The Saga of Hurstwic:
the path we walked in our quest to learn how Vikings lived, fought, and died.
Told by William R. Short

The story of Hurstwic is a story about a journey which has not yet come to its end. Because we are eager to learn and grow, it is easy for us to pick up new ideas that seem promising and to discard old ideas that are no longer useful. Thus our journey is filled with twists and turns, with many dead ends and pitfalls. In the hope of explaining how our ideas have evolved, here is our story: the Saga of Hurstwic.

VALHS founders

Hurstwic began life as an historically accurate living history group, started by Ron Black and Casey Dorman as alternative to the local SCA. At first, the group took the name VALHS (Viking Age Living History Society), but Ron and Casey later chose Hurstwic, based on Anglo-Saxon placenames.

I joined the group after taking a summer course on the sagas in Iceland. I had only just learned about these stories of Viking-age people and was fascinated by the stories and eager to learn more. I cannot say why these stories grabbed my attention so strongly. Perhaps because the sense of humor of the saga characters so closely matches my own.

The summer course only served to fuel a curiosity and desire to learn more about the people of the sagas: their daily lives; their material culture; their beliefs and values. I wanted to extend my study of the sagas by doing some hands-on research into life in the Viking age. Hurstwic seemed like a good fit.

Just prior to my joining the group, there had been an injury during Hurstwic weapons training. I did not want another injury in any group with which I was affiliated, so I took it upon myself to find a better way to train.

Although at the time, Hurstwic was affiliated with Regia Anglorum, the lines of communication to their experts in the UK were very tenuous. The closest other North American member was many hundreds of miles away and feeling just as isolated as we. I searched elsewhere.

I discovered some material on-line published by HACA (now known as ARMA). The site described how to make training weapons that we could use for Viking training which seemed to reduce the risk of serious injury. We made weapons according to their patterns and started to use them. But we still didn't know how to train. We were enthusiastic and eager, but in the end, we were people wearing Viking-age clothing using training weapons patterned after Viking-age weapons, but we were only making up how Vikings fought because we had nothing to use as a source.

I searched for people who could help us train. More traditional martial arts schools didn't seem appropriate. Interest in historical European martial arts was only beginning to bloom, and there were no groups near us doing regular work.

Higgins Armory Museum

One of the places I contacted was Higgins Armory Museum (which sadly, closed its doors at the end of 2013). The new curator, Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng, was starting a group to research and practice medieval and Renaissance fighting as taught by the historical combat treatises. I immediately joined the group, which took on the name Higgins Armory Sword Guild.

Sword Guild logo
Guild training group

I was pleased to be working with a group that had a training plan and a focus, even if that focus was not the same as my own.

Guild practice group
Meyer illustration At the Sword Guild, we started our training with Meyer's treatise (left), working through the longsword material, and later the material on other weapons. Throughout, I was looking to see if this material might be adopted to Viking weapons. Meyer writes in the first sentence of his book that the longsword is the basis for all other weapons, and so I hoped that his teaching might be used as the basis for Viking weapons.

At the same time, we were also working on sword and buckler material from the Royal Armouries I.33 manuscript (right). It seemed like the material taught there ought to be applicable to Viking sword and shield.

I.33 illustration

I.33 is the treatise closest to the Vikings: closest in time (perhaps two or three centuries after the close of the Viking age); closest in place (from lands now part of Germany); and closest in weapons (sword and buckler). It was easy to believe, at first, that because of these close connections, Viking-age fighting must have resembled that taught in I.33. At the very least, I felt that the sword and buckler material in I.33 must retain some feint echoes of Viking sword and shield.

At the same time, Hurstwic was foundering. It became harder and harder to schedule group events, and the dissention building between members made events less enjoyable for all. Both of the founders withdrew because of family reasons, and the remaining members chose to disband, rather than to continue. In some small way, the end was almost a relief, because it was now easy to drop it and to move on to other things.

Hurstwic event
Hurstwic homepage

I had created a substantial web presence for Hurstwic, material which seemed to be genuinely useful to students of the Viking age around the world. I decided to maintain the website using the Hurstwic name, and to build and grow the material to make it a destination for anyone with an interest in the Viking age.

