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Traps and Pitfalls
in the field of Viking research

Introduction

Researching ancient cultures is an adventurous journey, but whenever one embarks on such a journey of adventure, whether to slay a dragon or to discover new worlds, there will be traps and pitfalls along the way. In this article, we will discuss the traps and pitfalls that lie waiting for an unwary researcher when studying the Viking world. We start the article by stating an important and seemingly self-evident fact, but one that is often overlooked.

We are not Vikings.

None of us, neither you the reader, nor we the authors, are 1000 year old men or women living in Nordic lands. The Vikings died out 1000 years ago. We are not even modern Vikings, whatever that term means. Failure to recognize that fact can lead us into traps and pitfalls.

Even if our lineage can be 100% directly traced to Vikings, we still are not Vikings. Our ancestry does not make us more or less of an authority on Vikings nor does it make us better researchers, nor does it allow us to claim we have more truth on Vikings than others, nor does it allow us to claim their historical greatness, accomplishments, or horrors as our own.

Viking snowblower
Vikings didn't use snowblowers. Regardless of the clothes we wear or the weapons we carry, we are not Vikings.

Seeing ourselves as Vikings will undoubtedly drive us to color our research: to paint the Vikings in the image we see as attractive or admirable. In addition we do not seek justification for pushing anyone away from their quest for knowledge about Vikings, be that as a researcher, a reenactor, or enthusiast. Your bloodline, gender, or any other factors do not matter here.

We will spend a lot of time discussing these traps because we, the authors, have fallen into most of them, causing wasted efforts and lost time in our search for the truth on Viking topics. These traps are not merely nuisances, but have led to misinformation, violence, and hate in the world, so we take these traps seriously.

Modern mindset

In discussing the traps and pitfalls, we use a concept called modern mindset. It is an umbrella term we use for anything that modern-day thinking can lay as a trap in our way as we explore the world of the Vikings. In reality, it is not generally an aspect of life that Viking-age people experienced, but rather, something that we, who are not Vikings, have put in our path, impeding our progress.

Modern mindset is, in fact, a minefield in our path. It can drive us away from finding the answer. The traps of modern mindset will, at times, overlap, with one trap strengthening another. We will examine each trap on its own.

Ultimate authority

A well-regarded scholar, or an academic, or an influential person makes a statement about something regarding Vikings and from that point forward, the statement is accepted as fact without question. It has become the undoubted truth because the ultimate authority said it or wrote it. This practice still happens today, but more typically, it is something that happened in the past. The ultimate authority wrote the undoubted truth, and it has been uncritically accepted as the truth, influencing research and skewing the image of Vikings through to this day.

We have joked in the past that there are "truths" out there today that were put forth in the 1950's that no one has ever questioned. We picked the year 1950 because we saw the date come up again and again in our research when there was an undoubted truth for which we couldn't find deep analysis or solid logic in more recent times. But after looking into it a bit more deeply, we find that perhaps the date is no joke. From the mid-19th century through to the mid-20th century, serious research began to be conducted on Vikings. It was a time of new sources, such as major archaeological finds, and new approaches to research and analysis. It was also a time of nationalism in Europe, when there was a need to find a glorious, heroic past to solidify a nation's hold on the present.

Stora Hammars stone
Stora Hammars picture stone showing many swords in use. Creative Commons.

A good example of ultimate authority that has continued into the present day is the idea that swords were rare and prestigious in the Viking age. Scholars and academics likened a sword to a high status object such as a Ferrari today. Yet the sources do not support this idea at all. Swords are seen widely on picture stones, often to the exclusion of axes and spears. Swords are described as being used in battle in numerous literary sources. Swords are found extensively in the archaeological records. Among the Viking weapons found in Norway, there are nearly the same number of swords as axes and many more axes than spears. Even in Iceland, swords are not uncommon finds. The evidence suggests that swords were at best a Land Cruiser, and not a Ferrari in the Viking age.

weapon finds in Norway
percentage of Viking-age weapons found in the archaeological record of Norway

runestone Öl 28
Runestone Öl 28 raised in memory of Smiđr, a good drengr. Creative Commons.

