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

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

2 responses

  1. Jeff Tendick

    It is possible to create “period-sounding” songs, first of all by knowing the instruments used, if only by the limitations of those instruments. Second, if we know, or can wisely guess at the tuning, perhaps simple songs could be made that would fill the gap.

    My mother-in-law in Spain sings the old cradle song “Cinco lobitios, tiene la loba,” which I had not heard before, but which, after I decided to look into it, was actually centuries old and was even mentioned in writings from between 500 and 600 years ago. Had the words and meter changed? Most likely, but something like the version my mother-in-law sings is common all throughout Castilla. is found. It even exists with a different base meter in Andalucia, an area heavily influences by the Arab culture way back then. Yet the words and message remain basically the same: Five little wolf cubs had the mother wolf, but only four teats would give milk, so one wolf cub died. It seems to me a reflection that not all children survive. Even to sing of four out of five surviving appears unusual, since we believe that more than half of all children never reached adulthood. And we also know from surviving cradle songs that they are not always cheerful, but rather can be very dark.

    When in Northern England & “East Anglia” I heard songs sung locally that seemed quite different from those one could call modern tunes. Are they the remnants of much older songs? I would be interested in knowing if anyone has written or recorded such songs in Scandanavia and Northern England, where ancient remnants of patterns of speech and local song might remain.

    April 25, 2011 at 19:37

  2. Finally, an issue that I am passionate about. I have looked for information of this caliber for the last several hours. Your site is greatly appreciated.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:01

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