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

Archive for May, 2011

Folcland Fest: A Quick Recap

Over the weekend of 28–29 May of 2011, Micel Folcland held its sixth Folcland Fest. In many ways, it was a typical event, so I feel justified in speaking about it here.

The event was held at Forest Glen Preserve, which I praised last week. It’s a beautiful site, staffed with constructive and helpful people. We arrived on Friday and took out time setting up, rearranging things a little. Our conceit is that we are an Anglo-Scandinavian village (unfortunately with tents and not with houses). Everything is a small angle, so it is not lined up with military precision but more resembles villages from the time. We set up te textile corner first, beneath a hemp canvas fly. Julie, whose shop it is, hs a mini-warp-weighted loom, two card-weaving loom, a swift and a display of the various types of fabric that was available during the time. Julie likes to set up the fly over the ropeline, so that MoPs can stand under the shade if necessary. The library cupboard–contadino hand-out literature and the cookbook wesell, along with an introductory placard on a stick is placed at the edge of the shopc so that it’s the first thing MoPs see..
Next to it we set up a getald where we sleep at nights, in front of a gaming and kids’ table. The kids in the group could no show up this weekend, unfortunately.

We set up a pyramidal Panther fly next.. At one edge, we had the mint and the laece office, while the back was reserved for the cooking preparation area. A cooking pit was dug next to the fly.

Jeff, a new member, arrived with an A-frame before the end of Friday and set it up with a display of adzes and weapons a little back, glorying in the fact that he didn’t have to set things up in a straight line. The fact that this second street gave a depth to the village was great!

Sharon, Margaret an d Babette arrived later on. Babette’s car was having troubles, so she hooked up with them nd couldn’t bring her kids, her tent and food prep table (she is our chief cook). They stayed at the modern center we have access to and cheerfully admitted they were wusses in the face of the thunderstorm that was predicted! 🙂

In the morning, MoPs did not show up (but neither did rain), a great difference from previous years, where we had a continuous stream of visitors. Probably because of the weather and because of a weekend filled with graduation parties and other things. They missed Babette’
s great food-preparation display, though we did enjoy the beef stew she made that day and the lam stew she prepared on Sunday. We spent the time talking and making plans. Finally, a few people showed up. People did show up–some from over an hour away and coming specifically to see us, and they had plenty of time to talk with us. Chuck shoed up and engaged in a game of Bacche spear to the delight of MoPs.

The rain poured down later on, effectively killing the day, and we retired to the cabin, ordering our traditional Anglo-Scandinavian pizza and sitting around talking, eating and drinking until late!

More MoPs showed up the next day, including a continent from the fourteenth century, and it was a nice day. Folk were interested in the exhibit and in the textile production, and we had a park ranger stop by and tell us that it really torked him of that we and other reenactors go to such extent to make a great display and people don’t show up! A photographer from a local paper did show up and, I think, was enchanted by the display. He spent a much longer time that necessary talking to and taking photos of us, and will be publishing a story about us in the paper.

We tore things down finally and left to get ready for Memorial Day activities. It was a fun and informative weekend with new members and plans to show up at Swedish Day next month. We probably disappointed the folk who stopped by just to see the violence and people in horned helmets (we did have a few horns and a few helmets, so hopefully they were not too disappointed). We had a lot of fun and educated a lot of people in the everyday life of the time, so the weekend was not a failure despite the low number of MoPs!

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Is World of Warcraft a Traditional Viking Game?

I’m being a good boy.

Over on an email list, the “Viking game kubb” is raising its ugly head again. There are its fervent supporter of course. It’s a fun game for playing after hours. but not only no provenance for its appearance as a “Viking” game but provenance for wen it was created in the mid-20C!  The pople who support it point out that “kubb” is a Swedish word, that promnent Swedish archaeologists are keen on the game and the “Vikings” probably had throwing games. Others note that it is not mentioned in an early 20C book on Scandinavian game (though an early edition of a book claimed it was traditional, while later editions corrected this) and we even know the name of the person who invented it (thanks to research by Pat Smith).

Using the same logic as the devotees, I have NOT asked on the list if Magic or WoW are traditional Viking game. Using their logic, they are just as period as kubb. After all, the word “magic” or “warcraft” has antecedents from the middle age. They tolld stories about magic and warcraft in the period. I figure one person, using the rules he uses to justify Kubb, should insist that it is! And I know at least one academic who likes playing the games. Ergo, instant provenance! The games existyed in the Early Middle Ages and should be played at living-history events!