The same is true with the concept of drengr. The word drengr describes the state of being that all Viking-age men and women aspired to. A highly-regarded book from the 1940s was perhaps the most influential research on the topic. The book devotes an entire section to the concept of drengr, explaining it as brave, high-minded, and honor. We, along with everyone else, accepted this explanation without question, especially from such a well-regarded book. And so drengr has been brave, high-minded, honor since the book was published.

In our early research, we saw no need to test the ideas of the rarity of swords nor the meaning of the concept drengr. Reputable ultimate authorities had spoken about the concepts, and many other scholars followed in their footsteps to the present day, publishing material that reinforced the "truth" of the original ultimate authority. Yet, when we started writing our book Men of Terror, we were forced to question old truths and dig deep in order to create a holistic picture of Viking combat. For that work, understanding the concept of drengr was key.

We painstakingly looked at literary sources, runestones, and other sources to see how the word was used in ancient times. What emerged was something different, something deeper, and something more important than honor. Being drengr implies a sense of trust. A drengr is a man who could be trusted, an essential trait in the violent Viking society.

These examples are only two of many that changed our view and understanding of Vikings, but which had not been questioned since an ultimate authority stated it as the "truth" at an earlier time.

The key to avoid the ultimate authority trap is to have a healthy skepticism and to ask the question: what sources are available to suggest the "truth" is, in fact, the truth?

Modern efficiency

The next pitfall is that of modern efficiency. It is a common pitfall in the research of Viking combat, but it can also be found in other areas of Viking research. It is the aspect of researching how to do most efficiently what we assume the Vikings did. It is a trap because what is efficient or common sense to us under modern constraints may not have mattered a bit to Vikings.

Many of those who study Viking combat are trying to figure out the most efficient way to use Viking weapons and defenses, and they conclude that is how Vikings fought with those weapons. Instead, we should seek something quite different: how did the Vikings actually use their weapons?

We fell into this trap early on in our research of Viking combat. When we first started our combative force-on-force simulations, we saw ample opportunities for punches, knee strikes and head butts. We had even assumed that the spike seen on the Viking helmet from Gjermundbu was intended for a headbutt. Accordingly, in our research, the question became: how do we implement these clearly effective moves into our combat simulation and into our training? We had fallen into the trap of modern efficiency.

Fortunately, we realized the trap. To avoid the trap, the question should instead be: did Vikings use punches, knee strikes, or headbutts?

Asking that question leads us to answers that bring us closer to the truth about Viking combat. To find an answer, we reviewed the sources, layering them to find a common thread. The evidence strongly suggests that Vikings did not use punches, headbutts or knee strikes in their combat.

helmet spike
replica helmet with spike similar to that of Gjermundbu helmet


front and back edge of a Viking sword

Another good example is the use of the back edge of the Viking sword. Viking swords are typically double edged with two nominally identical edges. We assumed logically that it was used in the most combatively effective way under the constraints of our combat simulation (a topic discussed later in this article). The most efficient means to use the back edge in our simulation was as another cutting tool on the sword.

This use made sense, and it was workable in force-on-force combat simulations. In our early years of combat simulations, we used back edge attacks extensively. Yet, we were troubled because we had no sources that suggested back edge use of a Viking sword. We had fallen into the trap. The question should have been: did Vikings use the back edge for attacks? An even better question might be: what was the use of the back edge of the Viking sword? These questions would lead to answers, instead of the modern mindset approach of how to use the sword most efficiently.

Having questions instead of preconceived ideas of efficient use led us to do more testing and research. We performed measurements to quantify the notable difference in power between front edge and back edge strikes. Using a weak strike was not consistent with other sources related to Viking combat, which all suggest a power-based combat system. A back edge strike was not in harmony with this kind of combat system. After further study and research, we found an episode in Saxo that gave us some additional clues about the use of the back edge. A swordsman, thinking his edge had been damaged delivering a powerful blow, turned the sword in his hand to use the second edge for the killing blow. The evidence points to the back edge being used as a spare in the Viking age, should the front edge be dulled or damaged.

front vs back edge
Measured impact delivered to the target using front edge and back edge cuts. The front edge cut delivers more than 5 times the power.

