Updated: Oct 11, 2021
BOOK REVIEW: MEN OF TERROR: A COMPREHENSIVE ANALYSIS OF VIKING COMBAT BY WILLIAM R. SHORT AND REYNIR A. ÓSKARSON.
Reviewed by Chieftain, Odin’s Warrior Tribe
From Westholme Publishing, ISBN Hardback: 978-1-59416-360- 356 pages with 301 illustrations. Published 2021.
For both William R. Short and Reynir A. Óskarson the subject of Vikings is more than a passion - they have taken a professional and scientific approach to the subject for decades. In the interest of full disclosure, I know both of them. I have known William “Bill” Short for many years through Hurstwic – the Viking focused enterprise he runs, and its various activities. I saw both men at their premier book lecture at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik in mid-August 2021. This was at the start of their book promotion tour with a series of lectures and interviews – both in English and Icelandic. I have trained privately with Hurstwic in Viking Combat and attended their Old Norse Bootcamp for three years running. In our Tribe, we use the Hurstwic combat system by special arrangement with a Hurstwic Study Group.
William Short is an accomplished scientist by training and background and that is reflected in his careful and methodical approach to the study of Viking combat. He is a great believer in testing theories. He is a myth buster or myth confirmer of the Viking Age. While Short travels to Iceland regularly, often several times a year, Óskarson is a native Icelander who has been associated with Hurstwic for at least a dozen years and he comes with a martial arts background. Reynir Óskarson is an acknowledged authority on Glima – Icelandic wrestling and its evolution from Viking times. Short did not found Hurstwic, he came to it after taking a course on the Sagas in Iceland and getting hooked on the subject. When the founders of Hurstwic decided they need to move on, he began running it. As the Director of Hurstwic, Short turned it into the most respected name in the practical study of Viking Combat.
This is not William Short’s first book on the subject of Vikings. In 2009, his book “Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques” was published by Westholme Publishing. In 2010, his book, “Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas “was published by McFarland & Company. Both of his previous books are on my bookshelf. In conversation, Short, is quick to point out that since he authored these earlier books that he has learned much since then and adapted his thoughts through further study and scientific testing. Short has also guided Hurstwic in producing Viking combat videos and recreating some of the most famous fighting Icelandic Sagas on DVD.
The combination of the two authors - a scientist turned Viking fighter, scholar, researcher, and teacher and an Icelandic martial artist and Viking expert is unique. They bring to this book more credibility than others done by pure academics or Viking hobbyists. They examine the Sagas, the Eddas, and other literature of the period, runestones, picture stones, carvings, grave finds, skeletal remains, and other archaeological evidence, and then put their theories to the test in the Hurstwic training environment, which Short likes to call “the research facility.” Sadly, the physical Hurstwic training location named “Valhalla” in Massachusetts is no longer, but the “Saga of Hurstwic” continues with other endeavors and it is not finished by any stretch of the imagination.
Their book takes the reader through a methodical process of understanding Viking Combat, the weaponry used, and the societal, cultural, and religious influences. Following, the book’s introduction there is an explanation of the scientific approach used in drafting the book. This is William Short’s strength. He explains how a hypothesis is created, then evaluated, and then proven or disproven, and that it might result in “the coin toss.” The latter is when it could have been, but there is little or only scant evidence. The authors explain the Viking mindset, which is crucial to understanding everything that follows about combat in the book. That includes the Norse heathen faith and its impact on life and combat. It builds on unarmed combat – Glima – as wrestling as the foundation for fighting skills. This is the forte of Óskarson. Then, they cover the weapons and armor, which are introduced in chapters dedicated to each type. So, there is a chapter on the sax, axe, sword, spear, archery, shield, and armor. Knives as tools and weapons for Vikings are covered in the chapter on the sax, and in the Viking age to be without a knife was to be unarmed. I personally think that is the case today except for when moving through a security checkpoint. The authors, Short and Óskarson, describe my favorite weapon, the Viking-age sword, as a slashing and cutting weapon and note that the literary accounts only rarely mention thrusting with them. The spear in the Viking age was a thrusting weapon par excellence with extremely limited utility for slashing. The spear for example could split or penetrate mail armor. A slash from a Viking sword against mail armor is dispersed and in Hurstwic’s experiments did not result in much damage at all.
While many modern Viking fighters fancy the bearded axe (many for its appearance), which also has some utility in ripping away an opponent’s shield or hooking it on a wall for climbing as a tactic, Hurstwic’s scientific research clearly shows the greater killing power of the broad axe. What is not overlooked in this book is the use of improvised weapons as the Sagas themselves often discuss. Here, Short and Óskarson point out that stones were commonly as weapons in Viking-age combat. Stones were used as weapons in “Gísla Saga,” which Hurstwic made into a video filmed in Iceland titled, “The Final Battle of Gísli Súrsson.” With the chapters on weapons as building blocks, the authors move on to chapters on Mass Battles, Viking Battle Tactics, Raiding and Dueling, and finally their conclusions. While Viking ships, perhaps the ultimate weapon system of the Viking age, are discussed in the last three chapters of the book, I feel these wonders of maritime technology should have had their own dedicated chapter before these chapters on their use, just like the other weapons.
