The Way of the Warrior in Anglo-Saxon England involved far more than merely being trained in the use of weapons as I put it simply in my thread of yesterday. Of equal, or greater, importance was learning both the rituals associated with warfare and the right form of battle.
The war-band, most commonly called the ‘werod’, consisted of two parts. The first, the ‘duguð’ (ME: douth), were the fully initiated members of the band while the ‘geogoð’ (ME: youth) were those still learning the art of war who would become duguð if they survived their training.
The transition from geogoð to duguð, initiation into the war-band, occurred during a solemn and paternal ceremony. Before his lord who was seated with an unsheathed sword laying on his knees a youth would kneel, place his hand on the hilt of the sword and kiss his lord’s hand.
He would then rise and take an oath of undying loyalty before kneeling again, placing his hands between those of his lord and resting his head on his lord’s knee. The youth would then stand again, kiss his lord and be given by him a symbol of his new status, most often a weapon.
We’ll here forego, as it is beyond our limited scope, mentioning all the many rituals associated with those activities the new duguð would occupy himself with like feasting, hunting, game-playing, binge-drinking, etc. and instead focus on the warrior’s raison d’être: battle.
Neither Anglo-Saxon nor Scandinavian armies simply line up across from each other and charged, there was much more to a battle than that. It first had to be decided that battle was to be given at all and a commander might choose to retreat so as to find more favourable ground.
When battle was to be commenced the first act saw the man with the strongest throwing arm on either side hurl a javelin or light spear over the enemy’s lines. In pre-Conversion societies this was a religious act for it was seen as dedicating the hosts to Woden the god of battles.
The ‘casting of the javelins’ also served to mark the boundaries of the battlefield. That area which laid between the two javelins was ritually removed from the bounds of common law and instead became an isolated pocket where temporarily no law but that of strength prevailed.
The next phase of battle was called the ‘beaduscūr’ or the battle-shower. Each side would throw at the other a hail of missile weapons until they ran out. The kit of armies varied over time though noblemen generally went into battle with two javelins and a light throwing spear.
‘Beadurǣs’, or a charge, came next with this often being done in a V-shaped formation. The bravest man in the army ‘orde stōd’, or ‘stood at the point’, and would earn himself nicknames such as “the flower/point of [his people]” while those around him were called the ‘best men’.
We are told that the order to attack was always accompanied by a great shout by the commander, then by his men before another shout was let out by the defenders in answer though how exactly these sounded, whether they came in words or primitive noises, we sadly do not know.
Scandinavians had a similar attack formation that they called ‘svinfylking’ which, though outside of our scope here, those interested can read more on by following the link below:
The defending army would remain in a straight line and form what has been called many different things from ‘bordweall’ to ‘scyldburh’ and ‘wīhaga’, all roughly carrying the same meaning as our word shieldwall. Holding their spears before them they would as one brace for impact.
Together with the damage wrought by the battle-shower a charge might succeed in sweeping away the enemy formation or it might punch holes in places while being stopped at others. It could of course be stopped entirely which would give the defenders a chance to counter-attack.
From the initial charge the battle would progress. In places where both formations held fighting would be a group effort while at points where holes had been punched each man more or less had to look after himself until either the lines were reformed or one side was there routed.
If neither side was quick to fold then the fighting would go on until both were exhausted. By mutual agreement each side would retreat a short distance where they would catch their breath, replace damaged equipment and give speeches of the kind we read in ‘The Battle of Maldon’.
After the short break fighting would recommence as it at first had with the battle-shower followed by a charge. If one side was not routed before both became exhausted they would once again separate, rest and then recommence, these cycles occurring until there was a clear winner.
Victory was defined as ‘wælstowe geweald habban’, or having control of the place of slaughter. This was the part of the battlefield in which the fighting took place, distinct from where the armies retreated to rest.
Only after one side had been made completely unable to contest ownership of the place of slaughter, either by being wiped out or routed, could victory be declared. The javelins marking the battlefield were then retrieved, symbolizing the re-subjecting of this area to common law.