We could have modified many aspects of our use of the back edge resulting in somewhat more power in our back edge strikes in order to force our preconceived ideas about efficiency to work, but that would have just driven us deeper into the trap of modern efficiency. Instead, asking the question about whether Vikings used back edge cuts or not leads us closer to the truth.

iron smelt furnace
Hurstwic iron-smelting furnace at the Járngerđar hátíđ iron-making festival at Eiríksstađir in 2019.

This trap can also be seen in other Viking-related fields. For example, in our research of Viking iron smelting, we could have asked the question of how to smelt to create the most efficient process, and thus the greatest iron yield. Instead, the question should be: how did Vikings smelt iron, and what yield did they expect to get?

To avoid the trap of modern efficiency, we should carefully craft our research questions. Instead of asking: how would we do a Viking activity in the most effective manner, we should instead ask: how would Vikings have done this activity, and what sources are available to suggest Vikings used that approach?

Modern constraints

Strongly connected with modern efficiency is modern constraints. The concept of modern constraints is related to the playing field on which we do our research, testing, and experiments.

It is worth mentioning again that we are not 1000 year old men and women from the Nordic lands; we are not real Vikings. Because we are not Vikings, our testing will never fully replicate what Vikings did, especially in the field of combat. Without that realization, we quickly but unintentionally enter an arena of fantasy and gaming. With an awareness of this distinction, we understand that our fights are not Viking fights. Instead, they are a simulation: a force-on-force combat simulation.

As we do our simulations, there are many differences from Viking fights. We do not use sharp edged weapons. There is no intent to kill our enemies as would be the case in a Viking fight. Our enemies in our fights are not even our enemies, but instead our research partners, our friends, and our teammates. At worst, they are our competitors. We do accept pain and bruises, a twisted ankle, or the occasional bloody nose or black eye, but we do not accept serious injury, such as severing a limb.

Hurstwic training
Hurstwic training: fight simulation with steel weapons

We are locked in constraints, the ones we call modern constraints. If not very careful about the definition of reality and simulation, our testing will be skewed. A simulation can quickly turn into a game of points, one with a winner and loser. The ego of getting a point or winning a round can rapidly turn a serious experiment into a competition to win a game. A game will never be a fight, and a fight will never be a game.

Under these modern constraints, we are very limited, for what might be efficient and effective with the limitations of modern constraints might be far removed from the subject we are trying to understand. Tests done under the modern constraints are usually done in an even playing field with many limitations, compared to Viking combat. A few examples include:

These are just a few of the enormous number of limitations we have to deal with when it comes to modern constraints. Discoveries can be made under these constraints but they will always be limited.

In an effort to counter the modern constraints two methods need to be used. One is simply a mind game: that is to ask questions about the conclusions drawn from combat simulation tests. For example, will the fighting we do on even terrain under modern constraints work as well under more typical Viking-age combat conditions, such as plowing through (ryđja) on the deck of a rocking ship? Will it work as well while taking a stand at a vígi? Will it work during a raid on a town? Will it work under the rules of Viking dueling?

savate
Savate

Combat systems, especially ancient systems, are often born out of the society and environment in which they were created. As an example, the low stances of some of the southeast Asian martial arts systems are based on their having been used in muddy terrain, or the kicks of the French Savate which are based on the system having been used by sailors who needed to hold on to something aboard the rocking ship while they fought.

The same is very likely with the Viking fighting system. The system worked well in the society and environment where it was used, not just on the even playing field of today with its modern constraints.

The other method we use to counter modern constraints has been a big part of Hurstwic's journey: layered testing. We must circumvent these modern constraints by doing different kinds of tests, changing an element in the simulation and layering one test on top of another test on top of a different test. This is where our improvisational skills will be challenged, because the constraints of simulated combat must be bypassed in order to make progress in our research. New weapons and defenses must be invented. New ways of testing must be invented. In reality we had to use Bruce Lee's concept of using no way as way. We must find a way to circumvent the modern constraints.

