I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for April, 2011

The Lesser of Two Evils

It’s not as if we don’t know if people of the time danced and sang. We do. There are enough accounts—usually by Christians tsk-tsking—of singing and dancing to know that song and dance were not alien to the cultures or to the time any more than to any other culture. What we don’t know is how they sang and dance.

Written music and choreography were still centuries away. The illustrations of dancing are ambiguous. We have words for “songs,” but no idea how they were related, whether it was a harmony or a sing-song chant or just spoken in a William Shatner manner. While it would be possible to do an interpretation of a song or a dance at an event—loudly proclaiming to the public that it might be similar to a dance done during the period—the chances are that the public will not remember any caveat and go away thinking, So that’s the way the Vikings danced! Once again, the subtleties of the historical interpretation are forgotten, and I am certain that many who dislike this idea are certain that a  new round of horned-helmet thought is beginning.

This is the conservative approach to interpretation. What may be portrayed for the public must be based on an original. This is a very limiting definition, since it is often extended to a philosophy that everything must be letter perfect before being seen on the field and every reenactor must be letter perfectly equipped in the letter perfect kit before going onto the field, which means that the number of reenactors will not only be low but that many interested persons never get onto the field. At the other extreme are the folk who figure that anything goes; if the accurate version is inconvenient to attain or to maintain, then the inaccurate is okay.

For most serious reenactors, what is seen on the field is somewhere in between. In my opinion, strict accuracy may be compromised if

  • that obviously, it is going to be made of period materials—no plastic for anyone reenacting anything before the 20C; no cast iron for anyone reenacting anything before the 18C; etc.—that does not use any post-period technology (like hinges or smooth modern nails);
  • that if featured or used close to the spectator, the user will say that it is not documented; and
  • that it be replaced with a more accurate recreation when and if an original becomes known (a decision must be made whether it should be replaced immediately or just when the farb wears out; this decision is made by the reenactor or the unit, and it little matters how extreme the philosophy is so long as the improper interpretation is not replaced with another improper interpretation).

With that digression out of the way—and no doubt I’ll repeat it in later articles, since it is so essential to my view of the practice of living history—let us return to the subject of this article, music.

So we know that the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings had music. We know that they practiced singing and dancing. We don’t know how they sang and how they danced.

If they were like—and there is no reason to think otherwise—almost any other culture, the music was an integral and vital part of their cultures. The instances in which music is recorded as being used are most often joyous occasions. What then is the worst transgression then? To portray a music that is not entirely documented or to portray a culture that is more sober and amusical than is documented. Which incorrect representation would  the MoPs be more likely to perceive and remember it? Proponents of having some sort of music at Regia events have pointed out avoiding it will give the wrong impression of the culture; In our local branch, someone deeply involved with song and dance interpretation from later eras points out that the spectators will invariably think that one interpretation is the one true interpretation.

To tell the truth, this era is so spottily provenanced, you have to take liberties and make interpretations. In fighting, in cooking, in the costume itself, we are making interpretations that are no less than radical than the reconstruction of a dance or a song. If someone that I trusted and respected less said, “No,” I doubt whether I would abide by that opinion and push to incorporate music into our interpretation. As it is, until such time that we can provide provenance and interpretation that pleases that person, we will stay away from them and, perhaps, incorporate some of the ecclesiastical music of the time that is documented. However, even as I do this and bow to a greater knowledge, there is still no way that I don’t feel a pang of guilt at the base of my stomach. What to do; what to do?

For a look at the music proposed for use at Regia events, take a look at (listen to http://regia.org/members/RegiaMusic.pdf

About the Staffordshire Hoard

Strictly speaking, the Staffordshire Hoard predated the period with which we are here most concerned. However, the Hoard was an exciting and educational discovery and cast a lot of light upon an era generally perceived in a certain, limited way, and it must be perceived as being of great value to our representation.

