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"Speculation on Shield Wall use by Vikings" Topic

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Ponder Supporting Member of TMP11 Jun 2019 6:03 a.m. PST
Aethelflaeda was framed11 Jun 2019 7:09 a.m. PST

Always made sense to me. Viking fights were very small affairs compared to battles of the Greeks and a Roman world where the shield wall( phalanx )might make more sense. Connected units are needed to anchor the flanks. If your army was only 2000 (and that would have been on the large side) it would be far too easy to get around the static wall. Except in only the most confined of settings. There might be a temporary testudo like formation but even that was more a siege tactic or anti bowman posture Purely defensive. Shield walls are probably loose and the figurative term really describes a line maybe two or tfour deep. Not 16. From a distance it will might look wall like in the same way but the term is more evocative of an stalwart attitude than an actual formation. Even the boar snout formation was more a psychological description than an actual wedge. The wedge itselfhas little value to a force without ranged weapons. It probably is really just a deep attack column and linear.

lkmjbc311 Jun 2019 7:21 a.m. PST

Yes, this thinking has been around for some time. DBA actually adopted it many years ago. Vikings don't fight as Spear in shield-wall. They instead fight as "Blade"… much like the Romans…

Joe Collins

Personal logo Unlucky General Supporting Member of TMP11 Jun 2019 1:49 p.m. PST

I don't think Thor Lanesskog has any particular credentials nor academic standing – happy to be corrected. Thornews is not an academic journal and not supported by any depth of expertise from what I can see.

I'm not going to just dismiss the article or the point of view but it comes come across as bordering on unfounded revisionism. There are also a lot of assumptions being made to support the arguments – but there may be also for the contrary position.

We have better recorded tactics at Hastings for Saxon methods and if you look at the top-end as a Norse/Germanic region holistically then each culture most likely shared more in common with one another than drastic divergence. In other words, shield-walls (however you might like to define them) most likely were adopted in one form or another for different reasons.

I'm certainly prepared to accept that a shoving style of phalanx tactic was likely not in evidence. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. I have no doubt that TV and films get is wrong and how it's being portrayed is largely BS.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP12 Jun 2019 2:20 a.m. PST

They fought in shield wall if you want to bicker about what a shield wall was that is fine.

If you define shield wall as that silly painting at the top of the page, then sure they didn't fight in a quasi testudo.
But they fought in overlapping/almost overlapping shields protecting each other.
And yes shields did get broken, just as spears did, they were use and lose equipment.
But hitting shields with a sword isn't a very good test, as 99% of dark age warriors would use spears, and the shields can take a serious beating from spears for a long time. Only when the spears broke, would the axes, seaxes and swords come out.
And standing in a shield wall does not preclude using the shield in active defence.

This seems to be an argument of semantics, there the shield wall is only defined as a static quasi testudo.
And also based on hitting a shield really hard with a heavy Viking sword, to prove that a heavy Viking sword does indeed damage a shield.

Uesugi Kenshin Supporting Member of TMP12 Jun 2019 8:56 a.m. PST

Interesting article. Though I read AO I do so more for fun than its academic value.

I was only familiar with Rolf from his YouTube videos which are enjoyable.

I would tend to agree with Lucky General. I think more info would be needed before discarding the shield wall theory completely.

gavandjosh0212 Jun 2019 2:10 p.m. PST

I agree with GF.

Patrick R13 Jun 2019 2:43 a.m. PST

For a long time most historians assumed that shields were thick, tough, 30-pound, metal reinforced oak tabletop style pieces of kit that was held tightly to the body to take incoming blows.

A survey of viking and medieval shields shows that they were thin, light and very flimsy to the modern observer who expects weapons and gear to be twice as big and five times as heavy.

We have a significant gap in our understanding of pre-gunpowder warfare. Theories differ wildly.

Fighting in some kind of close formation was known since early antiquity and everything since was a variation on the theme, more armour, less armour, longer spears or the inclusion of missile troops etc.

From early medieval sources come words like Skjaldborg and Scildweall and while we have some descriptions, we are ultimately unsure to what degree the shieldwall has to be interpreted. Are they just a figure of speech designed to emphasize the fighting toughness of warriors in some kind of formation or are they meant to represent troops cleverly overlapping shields to give them immunity to enemy fire ? It's hard to tell, even harder to give a definite answer.

Clearly they understood that fighting in formation against anything but panicking monks and villagers was sound tactics. And if they were slow on the update the first defeat would probably have resulted in major changes to the official operations manual.

The key issue here is the flimsy nature of the shields which according to the author couldn't have resisted for long to intense fighting.

There is a side issue that has yet to be resolved. Was the shieldwall a static, defensive formation or were they capable of moving and marching per the Greek Phalanx.