Hurstwic has used numerous methods and approaches to circumvent this trap. Here are a few of the methods we used to illustrate our approach to going around the trap.

We cannot use sharp weapons in our simulations, but experiencing the capabilities of the sharp weapon on the human body or on Viking-age defenses is crucial to gain the information on how to be able to conduct our simulations in the most realistic way. Our cutting tests were made to a variety of targets made of various materials, but what best replicates the human body is flesh and bone. Accordingly, our preferred cutting target is an animal carcass. These tests gave us insights and show us what we should be looking for in our simulations.

Since we live in the modern world and must comply with its ethics and laws, there are limits to how much pressure we can put on our research partners. We cannot, for example, hit our teammates with full force to the head in order to gauge the impact level and the injuries delivered by the weapon to the person being hit. This is where computer modeling and computer simulation can assist in gaining valuable insights.

helmet nose guard
replica Viking helmet with nose guard

Computer simulations can also give us information that would be difficult to attain using human test subjects, such as the effectiveness of a defense, like the nose guard of a Viking helmet.

Computer simulation can also give us information when we can find no other way to ethically test a weapon or a defense.

duel shield break
A shield is split in a simulated Viking duel during a Hurstwic simulated combat session.

Because we don't use sharp-edged weapons in our combat simulations, the results of our testing will be affected. For example, a cut with a sharp edged weapon will shatter a wooden Viking shield quite unlike a blunt weapon, which usually doesn't shatter it. The possibility that the shield might shatter may affect the method of the fight, for example, how one would choose to position the shield for defense knowing it might break under the blow. To allow us to experience this situation in simulated combat, we created shields from a material that shattered during the fight when hit by a good solid strike with safe training weapons in much the same way as a wooden shield when struck with a sharp edged weapon.

Our combat simulations can be quite rough and energetic. In the chaos and excitement of the fight, a heavy blow from a blunt weapon might be ignored and the fight continued. While a heavy hit from a blunt weapon can be ignored, a heavy hit from a sharp-edged weapon cannot. We had to devise a method to make clear to the fighters what was going on in the chaos of the fight even if fighters were able to ignore the hits. We used more conventional approaches, such as reviewing the simulation on video at the end of the round, but the hits do not always show clearly on camera. Instead, we designed weapons that left a mark where they hit. At the end of the round, the marks told exactly where each hit was made, and to some degree, the power of the cut.

marking weapons
Marking weapons clearly show a powerful hit to the knee of William the legless

spear dodgeball
a spear dodgeball competition at Hurstwic

Sometimes testing requires countless repetitions of an isolated move. An example is testing the plausibility of having a spear thrown at a fighter who catches it and returns it, killing the original thrower, a move mentioned numerous times in the literary sources. To test the move, we invented a game we call spear dodgeball: a game where the move is repeated countless times in isolation against an uncooperative partner.

These examples are just a few of the methods we improvised to overcome the modern constraints. As we seek to avoid the trap of modern constraints, we ask two questions: is the test we are conducting constrained by modern ethics, laws, or practices that would not have applied in the Viking era? Is it a game, bound by the modern rules of the game instead by Viking norms? If the answer to either question is yes, we must devise tests to circumvent those modern constraints.

Categorization

Another trap is categorization. We moderns tend to categorize things as we study them. We like to organize, separate, and pigeonhole the things we study. We put ideas and concepts into boxes, and everything has a place inside a box. An example is taxonomy used for categorizing species.

Vikings simply did not do this in the same way as we do today. We see this in the Old Norse language of the Viking age where there is sometimes one word used to describe what we moderns consider many different ideas and concepts. This notion is presented in Ármann Jakobsson's book The Troll Within You using the example of the word tröll (troll), which was used in ancient times to signify a wide range of paranormal creatures and humans including giant monsters, ghosts (draugr), mighty men, men of magical means, and more.

giraffe taxononmy
Giraffe taxonomy. Creative Commons.