The Hoard, for those who have avoided all news about it, is a valuable and illuminating collection of mostly martial objects that was discovered in 2009 by Terry Herbert on the land of Fred Johnson (and they both did the right thing, so that makes the story even better).  It was the largest discovery of its kind so far, and its immensity overshadowed even that of the Sutton Hoo discovery of 1939. To see the artifacts, take a look at http://www.flickr.com/photos/finds/sets/72157622378376316/with/3944490322/, or go to the official web site at http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/

Today, in his blog, old friend Steve Muhlberger quoted some of a lecture that Guy Halsall made on the Hoard, and it revived my bubbling enthusiasm. It deals quite a bit with warfare and the acquisition of trophies when victorious, so it is not something you’ll see much of here, but by gum, it is the Staffordshire Hoard! I had seen this some time ago, but Steve’s note brought it to the forefront of my brain, and I realized that I had noted or recommended it here. So for a very interesting article on the Hoard, set your sights for http://600transformer.blogspot.com/2010/05/when-i-was-writing-this-paper-i-was.html

Steve’s always intriguing blog is at http://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/

“If We Don’t Get Better We Don’t Care”

Someone from a fantasy LARP, confronted with a member who wanted to do things accurately, chastised that gentleman by saying that his approach was all too expensive and then gave a number of solutions for a “reasonable” attempt at Early Medieval costume. Her idea of “reasonable” costumer just set me shuddering and explained why you’ll never see me near her group!

She urges the use of cotton pyjamas (although she at least doesn’t urge everyone to make them from cartoon characters like one person from that group lectured new members), anything cheap from a thrift store and, of course, no special footwear. She said nothing about getting better or evolving and, of course, had a grandiose title to back her opinion.

Well, here’s mine. You might already anticipate that her opinion and mine vary a tiny bit…

There is a tendency, without internal regs,  not to improve kit when you have acquired some. You might think, “I’ll get better eventually,” but in many groups, they don’t. For example, in one nonjudgmental “historical group.” I knew one person who had been a member for over three decades who wears something that looked as if it was quickly thrown on at his first event (except for the beer bandoleer he is now never without, because I don’t think he was legally old enough to openly drink at his first event). Which is fine if they were to say, “we’re a fantasy LARP with an historical overtone;” I would have no problem with that. But they don’t. Instead, the group loudly crow that it is and represent itself as a reenactment (or re-creation if they perceive the difference) group that is interested in a “reasonable” portrayal.

On the other hand, I can’t agree either with those who say that you must have a hundred percent complete kit before you can even step behind the ropeline. However, there is a medium between these two extremes.

If you look at http://www.micelfolcland.org/p_4.htm, you will see what we have decided are the minimum requirements for kit. Certainly not the maximum. Obviously, new members can show up to a first show without a lot of what is considered normal wear, but they are not allowed to show up behind the line wearing something inappropriate. Someone who is wearing cotton pyjamas, Air Jordans and mirror shades would not be allowed to participate. A person who is barefoot, wearing only a wool tunic of the proper color, weave and cut is welcomed. Heck, there are probably even loaner clothing available that he can borrow, to temporarily fill out things he wants or needs! The important thing is that the impression being set forth does not incorporate anything incorrect!

Of course, the acquisition of further and refined accurate kit is not only encourage but required. If someone wears only a wool tunic to an event and is still wearing it three years later, one can only hope that he has trousers, shoes, etc., and that his appearance has not stood still. If that tunic wears out, it will have been replaced by another that is just as–if not more–accurate. He hopefully fully realizes that he is in the middle of an evolutionary process that does not pause and most especially does not go backwards. Or he can just—as some have—merely gone to a fantasy LARP which values quantity over quality, a philosophy that we adamantly ruled against at one of our earliest board meetings!

For an idea of what is accurate and not farby costuming for our period, one is urged to consult http://regia.org/members/newmemb.htm or http://regia.org/members/basclot.htm. And realize that we may not be many, but by gum, we look good!

Kathleen Smith’s “Introduction to Farb” is at http://www.reenactmenthq.com/farby.asp. It concentrates on ACW living history, but its points go far beyond that era!

Face of an Anglo-Scandinavian Woman Buried at Coppergate

So appropriate for this forum that I just had to note it: http://www.medievalists.net/2011/04/13/face-of-viking-woman-reconstructed/

Why Anglo-Scandinavian?

People love absolutes.

When people in the mainstream talk about the Early Middle Ages, they generally talk about Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and maybe Normans (but popular thought puts them erroneously after the Early Middle Ages). They are all totally separate, and not only is the extreme separateness of the cultures exaggerated by this popular thought, but great and overbearing differences are created and exaggerated.

