'... The Illustrated Guide to Viking Martial Arts in effect represents the earliest combat manual in the world.' So claims the publisher blurb on the back of this book. Does it live up to the claim?
- Antony Cummins
Imagine the world in 4000AD. No paper documents have survived the last two millennia, but researchers have discovered a collection of DVDs of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe and C. S. Forester's Hornblower television series and have constructed a machine to read them. The languages used on the DVDs are, by 4000AD, not spoken by anyone alive but the researchers think they have managed to make a decent stab at translating the dialogue, albeit without knowledge of the idioms and nuances used. From just those translated DVDs, one researcher produces a study of British Napoleonic fighting methods. Just how accurate do you imagine that study would be?
This is essentially what Cummins has done with The Illustrated Guide to Viking Martial Arts, using sagas as evidence of how 'Vikings' (Norse raiders of the C10th and earlier) fought, and thus producing this guide to their fighting methods. There are two major problems with this: Firstly, most scholars agree that the sagas themselves were only written in the C13th and that they may not have been accurate transcriptions of original oral history but instead created to appear to be older tales. Anachronisms appear within them which strongly suggests they were written by a middle medieval writer trying to make them sound older but inadvertently making mistakes. The second major problem is that the sagas are very often highly romanticised and/or dramatic retellings of stories. As sources for factual accounts of individual combat, therefore, they leave a great deal to be desired.
Cummins, a martial arts enthusiast and author with a Masters degree in archaeology, does identify the historical problems with using the sagas at the beginning of the book, but states that he is not trying to produce a historical text but instead to 'take the basic elements of the combat as described and start to reconstruct them as a martial art.' In other words, Cummins acknowledges that the sagas are not necessarily accurate historically, but yet believes that they nevertheless contain accurate and detailed enough descriptions of Old Norse combat for him to analyse it as a martial art.
The result is a 174 page book largely consisting of photo-silhouette-style illustrations of combat moves, accompanied by quotes from the sagas which the author believes lends credence to the existence of those moves. Covered are the usual Norse weapons of sword, shield, axe and spear, as well as unarmed combat and 'combination' and mounted moves. At the end is a short chapter on suicide methods (!) and the culture of collecting heads. Most of the basic moves are logical and credible, and very similar to those seen in later combat manuals. Some, however, are less credible as actual moves, such as the recreation of a mounted 'spur-strike' (gashing a dismounted opponent's face using your spur) or using a C11th spear head in the manner of a later polearm to catch and trap a swinging axe. The less credible moves illustrate some of the dangers of relying on sagas as references for such a study; what reads well in a story isn't necessarily a realistic option on the battlefield.
It will come as no surprise that I do not believe that this book delivers what it purports. As a loose guidebook for casual re-enactors or live-role-playing enthusiasts it might lend a little 'period authenticity' to their combat drills, but as an historical recreation of Old Norse combat it lacks scholarly credibility. Using the sagas as a primary and solitary source means that it is built upon the shakiest of foundations and no amount of logical recreation from those stories is going to result in an authentic interpretation of actual combat moves. It reads like a hobby work, an idea taken to publishing by an enthusiastic author who has immersed himself so deeply in the project that he cannot see its basic and fundamental flaws.