One of the areas I found personally very enlightening was the chapter on archery. While I am an experienced archer and often use historical equipment, I am influenced by, and use, modern archery techniques. What the authors do is help me understand that just because we do it that way in modern archery, does not mean that is the way the Vikings did it. They use wood carvings and details of tapestries to illustrate their points. So, I personally have some Viking archery research to do of my own because of their broadening my scope of the possible archer methods used. Another area that the book has caused me to want to explore more is using different types of spears - some for throwing and others for more traditional combat.
I enjoyed the analysis on the tactical importance of the Viking-age leader in battle, whether a King or Jarl. Kings and Jarls and their men swore to each other at the beginning of battles not to flee. If a King or Jarl was killed their men usually fled as a result. To let your King or Jarl be killed meant dishonor. For me this explains the Viking chess game Hnefatafl – different than regular chess. In Hnefatafl, the attacker’s goal is clear – destroy the King. The defender – who is the King has the goal is to escape destruction. I was surprised that there was no mention is made of the game or its speculative role in teaching strategy is in the book, yet we know from Morkinskinna - a Saga of the Norwegian Kings - that board game skill was valued by Kings. In the chapter on Viking Battle Tactics everything is equated to tactics and yet many of the examples refer to what we in the military describe as the operational and strategic levels of warfare.
The authors point out how Óðinn gathers intelligence using his Ravens Huginn and Munnin. Interesting how Óðinn’s use of his Ravens as an airborne intelligence platform was recorded more than a thousand years ago and foreshadows how we use reconnaissance aircraft, drones and satellites to collect intelligence today. Fittingly, the coat of arms of the Norwegian Intelligence Service is a shield with Huginn and Munnin. The authors discuss spying in the Viking age, but do not go deeply into the related intelligence fields of deception, covert influence, and misinformation, which would also have been used by Viking spies. As the Havamal notes:
“If you deal with another you don't trust
But wish for his good-will,
Be fair in speech but false in thought
And give him lie for lie.”
Twenty or more years of Viking combat research went into the making of this book. When discussing how combat took place at the homes and farms of Vikings who were attacked, Hurstwic not only draws on the Sagas, but also their practical research at the “Hurstwic Research Laboratory” where they recreated such a confined setting.
“Men of Terror” comes out at a crucial time as there is tremendous interest in the Viking age generated by films and historic shows like “Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom.” Many libraries have expanded their Viking-age book holdings. There is also the related growth of Norse heathenry, some prefer to call it Asatru, and hence interest in the Viking period when the faith was practiced before its revival. In Iceland, for example, Asatru is the fastest growing faith, and the Fellowship there has reached circa 6,000 followers, according to one of Iceland's leading Gyðja.
Knowing William Short and his love and fascination of Iceland, I was expecting a more Icelandic centric book, which while interesting would have left a lot a lot of unanswered questions. I was pleasantly surprised though that the book’s analysis is not Icelandic centric at all and includes all the Nordic regions and areas where the Vikings were known to have fought, explored, and sometimes settled. The book uses and explains many Old Norse words and looks deeply at their original meanings in the Viking age, which is not always clear from their meanings in the modern Nordic languages. The Havamal itself is used to illustrate some key points. I also found it remarkably interesting that most Viking raids took place in Britain, according to the authors’ research – 36 percent. Far more raids there than against any other area.
“Men of Terror” is packed with charts and graphs – a few can be a bit confusing, but the majority illustrate the authors’ points. There are plenty of historic and Hurstwic photos and great drawings by Barbara Wechter. She is a long time Hurstwic member and combat instructor who also fabricates excellent training weapons. I know her and have an even greater respect for her artistic talents now based on her depictions of Viking battle tactics for the book.
Short and Óskarson conclude their book with comments on the nature of Viking society and the warriors it produced. They contrast the nature of a society that required trust and hospitality with one where violence was always close at hand. Violence brought reputation and fame and in raids it brought fortune. In the end, we remember the Vikings, and legendary Vikings, not because of their weapons, but because of their bravery, honor, and something called “drengskapr” – honor/code of honor. Those men of honor could be kind, generous, and help their friends, but they were also men of terror as the book describes in battle. The ultimate accolade for a Viking was to earn the name of “drengr.” How to describe that word is not easy. My personal take is an honorable bad-ass warrior. For a Viking this was a high honor as it guaranteed they would live on because of their reputation/fame/glory - orðstírr in Old Norse. The book has an excellent glossary and an appendix with a “Statistical Overview of Viking Weapons.” The sources for all key passages are contained in the Notes section and there are even some suggested additional readings.
This densely packed work, “Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat,” is a necessary addition in the personal library for every Viking reenactor, Viking combat student, and many heathens who want to be better informed about the Viking era. I learned a lot from the book. For us, in our Tribe, it is absolutely indispensable.
In their book they twice use the Havamal 76th Stanza to illustrate their point on Viking aspirations for honor and reputation in life. I now use the same passage of the Havamal to honor the authors. Through this wonderful work, William Short and Reynir Óskarson have achieved literary orðstírr and they will be remembered long after they are gone for their work.
“Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.”
“Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of Viking Combat,” is available at Amazon and many bookstores.
The reviewer is the Chieftain of Odin’s Warrior Tribe. He is a retired US Army Colonel and Ranger, veteran of numerous elite units, with combat experience in five various wars and conflicts. Twice in his career he has captured the battle standards of enemy forces. His warrior experience in foreign lands extends beyond uniformed military service. He is also an author, an experienced martial artist, Viking combat enthusiast, and a longtime heathen who has lived in Europe and travels there regularly for research. He is fluent in three foreign languages and continues to work on Old Norse.