Warriors and warfare: ideal and reality in early insular texts

Viking WarfareWarriors and warfare: ideal and reality in early insular texts

Brian Wallace

University of Edinburgh: M. Litt Thesis (1993) 


This thesis investigates several key aspects of warfare and its participants in the Viking Age insular world via a comparison of the image which warriors occupy in heroic literature to their concomitant depiction in sources which are primarily nonliterary in character, such as histories, annalistic records, and law codes. Through this method, the thesis seeks to add to the scholarship regarding organized violence in this era in two principle manners. First, this study will depart from nearly all previous studies of warriors by moving beyond a single cultural milieu and treating them in a ‘pan-insular’ context. Second and perhaps more importantly, in choosing to address the heroic literature as a genre distinct from other contemporary texts, this thesis will allow progress beyond the bulk of pre-existing ‘warfare scholarship’ for this era, which tends to utilize any and all manner of sources as a reflection of historical reality. In considering the context of heroic poetry and sagas, the thesis will allow one to make conclusion regarding its likely authorship and intended audience, as well as the goals of the former and expectations of the latter. Studies of warfare are always of particular relevance, due to their intersection with many areas of history long studied, such as constitutional and legal history, as well as those which have only recently received their due attention, such as questions of group cohesion, violence, and community. This thesis was largely inspired by the attempt by Stephen S. Evans to study the institution of the war-band in a crosscultural reference in his 1997 book Lords of Battle.

Evans provided a good analysis of this body in its fifth- through eighth-century Anglo-Saxon and British manifestation but failed to achieve his primary stated goal – a comparison of the image and reality of the war-band. His decision to limit his research to the Anglo- Saxon and Welsh cultural spheres in the era predating the first Viking invasions led him to omit much relevant Irish and Insular Norse material, as well as a great deal of later heroic literature. It was with these two shortcomings in mind that I set out to write a more thorough treatment of the war-band. Yet, what began initially as an attempt to remedy the shortcomings of Lords of Battle soon grew into a slightly more wide-ranging study that has moved beyond focussing solely upon the war-band to look at attitudes about warfare and its participants amongst contemporary audiences and authors during the Viking age insular world.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Edinburgh

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