A few years back, an author named Paddy Griffith wrote a book called The Viking Art of War, which has since been cordially disliked by Viking reenactors all over the world. Griffith held an essentially low opinion of Viking tactics and strategies, and (as I recall) of Viking intelligence in general.
Now I. P. Stephenson has written a new book on the subject, Viking Warfare. Paddy Griffith ought to welcome its appearance, since it will provide a new target for the hate. Reenactors will hate this book just as much, but for different reasons.
Stephenson’s first sin (in my view) is to utterly reject the Icelandic sagas as a source of historical information. If he has read Prof. Torgrim Titlestad’s defense of saga reliabiliity, he dismisses it out of hand. The sagas were written centuries after the events, he says, for the purpose of glamorizing the authors’ ancestors. For that reason they cannot be trusted at any point.
But he nevertheless maintains that we have enough information to provide material for a book. Unfortunately, he fails to demonstrate that contention. He analyzes the history of Viking activities, their battle strategies, and their equipment, and all the way through he ends almost every discussion with the equivalent of, “But we don’t really know for sure.” If you enjoy seeing an author admit his ignorance over and over, this is the book for you.
He also makes a number of summary judgments which I, as a reenactor myself, find doubtful. Shield walls were only loose formations, he tells us, not solid lines of overlapped shields. The “swine” formation was a simple column, not a wedge. Leather helmets are purely fictional. Scramasaxes were seldom carried. Hundreds of reenactors around the world, me among them, will disagree on several of these points, not on the basis of academic research, but through experience on the field.
It’s only at the very end, where he examines the Battle of Maldon, that Stephenson breaks out and actually makes an interesting contribution to the historical discussion. He does his best to rehabilitate Byrhtnoth Byhrthelmsson, the English commander at the poetically immortalized battle, whose leadership was condemned by no less a scholar than J. R. R. Tolkien. Stephenson argues – persuasively – that if you consider the battle from the perspective of Byhrtnoth’s primary objective – to prevent the Vikings’ escape – everything he did makes good sense. He just had the bad luck to get killed.
Scholarly types will want to read Viking Warfare just for its unconventional arguments, but I don’t think it has much useful to offer the average reader.