My study of Viking-age weapons and their use had reached a point where I felt comfortable doing a regular monthly presentation on Viking arms and armor at Higgins Armory Museum for museum guests. One of the early guests was Matthew Marino. His interest in the Viking age grew out of his interest in historical Anglo-Saxon wood-working techniques. Matt joined me in my research of Viking weapons and their use and then subsequently joined me in the demos.

removing pith to make an axe haft

This event was a milestone in Hurstwic's journey. Matt brought a deep knowledge and practical experience in how Viking-age people made things out of wood, iron, leather, fabric, and other materials. He also brought a different mindset and approach to our weapons training, a practical and open-minded approach to the work that accelerated our training and greatly improved our demo material. Working together, Matt and I were able to accomplish much more than I had been able to accomplish working on Viking material alone at the Sword Guild.

Matt with finished axe haft
Talhoffer

The Sword Guild held a two-day training workshop with Stephen Hand from the Stoccata School of Defense in Australia. I recall that most of the session was on sword and buckler based on I.33, but Stephen demonstrated some of his thoughts on how Viking sword and shield were used, based on material in the Talhoffer treatise (left). These ideas were published in an article, "Talhoffer's Sword and Duelling Shield Techniques as a Model for Reconstructing Early Medieval Sword and Shield Techniques", written by Hand and Wagner.

This material further convinced me of the value of using the medieval and Renaissance combat treatises as a source for understanding Viking-age fighting. Applying Talhoffer's technique-driven approach to Viking-age weapons seemed at the time to result in an effective use of these earlier weapons, as demonstrated in the photos in Hand and Wagner article, and as executed by us in the Sword Guild practice room. At the time, the conclusions that Vikings might have used these techniques seemed solid. Our research continued along these lines at the Higgins Armory Sword Guild, and several more people joined in our Viking practice and in our demos.

sword and shield training at the Guild
Talhoffer applied to Viking sword and shield

In our practice, we expanded on the material in the original Hand and Wagner article, finding other examples of techniques in Talhoffer and in other treatises that seemed well-suited to Viking weapons.

About this time, I became much more curious about what the Sagas of Icelanders taught us about Viking combat. By this time, I had read all of the sagas in English translation, and some of the sagas in the original old Icelandic. It became more clear that there was useful information buried in the sagas, so I decided to compile that information. I created a concordance of all of the references to weapons, armor, and fighting in the Sagas of Icelanders. This reference proved to have value far beyond our expectations, not because of any one episode related in the sagas, but rather because of the accumulated weight of episode after episode that described Vikings in conflict. This evidence planted seeds of doubt in my mind that the fights described in the Sagas of Icelanders resembled the fights taught in the treatises.


A portion of a leaf from Hauksbók, a medieval Icelandic manuscript.

Although I used computer search tools to find the entries for the concordance, all the entries were checked, reading the Icelandic to verify that the English translation reflected the author's probable intent. Since it seemed unlikely that the English translators were familiar with weapons and combat, there were more than a few instances where I felt a different translation would be better. Those instances were noted in the concordance, and alternative interpretations offered.

Doing this work required me to read and re-read all the saga passages relating to weapons, armor, and combat both in English and in the original old Icelandic. In addition, I looked at a number of related works, such as the kings' sagas (Heimskringla) and contemporary sagas (Sturlunga saga) in both English and Icelandic. This work made me much more familiar with the sagas and what they say about combat and weapons.


buckler versus Viking shield

Importantly, the contemporary descriptions of weapons and combat in Sturlunga saga showed me that at least some authors active during the time when the sagas were written were aware of the differences between weapons, moves, and tactics in their own time and those in the Viking age. When Sturla Ţorđarson wrote parts of Sturlunga saga, he wrote about actual battles he himself fought in. He clearly was an experienced combatant. He wrote about both old and new weapons being used in fights, sometimes in the same battle. He describes a "shield" (skjöldur) being used in a manner consistent with a large Viking shield, and he describes a "buckler" (buklari) being used in a manner consistent with the small buckler as taught in I.33. Some of the sword and buckler moves he describes seem to be lifted straight from the pages of I.33.

This material made it seem more likely that the Sturlunga-era authors of the sagas were aware of the differences in weapons and moves between their own time, when the sagas were written, and the Viking-age, when the sagas were set. This realization further enhanced the value of the Sagas of Icelanders as a source for researching Viking-age combat.

