Viking violence - Not just a bloody scrap

I shot the sheriff, but didn’t kill the deputy… Exploring the intricacies of violence in the Viking world. By MLitt Viking Studies student, Charlie Alway.


As a part of my reading with regard to studying the Saga literature from the Viking Age, I investigated examples of the terms “death-blow” and “death-wound” as they appeared in the translations of the literature of the Saga era.

A striking feature of the decisive combat action in the Saga material is the precision and detail given to wounds and fatalities. This is an exploration of why this might be so and how that may affect our understanding of the era.

It would be placing too much importance on the information within the Sagas to claim them as historical fact but they are a wonderful source of knowledge. This is because, as a group of texts they provide us with enough information to enable us to get a genuine feel for the cultural normalities of the period. Contemporary historians such as Byock and Miller declare that this society has a literature detailing its origin and development which rings true. So if the Sagas tell us about the accepted norms of the time what do they tell us about violence?

Feuding is the most prevalent type of combat found within the Sagas. The violence that we encounter in the sagas is not primarily, what we would term warfare, or socially structured violence. Although the violence is social and organised it is not as a result of service for labour, spoils or entitlement to a remote third party such as a king or country. There is not an expectation of fighting a campaign over a prolonged period of time that removes a combatant from their domestic context.

Rather the actions we encounter are vengeance based in nature. This vengeance though is far from the wild rampage of a Rambo style figure who had lost his link with society. It is instead, crucially, based on clear social rules which cover reciprocity, and are conducted on a limited scale in terms of time, actions taken and combatants engaged. 

Having established that our focus is on a specific type of violence we can now explore examples from the Sagas to help explain the intricacies of such acts on the combatants and wider society.

In Eyrbyggja Saga, the character Arnkel is killed making a valiant last stand against overwhelming odds. The following verse is part of the Saga:

But Snorri’s sword

Split open

The breast of the brave

Arnkel, his death blow.

What is interesting about this verse in the context of the violence is that the passage immediately prior to this makes it clear that the killing was not done alone but as a group led by Snorri. The praise Snorri receives in the verse shows that he is in the process of receiving additional individual honour for this killing which overstates his involvement in Arnkel’s death according to the action as described in the Saga. Why would this be?

Feud combat was partly about a necessary physical reprisal. Beyond that, a capable combatant of the time would also aspire to improve their social standing as a result of the violent feudal acts committed.  In this instance, Snorri had previously failed to avenge Arnkel’s killing of one of his followers in what was deemed a timely way by the local community. As such his local standing, although both men were well regarded, had fallen in comparison to the bold Arnkel. In order to assume the status of principle local figure, Snorri must be seen to act, and also crucially, receive credit for Arnkel’s death.

The verse that follows the death of Arnkel ensures this and shows that it is very important that Snorri is deemed to have struck the “death-blow”. The precision of Saga fighting language is important to confirm both physical and social outcomes of the combat.

So if Snorri is to receive credit for the decisive battle act, who are the other combatants and why would they be willing to allow this version of events to become accepted fact?

The nature of Viking feudal violence, as evidenced in the Sagas was not usually carried out by a lone person, but acted out by allied individuals acting under mutual understanding. Without the explicit support of a suitably strong retinue, vengeance would quickly lead to a counter attack that would likely prove fatal. In this way feudal violence was carefully planned to try to inflict an appropriate level of injury to a person, or death to a social group of family, without giving the victims cause to escalate the violence or take an opportunistic revenge.

These allied groups could be made up of a variety of individuals: Miller assessing The Saga of the Heath Slayings, asserts that they are connected by affinity to each other, all as prosperous as their kin, and the bravest in the area, our best friends and predisposed to you. Servants and neighbours were prepared to go with you as well as kin.

So the feudal band are made up of close family, neighbours who would have connected interests, servants and also individuals with pre- battle affinity and ties to the band leader. In this way the physical safety of the lead combatant, however able he was in this field, was protected. Crucially the media version of events was open to accepted manipulation and vitally the risk of feudal escalation was limited.

The make- up of the feudal band was important. It did not just provide safety in numbers so that the biggest roving group could simply ride roughshod over events wheresoever they pleased. The members of the band provided witnesses to acts so that in event of the feud taking an abnormal turn, matters could reasonably refer to law at a gathering, or thing assembly.  Therefore, combatant groups needed to be made up of good warriors as well men of accepted local standing to stand witness on events. There was no reason why these characteristics could not be present in one man but a communal acceptance of events was vital to the functioning of the Viking world.

Violence was a part of the social and legal regulation of the era, and did not function wholly outside of the law. This made the acts of violence and their specific, accepted impact, be that death, dismemberment, blinding etc. important to the Saga literature not solely due to a Viking bloodlust in their storytelling but important to the passage of justice and law within their society.

Not only are the victim and the hero of an act impacted by the detail of the violence. A further strand of the status element present in the death of Arnkel’s death is also apparent here. There is a disparity between the public taking of credit accrued by Snorri and the responsibility taken by Thorleif kimbi to accept the subsequent outlawry as the legally responsible dealer of the “death blow”. This shows that status within the feud group dictated who took credit for acts and who paid the price. As a junior member of the feud party, with a personal, rather than political or status based reason for wanting Arnkel dead, Thorleif is willing to accept the outlawry. He expects, with good reason to be rewarded on his return, in the way a minor Mafioso might take the rap for a crime, knowing his status within the group would be enhanced on his prison release.

Another intricacy of the allocation of blame to Thorleif is that he is deemed to be of sufficient status within the assailant’s family to be an acceptable victim of outlawry for Arnkel’s followers. According to the Sagas, feud violence would be used to settle an argument or dispute between equitable parties. Heusler had a nine point definition of feud which asserts that the “equivalence of riposte”, deems the honour of combatant would not allow them to feud with someone socially inferior.

Miller extends this thought process to find that whilst the clever use of politics or media may lead one party to gain from the outcome of a feud, the violence was formulaic, if unpredictable, and honour based, not primarily acquistional. For this to be the case Sanmark tells us that actions needed to be public knowledge; facts between individuals had to be well known. In cases of conflict, guilty parties must announce their acts. In a society that would exhume bodies to show witnesses how a victim had died in a form of common pathology, we can see how detail of violence had wide social ramifications in the Viking Era. For status or honour to be gained from feudal acts they needed to be witnessed and the impact of these deeds agreed.

Another example of specific language having political and legal ramifications in is Egils Saga.

A fierce battle is taking place between many men. Thorolf, a powerful warrior, is killed by King Harald. Rather than a death blow, King Harald “dealt him his death-wound, and he fell forward at the Kings feet”.

This intimates that Thorolf had suffered multiple wounds in a fierce engagement but Harald as King is assigned the fatal wound and his dominance of the field is shown by Thorolf symbolic falling to the king’s feet before the assembled warriors.

Again precise language detailing violence is used not for dramatic effect but to confirm political outcomes.

The writers of the 19Th century onwards who have so helped to form our concept of the Vikings tended to focus on detailed violence, and the exhumation of bodies or other pagan acts. These are not viewed in their legal/political context but largely in a gory or gothic horror fantasy world imposed on a highly literate, surprisingly egalitarian pre Christian society by evangelical colonialists seeking justification for the worldwide subjugation of the “noble savage”.

So, by investigating just two examples from hundreds we can try to show that violence, whilst a part of the Viking world was socially and politically crucial to Saga tradition and not primarily a literary mirror of insatiable, savage bloodlust.

Originally published in The Orcadian, 30th Oct 2014