For a long time it was assumed they lacked the sophistication to form an advancing shieldwall, as if the inhabitants of a Greek poleis somehow had access to uber-ninja level skills that completely escaped the Scandinavians.

Marching in a group is not evident, but it's not hard, tests have shown you can get random people to march in reasonable formation and keep it while on the move. Sure it's not paradeground precision, but is that really the point ?

One of the issues is that viking shields are not that fundamentally weaker than say Roman shields. The Greeks did beef up their shields, but many other armies used even simpler wicker or hide shields.

There is some evidence based on later medieval manuals that shields were not simply held to the body as just another layer of armour, they were used actively, projected forward, partially to absorb blows that would otherwise hit the body, but also to hinder and control the opponent's weapon, while creating opportunities to strike the enemy.

Again people have no problem seeing Romans use their shield proactively in combat, but doubts are raised as soon as a viking is suggested, invoking images of somebody foaming at the mouth, wielding an axe the size of New Hampshire.

Shields were light because an axe the size of New Hampshire looks good in Fantasy art, but sadly due to a gap in legislation, people are not condemned to wield such an axe every day for an hour to teach them the error of their ways.

Weapons are designed to be as light and handy as possible.

So they came up with something that was light enough to use actively for a period of combat without exhausting you and giving as much protection as possible. In the end it's a tradeoff.

The fact that the shield is not the equivalent of a reinforced bank vault door is probably more indicative that a light shield is better than none and doesn't preclude some kind of formation.

In reference to something like Stamford Bridge the use of armour become highly important in the later viking age when they fought trained troops on a regular basis. A man wearing a helmet and mail byrnie was probably adequately protected against arrows and the shield would add additional protection to the face in addition to catching the arrow and slowing it down enough to prevent it from doing any real damage.

They might not have gone all out testudo, but it's hard to rule out that they didn't form up and fought defensively especially against missile troops.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2019 9:55 a.m. PST

Viking shields were most likely reinforced with rawhide. The shields can take a beating for some time especially SINCE THE MAIN WEAPON WAS A SPEAR!
Do you know how long you have to poke a viking shield with a spear to damage it enough so it doesn't work?
A very long time.

Ponder Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2019 11:24 a.m. PST

… and if chopped by axe?


Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2019 12:02 p.m. PST

Still hold up for some time, and again the axe was a backup weapon. Not primary.
And the axe would generally be more effective at hooking the shield then hacking at it.
There has been done test, that rawhide together with the planks on the back actually makes for a very strong shield given the weight.
Also remember most fighters will not do giant swings at you like they're chopping wood. Those attacks most likely leads to the attackers death. Light fast attacks and hooking would be the main stuff of axes.

People seem to forget the nr 1 thing a fighter does in battle is try to survive, not kill the other guy.

Sure you could hit as hard as you could over and over again hoping to destroy the shield in 20 minutes or more.
But you'd tire your self out and chances are some time in those 20 minutes when you're doing these big powerful telegraphed swings with your axe. Someone will stab you in the throat with a spear.

Thomas Thomas11 Jul 2019 2:09 p.m. PST

I'm with Joe Collins and the DBX model here – if we accept that the Saxons primarly used spears and Vikings some form of close combat blade (and this may be debated), then its seems most likely that both could withstand arrow shooting by linking shields but as a melee developed the Saxons could stand on equal ground only as long as their shield wall held while the "blade" swinging Vikings formation became a bit looser and more dependent on individual skill over mass. An interesting confrontation – well done by modern DBX mechanics (for which Joe was not an insignificant contributor).


Mithmee11 Jul 2019 5:11 p.m. PST

I do believe that the main weapon for most common Viking men would a been some sort of an Axe.

Mostly likely a hand Axe, but some would have a two handed Axe as well.

An Axe is a very useful tool since you can chop wood with it, which is something you are never going to do with a Sword or Spear.

Puster Sponsoring Member of TMP12 Jul 2019 1:35 a.m. PST

… and if chopped by axe?

One of the main problems with the axe is that if the other side is using a formation with spears, to hack effectively at the shield you have to be in range for them to poke spears into you.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP14 Jul 2019 7:42 a.m. PST

I do believe that the main weapon for most common Viking men would a been some sort of an Axe

No it would be a spear, it was a spear for everyone.
Angles, saxons, Anglo-saxons, Danes, norwegians, swedes, Normans, franks, iberians, various germans.

Spears, spears spears.
I know it's boring but well that's that.

Except for perhaps religious symbols a Dane in England and and Anglo saxon would look completely the same in arms and armour.

Give a viking a shave and a haircut and you have an Anglo-Saxon.

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