Also around this time, I realized that forensic evidence would be valuable in our research. We began studying the archaeological reports that described Viking-age skeletal remains with battle injuries. These reports tell us about targets, weapons, injuries, and even damage to weapons.

Further, they help confirm some of the descriptions we read in the sagas. We read of attacks. We read of horrific damage done to human bodies. We read of men surviving their wounds. It would be easy to dismiss these descriptions as incredible and impossible. Yet, the forensics provide mute testimony that, at least in some cases, these kinds of fantastic events actually took place.

Viking-age skull removed with a sword stroke
Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques

At this point, the ground work for our continuing research was in place. We felt that our research stood firmly on three feet: on the combat treatises, the sagas, and forensics. Around this time, I decided to write a book that described our research and expressed our thoughts on Viking weapons and their use. Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques was published in 2009.

Einhamar
on top of Einhamar, where Gísli Súrsson fought to his death

Throughout this time, I continued to visit Iceland on a regular basis to continue my research on the sagas. I sought out experts in many fields. I learned from the archaeologists excavating Viking-age sites in Iceland. I learned from men and women who were experts on a particular saga because they had been born and lived their entire lives in the valley or fjord where the saga took place, and so could show me every site where key episodes in the saga occurred. I learned from men and woman who grew up in Iceland before modernization who could teach me the skills that would have been a part of Viking-age living, such as how to find and cut the best turf, or how to find one's way when there is no map. I found the old travel routes and experienced them for myself to help understand why key events in the sagas took place where they did, far from modern roads and settled areas. I visited the sites of battles mentioned in the sagas to study them. In some cases, the landscape has changed so little since the battle that it is possible to visualize every move of the combatants as described in the saga. Even in places where there have been dramatic changes to the landscape, the echoes of events from the sagas can still be clearly heard.

Eyvindara
fording Eyvindará where Helgi Droplaugarson was ambushed by Helgi Ásbjarnarson

lecture

After the Viking weapons book was delivered to the publisher, but before it was released, I was asked if I would give a public lecture on the book at Háskólasetur Vestfjarđa (The University Centre of the Westfjords) during my next visit. News of the lecture reached the national press, and the people of Einherjar, the Viking group in Reykjavík, asked if I would give the lecture again in Reykjavík later in the same visit.

One member of the audience was Reynir A. Óskarson, a man with broad and deep experience in a range of fighting skills and training approaches. He later told me he came to the lecture to learn how his ancestors fought.

After I returned home from Iceland, I received an e-mail note from Reynir, asking a few questions about the material in my lecture. That note was the start of a fruitful collaboration. Reynir is the master of the Socratic method. His patient, continued, and probing questions about my conclusions began to chip away at my firmly-held beliefs.

Reynir was born and raised in the land where the sagas took place, and like all Icelanders, he was exposed to the sagas in school and while traveling the landscape. But his interests did not strongly lean to Viking-age history and culture, or to the saga literature. Nor had he seen the combat treatises that I had been using as a source. Perhaps he thought it strange that I was depending on such a foreign source in my study of Viking fighting. And perhaps my beliefs about the treatises were not as firmly-held as I thought, because as we Sword Guild Vikings practiced, we were finding more and more instances where material from the combat treatises translated very poorly to Viking-age weapons. Firm rules in the treatises contradicted forensic evidence, saga evidence, and what we experienced when we tried the moves in the practice room.

Viking training

Additionally, during my regular visits to Iceland, Reynir and I spent long hours training. He showed me new ways to train and new approaches to using that training to perform our research into how Vikings fought. Returning home, I put some of these ideas to work in our Viking training at Higgins Armory Museum, turning the occasional Viking training session into a regular session that met once weekly at first, then twice, then three times weekly. Although we were using a mix of old and new approaches to training, the regular sessions helped to create strong bonds among the people in the practice room that facilitated our training.

Viking training

This training reached a watershed when Reynir visited the Higgins Armory Museum to teach a two-day workshop, "What the Manuals Don't Teach: filling in the gaps for practitioners of European historical martial arts". I was part-way through teaching a 4-day introductory sword and shield training workshop which combined some of our traditional training approaches from the Sword Guild with a few of the newer approaches suggested by Reynir. It became increasingly clear that the traditional approach had limited merit compared to the new approach, so the second half of the class was taught using only the new approach.

