AGE OF HEROES - 7: MAKE READY FOR THE FIGHT - Learn From, Trust In Your Fellows

10th Century poser - where exactly was Brunanburh? (AD937)

Aethelstan looks over the Norse-Scots-Welsh-Irish camp before the Battle of Brunanburh. He used a ploy to outwit the Norsemen, challenging the leaders to a 'holmgang', gaining time to get his men in position whilst Norse preparations went ahead
Aethelstan looks over the Norse-Scots-Welsh-Irish camp before the Battle of Brunanburh. He used a ploy to outwit the Norsemen, challenging the leaders to a 'holmgang', gaining time to get his men in position whilst Norse preparations went ahead | Source
Brunanburh again, with the Dublin Danes under Olaf Guthfrithsson closing on Aethelstan's line wielding their long-handled Dane axes
Brunanburh again, with the Dublin Danes under Olaf Guthfrithsson closing on Aethelstan's line wielding their long-handled Dane axes | Source

I bought a copy of this Osprey book when I began my research into the invasion of Northumbria in September, 1066 by Harald Sigurdsson, known fondly as 'Hardrada', Hardradi' or Hardraada' ('Hard Ruler'). Worth the investment even if you only want to read about it.

Viking Hersir, 793-1066 AD

Nurture of the warband

Ready for a ruck. This fellow carries his weaponry, a shield and his purse of silver to pay his way.
Ready for a ruck. This fellow carries his weaponry, a shield and his purse of silver to pay his way.
A memorial stone that brings together a man's reputation as a fighter and his afterlife in Valhol - witness Odin's steed, the eight-legged Sleipnir
A memorial stone that brings together a man's reputation as a fighter and his afterlife in Valhol - witness Odin's steed, the eight-legged Sleipnir
Viking spearman with dished shield  bearing images of fighting boars
Viking spearman with dished shield bearing images of fighting boars
A warband charges up the strand as one man, each dependant on the other to watch his back in the event of counter-attack
A warband charges up the strand as one man, each dependant on the other to watch his back in the event of counter-attack

Early in the history of the northern lands...

Warbands were linked by blood. In Old Norse such an extended kinship group was known as an aett. Angantyr and his sons - thought to be berserkers - were such a group described in the Elder Edda. In the end they were laid out in a mass grave following their defeat.

In the society of kinship where a fighting unit was tied by blood, training for warfare would be part of everyday life.

When there was no form of kinship with his followers a leader would be bound to them through the 'gift economy'. Society developed similar to that of the clan in that the older men would become father figures to the younger members of the warband: an artificial clan. Other forms of relationship developed amongst outcasts or alienated, landless young men who clung to the fringes of society. They would make a living by banditry and/or warfare and gave light to Norse accounts of berserkers. In some tellings these berserkers came in bands of outlaws, rootless men in a society based on land-holding and kinship.

In Icelandic culture they were unwanted, as the islanders had ro rely on one another in a hostile environment - adding a veneer of human hostility to the equation would have been too much to bear. As things were there was strife in no short measure due to long-term blood-feuds between near neighbours, as the sagas recording by Snorri Sturlusson in the 13th Century bear witness, in bloody detail.

Variations on the oath that bound the artificial clan live on through the sagas, one being in Gisli's Saga. A long sod was cut from the turf, both ends still held to the earth by its roots. The middle is held up by a spear with a pattern-welded blade, the shaft being long enough that a man's outstretched arms can barely touch the rivets at the head. Those involved in the bonding let their blood drip onto the earth riven beneath the sod. Kneeling, they can swear their oath and shake hands, calling on the gods to witness their vows to avenge one another's deaths at the hands of outsiders.

Another non-kinship form of extending the clan took the form of fostering. Youngsters might be sent tHaraldo live in another household - or even another kingdom, as was Hakon, son of Harald 'Fairhair' who was sent to live with King Aethelstan in Wessex - to be treated as sons of that household and to learn their fighting skills in that household.

In very early times any skills learned would vary by the form of clan or society. Elders of the aett would pass on their skills either in physical training sessions or verbally, by way of tales of great deeds, of heroic achievements.

In Iceland Thord Granison aided the young warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson with physical demonstrations of his warfaring art. Thord was a little older than Egil, and was talked by his pupil into taking him to the winter sports at the White River Dale. An argument arose there, leading to fighting in which Thord abetted Egil in killing Grim Heggsson. Egil was under twelve at the time. Early in the life of Grettir Asmundsson something similar happened. Although it did not end in killing, threats of revenge were made and Grettir was at this time only fifteen years old.

A picture of a violent society emerges in which disputes usually led to slayings. Youths were not excluded and bad behaviour was not harshly punished, as it would once have been. they were coached for warfare, their tools - swords, spears, axes, daggers - for killing. There was no pretence in their outlook. A life might depend on a man's fast reaction in a given situation - and humour was reserved for the drinking benches!


WARBANDS GROW

As kingship in Norway centralised, there were a few options open to those who did not wish to yield to the rule of Harald 'Fairhair'.

Firstly there were regions on the European mainland where authority was slacker due to weak kingships or dukedoms such as in Lower Saxony or coastal regions of Frankia. Landowners whose wealth lay in easily disposable stock opted to leave for Iceland.

