Review of Vikingarnas stridskonst (2004)

Lars Magnar Enoksen (writer).

Read in 2020.

Read cursively.

Viking martial culture.

A work of surprisingly serious and highly enthusiastic popular history. Enoksen does a good job reading some of the primary texts closely. He’s so far above common misconceptions that in the 14 places where he mentions helmets, he never once brings up the myth that Viking helmets had horns. He only tacitly contradicts this myth by pointing to the features of the best preserved archaeological sample.

The author covers gear (but not pharmacology), tactics, a couple of formations and one example each of land and sea battles between Viking factions, but his focus—and the main strength of the work—is in the earlier chapters illustrating how contemporary morals, religion, law, economy, pedagogy, public entertainment, contructions of masculinity etc. all intersected to sustain an extraordinarily vicious, paranoid and warlike culture. He finds the clearest formulation of this culture in 17th-century Persian scholar Amīn Rāzī’s condensed account of Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s 10th-century observations:

Om det uppstår en tvist eller stridigheter mellan två personer, och konungen inte kan medla i tvisten, bestämmer han att de skall kämpa mot varanda med svärd.

Den som segrar får rätt.

Here’s a translation to English of the same original text, found attributed to H. M. Smyser by Christie Ward:

When two people among them quarrel and the dissention is prolonged and the king is unable to reconcile them, he commands that they fight with swords; he who wins is right.

Though much is corrupted in Rāzī’s account, Enoksen believes this is correct. He discusses blood feuds and the practice of hólmgang (Sw. holmgång) as one where the strong could legally kill the weak and take their stuff, at the risk of their own lives. This is all slightly romanticized in Enoksen’s account and attributed to “våra förfäder” (our ancestors, implying a sympathetic Scandinavian reader). He does not bring up texts written by the victims of Viking raids, nor for instance the less flattering parts of ibn Fadlan’s portrayal of the Rus as raping slavers, but he does bring up how the many wounded would be treated, and how superstition flourished, and he allows the dreadful interlocking brutality of this society to shine through between the lines. As a result, it’s a surprisingly good book for fantasy worldbuilding, beyond mere military history.

non-fiction text