The truth is that there are few differences between the Anglo-Saxon culture and that of the Norse. Regional differences among the Norse culture in Gotland is, in fact, greater than that in Roskilde and, indeed, less than between the Norse culture in Roskilde and the Anglo-Saxon in London. The people of these areas probably ate the same sort of things, wore the same sort of garments (with certain exceptions) and probably spoke languages that were similar enough that they could be mutually understood (see comments by Katherine Holman in The Northern Conquest: Vikings in Britain and Ireland on similarities in the languages).

True, if you want to wear a certain type of jewelry, you must be from a certain regional culture. If you want to display certain tenets of Faith, you might have to choose a specific culture. Certainly if you want a certain name, you’ll have to choose the culture which gave it to you. In the smaller sense, these details are most important; in a larger sense, things become more vague and less distinct.

When Micel Folcland was first forming, there were members who wanted to portrayal an Anglo-Saxon culture. There were others who wanted to portray Norse culture. In trying to find a compromise that would please both these factions, the Anglo-Scandinavian culture of the Danelaw was hit upon, and for three good reasons:

a) This gave us a chance to combines parts of both Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, since they were both in evidence in the geographic area of the Danelaw but were probably still distinct enough to allow the pogrom of all of those of Norse blood that was initiated by Ethelraed the Unready in the early eleventh century;

b) York, the center of the Danelaw, was enough of a cosmopolitan port that it allows the introduction of other cultures as well; and

c) The York Archaeological Trust (YAT), we discovered, was able to provide such an extensive and varying amount of period artifacts, as well as books and other writings explaining common everyday life in great detail.

The term “Anglo-Scandinavian”—or Anglo-Danish or even Anglo-Viking—is not an unknown term in many academic circles. The title of many YAT volumes bear that appellation, and many other academic and some popular history use the term. However, we have found that it is virtually unknown in many parts of the lay population. They want a straight and absolute term that is familiar to them. Putting them together is confusing, it seems, and the people wanting to glorify one culture over another are inevitably disappointed.

Yet, for us, it is not bad at all. We are given the ability to incorporate parts of the cultures, to unabashedly to draw and to use details from these cultures and to concentrate on one or the other culture as needed for different events. We strive in Micel Folcland to illuminate the everyday, the homely details of life at the tie, and there is little doubt in my mind that everyday life was not clear and distinct. I know that some objects, suvch as the Sutton Hoo, were at least a hundred years old when buried and had been repaired during its use, that ancient artifacts were still used by the people and that, it seems, even neolithic objects were being worshiped by the people of the Early Middle Ages, and I know that these were a practical and resourceful people who did not just throw out anything that was still practical and useful just because it was not in the most current fashion. While a certain ethnic purity might be a sort of ideal even if the believer is not a racist or prejudiced person, it seems certain that it was not that important in period. How else can you explain, for example, the discovery of a jade Buddha—from India or points farther east—in Birka? Of course, we cannot portray a Norse-Indian impression for spectators with any degree of justification, but we can—and do—represent Anglo-Scandinavian!

For people interested in seeing some of the Anglo-Scandinavian artifacts from York that have inspired us, see http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/piclib/photos.php; you can download pdfs of a few of the YAT books—including my favorite, on leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian York—at http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/resources/pubs_archive.htm

Juvenile Books for the Fledgling Viking

Over at Norsefolk_2 (a very useful Yahoo group that you should join if you have interest in Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures), someone asked for recommendations of books that would be of use in teaching elementary-school children about the culture.  Caveat: I’m no parent, but I have found these useful for educating younger folk and recommend these:

Susan M. Margeson. Viking (Eyewitness Books)
Photos of artifacts and reproductions, marred only by a tendency to mix in Victorian illustrations and a hesitation to distinguish artifact from repro

Laura Buller. Vikings (History Dudes)
A stylish illustrated volume that is apparently part of a series

Fiona MacDonald. Vikings (Hands On History)
A fun collection of activities that wouldn’t pass the AO but are very illuminating to a young person’s mind

Christine Hatt. The Viking World (Excavating the Past)
Jane Shuter. Life in a Viking Town (Picture the Past)
Jane Shuter. Life on a Viking Ship (Picture the Past)
Slender volumes that I bought at a Scandinavian festival

Terry Deary The Smashing Saxons (Horrible Histories)
Terry Deary The Vicious Vikings (Horrible Histories)
I recommend the hilarious Horrible Histories to adults as well.