Now, excuse me, I’ve got to go documented horned helmets. They had horns during the time and they had helmets, and…


In Praise of Forest Glen

In 1988, I attended my first event at Forest Glen Preserve. It was a RevWar event sponsored by the Northwest Territory Alliance, and I fell in love. A beautiful secluded forest preserve in Vermillion County, near Danville, Illinois but close to Indiana. The staff was helpful, the field for the tactical large, there was a great camping area and it had a modern log cabin and barn, built according to historical specifications. In the next two decades, I attended most of their AWI events (ACW events were held across town in their sister park, Kennekuk Cove). I even organized three “medieval” events for a fantasy LARP (this was before Regia made an appearance in the states). Most of the LARP’s events are closed to non-members—or at least to persons nor willing to wear non-modern clothes—but these were open to the public. The site demanded this, and a lot of people were pleased about it (one happily described it as a demo they didn’t have to elaborately plan; they had, of course, never been to any living history events!). Others, of course, did not like it.

Bad weather, health problems and a reticence for such an event stopped these events. But in 2004, as Micel Folcland was being organized, we contacted the park to throw a Regia event there. The site, used to LARP functions, were delighted, and we had a good turnout. We’ve held many other events there, and we have a very good relationship!

We will be holding our sixth Folcland Fest there this coming weekend. If it’s like all the others, it will be fun and well attended by Members of the Public. Attendance is free, and we’ll love to see and talk to you! See details at http://www.micelfolcland.org/folcland_fest_2011.htm

For more information on Forest Glen, go to http://www.vccd.org/giforestglen.html. You can see photos of the park at http://www.co.vermilion.il.us/park01.htm. It’s a fun place to go even when there are no special events going on!


The Common Man in the Field

At  many living history events, you would get the idea that the past was war, war and nothing else. To be sure, a battle reenactment or an event hosted by a military unit has a tendency to make the military aspects more important than anything else, but it often deemphasizes the so-called gentler arts.

Viking reenactment is no different At most of these, you will encounter the warriors walking about, clutching their swords, dressed in mail and ready to ankle it off to fight the enemies. Even more than other, later eras, this is liable to build an inaccurate image in the public’s mind.

Although everyone was ready to defend their homes, there were almost no professional military at that time. Most persons were members of a militia—for example, the Anglo-Saxon fyrd—serving for a limited amount of time and had arms close by but did not walk around all the time with them—farm instruments such as axes excluded—weighed down in heavy mail.

Unlike the image put in most people’s mind by over two centuries of romantic popular culture, the most common person of the Middle Ages was a farmer. Even the dread Vikings were primarily farmers who went out raiding and trading after they sowed their crops and before they were harvested. During the Early Middle Ages, probably 80–90 percent of all people were farmers, intricately and permanently connected to the soil. You might say that the Middle Ages was defined by agriculture as much as by religion, and even those people with part-time jobs—trader or raider or even king—were connected inextricably with farming and the soil. Even those who did no manual farm labor still probably oversaw farming on his lands.

The land was carefully managed within the limits of their experience and knowledge. The continued survival of everyone depended on the continued productivity of the land, the culture at large depended on agriculture. It was the land—and the storage of as much surplus as possible, including seed to be planted in the next year—that stood as a thin line between leisure, survival and disaster. There were no organized assistance programs beyond the most rudimentary, and certainly any offer of help from neighbors depended on their own prosperity.

Forcing the land to produce even a subsistent living was difficult. The farming process was never an easy process, and even if good years, the return was small. In classical times and until after the “fall” of Rome, farmers generally planted a bushel of grain and reaped only two. By the time we recrteate, it had increased but only to about four times the amount of seed planted, and this remained true until the eighteenth century, where horticulturists such as Jethro Tull were able to experiment and to take chances, increasing the gain to about ten times the original seed. By the end of the twentieth century, this gain had become over twenty times.

When survival was on the line, there was little experimentation. Even so, there were several experimental innovations during the Early Middle Ages that made agriculture more efficient. Most of the innovations were slow to be widely adopted because the farmers did not want to fool with success.

One was the change from two to three-field division. For millennia, there were two fields on a farm, one planted with wheat or other cereals that leached out the nutrients. The other was fallow, used as pasture or to plant  vegetables and replenish the nutrients. Toward the eighth century, the farms were divided into three fields. Two were planted with cereal, while the third was fallow. This simple changed effectively doubled the return on seed. The local men were given land in long strips—commonly called furlongs—since their ploughs were difficult to turn. Each plot was about a half an acre. It was recommended that a farmer have about 25 acres, but only a quarter of the farmers owned that much. The set-up of these fields continued well into the eighteenth century, and some fields in England are the same even today.

