Spear

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Spears were the most popular combat weapon, especially among the poorer sections of society – after all, it was cheap (mostly made of wood), could be used when hunting and kept the enemy a safer distance away. Ideally we would like to see every combatant carrying a spear, at least for the first combat clash.

With spear and shield, the Saxon foe-men

In period, there was little or no distinction between spears and javelins. However, the Vikings Society's combat rules requires them to be rather different. Socketed spears may only be used in melee; shorter tanged javelins may be thrown or used in melee.


Spears in the Vikings Society

Logo.gif Spear lengths

  • For reasons of safety, arbitrary maximum lengths are set on the spears used by the Vikings Society. While its not necessarily authentic to have a "regulation length", the sizes are give good control so are probably about right.
  • One handed spears must be no longer than 5’6” in length.
  • Two handed spears must be no longer than 7’6” in length.
  • “Great spears” must be no longer than 9’ in length.

Spear-lengths apply from the end of the shaft to the tip of the spearhead – the balance of wood and metal in between doesn’t matter.

Illustration of the parts of a spear

Logo.gif Technical Specifications - Spears

Spear dimensions.jpg

Logo.gif Restrictions and Notes on Use of Spears

  • Short Spear Assessment is required to use the Short Spear.
  • Short, Great and Long (1H) Spear may not be used in conjunction with any other weapon.
  • Specialist 2H Long Spear Assessment is required to be able to use Any Spear two handed.
  • Specialist 1H Long Spear Assessment is required to use the Long Spear one handed.
  • Great Spear Assessment is required to use the Great Spear.
  • Spears used one handed must be gripped between a third and two-thirds of the distance from the head to the butt, with the norm being around half way.
  • Winged spears may not be used to thrust past the thigh and draw back.
  • When using a Long Spear 2H, a Short Seax may be used in the back hand provided that the thumb and first three fingers are able to touch when holding the spear and seax together.
  • Modified Target Area for Great Spear
-Thrusts are only permitted to the abdomen and torso below the level of the target’s armpit
-Slashes are only permitted to the thigh above the knee up to the torso below the level of the target’s armpit

Spear typology

Medieval spear typology.png

A helpful summary of the main types of spear in use in the 8th-11th centuries, based on Petersen's typology of viking age spearheads.. Discussion of the types can be found at Viking Compendium site.

Pennants

From the later eleventh century, higher status combatants (particularly knights) may add cloth pennants to their spears, reflecting their cavalry origins. These should be small flags using the same colour of cloth and design as the shield and (from the later twelfth century) surcoat. They may be rectangular or tapered to one or two points (i.e. long triangle or forked). The pennant should not be more than 6-8” wide and 1-2’ long. They should have a ‘tube’ of material just big enough to go around the spear shaft, with thonging at top and bottom to be tied around the spear.

Special types of spear

Large spearheads (aka "sword-on-a-stick")

There are a number of examples of ‘sword-on-a-stick’ spearheads from our period, in some cases 2’6” of spearhead. This may be linked to the ‘atgeir’, which appears in later sagas sometimes translated as ‘halberd’, but apparently used like a spear (see below). Very long spearheads do not seem to have been all that widespread and popular – Petersen’s type E are dated to the mid-ninth century, type 'I' to the first half of the tenth century (though probably not in huge numbers) and type 'K' to the "late Viking age". While we don’t object to ‘sword-on-a-stick’ spears, we would not encourage them in large numbers. In any case, since the overall length of a spear is limited to 7’6” for safety reasons, an excessive length of spearhead can look a bit silly, as well as producing a heavier and unbalanced weapon.

Winged spears

‘Winged’ spearheads were in use in the ninth century in England and are depicted in Norman and Frankish hands in the eleventh century (including in the Bayeux Tapestry). Wings do remain on spears for a long time (e.g. Napoleonic colour sergeants’ partisans). ‘Winged’ spears are acceptable throughout our period. They are particularly encouraged in Norman hands, especially for longer spears.

Irish single-edged spearheads

A number of single-edged spearheads have been found from viking age Ireland, including at least twelve from the Kilmainham/Islandbridge in Dublin. This type of spearhead is very different to the style usually found in the Anglo-Saxon or Viking worlds (and is not included in the otherwise comprehensive Petersen typology). This style seems to be distinctive to Ireland, possibly with greater use around the Irish Sea area.

Irish single-edged spearheads.jpg

Logo.gif Single-edged spears in the Vikings Society

  • Single-edged spears may only be used as part of a set of Hiberno-Norse kit, at an event where Hiberno-Norse kit is permitted.
  • Single-edged spears may only be used by combatants who have passed the required assessments. This may include both the specialist spear (2-handed) and long axe assessment.

Atgeir

Some of the Icelandic sagas describe warriors using a weapon called an 'atgeir' or 'aetgeir'. Exactly how this should be translated is a matter of debate. It is sometimes rendered as 'halberd' or 'glaive', raising the possibility of a hybrid polearm. As the weapon is sometimes described or translated as “hewing-spear” or “thrusting-spear” it could refer more to a family of heavy bladed weapons that are equally suited to chopping or thrusting, rather than an individual weapon.

Nothing that can be categorically described as an 'atgeir' has been found in the period 800-1100. The assorted spear or axe heads from the period all seem to be just that – spear or axe, not a hybrid.

However, hybrid polearms of this kind became much more common in the thirteenth century - ie the point at which the Icelandic sagas were being compiled and written down. In Njal's Saga, Gunnar uses an 'atgeir' which has a reasonably detailed description, and sounds much more like a later polearm than any type of known spear. It is also magical!

Unless archaeology or other new evidence suggests otherwise, the atgeir is probably best regarded as an element of thirteenth-century license when retelling the sagas.

Gripping a Spear

The first picture shows a single-handed spear with the middle third clearly marked. Whilst it is not compulsory to clearly mark the middle third of a single-handed spear, it does make everybody's life a lot easier.

Spear thirds.jpg

Please remember that, when gripping your shaft, your whole hand – including your combat gloves – should be within the middle third of the shaft.

Please remember – it is your whole hand – including your combat glove – that should be within the middle third of your shaft.

Spears in the Sagas

"Then Thorolf became so furious that he cast his shield on his back, and, grasping his spear with both hands, bounded forward dealing cut and thrust on either side. Men sprang away from him both ways, but he slew many."

- Egil's Saga, Chapter 53

"Gunnar clutches the spear with both hands, and turns on (Thorbrand) quickly and drives it through him, and hurls him down on the ground. Then up sprung Asbrand his brother. Gunnar thrusts at him with the spear, and he threw his shield before the blow, but the spear passed clean through the shield and broke both his arms, and down he fell from the wall."

- Njal's Saga, Chapter 76

"At this brunt Helgi, the son of Hardbien, rushed in with a spear, the head of which was an ell long, and the shaft bound with iron. When Bolli saw that he cast away his sword, and took his shield in both hands, and went towards the dairy door to meet Helgi. Helgi thrust at Bolli with the spear right through the shield and through him."

- The Laxdale Saga, Chapter 55