kind of a fight. Personally, I would like to see more javelins used on the battlefield, as they make for a great show and add great dynamic to any fight. The biggest reason why we do not see many javelineers, is the fact that a javelin cannot be used competitively- a fact that hopefully may change in the future. In the meantime, I would like to encourage everyone to give javelin a go and see for themselves what a great weapon it is to use.

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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!

 

How to fight with a viking age sword

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After a long time without a post (life does get in the way every now and again) it is time for a new post, which will cover the most glorified weapon of them all: the sword.

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The sword was a weapon pure and simple, with no other utility. It’s purpose- to kill. It was an equivalent of a quality car back in the Dark Ages, and only the rich and the professionals could afford one. Swords were beautiful, efficient and glorious tools of slaughter. But how does one use a sword in reenactment combat?

“Hit them!” some might say- well, they are not far off… But sword is more sophisticated to use than any other weapons and allows a wide variety of techniques, most of which other weapons have great trouble duplicating. In this article, I will cover the basics of Dark Age swordsmanship, to give you pointers on how to get familiar with it, and what to avoid, when waiving your shiny piece of steel about.

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1. The principles

A Viking Age sword is a hacking weapon, first and foremost. It’s weight, balance, size and breadth all speak volumes about how it was used. This is not a fencing sword, or a rapier. You must keep this in mind when using the sword, as it will be rather different from swords from later periods, or indeed earlier ones. A sword must be held firmly, but gently, to allow flexibility of movement. Use hacking, rather than thrusting- and not just for practical reasons, but also for safety. A thrust carries a lot more force than a cut, therefore there is a greater potential for injury, especially with a naturally heavier blade.

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When attacking, same principles apply as with other weapons: eight areas of attack, and eight of defence. Blows to the head are forbidden in our combat system, but we teach how to defend against them just in case.

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A sword is different from other weapons in the fact, that it can be very effectively used as a defensive weapon, and is therefore better suited for less aggressive warriors. But, it can equally well serve as purely offensive weapon, and with (usually) double-edged blade, and between 30 to 40 inches of killing edge, there is a lot more you can do, than say with an axe, which can only “kill” with a short blade on it’s head.

When striking, a warrior uses the edge, not the point of the blade, and always pulls the blow to the body, to prevent injury.

2. The techniques, the tricks and some advice:

When using a sword, it is a lot easier to make feints and change direction of an attack, due to different balance of the weapon. Look the example below:

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A warrior can rapidly change direction and speed of an attack, thanks to more evenly spread balance. Sword point can travel a large distance with just a small move of a hand, at great speed, with less effort than a spear or an axe would usually require.

Cross guard of a sword is very useful in taking control of enemy’s weapons and performing circular parries. When in a bind, the closer the bind point is to the cross guard, the more control you have over it, thanks to better leverage. This is known as “strong” or “weak” bind, whereas “weak” bind means you have very little control over it, and must apply a lot of force, to force leverage, as oppose to a situation, when you can control the bind with little effort.

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Thanks to principles of “strong” and “weak” bind, a sword can be used to create openings in the opponent’s defence. In this photo, a combatant uses a bind to move opponent’s weapon out of the way, and then to attack as soon as a space becomes available.

In defence, a sword can parry effectively and hold a blow well, while being better at swift counter attacks, than most other weapons.

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Sword is great at medium-range, but becomes a lot less useful in close quarters. Be aware of it, and be prepared to either retreat from an advancing opponent, or deter them from advancing by putting up appropriate response, for example a series of attacks, or a side-step, or a dogged, unflinching defensive stance.

Using a shield in tandem with a sword is a great way to exploit openings in your opponent’s defence. Remember the active shield work, I have talked about in my other articles? How would you use a shield to take control of an enemy’s weapon? Can you use it to attack? Can you follow the enemy’s weapon and keep it in touch with your shield to make any attacks very hard to perform?

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Footwork, like with any other weapon, is key. If your feet and your balance are in a wrong place, your weapon will also be. Keep your feet wide apart, in an L-shape, with knees slightly bend, and adjust your stance as you move your weight center. Practice walking, stepping and waddling, to make sure you automatically keep your balance.

