Medieval Warfare: Initial Thoughts

Vikverir Battle Group, photo by Lady Earlene
Vikverir Battle Group, photo by Lady Earlene

One of the most difficult and thankless tasks for me is writing battle scenes. They are intense, powerful and incredibly difficult to imagine when you haven’t seen a realistic sword battle. Hollywood and the movies are scripted stunts, engineered for maximum screen impact, not reality. My first experience with real medieval battle was when I attended the Oslo Medieval Festival which I have mentioned before in my post on the Love/Hate Challenge. I have since attended many of Vikverir’s practices and learned a lot more about tactics, weaponry, real time battle length and the gritty realities of medieval warfare.

This has not miraculously improved my writing however, in fact I think it has made it more challenging. Now that I have a historical example I see all the flaws in my previous writing on the subject and have to work even harder while writing these already challenging scenes. I now know that warriors would avoid hitting sword to sword because it dents the blade and can shear one clean off. I was able to examine the blade of one of the fighters that had hit sword-to-sword, the ding was at least 1/8th of an inch deep (about 1/2 cm.) and had to be carefully buffed out of the blade with a whetstone. That wasn’t even with a full strength strike or a sharp blade! None of those fancy klang, klang, klang sword battles here!

I must also mention tactics and the length of a battle. An aggressive, out numbered army can, with proper triangulation and daring take out a superior force of men quickly and efficiently. Most battles last barely more than a minute with a single line of men facing each other. Another thing to remember is that you don’t have to deal those movie magic death blows. All you have to do is slice an opponent in the right place or hit him with enough force that you knock him out or disable him. Hamstringing a man is as good as killing him in medieval warfare. You want to conserve as much energy as possible and move as fast as you can through the ranks of your enemy. The sooner you win, the less likely you are to make a mistake from exhaustion.

Armor is HEAVY. Weapons are HEAVY. Shields are HEAVY.

This might seem to be a bit of a duh statement, but it isn’t when you add some context. The reason battles happen quickly is because if you fight at high intensity for more than a minute or two in heavy battle gear or even in spandex and cotton (as the fighters sometimes practice), you are pouring sweat and needing rest. Unless you have several lines of men able to give you relief from the front line you want that battle to be over FAST. The longer it lasts, the more likely you are to make a mistake and die.

There are so many nuances to the art of medieval warfare that must be addressed when writing a proper battle scene. What armor is time period appropriate? Which shields, swords, helmets? There are endless considerations and some are more important than others when writing. One thing is constant though, the action must be spontaneous, fast moving and lacking the huge Hollywood swings. You don’t need much force to cleave bare flesh and bone.

The leg of a pig after a sword blow by Lady Earlene
The leg of a pig after a sword blow by Lady Earlene

The pig’s leg I took a photo of was cleaved by a sword and the bone cleanly cut. The man who did it swung with force from the shoulder but much less would have been required to do debilitating damage to a human body.

In the interest of preserving the body armor is important, a chainmail coif with appropriate padding can protect a head from the blow of a sword. The video here at ThegnThrand’s YouTube channel shows them testing a sword against a chainmail coif with proper padding. The chainmail is reenactment butted mail but the point of the test is to show that the sturdier historical stuff would have had the same effective protection for a fighter.

I am struggling to apply this new information to my writing and have had mixed results so far. I will share some of my before and after writing when I am satisfied with the level of accuracy and detail. I think we can all benefit from being as accurate as possible in our writing so as to make the experience more enjoyable and immersive for ourselves and our readers.

I am going to begin a series of these posts on various medieval warfare topics. If there is a particular topic you would like me to look into relating to medieval warfare please let me know. I have a great group of people that can help me find the information.

Thanks for reading!


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