Tuesday 26 May 2015

Viking berserkers in wargames - a thesis and some notes

Gosh, it's been quiet round here. I have several games to write reports on, although they may just be short notes and photos at this late date, but they are languishing in the doldrums of lack of desire to edit the photos and write about them. However, I have just been informed that my PhD has gone live on the Nottingham eTheses website, so, instead of writing battle reports, and while my work on turning my PhD into a thrilling bestseller falters along like a 3 minute old foal, I offer the chance to read my deathless prose offline by downloading my thesis, while waiting for the next gaming related post. Alternatively, you could wait for a more reader-friendly version when the book is finally published. Click the title below to go to the page for my thesis. It's a 31Mb download. You have been warned. I've also added some thoughts after the abstract on what my conclusions mean for a Viking wargame army.

Berserkir: A re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life
This thesis discusses whether berserkir really went berserk. It proposes revised paradigms for berserkir as they existed in the Viking Age and as depicted in Old Norse literature. It clarifies the Viking Age berserkr as an elite warrior whose practices have a function in warfare and ritual life rather than as an example of aberrant behaviour, and considers how usage of PDE ‘berserk’ may affect the framing of research questions about berserkir through analysis of depictions in modern popular culture. The analysis shows how berserksgangr has received greater attention than it warrants with the emphasis being on how berserkir went berserk. A critical review of Old Norse literature shows that berserkir do not go berserk, and suggests that berserksgangr was a calculated form of posturing and a ritual activity designed to bolster the courage of the berserkr.

It shows how the medieval concept of berserkir  was more nuanced and less negative than is usually believed, as demonstrated by the contemporaneous existence in narratives of berserkir as king’s men, hall challengers, hólmgöngumenn, Viking raiders, and Christian champions, and by the presence of men with the byname berserkr in fourtheenth-century documents. Old Norse literature is related to pre-Viking Age evidence to show that warriors wearing wolfskins existed and can be related to berserkir , thus making it possible to produce models for Viking Age and medieval concepts of berserkir .

The modern view of berserkir is analysed and shows that frenzy is the dominant attribute, despite going berserk not being a useful attribute in Viking Age warfare which relied upon men holding a line steady rather than charging individually.

The thesis concludes that ON berserkr may be best translated as PDE ‘champion’, while PDE ‘berserker’ describes the type of uncontrollable warrior most commonly envisaged when discussing berserkir .

Most illustrations have been removed from the digital version of this thesis for copyright reasons. The references in the captions guide the reader to the original source for those illustrations.

What this means for Viking armies in wargames
In the first instance, it means an end to psycho nutjobs with no clothes and lots of special rules, not that I am the first to have written this. Berserkir were champions and bodyguards. They fought in the same manner as the other warriors in the army, but better. Their defining features such as the howling and shield-biting (or spell-chanting as I have suggested as an alternative interpretation) happened before the battle and were not part of an intrinsic berserk state, despite what popular culture says. To reflect their attributes, they would be the best armed and best armoured troops in the army, and they would be grouped around a leader. How this applies to your games will depend upon the scale of the game.

You might have an entire warband of these guys in a skirmish game, reflecting a lord and his immediate retinue going off to do a bit of plundering, or to rescue a foreign lord from the monster plaguing his hall. Your leader might be a berserkr with a following of local levies and assorted warriors. You might have one or two berserkir with a leader and then a group of levies and assorted warriors. The permutations are as many as the possible scenarios around why a leader is on his own or only accompanied by a couple of his champions.

In a big battle game, the representation will depend upon how you perceive the structure of the army. If you think the best warriors could be spread among the rabble to raise their discipline, then you would simply improve the average quality of many/all units in the army. If you think, as do I, that the berserkir would be gathered around their lord and his standard, then you should use the highest quality troop type in your army for the stands of your leaders/generals. This does not mean picking the highest quality in the army list. I doubt all lords and their retinues were of equal quality, and the number of men in a lord's personal retinue is highly unlikely to be equal to the notional number of men comprising a unit or stand in most big battle games. This means that the effect of the best troops will be diluted, so you might have a unit of veteran huskarls to represent the berserkir and the best troops, instead of automatically representing the unit as elite huskarls.

The actual physical representation of these troops is more difficult. They may have worn bearskins or a bear's mask, but the evidence is not present to state whether these accoutrements were worn, if at all, in battle or only for rituals and ceremonies. I would suggest going for what you find aesthetically pleasing. As long as your berserkir are not naked, you are not leaving yourself open to criticism by pedants like me!

So, that's a few thoughts on berserkir in wargames. They are certainly not complete or comprehensive, but I hope they provide food for thought.