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Viking skills # 5: Violence

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Most people would say that violence isn’t a skill. Fighting is a skill, and to be a Viking, you had to be a good fighter. I disagree. Going into a fight can get you killed, especially if it involves a couple of axes. Using violence to get the results you want, on the other hand, is something entirely different.

I know most people see the stereotypical Viking as a brave warrior fighting his enemies with his mighty broadsword. There is no doubt that the Norsemen were brave, but they were not stupid. Before antibiotics, any time your skin got perforated by something sharp, you were in danger of infection, fever and death. Everyone knew that. So you would only go into battle if you were desperate, insane or very well paid.

Don’t get me wrong, being a warrior was actually a full-time occupation for some people during the Viking Age. It was typically kings, jarls and herses (major chieftains) who kept a group of men around them, but this was expensive as they had to be fed all year round. A king defeated in battle often resulted in lots of hungry, armed men walking about the countryside, which I am sure wasn’t popular among common people. There were also warrior brotherhoods like the Jomsvikings, who made their living partly as mercenaries and partly by killing and plundering on their own initiative. But being a full-time warrior was, relatively speaking, not a common profession, not even at the height of the Viking era.

If we look at the close combat weapons the Vikings used – the ones that are actually artefacts from that time – we can learn a lot about how they were used. Their shape and weight screams killing. They are not shaped for fighting, but for killing. The swords are shaped for slashing, the axes are shaped for crushing, cutting and hooking. The spears are made for stabbing the opponent while you’re hidden behind the safety of your shieldman. These weapons are not made for fighting. They are made for killing. And by the way, the real Viking weapons were not as big as the ones you see in the usual Hollywood movies. Even my big, two handed Dane axe has a head no heavier than my wood splitting hatchet.

One other thing most people don’t realize, is that if you lived a thousand years ago, you’d be in contact with violence and death from an early age. Taking a life would be a natural part of your existence. Why? Because you would be hunting. And you would be slaughtering farm animals. Modern people usually don’t think about this, as we have distanced ourselves from this aspect of life. But killing an animal is violent. And it wasn’t anything like what hunters do today, where they shoot an elk or a deer from great distance. It is much more intimate to sneak up on the prey with bow and arrow, or to slit the throat of that goat you’ve been feeding and caring for since it was newborn. I know, it sounds horrible. And it is. But it was something you had to do to feed your family.

But getting back to the issue about violence used at human beings. Violence was a part of life in Viking society, but it was not a lawless society. You could not kill people just because you wanted to. If you went abroad to plunder, you could and you probably had to, but most people who went abroad didn’t go to plunder. They went there to trade, work, find a wife, settle as a farmer or craftsman etc. Which meant that you had to abide by the local rules. Even the Viking sea-kings, who we’d likely call pirates today, didn’t always use force. They sometimes got far better results through diplomacy.

So here is my theory, and I am sure this will be discussed among the readers of this blog: The Viking fighter is somewhat of a contradiction. While dying at the battlefield was the «perfect death», in real life Vikings would avoid battlefields if they could. They would fight from their longships, always trying to decimate the enemy using arrows before tying the ships together and fighting hand-to-hand, and they would always try to get the tactical advantage using the terrain, the weather, starvation etc, but they would rarely just rush into battle with no purpose other than killing people. Using violence was considered a skill, and to be good at it, you had to involve your head. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Vikings were many things, but they were no idiots.

-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen

Read more: Viking skills #1

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