You may try to change your stance as you fight, to give yourself different options, and present your opponent with different challenges. How about a low stance? Aggressive sword stance? Can your conceal the blade behind a shield, and strike out unexpectedly, where the enemy cannot see the initial direction of the blow?

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When holding sword underneath the shield, you give yourself great way of striking at opponent’s legs and lower torso, or “sneaking” a blow under the shield. Trade off- vulnerable to being overrun, by a fast and decisive warrior, with little room to move the sword out of the way.

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Holding a shield at an angle, rather than straight on enables better active shieldwork, and puts more distance between warriors- but what about leaving sword arm more vulnerable, than it would normally be? How much extra effort would need to be put in, to parry incoming blows with a  sword, rather than shield? Is the advantage of having two “tools” to use in a fight big enough?

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3. A few words to sum it up:

The stuff I have talked about above, are just some more general and basic techniques, for using a sword using a sword. There are a lot of more advanced tricks and techniques, which will be explored later, in more detail.

Sword is an amazing weapon to use, and it is iconic, just as the axe is, for the Viking Age. It requires plenty of practice, but it is so worth it! If you haven’t had a go at a sword yet, try it out, and use the examples I gave above. And if you already are a swordsman, what would you add and how do you keep your opponents on their toes?

Until next time folks!

They found one in Birka…

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Today,a little technical talk about the little world of reenactors, and the problems we are dealing with. Prepare for some strong opinions, for this is a matter that touches each reenactor in one way or another, and most of us feel pretty strong about it.

What am I talking about? Something I touched upon before, mainly the authenticity and the rules of our competitive “game”. Long ago, I talked about what authenticity is for your average reenactor, why we use authentic standards, and how we aspire to achieve them.

This time however, I am going to highlight some problems I see in reenactment, and my opinions about them. I hope you’re ready- let the rant begin!!

Looking the part- when is authentic inauthentic?

Let’s take a look at our imaginary dedicated reenactor. He looks great, does he not? Look at the splendid lamellar armour, and the owl-guard helmet with huge aventail, all lovingly polished and maintained. Look at the supple fur cloak (no doubt faux, to spare animal suffering and avoid a vicious beating at the hands of nude PETA models). Take in the detail of armguards, and the incredible detail that went into the haft of damascene steel axe. Thor’s hammer, displayed proudly, rivals best modern jewelry pieces when it comes to intricate design. And let us not forget those incredible tatoos, visible when the armour is off!

But wait a moment… Our guy is supposed to be a viking warrior in mid-tenth century, A Dane raiding in Egland, Frankia and the Irish sea. He is well-to-do, but certainly not wealthy (if he was, he would hung up his axe and shield, and go spend his cash on mead, women, mead, more mead and a pet polar bear. Or get himself a warband to do his raiding for him). So, why does he use damascene steel, the most expensive type known at the time? Not only for his sword, but also axe, knife, seax and Thor-knows-what else. A metal which we know for a fact was used only for choices, most expensive weapons- almost exclusively swords, and harder to get your hands on than almost anything imaginable at the time. So, we have all the right things, made the right way… But of the wrong material. And the fur? No one wore fur cloaks, and we know this also, for a fact. Why do some insist to use fur “because they had it” is beyond me. Fur was used for hats sometimes, as it was for trimmings in cloaks and gloves, or to sleep upon. Only royalty could afford fur cloaks, and even they did not wear it around like an every-day garment. Just two examples or doing the wright thing- wrong.

Next up, is the armour. How exactly did our Dane, get his hands on a suit of lamellar armour, which in every material available, written, archaeological or illustrated, only Slavsic, Asiatic and Byzantine warriors used lamellar armour. Europe, warriors used mail- Vikings, Saxons, Franks, Normans, Celts and every other nation. We have mentions of various leather armour, but these are inconclusive, scant and very vague. It is an established fact, the mail was used throughout Europe, as body armour.