Reynir training workshop

Earlier, our training focused on the techniques and technique-driven sequences taught in the treatises. We practiced them over and over until they were "perfect". The drills were repetitive and lifeless. Importantly, it was not clear how these drills related to fighting. There was often little sense that mastering the drills would result in improved fighting skills.

cutting drills

In contrast, the new approach added life and energy that vitalized the practice room and lifted the spirits so that people were eager to come back for more. Some drills exercised a narrow aspect of a fundamental skill, but always in a setting that also brought other fundamentals into play. For example, stepping was exercised in a cutting drill requiring the specific movement to be a part of the response to an attack. As skill levels increased, the focus of the drills broadened. Skills were tested with a force-on-force combative situation that we most often call sparring.

Drills have a purpose that is clearly articulated to students. We do specific drills to improve upon or to test our grasp of the fundamentals, or to test a Viking-age fighting move or tactic that is described in the sagas. Our drills are flexible and improvisational, so they can be easily adapted to the needs of the moment, and so we can easily research the areas we most wish to explore. We want to learn, to the best of our ability, how Viking-age people fought and how they used their weapons.

spear training

Importantly, using the new approach allowed the practice room to become our research laboratory. The tools we use for training are also tools we can use to explore and to test theories and ideas about how Viking-age people fought. And so, our practice room sometimes has the feel of a science lab, where experiments are designed and conducted, and observations are recorded and analyzed to determine if we are on the right track and what the next experiment should be.

jump over an incoming attack

For example, if we come across a combat situation or move or tactic in the sagas that makes little sense, we set it up and test it to the best of our ability within the bounds of safety required in these modern times. We look at our results to see if there is an apparent advantage to that move or tactic. Either way, we have new information we can use in our research and training.

training with Viking axe
sparring drills

And, for example, if in our study of historical Viking-age weapons, we come across a weapon whose design or construction seems at odds with our understanding of the weapon's intended use, we make a similar practice weapon and test it in sparring to see if it might have an advantage we didn't perceive, or a use we didn't expect.

sparring drills

Students in that introductory class were astonished by the change when we switched over to using this new approach half-way through the course, both in the progress they made, and in their enjoyment of the training. The old methods were dropped, and the new approach adopted exclusively. Some of the students in that class became regular participants in our regular Viking training. We are very grateful that they remain with us today, as they contribute immensely to our research.

Viking axe combat

Our research was producing results that strongly suggested that Viking-age fights were not like anything we've seen on the web or in other modern sources. During his visits to New England, Reynir and I collaborated on a series of videos published on YouTube that show some of the fighting moves described in the sagas. Our goal was to illustrate some of the fighting moves described in the sagas that we believe are typical of the ways that Viking-age people fought and used their weapons. Using the information in the concordance of fighting moves from the sagas, and using our new approach to training, it did not take long to plan, rehearse, and shoot the videos, since the focus was on the moves and not on the choreography.

We were pleased with the results and pleased with the reaction to these videos. We began to consider the possibility of releasing a series of training DVDs so that people distant from our home base in central New England could use our training methods. We decided to use the Hurstwic name to describe our method, our training, and our products such as the DVD. I had been using the name for the website for well over a decade, and it made sense to use an established name.

pell exercises With the help of the participants in the Hurstwic training, we shot one DVD late in 2011, and two more late in 2012. The videos were shot with no budget, using video equipment that was on-hand, or borrowed, or stolen (temporarily). pad cutting exercises
video shoot on a horse farm

It was shot in a limited time, and occasionally, guerilla-style on location. Perhaps the production values are not as high as a Hollywood feature film, but we firmly believe that what matters most is first-rate: the training taught on the DVD.

video shoot in Viking longhouse
DVD screening

I am continually astonished by and grateful for the support and help we received from the Hurstwic training participants. They worked hard, doing physically demanding moves for long hours over a number of days to allow us to capture the footage we needed for the DVDs. Along the way, there were a few bruises, buckets of sweat, and a bit of blood. I thank all of those who supported the project and helped to make it a success. I am grateful to you all; Hurstwic would not be where it is without you.

