When I was in Iceland in 1998, I stood where the locals chucked their pagan idols over the falls; I saw where Snorri Sturluson met his doom; and I got chased away from Hliðarendi by a dog. Five minutes later, Americans started visiting Iceland in droves; more recently, we all learned what happens when a nation that subsists on fishing and aluminum smelting decides to have a go at investment banking. I’m still abnormally fond of Iceland, but one of my sharpest classmates and traveling companions from ’98 has been busy indeed. He turned his passion into scholarship and became, to my delight, an expert on medieval Icelandic combat.
An award-winning acoustic engineer with a doctorate from MIT and nearly two dozen patents to his name, William R. Short made the sort of radical career change most people only dream of. Bill is now the Viking-in-residence at the Higgins Armory Museum and the author of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques, a new book that reflects a decade spent researching, reconstructing, and demonstrating the fighting methods of saga heroes.
“Little in my academic training prepared me for life as a Viking in a museum,” Bill says on his Web site, but he’s being modest; his scientific background is exactly what makes Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques a valuable book. Rather than rush into the fray armed only with the romanticism that gives historical reenactors a bad name, Bill methodically defines his terms; he provides a taxonomy of Viking arms that extends even to such improvised weapons as rocks and household implements; and he surveys the written, visual, forensic, and archaeological sources, explaining their limitations and, most tantalizingly, pointing out where text and object disagree. Non-scholars and newcomers to the Viking arsenal will find this book quite readable, but medievalists in other fields will be intrigued by wonderfully trivial mysteries: For example, there’s no evidence for the chin-straps that surely held Viking helmets atop Viking heads, and nothing is known about several weapons named in the sagas but misleadingly translated into English as “hallberd.”
Already a useful reference work, Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques also documents efforts by Bill and his colleagues to rethink saga-era melee not as “two hairy men trading great blows with one another, almost as if they were trying to chop down trees” but as its own sort of martial art. Bill repeatedly stresses the conjecture and speculation that goes into reconstructing the combat techniques of medieval Icelanders, but the photographic sequences in this book convincingly show the versatility of a good, small shield, and also why a spear was no match for a sword.
I thought I had little interest in Viking combat, but the next time I pick up Njal’s Saga, I’ll be glad that Bill’s book has armed me with a whole new set of visuals. Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques is a concise but thorough handbook for scholars, saga readers, and even historical novelists; it’s the sort of work that puts a good face on independent scholarship and a worthy, bearded face on historical reenactment.