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

Chairy Thoughts

Nothing says “Viking” better than a Stargazer Chair, unless maybe it’s Lee Majors’ horned helmet in “The Norseman.” Just looking at it fills me with a Neo-Viking fervor! Makes me want to go raid a monastery!

The stargazer chair can be seen at so many events, both LARP and otherwise. It is also known as a bog chair, an X-chair, a plank chair and a hocker. It consists of two planks that slide together to form an “X.” A proponent of the chair notes that “it was something someone saw some SCA guys doing, but that they had gotten the idea from an actual viking chair found by archaeologists.” Others note that the chairs have been found in Africa and that proves how far the Vikings traveled. Others note…

Well,  I think you see where this is going. Documentation based on what you want to believe is below contempt. Documentation based on fudging or ignoring a few facts is detestable. Saying that the chair cannot be documented but is really comfortable and convenient and better than a lawn chair is…well, I already dealt with convenience in living history; you know what I think of it.

You might also suspect by now that my first statement might be a little questionable. Why yes, and so is my note about the Six Million-Kronar Viking!

Simply put, there are no such chairs from the Viking Age in northern Europe. The chair, it has been conjectured, was introduced from Africa in the nineteenth century and became really popular in the early twentieth century when Boy Scouts began to manufacture and make them. All this is second hand and not even trustworthy second hand. Like folding stools with backs, they seem to have just popped up!

It is so difficult proving negatives. I had searched for and not found Victorian photographs showing the plank chair—the photos are often taken of European explorers who are sitting in European chairs brought for the safari—and even if I find them, that only proves that they were used by the Africans, not where they originated! Talking to persons importing the chair from Africa, they say they are “traditional,” that deadly term that often means “my father had something like that” and might be based on a concept that someone saw at a Scout Jamboree down in South Africa!

The chairs existing in the Viking Age—and documented by artifacts—range from stools (Lund and York come to mind), to benches, to box chairs with backs to chairs and benches that might seem more appropriate for eighteenth century reenactors (for photos of various types of chairs, see a copy of From Viking to Crusader or similar book, or just take a look at the section on seating in the Viking Answer Lady’s blog entry on “Woodworking in the Viking Age”  http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wood.shtml#Furniture
They can all be easily constructed (and many easily transported, something our ancestors probably did not have to worry about!) . In fact, they might not have had to worry about chairs very much at all. Forensic studies of bodies from the era indicate that many people of the Viking Age just squatted:

“The physical type does, however, suggest that they are of Anglo-Saxon date, as does the presence of large squatting facets on the leg bones. These are less common after the Norman conquest, when it became customary to sit on stools instead of squatting on the floor.”

Neither comfortable nor practical for most reenactors, but still pertinent!

Getting back to the ubiquitous stargazer chair, I can only say that their existence as part of the Norse or Anglo-Saxon heritage is unlikely at the best, and I would advise against their use by Norse reenactors until such time as one is actually found! Going on strictly evidential grounds, the plank chair is certain twentieth century; and from speaking with producers, etc., I am willing to entertain the theory that they came to Europe and the Americas from Africa in the nineteenth century, but not only is that of no striking relevance to their banning in “Viking encampments,” but of little relevance to my reenacting at all (and btw I’ve never seen ACW photos of them as some have claimed). Viking and other reenactorts of the period should learn to sit on their stools!

Articles detailing why we think squatting was probably prevalent in the past may be seen at http://forums.skadi.net/showthread.php?t=44463 or http://www.suite101.com/content/human-bone-analysis-a62847. For the entire article from which I plucked the quote from earlier, “Medieval Britain in 1967,” see http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-769-1/ahds/dissemination/pdf/vol12/12_155_211_med_britain.pdf If inspired to do a more realistic seat for your early medieval encampment, see Stephen Francis Wyley great article on reproducing the Lund Stool at http://www.angelfire.com/wy/svenskildbiter/Viking/vikstool.html

4 responses

  1. Nice post, well researched. I keep seeing these things for sale at reenactment events but, given my size, I think a taller stool would be preferable anyway!

    June 28, 2011 at 03:14

    • Just as an aside, I make all stools and benches with shorter legs. At first, I was only trying to get them close to the dimensions of the period stools, then discovered that they helped my knees. My doctor, when I spoke to him about them, said that he was not surprised, and my wife had a permanent one–ironically, the first I made, so it’s the most dodgy–at her office for helping to stretch out her knees! My knees still aren’t 100% (I’ve had problems since my teens), but they’re much better!

      June 28, 2011 at 08:26

  2. Bronwyn

    Talk about a real zombie post, but this is the first I’ve seen of it…I’m actually /looking/ for a stargazer chair (don’t panic, I won’t take it to an event…), in the hopes it’ll help my lower back. Most of the modern-day office furniture seems to welcome my lower back with a leer, a grin, and if they had hands, they’d rub them together gleefully before twirling their black mustaches and cackling. I’d heard somewhere that the best angle for an actual human back is what the Romans did: 135 degrees, or something like that (the Golden Angle of 137.5?), but — sideways, on a couch? Straight back, like in a stargazer (with sufficient padding and a wireless keyboard, I’d be set!)? Which way? And my physical therapist will probably disown me if I went with anything without a back to it (like, a stool). :-/

    June 13, 2019 at 10:25

    • Good luck. I use furs for padding for my bum, and pillows can be available as well. If you have any interest in something thenty for a reenactment, benches with backs (and carved arm rests) are period, and there are various chairs–with straight and not slanted backs–though in all likelihood they were for the higher classes. See the illustrations in _Vikings to Crusaders._

      June 13, 2019 at 21:12

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