A previous post discussed the subject with regard to treatises and the use of the sword and shield. In this discussion it mentioned the Norse sagas. The following is a discussion about the Norse sagas and the information which can be found within them which is potentially useful when reconstructing the use of the sword and shield in the Norse fashion. It should be noted that this indicates some directions which are presented by the evidence, but does not make any wholesale claims about how a sword and shield should or should not be used. These are preliminary findings from a documentary discussion.
Norse Tradition – From the Sagas
The first thing that should be noted is that the Norse warriors should not be thought of as mere brutes who used mere strength to bash their way to their opponents, skill was evidently present, “Grettir struck down between him and the shield, cutting off both his hands at the wrist.” (Palmer, 1999:15). Such a blow performed shows skill with the sword and demonstrates that the art of war as practiced by the Norse needs a closer look before sweeping claims are made.
Norse shields evidently had shoulder straps on them, enabling the shield to be swung on to the back enabling the sword to be gripped with two hands, “When he had said this, he gripped his hilt with both hands, and, fearless of peril, swung his shield upon his back and slew many.” (Clements, 1999)
The idea that the shields of this period were weak in some fashion, even though there is evidence of them being destroyed in the same saga, should not be over-stated, the shield was still used as the prime defence, “but, distrusting his sword, parried the blows of both with his shield,” (Clements, 1999). This clearly tells us that the shields were well-made and there are quite a few mentions of shield bosses made of metal.
Further to this idea Palmer (1999) mentions a shield which was evidently passed along, “with the round target that once had belonged to Thorveig.” (Palmer, 1999:4). This means that the shield had been through one user and then proceeded to be used by another; again this disputes the weak nature of shields of this period. There is also evidence from the same source that they were bordered with iron, “his sword stuck fast in the iron border of Steinar’s shield.” (Palmer, 1999:4), a factor which would have extended the life of the shield quite a lot and made it not a disposable item.
Shield struck and damaged
While it is true there is evidence from both Clements and Palmer of shields being destroyed by blows and also cut through, it would seem that the blows which did this were extraordinary rather than the regular blows the shield would take. Further a shield which a sword would bite into could be used to the user’s advantage, “the blow fell on his shield. Gunnar gave the shield a twist as the sword pierced it, and broke it short off at the hilt.” (Palmer, 1999:17). Thus in this case while the shield was penetrated the occurrence was used to its owner’s advantage by breaking the opponent’s sword while it was stuck. Swords sticking into a shield are evident in more than one place in these sagas.
Use of shield
There is also evidence of swords not sticking into the edge of a shield, “Kari caught the blow sideways on his shield, and the sword would not bite;” (Palmer, 1999:22), clearly the angle at which Kari parried his opponent’s blade was not correct to catch the opponent’s weapon in the edge of it. The use of the shield to defend a warrior is evident in many places throughout the sagas, “where he defended himself, holding his shield before him, and hewing with his sword. They made little way against him.” (Palmer, 1999:15). In some cases it was holding ground, and in other cases it was merely defending, “He held his shield before him and retreated” (Palmer, 1999:15). In either case, the shield was the key to the warrior’s defence.
Of course there is also evidence of what would happen if the warrior could not use his shield in time to block a blow of an opponent, “so he could not throw his shield before the blow,” and so was struck (Palmer, 1999:19). In this case “throwing” the shield before the blow is extending it toward the opponent. This gives evidence that the shield of the Norse warrior was not used in a passive way, but in an active one.
The shield was not held back, but extended toward the opponent, “Thorbjorn took his shield, and held it before him, drew his sword” (Palmer, 1999:15). This would enable the warrior to have room to move, or draw their sword and presents the shield in a more active position rather than a more passive one. In most instances where the shield is used it is in an active position rather than a more passive situation, “Then Thorbjorn rushed upon Grettir and struck at him, but he parried it with the buckler [shield] in his left hand and struck with his sword” (Palmer, 1999:16). This idea of the active use of the shield culminates in the shield strike where it is used against the opponent, “Thoralf thrust his shield so hard against Eyvind that he tottered with the shock.” (Palmer, 1999:24). This shield strike could be made against the shield or directly against the opponent, either way it demonstrates a very active method of using the shield rather than a passive one as often has been assumed.
Clements, J. (1999) “Selected Anecdotes and Accounts of Epic Combat from Saxo Grammaticus”, http://www.thearma.org/essays/Saxo.htm#.WW2B44SGPIU
Palmer, T. (1999) “Viking Fighting Notes from 23 Sagas”, http://www.thearma.org/essays/vikingfight.htm#.WW2BgISGPIU