“Aha!” I hear a familiar voice. “They found one in Birka, Sweden, they found lamellar in there, dated to 9th century!”. Yes, so they did. ONE, singular plate of a lamellar armour, with no real idea, whether it was from a whole suit, or just a loose piece for sale or a spare. Also, have a look at the map. Birka, is in Eastern Sweden, far out on the Baltic shore. It is closer to Slavic and Rus states than it is to England or Frankia. So, logically, by trade or war, some stuff from the East made it there. But would the busy merchants of Birka export suits of armour to Britain, Danemark and beyond? How come, by the same extension, we do not use Coppergate helmets in Poland, or Saxons-style coats in Kiev? Where are all the beautiful Irish items, which I have no doubt German and Danish warriors would love to wear?

No one uses them- or if they do, very rarely, practically unnoticeable. But it seems, when exports from East are concerned, there is not a distance they would not go. Lamellar armour, Slavic “cavarly axes” and Asiatic sabers and re-curve bows: all of these seem to make their way as far as the shores of Spain, with no evidence at all. Except for that one piece of metal found in Birka. Because, obviously, this justifies the use of this anywhere. Never mind, that there were Slavic tribes near river Oder, who used these items, much closer than Birka was geographically. No, we know for sure that the two styles did not mix on that border. But if it was in Birka, than that settles it, it’s fine anywhere at all.

Obviously, if you are actually portraying a Rus warrior from near the Volga river, than the Eastern style equipment is a must. But do not pass it off as ok, for a Norse invader in the Irish sea basin, please. Same applies for those living in America, Australia and all other places around the globe- pick a time, a place, and create your character based on these, please, do not create a “no timeline” mesh of five different styles…

Playing the game: When is it too much?

As most of you will know, combat in reenactment is more than just a show. It is also a competitive sport, and we all try to outdo each other, or compete to be better warriors/groups. My problem is, when people turn a historically accurate (within reason) sport, into a game which look thus:

“Whoever can touch the other guy with the metal bit first, wins!”

Enter a host of problems, like those listed below. List is probably not exhaustive, but it should give a god idea of most prevalent issues:

Holding one’s spear by the very end of it, with a head so light it may as well be an arrow, and a shaft so thin, it could be mistaken for a pool cue.

Using overly long axe haft, similarly thin to spear one, with  a tiny axe-head, more resembling a flattened nail than a tool of war.

Waving around a sword (or two) with the combined weight of a walking stick, and no broader than two fingers put together. Because the term “broadsword” was always metaphorical, wasn’t it?

Creating spears so long, they are actually pikes. Authentic viking pikes, just like you’ve seen… Exactly. Nowhere.

Spearmen crouching on their legs so low, their heads are at crotch level, poking and slashing at lower legs in the hope of touching a right spot for a “valid hit”.

Swordsmen spending their whole duel desperately trying to brush each other’s shoulders with tips of their swords, with one half spent in a high, static bind and the other spent with both warriors on their tip-toes, and shields stuck firmly up their chins. Swap shoulders for heads and arms, depending on which rules you fight by (as some rules allow heads and/or arms as valid targets).

These, of course, only happen with some warriors and generally do not disturb our fights. But when you see combatants trying to bend rules, it stands out all tho more, for being uncommon practice. The issues relate both to safety and to authenticity.

How can you control a spear, held out by the very end? with five feet if shaft and a spearhead ahead of you, you just cannot do it properly. Try, see how well you do! Unless you create a weapon unrealistically thin and light- which means, in a real fight, it would never create enough energy to actually cause harm. Not to mention one firm tap of an axe would break that five-feet arrow in a second. Authenticity is also compromised, when we make weapons and equipment merely resembling the actual ones. So what, if the sword is the right shape, if it also is so thin, it may as well be a skewer. It is important, that reenactors aim for historical accuracy, as well as a fun game.

Mountain out of a molehill- sort of!

Good news is, that, like any issues they always seem bigger than they actually are. There is enough of “bad practice” going round to make us grumble, but all in all, we are all having fun and loving it. We manage to stick to our ethos, and provide exactly what we aim to: informative entertainment, for us and the public. We like our hobby the way it is, and though there are problems around, they are not in any way interfering with our enjoyment.