These three DVDs teach the basis of our training approach. We have heard from a number of people from around the world who bought the DVDs and found material they could use for their training. Students of Viking combat using a wide variety of training approaches, and fighting with a wide variety of Viking combat styles tell us they discovered ideas on the DVDs that they could use to their advantage in their training and in their fighting. We are very happy to learn that we are not alone - that other people share our joy and excitement in using this approach to research and to practice Viking fighting.

DVD covers

As the DVDs were being shot and released, we realized that we needed a more formal way to work with groups who wished to associate with Hurstwic and use our training approach and our training tools. We first set up an affiliate program, a formal association with a high barrier to entry. We later set up a more informal study group program, with lower barriers to entry. These programs are still in their infancy, but other groups are using our training approach and joining with the Hurstwic community to share research results and training ideas. We are grateful to these groups for sharing their results so that we all can learn from each other. These are truly exciting times.

Hordur jumps over his opponents

While all of this was happening, I was curious to explore more deeply the mindset of the Viking-age warrior. While Viking society was not a military society, it is clear that fighting men carried in the hearts an unwritten set of beliefs that guided their behavior in life, in battle, and into death. This warrior code was based on a mindset that seems to be clearly laid out in the sagas, in the eddic poetry from the Viking age, and in other historical sources.

The research on mindset made us acutely aware of the importance of understanding this mindset in our research and in our training. As we train, we have always tied our work to Viking-age beliefs and culture and society. Having an awareness of that mindset only makes those connections stronger.

At the same time, this awareness of Viking mindset served to heighten our awareness of the differences between the mindset of the people of the sagas, the Vikings, and the people who used the combat treatises for their training in the later medieval and Renaissance periods. Those mindsets so clearly differed from one another that it was no longer tenable to believe that the treatises could hold any value in our research of how Viking-age warriors used their weapons. These were very different people with different cultures, different beliefs, and different mindsets that guided their behaviors in battle.

Perhaps Talhoffer's or Meyer's technique-driven approaches can be applied to Viking weapons resulting in moves that work in the practice room, but it doesn't result in moves similar to those described in the sagas. The techniques and approaches to training and to using a weapon taught in the treatises no doubt made sense to later medieval and Renaissance fighters, but they would have been alien, and in some cases, distasteful and dishonorable according to the warrior code that guided the Viking-age fighter.

Meyer versus Viking

Additionally, the comparison of the warrior code of the Vikings compared to the codes held by warriors from other societies and other eras again raised the value in our minds of the fight descriptions in the Sagas of Icelanders. There were strong indications that, in many cases, it was realism and restraint, rather than fantasy and excess, that guided the saga authors' pens as they wrote the words we read today.

Viking axe combat

When we practice, we want an observer to be able to identify our fighting moves as Viking fighting moves, not because of the clothes we wear, or the weapons we wield, but because we move like Viking warriors, as described in the sagas and confirmed by other sources. The pursuit of this goal required us to drop our reliance on the treatises.

And this is where Hurstwic stands today. We have two main sources that we believe inform us about how Vikings fought: the sagas, and the forensic evidence. We have a training approach that allows us to research and practice Viking fighting moves, an approach that has served us well and allowed us to make tremendous strides in our growth and in our research. At our home base, we have a team of instructors and students who use the Hurstwic Viking Combat Training system and work together regularly to study, to learn, and to grow. We have a number of people outside of New England who likewise, use the Hurstwic system to learn and to grow. We have an international network of special advisors, who can help us in their areas of specialty, ranging from horses to ships to weapons-making to clothing. We have training materials, in the form of the Hurstwic® Viking Combat Training DVDs, that teach and demonstrate our training so that anyone can use it. And now, we have left the shared space where we have trained for many years and moved in to our own dedicated training space where we expect to continue and to expand our research and training.

Hurstwc training

As we research and train, we continually ask ourselves:

If either answer is no, then we might be on the wrong path, and so we make changes to our research and training.

And that is the saga of how we got to where Hurstwic is today. But the saga isn't over. We continue our journey, always seeking to learn more and to grow. There is much more to research and to learn from the sagas. There are probably other sources we can use in our research that we haven't thought to use yet. As we research and practice, we are always trying and discovering new training ideas that help us grow as fighters. There is more to learn from our affiliates, who have different backgrounds and different insights as they train. And so, we expect the journey to continue.


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