One of the weapon disciplines being studied at HKA is the ‘viking’ sword and shield, or rather the early medieval sword and shield. This weapon discipline consists of a one-handed sword, the spatha, and a round shield. This weapon combination was not reserved for just the ‘vikings’, but was in use across much of early medieval Europe.
The sword, also known as the spatha, is a sword held with one hand with a length of between 80 and 95 cm. In terms of weight, the sword can weigh between 800 g and 1.5 kg. With a balance point about 15 cm away from the parry bar, the spatha has, to the touch, a relatively heavy blade. This ensures that the spatha can really be characterized as a real broadsword. Yet it should not be underestimated that the spatha can also be used to stab as well. The tip of the sword is relatively rounded, but in an opponent with little body protection, the broad tip can inflict large wounds. The relatively heavy blade makes many of the finer movements impossible. Within the weapon combination, the spatha can rather be seen as a club with sharp edges.
Then the other weapon: the shield. The typical early medieval shield used at HKA is round and generally between 80 and 90 cm in diameter, weighing between 3 and 4 kilos. The shield is made of planks of ‘light’ wood in the form of spruce, poplar or basswood. The planks are attached to each other with an ash handle that lies in the centre of the shield. The light weight of the shield is achieved by making the shield thin. Along the edge, the boards are only between 2 and 4 mm thick and gradually become 6 mm thick towards the centre of the shield. This has no negative effect on the strength of the shield, because as long as the central handle is intact, the shield remains usable, and this handle also causes the wooden planks to close again around a sharp sword biting into the wood. In the centre of the shield is a recess where the handle is held. The hand is protected by an iron shield knob. Finally, a reinforcement of dried, raw hide is attached around the edge. Archaeologically, it is known that the inside and outside were still lined with leather, but for the sake of cost, our shields were chosen to be covered with linen. Because the shield is thicker in the middle than on the outside, most of the weight comes around the hand. This makes the shield feel relatively flat during use and this in turn increases the manoeuvrability of the shield. For this reason, much of the ‘fine’ work during combat is done by the shield.
As far as we know, none of the early medieval societies wrote manuals or manuscripts on how one could fight with their swords and shields. And should these have been written, this manuscript has not survived the test of time, or it has yet to be discovered. For this reason, any attempt to reconstruct this lost fighting style is hugely experimental. We choose to use the oldest known manuscript used within HEMA for our interpretation, the I.33 manuscript on fighting with sword and buckler written around 1320. We start with the techniques described in this manuscript and where these don’t quite work, then the thinking and experimentation really begins. Curious about our interpretation, send us an email and come along for trial lessons.