So what was the point of this long rant the, you might ask, if you can put up with the problems you’ve listed? Well, we all like a good grumble, don’t we? Also, I am hoping to stir some discussion and comments on this topic, hopefully from my supporters as well as critics. Because regardless of who is actually correct, it is good to exchange views. Till next time!

 

 

 

 

 

Yorvik Viking Festival 2015

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Hello and Welcome, to my account of the 31st annual Yorvik  Viking Festival which took place in York in February 2015.

This was the first reenactment show of this season, and will also be one of the biggest. In Yorvik, reenactors gather from across the UK and Europe, for w whole week of living history displays, markets, talks, lectures, workshops and battles.

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The numbers of people attending were in the hundreds- and that is not counting the public.

The event itself is a great one, with plenty to see and do- I myself only arrived for the last day of the festival (drat you work!) when the culminating battles and events took place.

My first steps after arriving, were to the market, where I purchased myself some new shiny things (shoes, spearhead and a pouch). So many pretty things and never enough money to spend!

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After the purchases, and a brief lunch, time came for the first battle of the day- a series of three competitive clashes, where the best side would win. Just look at the photo below, to give you the idea of the numbers of warriors involved:

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But I am getting ahead of myself! Before the battle, there was the muster, and a parade through the York town centre, with scores of Vikings terrorising the innocent bystanders, and occasionally stopping to take a photo with the kids (large and small and even some actual kids!).

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Only once we have all arrived at the battlefield, did the real fight begin. As you may be aware, an event of this size will draw many different groups, from different societies, or even countries. Each reenactment society will have it’s own rules and regulations- so the first order of the day was to agree upon a set of rules to be used (done of course well in advance of the festival by the organisers). As always with a large group of people, used to different sets of rules, problems will arise- I could go on for eternity about rules differences and attitude of warriors/groups. Instead I will have just a small grumble- mainly that the societies were not split evenly, leaving one side very outmatched, and that there were many safety, honesty and attitude problems from one side (which shall of course, remain nameless)- suffice to say, battle could have been organised better. Nevertheless, it was huge fun to be a part of and to see this many warriors clash and actually be in the thick of it was reward enough!

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After the competitive battles, came the time for a brief respite and a bite of food- before the main event of the day, a recreation of a mythical battle between the Vanir and the Aesir Gods from the Norse mythology, which focused on the events of the great war between these two factions.

Battle was played out at night, with torches and spot lights lighting the battlefield. It was fully scripted and purely for show, with warriors encouraged to make as much noise, clamour and be as “showy” as possible.

Result? The battle was amazing, lasted for a long time and with assistance of special effects, music, narration and many enthusiastic participants it turned out to be an incredible experience- easily the best show fight I ever took part in.

There is a series of videos on YouTube, showing highlights from the battle:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrJiSDIo3ts

All credit goes to the user Jonathon Cox, who kindly uploaded the videos.

Once the battle was over, we got to see the wonderful fireworks display, before picking ourselves up and preparing to celebrate the night away with ale, song and laughter. First show of the season done, and I am looking forward to the rest of it!

Credit for photos goes to Allan Harris, Gina Self and Trudie Jayne Blade.

Until next time!

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Safety Measures

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This time, I am going to talk a little bit more about how we, the warriors keep ourselves safe on the battlefield. Viking and early medieval combat displays are very exciting events, that gather a lot of attention. The reenactors always ensure that the displays are dramatic, entertaining, competitive and as close to the historical combat techniques as practicable, whilst also remaining safe for all those involved.

It is fairly easy, when it comes to public safety- separate battlefield/fighting arena, double set of ropes, instructions from the organizers, signs etc.

But how do the fighters keep themselves from harm?