Harry Kahl, Gudrun Wallengren, Søren Mainz and Søren Vadstrup. En Vikingemstkedsplade
A Danish language book with illustrations, dealing with kids who want to do Viking reenactment

I, of course, would love to hear about any titles that your like or that your kids like (and you approve of of course; No Hagar the Horrible’s Viking Survival Guides!)

A Welcome to the Village in the Wood!

In October, Julie and I made atrip to England. We met a lot of fellow Regia members, many of whom we have never met in person before, and saw a lot of exciting and invigorating scenes—the British Museum, the Victorian English copy of the Bayeux Embroidery, Nottingham Castle, the Jorvik Viking Centre, Bede’s grave at Durham Cathedral, Hadrian’s Wall, Canterbury Cathedral–but one of the reasons we went over was to visit Wychurst, the Village in the Woods, on in its decennial year.

Alone of all reenactment societies, Regia Anglorum owns a permanent site. Situated about sixty miles from central London and in a patch of secluded woodland, Regia is constructing a fortified manor house from the Late Anglo-Saxon period. Wychurst is the burgh owned by Regia Anglorum. It sits on three acres in the countryside of England, and the main structure is a wonderful long-hall. It made me proud to be a member of an organization that has been able to construct—and is still working on—this magnificent hall and the surroundings. It is the only building of its kind in Britain.

Two acres were purchased in 2000, with a first chance to buy more land as it became available (and it has probably  increased by half in the years since), and Kim Siddorn—the founder and executive officer of the society, and whose idea Wychurst first was–related how he traveled through the woods, indicating which tree was to be felled and used in the construction of the long hall. The site was cleared in 2001 and work on the Longhall commenced at Easter the following year. The hall is now finished, with finishing touches such as a mural, tables and a floor being made, and attention is being turned to maintenance and to constructing other structures, such as a home for a forge and for a loom. There is a shipyard with Regia’s six ships, a bee colony—they hope to put them in skeps—and a pond that provides water in case of fire. Regia in Britain hope to put in water and electricity, and the site, which has already been used in several films and documentaries, will probably become the scene for upcoming events and private events.

Wychurst is a fortified English manor—properly, a Manorial Burgh. A ditch-and-bank wooden palisade encloses an acre, at the heart of which is the Longhall. It dominates the tree-girt enclosure and the sheer scale of the building just takes your breath away. Mainly paid for by fees gained from events and filmwork, the work has been provided by members of the society themselves, who gen eral show up for work weekends every month.

We arrived there on Friday night and met with Kim and others, making friendships and renewing old ones, and on Saturday, we set about work, removing rocks from an ineffective French drain, so that a draining ditch might be dug, nailing down planks for the floors and watching as heavy machinery was used for much else. We toured the grounds, gazing in fascination at the richness. The weather was mostly sunny and wonderful, though some rain fell on Saturday, and the temperatures plunged on Sunday.

The Regia land is entered through a gate that leads past a storage shed, which was the first building fabricated on the site as a trial run for the wattle and daub construction that was later used for part of the hall. There is a ring road around the palisade, leading past a parking lot, the pond, the bee hives and the shipyard. The wall is placed atop a terraced bank, and there are gates to the front and to the back. The hall itself–large and formidable—has tall ceilings, wooden beams and a firebox in the center. A mural is started on the wall, and there are risers on either side of the hall where the important may sit. Right now, one end is filled with material needed for construction an scaffolding for repairing leaks in the roof, and modern seats are used as well as period benches and other seats. There is no glass in the windows at the eves, just shutters, and the pillars in the hall each contains metal lamps which may be lit and pulled on chains.

On Saturday night, we sat around the fire in the hall and told stories, sang and debated the fine points of reenacting. We left on Sunday afternoon—Wychurst coordinator, Alan Tidy, was kind enough to drive us to Heathrow—but we left in a happy afterglow. We had been dazzled by the hall ever since we first saw photos, and it was truly a pilgrimage to get to the site. And so when we arrived at the hall, it was indeed a religious experience! Vivat Regia Anglorum!

For more information on and a tour of Wychurst, see http://wychurst.regia.org/index.html