Behind the shield-wall: The experience of combat in late Anglo-Saxon England
By Jordan M. Poss
Master’s Thesis, Clemson University, 2010
Abstract: Most studies of the Anglo-Saxon military examine its structural ties to economic and social structures, rarely investigating Anglo-Saxon battle itself. This paper asks the question “What was it like to have been in battle with the Anglo-Saxon army?” After introducing the topic in a study of the 991 Battle of Maldon and describing the development of the Anglo-Saxon military system between the fifth and eleventh centuries, this paper relies on case studies of the most thoroughly-documented Anglo-Saxon battles, those of 1066–Fulford Gate, Stamford Bridge, and Hastings–to reconstruct the conditions of Anglo-Saxon combat and their effects on the men who fought in them. Based on these reconstructions, the study asks the further question of what sustained men through such terrible combat. These case studies not only provide a ground-level view of important military events but suggest the depths to which ideas of lordship and personal loyalty permeated Anglo-Saxon society.
Excerpt: Other historians followed, gradually shifting focus from the top-down campaign history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to, if not a bottom-up approach, at least an extremely experiential one. In his study of Greek infantry combat, Victor Davis Hanson described his goals in terms almost identical to those of Keegan—who, tellingly, wrote the introduction for the revised edition: “In this account of the fighting between infantry soldiers during the classical age in Greece, I have tried to suggest the environment of that battle experience and the unusual hardship and difficulty for the men who fought. I hope also to offer something more than a narrative description of blows given and received.” Like Keegan, Hanson investigated otherwise non-military sources such as lyric poetry and pottery in his research. But more so than Keegan, Hanson sought not only the experience—the face—of battle, but the significance of that experience—socially, politically, militarily, physically, emotionally.
The aim of this paper is to revisit late Anglo-Saxon combat, not to propound a new sequence of the events of Maldon, Stamford Bridge, or Hastings or to refight battles over contentious points—though that must inevitably occur in its place. Rather, this study aims first of all to discover what Anglo-Saxon combat was like—the physical conditions into which it placed the men fighting—and second to understand how those men could endure such combat. This study’s object, therefore, is to understand the experience of combat in the late Anglo-Saxon era and the significance to Anglo-Saxons of “the terrible and wonderful thing called a war.”