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1. The Equipment

Warriors use protective equipment, to keep safe. Some of it mandatory, some optional. Let us start with a couple of mandatory items:

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Gloves. Possibly the least authentic bit of gear we use, as the Vikings or their counterparts would not use them. A thick mitten or leather-reinforced gauntlet will not stop a sword blow cutting your fingers off. But it will stop a blunt weapon from breaking your fingers, by taking most of the force away from the blow. Without appropriately armoured gloves, a reenactor’s career would be very short and painful indeed, and finger/hand injuries are the most common ones seen on the field.

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Helmets. Although not every reenactment society makes them mandatory, the one I am a member of does, and for a good reason. Head injuries can be very serious, and face injuries are not uncommon. A helmet provides essential protection to a warrior’s head, and gives him extra safety when getting into closely-packed shieldwall combat, where it is very easy for a blow to go astray.

Now, onto the optional pieces of protection, starting with the most basic and obvious one- a shield. No explanation necessary, I trust, and although it is not mandatory, as some warriors are using  two-handed weapons, or maybe a weapon in each hand, each warrior owns one, because hand weapon + shield is the most common and basic weapon combination in reenactment.

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Arm-guards. Again, not every warrior is using them- but I can attest to the fact, that they are very useful indeed. Made of thick, hardened leather, and cut into an appropriate shape, they are great at taking the “sting” out of a blow. The protection they offer to forearms and elbows has saved many a warrior from bruises, cuts and fractured bones. Especially, when a warrior uses an aggressive style of combat, or likes getting close to his enemies, thus exposing himself to more blows. In that situation, arm-guard are just amazing.

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Padded armour. Otherwise known as gambesons. a gambeson will protect the warrior’s torso, legs and shoulders, as well as his arms. Made of multiple layers of batting and cloth, padded armour is amazing at absorbing kinetic force of the attack, and in doing so, preventing injuries. It is also a very good-looking piece of kit, and warriors wearing it appear more fearsome, and look more like professional warriors, ready for battle. The authenticity of padded armour in the Viking age is still disputed, but  so far no one has come up with evidence, that it was not used, and so, it is allowed, with appropriate materials and patters being used. And did I mention, it looks cool?

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Chain Mail. The best, most costly form of armour in the Viking age, mail offers supreme protection to its user. It is great at stopping cuts and was the dominant form of armour for many hundreds of years. Mail comes in many varieties, and a warrior may have a small “t-shirt”, or a full-length suit of armour, depending of his preference and availability of cash. Historically,  mail was very expensive and only the richest and the elite warriors could afford one. In reenactment, mail is used as an elite kit item, representing warriors wealth and status- but it also offers great protection from incoming attacks, by absorbing their force. Plus, it looks even better than padded armour, and make a warrior seem truly formidable!

Miscellaneous. Many warriors also use additional protective equipment, such as modern knee-braces, or elbow pads, even jaw guards. Whilst not really authentic, these items can, and do prevent many injuries on vulnerable parts of the body, and warriors with long years of experience will tell you, that they area very good investment.

But equipment is not everything! even with blunt and rounded-off weapons, helmets and all protection imaginable, injuries would happen everyday if not for the most important factor- the warriors and their training.

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2. The Warriors

Each warrior, who takes part in a combat display, must do so in a safe and controlled manner. It does not suffice to say “ok, I will be careful, not to take someone’s eye”. Each warrior must pass a series of safety and combat tests, to make sure he/she knows what they are doing. It takes skill and practice, to learn to use weapons in an entertaining, accurate and safe manner.

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For each weapon they use, a warrior must pass a competency test, to prove he/she is able to use it safely and with skill. Warriors train regularly, and training officers watch over them, to make sure safety rules are adhered to. Whilst in combat, there are rules by which warriors must abide. There are body parts, we may not attack (head for example), blows we cannot perform (like thrusts). Warriors must also “control” their blows and “pull” them, when making contact with another warriors body.

What does it mean? It means, that the blow is made to look like it can kill, but is actually very precisely controlled, and never hits the opponent at a full force, but only hard enough to make it look convincing. Warriors are taught techniques, that make their attacks look vicious and deadly, whilst remaining fully controlled.