Another big innovation was the development of a mouldboard plough. For millennia, the plough—the ard—had been a fairly light affair that merely scratched the surface and was good for the lighter soil of the Mediterranean world. The soil of northern Europe was denser and muddier, and a plough was developed that not only had a metal coulter that cut into the earth but that also had a mouldboard, a wooden innovation that moved the broken soil aside and made a deeper, wider furrow. Later, some ploughs had wheels, which made their use easier.

Therefore, the image of a steel clad warrior walking around is a misleading, and a far more accurate and realistic—if less romantic and exciting—image would for a group of workers ploughing the field, harvesting the crops and preparing the flour!

Work on the harvest seems to have involved the whole community, and after the hard work, there would be plenty of food for festivities. These were commonly known as harvest home or thanks-giving, and the modern US Thanksgiving descends almost unchanged from these earlier festivities, even if they usually do not celebrate the finish of a successful harvest.

For more information, take a look at The Great Warming by Brian Fagan.

For a look at non-martial reenactment, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7r1rArI3xI. This is excerpted from a long video that is well worth viewing: “Life in Anglo-Saxdon Times.”


Faith of our Fathers

By the eleventh century, all of the English were Christian, and the Norse were converting. If the Norse were still heathen, their kings and other authority figures were mandating that they convert to Christianity. It increased ease of trade–since many Christians were supposed not to trade with the heathen—and eased the control of the populace by those in command. The rate of Norse conversion and regression went up and down, and there were frequent—if brief—times of backsliding. It is worth noting that in many cases when the Norse were allowed to settle—in the Danelaw by Alfred, in Normandy and elsewhere—conversion to Christianity was often required.

This is not to say that the Christianity of the time was anything like the Christianity we know today. Or even that the Christianities of the time are like the Christianities today. The Christianity practiced by the English was not the ancient Celtic Christianity that had been introduced to the isle about the same time that the Roman missionaries introduced Latin Christianity. In the seventh century, the Synod of Whitby had turned English practices closer to those of the Latin church  (King Oswiu of Northumbria who called the Synod was a Celtic Christian, while his wife was Latin; with apologies to Queen Eleanore and James Goldman, that perhaps is the real role of sex in history!). There were still differences, a closer relationship between the English church and that of Rome was not achieved until after the Conquest.

The heathen practices are not truly known, and anyone speaking about practice of the heathen faith are not speaking from any position of omniscience. The Norse and other heathen peoples did not write down the methods of practice, and what we have left have been filtered through the fog of Christianity. As with Caesar’s interpretation of the Druids centuries before, we don’t know how much is misleading, how much is propaganda, how much is ignorance and how much is interpreting the culture by the knowledge of another. Even our major sources of Norse mythology were written down—and perhaps interpreted—by Christian writer such as Snorri Sturlusson—some time after the Viking Age. Much has been made of the similarities between Christian and heathen mythology—the Allfather and Jesus both hanging on a tree or cross, etc.—and some have suggested tat such similarities eased the conversion, but I remain a little diffident about this. Perhaps the similarities were invented after the conversion? Perhaps we’ll never know!

This is not to say that heathenism vanished entirely after the Conversion. Ever since the beginning of Christian expansion, heathen and pagan practices were absorbed into Christian thought. Look at Christmas and Saturnalia or Easter and Eostre or Saint Josaphat and Gautama Buddha! In fact, Pope Gregory the Great told his missionaries to England in La Civiltà Cattolica that

“That some customs and religious observances of the early Christians were closely related to certain pagan practices and ways is known to all scholars nowadays. They were practices too dear to the people, customs too deeply rooted and intertwined in the public and private life of the ancient world. The mother church, kind and wise, did not believe that she had to uproot them; rather, by transforming them in a Christian sense, raising them to new nobility and new life, she prevailed over them by means that were powerful yet gentle, so as to win to herself without uproar the souls of both the masses and the cultured.”

As a result, one can easily see how Christian practices had their origins in those of the heathens, and the concept of a dual religion—for example praying to Jesus in the morning but praying to Thor if needing to go on a sea voyage in the afternoon—was probably fairly common if not widely mentioned at the time. The exception was Iceland, where The Saga of Burnt Njall notes that when the island converted to Christianity in 1000, the lawspeaker, Thorstein, who made the decision, noted:

“This is the beginning of our laws…that all men shall be Christian here in the land, and believe in one God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but leave off all idol-worship, not expose children to perish, and not eat horseflesh. It shall be outlawry if such things are proved openly against any man; but if these things are done by stealth, then it shall be blameless.”

The dual religious practice continued for some time afterwards but was eventually replaced by thorough Christian practice.

In our portrayal, we try to incorporate ecclesiastical practices and beliefs. Martin Williams, the ecclesiastical officer of Regia, has done much and extensive work to make certain that ecclesiastical practices as presented to the public is respectful, legitimate and faithful to the practices and beliefs of the day.