Conversely, many words were used in the ancient language to depict one idea. For example, the empty-hand fighting of the Vikings was called both glíma and fang. In 1887, Ólafur Davíđsson and Jón Árnason wrote the book Íslenzkar gátur, skemtanir, vikivakar og ţulur. In the text, Ólafur pondered if fang was the umbrella word for wrestling, and if glíma was a unique style of fang. He offered no logic why that was the case. Since the publication of the book, glíma and fang have been thought to refer to two different wrestling styles: glíma, a beautiful wrestling style done by Icelanders; and fang, a lowly and uncivilized wrestling style done elsewhere. Yet, in the ancient sources, there is no difference to be seen between the usage of these two words. Indeed, at times they are used in the same sentence to refer to the same wrestling style.

Smiss stone
The Smiss picture stone, thought to depict a Viking duel. Creative Commons.

A similar situation exists with Viking-age dueling. The words used in ancient literary sources are hólmganga and einvígi. Scholars have thought them to be two different ways of dueling, based on the evidence from only a single episode in one saga where there is a difference between the two. Yet in all other episodes over a wide range of ancient literary sources, they are the same. And as with glíma, the same duel is sometimes referred to as hólmganga and einvígi in adjacent sentences. Here we also see the trap of ultimate authority. An expert wrote a "fact", and since then, it has been the unquestioned truth. [pix: Smiss stone]

We find the categorization trap in other areas of Viking research as well, such as in the war tactics. The Viking age took place before the Geneva Conventions, and so in some cases, one cannot easily categorize whether a Viking tactic such as a raid was terrorism, or an act of war, or men seeking orđstírr for themselves.

Another categorization trap is standardized rules. We moderns expect, for example, our activities such as games and sports to have formalized and universal rules. Yet, it was not common to have standardized rules in sports or games in any society contemporary with the Viking age. That standardization came later, with folklorists, scholars of games, sportologists, pedagogists and more: people who wanted to write a book, or instructions, or just to play or teach the games.

hnefatafl board
hnefatafl board

Probably the best example is the board game hnefatafl. To us moderns, we expect a game with standardized rules, yet we find Viking-age hnefatafl boards of differing sizes with different numbers of playing squares. We find game sets with differing numbers of kinds and playing pieces.

hnefatafl playing pieces
hnefatafl playing pieces found at Baldursheimur

hryggspenna grip
Hryggspenna grip. ©NAEPHOTO.

We also find this trap in the sportive wrestling of the Viking age. The literary sources do not give us a clear image of whether the bouts started in a grip or if they started at distance without a grip. Sometimes they started in a grip and sometimes not.

As researchers, we must be wary of this trap. We should avoid looking for the strict, formalized rules of the activity, but rather for the common thread running through. For example, in glíma, we see that all the sources point to a preferred grip, a preferred bragđ (throws and takedowns), and preferred ways of winning the bout. The rules were not uniform, but there were common elements running throughout the sources.

To avoid the trap of categorization, we should ask ourselves: are we forcing our ideas into categories that we moderns like to use, instead of the more fluid categories and divisions used by Vikings?

Zeitgeist / Wishful thinking

The last trap we will discuss is zeitgeist, which refers to the spirit of a period in history reflected in the beliefs and ideas of that time. It is painting a picture of the past with the colors of the present. It is wishful thinking, where one has a desired conclusion in mind and gathers evidence, ignoring or demoting any sources pointing away from what is desired.

What we cherish today is sometimes forced upon the past. Something as simple as the image of Viking people has morphed and evolved during the modern era as people have forced their image of the present onto the past. In the 19th century, Vikings were the noble heroes of the Wagnerian and Victorian era. They were the shining image of one's heroic ancestors, a sure proof that one's own bloodlines were better than others.

This view continued and strengthened in the 20th century, where the Vikings became the glittering image of the pure Aryan race, a race thought to be superior to others by those with an agenda of hate. Many Viking runes and other ancient symbols were used in this quest of suppressing those not thought to be descendants of the glorious Vikings. The use of the runes and symbols was influenced by the occultist (and ultimate authority) Guido von List. These kinds of repugnant activities make it clear that the traps and pitfalls of the modern mindset are not merely a slight hindrance to the study of Vikings. Indeed, they can be deadly and horrific, leading to appalling acts. Sadly, even today, there are groups falling deep into these traps, using their twisted view of the Viking age to spew hate, separation and their own ignorance.

