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Lars Magnar Enoksen, Vikingarnas stridskonst (The Fighting Art of the Vikings)

Historiska Media,  2004. ISBN: 9185057320

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2004:2

Much has been written about the Vikings’ fearsome reputation, and in later years a great deal about their civilizing influence in northern Europe. But Enoksen’s book succeeds where very few others venture. Using original skaldic sources and a variety of runic texts he interprets the role of combat and warfare in Viking culture to ask a highly specific question: why were the Vikings so successful at raiding, besieging and overwhelming their enemies? The answer, as we see in this highly engaging book, is that Nordic culture and law were based on war and fighting prowess.
The Vikings practiced a number of combat sports such as glima wrestling and water wrestling (the purpose of the latter, to stop narrowly short of drowning one’s opponent). The author is a practitioner of glima wrestling, still a competitive sport in Scandinavia today, and he is thus able to make some inspired suggestions about Viking hand-to-hand techniques.
The meaning of the word “sport” (idrott) was much broader in Viking times than it is today, for it included a number of accomplishments such as runic know-ledge and weapon-making, in addition to normal physical pursuits. In this we see certain links with tradition in Tudor England, where nobles were not only expected to show fighting prowess, but also learning. With Italian influences, this eventually became synonymous with the idea of the Renaissance courtier.
The Icelandic sagas testify to the constant presence of violence in Scandi-navian society. Men who could not wield weapons were unlikely to keep their property, even if they could demonstrate moral superiority. And yet, as Enoksen shows, Viking society was also highly regulated. According to early law books such as the twelfth-century Grågåsen from Iceland and Hednaboken from Sweden, offenders were tried in a court where, if found guilty, they were made lawless for offences ranging from libel, unarmed attack or killing. Once lawless, criminals could be killed with impunity – a likely prospect in a society where blood-revenge was commonplace.
Ultimately, the Vikings were successful because they lived in a highly regulated society. The spoils of victory were divided according to carefully defined criteria. Depending on their status, warriors were paid by their chieftains in food, silver, or even ships. In return they pledged absolute loyalty. Furthermore, we see early signs of egalitarianism in Viking culture. There are instances of simple men raising runic stones to fallen chieftains. In Haddeby, a king erected a stone in honour of a lowly fighter. After King Knut had conquered England early in the 11th century, and found himself ruling over an empire with unwieldy diversity, he abolished all differences of rank unless based on proven fighting prowess. Or, as Enoksen puts it, “In the Viking era one acquired the social position one deserved, based on one’s skill at arms...”. Even women seem to have shared in the warrior cult. Accord-ing to Saxus Grammaticus, shield-maidens played a significant part in the battle of Bråvalla.
Even in his spiritual outlook the Viking warrior was wedded to the idea of fearlessly accepting his fate. The courageous fighter, when killed, would be taken away by the Valkyries, later to help the gods in the final battle of Ragnarök. Havamåls vers sums up the Viking philosophy well: “Beasts die, kinsmen die, and you are bound for the same death. But I know something that never dies – our judgement of the dead.” Thousands of runestones in Scandinavia still bear witness to the heroic actions of warriors in ancient battles. Ultimately, the Vikings seem to have viewed violent death as an inevitable fact. Dudo, the 9th century French chronicler, said of them that in battle “they seem rather to be slaughtering animals than fighting with men...”

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