1. Viking was not a Culture
“Viking” was a profession. To go viking was a part-time occupation. Although we today refer to all Norse of the time as Vikings, they would often refer to pirates from other cultures as vikings, and I can only laugh when people authoritatively talk about the people. Of course, in the common language, saying any Norse is a Viking is about as ubiquitous and erroneous as calling an American bison a buffalo.
2. The Norse were a very practical people
Viking meant that the person was a raider or a trader. In general, if they landed where there was a strong defense and warriors, they were traders and went peacefully about that job. However, if there were no defenses—such as monastic sites, which had golden objects and were safe from Christian brigands who would never attack a Christian center—they were raiders.
3. The Vikings existed during the Viking Age
But I refer to the Viking Age for the same reason I refer to the Iron Age, the Bronze Age or the Nuclear Age, because Viking longships—drakkars, the war ships, and knarrs, the broader “trucks” of the sea—were the foremost technology of the time. The ships were quick (today, they have been fairly comparable when racing against sophisticated modern yachts), agile and capable (they were powered by both rowing and sails). They were built so they could easily travel both forward and back, so they could easily come into and leave a landing. The ships could be lashed together for combat and were outmoded only when other ships became taller, and the Viking ships had war coming down on them for forecastles and other developments.
4. The men they refer to as “Vikings” were mainly farmers when they weren’t out Viking
Everybody at the time was involved with farming. They needed farming to survive, and even the wealthy and the high status were closely if not physically connected to the process. Many times, the men would put in crops and then head out viking until they had to return home for harvesting. Sometimes, they would journey out again after harvest and hardly ever stay out for the full winter.
5. They weren’t dirty barbarians
They regularly bathed and had high hygienic standards. Nearly every Norse person had a comb—though many other peoples of the time did as well—and they had weekly, fully immersive baths when many people around them generally would regularly wash only their hands and necks. There is a chronicle that indicates that English girls often ditched local boys to court with Norse lads since they did not stink!
6. They were not illiterate
Generally. The number of them who knew runes is a controversial subject, but the fact that there were so many memorial runestones set on the sides of roads indicates to me that quite a few knew runes. However, they did not use their alphabet—fuþark if you prefer—the way that Christians used their alphabet. They did not use them to write chronicles or histories, at least not until after they converted, and the things they learned and recounted by rote were not written down until some time after they were Christianized, so not only do most period accounts written by the opposition—the Church and churchmen—but what we do have was written by Christians, who might have changed or invented things. Although runes did have a magical aspect, the new age use of runes for divination and prophecy appears to be a modern derivation.
7. They did not wear horned helmets, furry breechcloths or leather armor
Their helmets did not have horns—this was a nineteenth-century stylization. They generally wore the same sort of clothing that anyone else in Europe of the time—with certain minor regional differences like any other culture—wore. Their armor, if they had any, was maille. There is little evidence that they wore extensive leather armor.
8. There were no woman Vikings
Norse women might travel with their men—generally for colonization—but female warriors were the stuff of fantasy, both then and today (eg, the Valkyries). Women had a position in the society of the time—actually, both Norse and Englisc—that was higher than that of women in many later cultures, though they were certainly not the equals of the men, with great prestige and influence. In addition, there is evidence that they learned how to handle weapons, and were often put in charge of the home, farm and defense when men folk went out viking, though there is little evidence for their use of weapons and none for their participation in aggressive warfare.
9. They were skilled artisans
As jewelers, gold workers, weavers and so forth, the Norse had few equals. The more the archaeologist find of Norse crafts and arts—and they regularly being discovered—the more sophisticated we realize that the Norse people were!
10. They were widely traveled
The Viking Age was a time of good weather, often known as the Optimal Warm Era. They were able to sail easily to distant lands; and the great era of exploration gradually was ended with the Mini Ice Age. The Norse vikinged throughout the north, as far south as North Africa, as far east as Baghdad and Russia (which is named after a Viking tribe, the Rus) and as far west as North America (although attempts at colonization ended after about twenty years, we are uncertain how far west or how far south they traveled).
This has been inspired by a similar blog entry written by Don N. Hagist, an excellent reenactor, researcher and writer, on the “Top 10 Facts about British Soldiers.” Thanks and a tip of the helm to Mister Hagist!
This week, we turn to Julie Watkins, who wrote this a while ago at my behest when I heard her talking about it to M o Ps at an event. This is reprinted from New Member Times 28:
My participation in the NWTA was ended when my husband had some h ealth prob-lems. When he recovered, he was looking for real medieval living history. But I got caught in what he eventually settled on—the Regia Anglorum reenactment society—for three basic reasons.
The first was that there were no explosions. I tolerated the gun culture in the NWTA but was happier when I found an organization that had high standards without loud noises.
The second was that I had been in love with the Norse medieval culture ever since we had visited Iceland in the late 1980s. I liked that Iceland that it skipped the renaissance. Earlier, I had been interested in Tolkien, which led me to reading the sagas. I can’t remember the specifics, but I remember reading one after another, just liking the language of the storytelling.
And finally, in Regia Anglorum, I found that I was even closer to what I considered the ultimate living-history experience. It was simpler, less posh culture, closer to everyday life that I had found living history before to be. Even the costume was simpler. It was mainly rectangles, square and triangles, and the only curves were in the wimples. It was not only easier to put things together but to wear what had been put together. I got interested in the textiles of the era and love talking about it to Members of the Public while on the ropeline. I love being able to talk about a consistent broad over view and to display the different looms. And in addition, since this era predates the introduction of the spinning wheel, the tools for spinning are much smaller and easier to transport!
Ironically, on the line, I try to do the simplest actions in my demonstrations of textile production. Not I only because I can’t do it—I’m probably as skilled as an eight-year-old would have been then—but I find it easier to do this while speaking with the M o Ps. And when I screw up—as I often do—it can be more easily undone, so they don’t feel horrid for spoiling a difficult endeavor with their honest questions. 🙂 They are hopefully ready to go on asking questions and learning. Often, while speaking with them, I find out what I don’t yet know and have to look it up so that I’ll know it in the future!
I am very happy dealing with a culture that I find simple and easy both to understand and to explain to the M o Ps. I especially like where our group is at present, where we are portraying the Danelaw at a certain point in the early eleventh century. There are plenty of artifacts that the archaeologists have found in the area, and I find the portrayal easy and satisfying.
There are a few things that drive me crazy. What did a period carrying bag look like? It might have been such a humble, everyday article that no one made mention of it in chronicles or displayed it in art. Or perhaps it was never used. After all, how many items did you own in those days that you had to carry around? I would like to know, not only so I can acquire a similar bag for myself but so I can talk about it to fellow reenactors and M o Ps. Of course, I’m dealing with a modern reaction here; what I think or hope they had does not necessarily have anything to do what they did think or have!
Even so, reenacting everyday life in a culture where I can wear simple and comfortable clothes with no bustles, no stays and no ruffs, while talking about how life was lived by the common folk is both simple and satisfying. I, for one, am happy I encountered it!
After the splendid reception to the Healing through the Ages panel on Saturday at Military History Fest 9, I have been moved to found a new group: Healing Through the Ages. A few members of the panel who are friends have been added already, but anyone with an interest in medicine from earliest times to last week will be welcomed! Right now, what we are doing will be worked out according to what we want! If interested, feel free to sign up and to spread the news to others–not merely reenactors–who might be interested!