With more and more popular entertainment based on Vikings being released, we see that the image of Vikings continues to morph. From the half-naked rowdy barbarians depicted in late 20th century movies, the image has evolved to Vikings dressed in the latest fashion and hair styles that adhere to the societal ideals at the time of production in the early 21st century.

Wagnerian Viking
A Wagnerian Viking. Creative Commons.

But it's not only the image of the Viking people that has changed. It is also our understanding of various words, concepts, ideals, and beings that has morphed, such as the meaning of the word drengr, discussed earlier. The meaning of the word has evolved multiple times since the Viking age, and to understand its meaning, we had to follow those changes. Shortly after the Viking age, drengr became a word for a young man seeking his wealth and reputation. Later in Norwegian, it came to mean a farmhand. In Iceland today, it refers to any young boy. Yet in Iceland, it also retained its original Viking-age meaning in the modern legal codes. Today, the law allows a person to swear to tell the truth either on the Holy Scripture or on his drengskapr.

Viking-age supernatural beings have morphed and changed. Elves morphed from being poorly defined beings only a step lower than the gods in the Viking age to being parallel-universe beings of the later folklore, finally becoming the clearly defined beings created by J.R.R. Tolkien. The elves that many Icelanders revered in the modern era seem to have little to do with the elves of the Viking age. Similarly, the concept of draugr (ghosts) has changed. Originally, they were the living dead creatures of the Viking age, but later turned into the ghostly spirits, fitting in well with the era of early spiritism.

We cannot take our modern zeitgeist and overlay it on the Viking age. We might like the Viking age to reflect our ideals of today, but the evidence suggests that some things that were perfectly acceptable and normal in the Viking age would be repugnant to us today, and vice versa.

slave shackle
A slave shackle found at the Viking-age trading town of Birka. Creative Common.

An example is the practice of exposure (bera út), where unwanted babies were placed outdoors until they died of exposure. The practice was so firmly rooted in Viking society that it was permitted even after the conversion to Christianity (Íslendingabók, ch.7). Another example is slavery, an integral part of Viking society. These are not admired practices today, and attempts to whitewash the past with zeitgeist and wishful thinking leads us straight into a trap. We cannot rewrite history to make it more like what we'd like it to be unless we have solid supporting evidence without any preconceived outcome that distorts one's thinking. We must reject all attempts to alter the past to meet the standards of the present.

Once again, we must remember that we are not Vikings. No matter how much or little Viking blood runs through our veins, or how much Viking DNA is in our genes, we are not Vikings. Whatever greatness or horrors the Vikings achieved, they are not something we can claim as our own doing.

To avoid the trap of the zeitgeist, we must constantly ask ourselves: are we forcing the past to align with our modern standards, either personal or popular? In essence, do we have a preconceived notion of how we want the Vikings to be? If the answer is yes, we must wipe the slate clean and start again.

Flat earth research

These traps of modern mindset can lead us on a path we call flat-earth research for lack of a better term. It is a situation where a researcher has an outcome in mind, and then he or she creates logical arguments, gathers evidence while ignoring or demoting any sources pointing away from what is desired, and then performs research to justify the desired conclusion, thus proving the desired outcome.

There are many such examples when it comes to Viking studies. Many of these examples have been popularized in the media. Why the interest? Could it be that we all would like the glorious past to mirror our ideals of today? Thus, we fall into the trap of zeitgeist and paint the past with the colors of the present.

Summary

It is extremely important to be wary of our modern mindset as we do our research. It can skew our results, leading to false ideas based on preconceived notions that fit well with the zeitgeist of our times and our wishful thinking. More importantly, it can be dangerous, leading to the spread of misinformation and hate.

We need to fill our research toolbox with tools that ask questions that may not always tell us what we want to hear, but steer us towards the truth that sheds light on the ancient culture of the Vikings. We need to step away from the fantasy that we are, in fact, Vikings. While we might appreciate aspects of their culture or their way of living, we will never be Vikings.


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