The young, landless and rootless were unable to go raiding as defences around the north-western kingdoms were able to turn back all but the greatest warbands. they could throw in their lot with leaders such as Hrolf 'the Ganger' or Goengu Hrolf, a giant of a man too tall to ride a horse - his feet touched the ground even when his backside rested in a saddle - who had his sights on land either side of the strip of water known to us now as the English Channel that kept apart Frankia and Wessex.

Elsewhere a new kind of clan arose, tied by oath alone and able to crush opposition by force of arms. The Jomsvikings had rules, as outlined in the Icelandic source, 'The Saga of the Jomsvikings',

1. No man older than two score and ten years, or younger than eighteen summers could join;

2. Kinship - with a member - did not hold weight;

3. No man should flee an opponent less able than himself;

4. To avenge one another as brothers;

5. Not to show fear in utterances whatever the situation;

6. Plunder to be held in common, no hoarding of spoils on pain of expulsion;

7. No man to stir trouble within the membership;

8. No man to spread rumours - leader gave out news as befitted;

9. No man should keep women within the fortress;

10.No man to be away from the fortress for more than three days;

11.The leader has the last word in disputes over kin-slaying taken place beyond the brotherhood.The greatest introduction into the code was the application of an older framework of accepted rules passed down through generations of pre-Jomsviking military societies.

The leader, Palnatoki, was a friend to kings and princes alike, hired out the men who flocked to his standard and they were well paid. He was a father-figure to the younger members, a 'brother' to the older ones.

Yet these were merely guidelines, not rules set in stone, although anyone who flouted them subjected himself to 'trial' if he wanted to stay. He would probably have to undergo a probationary period. The laws were meant to replace loyalties outside the society with new responsibilities and obedience to the Jomsviking code. Some likeness to individual rules can be seen in Half's Saga, and reflect some customs of the 'hird', the Norse equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. Jomsviking training looked beyond merely improving one's weapons skills. Maintaining standards in presentation, weaponry and protection entered the equation. Each man was responsible to his comrades in the fighting. A weak link spelled death not only to himself. The greatest introduction into the code was the application of an older framework of accepted rules passed down through generations of pre-Jomsviking military societies.

Kinsmen were taken into the brotherhood despite Rule 2, but all the same selection ruled out the recruitment of half of Sigvald 'Strut' Haraldsson, and they were turned away. In using selective recruitment the substitution of blood-ties by one of a brotherhood of the sword presaged modern military practice.

Another Osprey title I have in my own collection. Useful as a reference to the war gear men bore into battle, their clothes when not fighting and their weaponry. As advice on the above, it applies as research to what Englishmen wore at the time of uprisings well into the era of Norman occupation.

Unbelievable (?) Warrior Feats

In sagas we read of countless heroes who showed skills in fighting that were out of the ordinary. The Norsemen stamped their own mark on the history of the known world between the Caspian Sea and the Atlantic isles. Witness to begin with Beowulf's fights, first with the troll* Grendel, then with his mother and finally against the dragon. The sheer strength of his arms won him through, we are told. Every man needs a hero of his own time. Nowadays heroes are in fashion again, as we see from the roll call of feats and deaths in Afghanistan.

Back in the middle ages, though, there were no IEDs or automatic rifles. Skarphedin Njalsson is said to have skated across an ice sheet, cutting down one man as he went and leaping over a thrown shield meant to trip him. Olaf Tryggvason was known for his ambidexterity in throwing two spears at once. We also hear of spears being caught in mid-air, turned and thrown back with fatal accuracy. The skill in performing these feats points to practice.

Bowmanship, whilst not as prestigious or as much a national pre-occupation as in Edward III's England during the 100 Years War, was still a favoured skill. Einar Tambarskelve in Olaf Tryggvason's time could make a headless arrow puncture a hide. such a trick would need endless practice, leading to the strengthening of the forearm muscles and accuracy in excecution. Hunting with bows would likewise sharpen a man's skills for warfare. The hunt called for quick thinking and reaction, vital for a warrior's way of life. As a pastime it was a way of ridding society of unwanted pests, and of putting food on the table as shown in Grettir's Saga, where the eponymous hero meets a marauding bear.

Next - 8: Warcraft Wares

Einar Tambarskalve, Olaf Tryggvason's famous bowman, drawing by Christian Krog
Einar Tambarskalve, Olaf Tryggvason's famous bowman, drawing by Christian Krog | Source
Battling the Saxons, shield-walls collide - could be at Ashingdon or Maldon, or any one of a thousand confrontations between the 9th-11th centuries
Battling the Saxons, shield-walls collide - could be at Ashingdon or Maldon, or any one of a thousand confrontations between the 9th-11th centuries

'Sea Wolves', the Vikings, whichever you choose to call them. One thing we all agree on is that they were the masters of the short, sharp shock, the lightning attack, the 'bolt from the blue' used by the Royal Marine commandos or the SAS today. Where did they come from, how did they come and which way did they go? The only way of beating them was by copying their tactics, which Aelfred and his grandson Aethelstan did in their day when fighting incursions by the land-hungry Danes and spoil-searching Norsemen.

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