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Warriors, and their training are the most important part of our safety system. It is a game after all, a hobby, and we want to make it safe for all those involved. Accidents and injuries do happen, as it is a combat sport. From common bruises, to serious injuries requiring hospital attention- but such occurrences are rare, and very seldom something actually happens, though many times warriors come close to an accident. It is because of our level of competency, safety rules and equipment, that we are able to enjoy our hobby, and share it with the public, for the benefit of all.

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Raid on Lindisfarne!

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The Vikings first arrived to Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island, in 793. Ever since Viking reenactment started up, they have been coming back, although now they are not pillagers, but performers.This year, on the first weekend of August I had the chance to take part in this fantastic show, held in one of Britain’s most beautiful corners.

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The island is very spectacular. The historical and natural beauty are amazing. For me, the especially interesting bit was the tidal causeway, connecting the island with the Northumbrian coast. When the tide is down, the road is exposed, and island can be reached- but when the tide comes in, it floods the road, and the island is cut off. The natural environment of this place is truly unique.

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But enough about the environment! Time to talk about the show itself. The Viking village was pitched in the ruins of the priory, where the fighting arena was also set up. It was there, that the spectators would see the Lindisfarne raids reenacted before their eyes, over Saturday and Sunday.

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The usual Living History set up was put in place- craft demonstrations, authentic food, and reenactors talking about the life at is was at the turn on the 8th Century. The monks of Lindisfarne were also present, to tell the visitors about life in the priory:

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The main part of the show, was the story of Lindisfarne, and the start of the Viking Age. The peaceful life of the monastery was ruined by the Vikings, who came over to plunder the riches of the priory. UNder the leadership of Ragnar Lothbrok, the Vikings came to Lindisfarne and, after killing the monks took all the treasure they could carry:

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Historically, the Vikings returned home, and then came back for more, only to be faced by an army of Northumbrians. Some of the locals were taken as slaves, and the brave Northumbrians decided to free them as well as punish the Vikings for their raid on the Holy Island. This is where the history ends, and the show takes over. Great battle ensues, between the Vikings and the Northumbrian Saxons, which the Saxons manage to win, after a great struggle. The last surviving Viking is taken prisoner, and forcefully baptised, before being put to death:

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As a “show fight” or a “display battle”, this battle had a pre-determined result- the purpose here was to entertain the public and provide a jolly good bash for the reenactors. Such battles usually follow very similar scenario: first, the taunts and insults are exchanged, both sides make noise and try to intimidate each other. Than, the lines clash fiercely, usually two times, with plenty of big blows, noise, screams and impressive fighting. Lines then separate and prepare for a third clash, in which the loosing side will withdraw and loose men, as if they were loosing a battle. Sometimes, the two sides will separate one last time, and clash yet again, at which point the loosing side will be killed to a man, or routed of the field. THe trick here, is to make this all believable and entertaining. Also, the “loosing” side must remember not to fight too well and make their rout look believable. Conversely, the “winning” side must remember not to make the fight one-sided and that some casualties, or occasional setbacks are necessary.

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It is after the “Show Fight” is over, when both sides have a competitive re-fight, during which warriors fight only to kill and the best side emerges victorious.

Side note- it is essential for warrior to stay hydrated! No one realises how important water is for armies, until they take part in a half-hour battle themselves…

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That was the battle of Lindisfarne- there was of course the traditional Kiddie Vike, when the children were allowed to take on (and, quite rightly wipe out) the fearsome Viking Warriors, as well as individual combat competitions and weapon displays.

It was also during the Lindisfarne Festival, that two of my good friends have tied the knot, and were married during a traditional ritual of Handfasting- presided over by Konungr himself, the president of the Vikings Society. All the traditions were observed, the gods were invoked and the mead was shared between all those in attendance. It was a wonderful and touching ceremony, in which I had the privilege to be involved. Dear friends- live a long and happy life together, and may all your dreams come true!

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And that is all from Lindisfarne Festival 2014- I shall be looking forward to coming back next year, and to buying more of the delicious mead they brew on the island!

Photo credit- whenever the photos were not taken by myself, they were taken by Y Ddraig’s keenest photographer, Baggsy. Thanks a ton Bags!