Since the era—and in fact, much of the Middle Ages—are so rooted in and defined by religious thought, I am more than happy to be involved with a society that gives it its proper due. Any society that ignores or that forbids ecclesiastical practices is only perpetuating a flawed and incorrect version of history! Those persons who spurn ecclesiastical portrayals because they might not match modern belief systems might well be politically correct, but they are obviously not true living historians! Just observe the portrayal of ecclesiastical figures in such films as “The Godfather” and “Black Robe” and remember what I was told many years ago: “Well, we have to remember that we are ‘Reen-ACTORS’!”

For a look at the importance of the role of religion in living history—especially at the time we recreate—there are several articles on the Regia page: http://www.regia.org./listings.htm. Persons interested in a fair ecclesiastical impression might want to read Martin’s handbook at http://regia.org/members/handbook/church.pdf


In praise of the Authenticity Police

Let us get one thing straight at the beginning. The Authenticity Police is an honest and honorable term that describes the Authenticity Officer (or Inspector or Stitch Police or whatever your unit or organization calls the office). It is an office which sets out standards and inspects members and their kit to se if it is up to the standards before allowing them on the field. The Officer allows compromises, allows exceptions for a period of time and—most importantly—gives hints, information and resources for builing up to great accuracy according to the standards. It is my opinion that the AO is essential if you say that your organization is living history. There are too many LARPs which claim to be living history but to which I could be welcomed wearing a loincloth of fake fur, a horned helmet, Nikes and mirrored sunglasses. Is that living history? Not to my mind because, regardless of how accurate individual members might be, the group doesn’t care a hang about its appearance!

This brings us to a more questionable, gray area. That is the use of the tern Authenticity Nazi. So0me people, disliking the term “nazi,” decry it immediately. I’m uncertain whether they’d like Outfit Fascist, Authenticity Ayatollah or Costume Communist any better, though some might. The fact is that the distasteful term “nazi” serves a real purpose: It bathes that personal in an intensely despicable light, and that is what I feel an Authenticity Nazi is wallowing in! The Authenticity Nazi is someone who does not have the authority to criticize kit but does so anyway, wanting only to make himself feel better and offering no criticism. One of them told me, seriously, “I had to figure out what was correct, so they can as well.” Calling such a person “Authenticity Police” demeans the actual, productive police and minimizes the intensely dislikeable aspects of such a person. I will use nazi, then, to describe someone who goes against the what I perceive as te true spirit of living history—shared information and advice—and use it unapologetically.

As soon as you say that you are attempting to recreate the culture of another historical area, you are assuming a great responsibility. People are going to be looking at what you and your fellows do and what you present and think that it is an honest display and interpretation of the past. Even if some spectators merely regard it as an unimportant escapist fantasy, the participants should not and should dedicate themselves to the creation of the most honest representation possible. They should know that there will be others who regard it as an educational experience and who regard what they see as a portal into the past. These spectators—and, indeed, fellow participants—will be judging, consciously or unconsciously, the presentation by its worst efforts; as the old saying goes, “What you permit you promote.”

For that reason, every sincere reenactor should welcome the inspection of their costume and kit by more experienced and knowledgeable officers sometimes called “AOs.” whose job it is to make certain that the presentations and displays of their organization are as accurate and honest as they can safely be. The purpose of this document is to guide these AOs in their actions, telling them how to perform an honest & helpful task, to be courteous & polite and to help create an accurate and trustworthy appearance.

I learned the concept two decades ago in the Northwest territory Alliance—a RevWar reenactment organization. I went through classes to learn how to be an inspection, served as a peer adviser getting a unit ready for inspection and conduced inspections myself, on both sides, the inspector and the inspected. It taught me a lot, including what was the most important thing. You are not rejected the individual! You might be rejecting parts of his kit, and if he removes, replaces or improves that kit to fit the standards set forth for participation, he can participate. This philosophy continued into early medieval reenactment.

Unfortunately, there are many people who do not understand this philosophy. They see anyone trying to tell them what to do as despots, personally attacking them and destroying their “fun.” This simply is not so. We have already remarked on that, but I cannot stress that too much. I might also note that the AO is not invariably correct and that any person who’s kit has been rejected can appeal this rejection is they can provide two independent provenances that backs up their assertion and interpretation. Is that the horrible thing that so many are decrying as anal and running from? Rather, I find it reasonable, reassuring and not a little bit comforting. I want to put on the good, accurate show for the public, and the AO is helping me!

The form that is used for inspection by the NorthWest Territory Alliance—and has been altered slightly for use by Micel Folcland—may be seen at http://www.nwta.com/forms/IIF.pdf