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

Archive for February, 2014



This is not merely the aesthetic combination and meanings of colors, which is undoubtedly different from what is standard today. This refers to the actual hues as well, what was readily and inexpensively available and can be best found by seeing the results of serious experiments and not merely by running to the nearest Hancocks.

For example, many Viking reenactors wear and want to continue to wear black clothing. Obviously in their minds, black clothing is deep and moody and appropriate for their upper-crust warrior impressions. However, in his article, “I Litklæðum’—Coloured Clothes in Medieval Scandinavian Literature and Archaeology,” Author Þor Ewing notes:

“Some writers have contended that the colour word blár does not in fact represent blue-dyed cloth but naturally-pigmented black cloth. Kirsten Wolf will address this question in another paper in this session, but let me simply say here that the sagas make a clear and consistent contrast between high status blár or ‘blue’ clothes worn only by high-ranking characters, and lower status svartr or ‘black’ clothes which are often worn by slaves or as a low status style of garment such as the kufl. That blár clothing was perceived as coloured clothing is apparent from the passage in Eyrbyggja saga mentioned earlier, or from Njáls saga ch.92; in these passages, both Geirriðr’s blue skikkja and Skarpheðinn’s blue stakkr are described as litklæði.”

This, of course, involves a little research and reading, and that is not proper for those with upper-class impressions…


Wicca—the celebration of non-modern-religion—was invented in the early twentieth century. Though it claim to perpetuate the ideals of older, classical faiths, though the truth is that much was invented. The modern Asatru faith is based on many Wiccan standards, but is actually predates wicca. It originated in the nineteenth century, and it attempt to perpetuate the stories of a thirteenth-century Christian writer as the truth and faith if the heathen Norse of several centuries before it was written down. The fact that many of the stories seem to have been invented in the thirteenth century seems to often be conveniently overlooked.

The truth is that we know almost nothing about the heathen religion except for unreliable retellings and the descriptions found by Christian clerics sent to convert them. And these are the same beliefs that seem to have been chosen as absolute truths. As legitimate then for any faith-based philosophy but hardly for a provenance-based philosophy!

By the end of the Viking Era, many Vikings were at least nominally Christian. Immigrants in England, France and elsewhere had been baptized in exchange for peace and land rights. Iceland had peacefully converted in 1000 ce. The other Scandinavian areas were on a see-saw for many years, going back and forth between heathenism and Christianity, though even in places that were already Christianized, the Christianity was often not orthodox and practitioners practiced a form of dual religion, praying to Christ in the morning and then to Þorr in the afternoon when heading on a sea voyage!

For many modern persons who will subscribe to a single religious belief, this is not comprehendible. And so, it is another instance in which the average modern Viking reenactor is different from the individual he is attempting to be!


Hopefully this brief and not comprehensive account of historical beliefs will give you pause. You must put aside modern prejudices and modern taste. They are most probably incorrect or inappropriate, but time to time, lose a bit of formatting, but the you will be able to amend them with only a little research and education!

An interesting and informative book on how the Church decided in the fifth century what some folk today deem as immortal and the truth from God’s lips is examined in Jesus Wars.


Primary Literary Provenance For instance, there are plenty of hints of everyday conduct of business in the Icelandic sagas. Leaving aside the controversy, that I feel has been exaggerated, homely incidents in the sagas give an excellent view into behavior during the time, For example, in chapter 74 of Njal’s Saga, Gunnar has been exiled and is preparing to go abroad: “They ride down along Markfleet, and just then Gunnar’s horse tripped and threw him off. He turned with his face up towards the Lithe and the homestead at Lithend, and said, ‘Fair is the Lithe; so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair; the corn fields are white to harvest, and the home mead is mown; and now I will ride back home, and not fare abroad at all.’ “‘Do not this joy to thy foes,’ says Kolskegg, ‘by breaking thy atonement, for no man could think thou wouldst do thus, and thou mayst be sure that all will happen as Njal has said.’ “‘I will not go away any whither,’ says Gunnar, ‘and so I would thou shouldest do too.’ “‘That shall not be,’ says Kolskegg; ‘I will never do a base thing in this, nor in anything else which is left to my good faith; and this is that one thing that could tear us asunder; but tell this to my kinsmen and to my mother, that I never mean to see Iceland again, for I shall soon learn that thou art dead, brother, and then there will be nothing left to bring me back.’ “So they parted there and then. Gunnar rides home to Lithend, but Kolskegg rides to the ship, and goes abroad.” Citation Whether this the conduct espoused by the heaven Norse of the Vikings Age or by the Christian writers of a few centuries layer, it is a valuable look into the conduct expected during the time. The most immediate aspect is that the courtesy books have a tendency to inveigh against known behavior and tell the reader or listener how to behave. We can assume from the appearance in a courtesy book of a particular personal action that the action was itself very frequent, since there is no reason to warn against a behavior that is alien unless you are a modern bureaucratic society). The Babees’ Book, a compilation of medieval treatises on courteous behavior to be taught the young. In one section, it notes Do not carry your knife to your mouth with food, or hold the meat with your hands in any wise; and also if divers good meats are brought to you, look that all courtesy ye assay of each; and if your dish be taken away with its meat and another brought, courtesy demands that ye shall let it go and not ask for it back again. Citation From these warnings, we have a good idea of what conventional table manners were like during the time! The most prominent courtesy book during the Viking Age was The Havamal, or the Sayings of the High One (the God Oðinn), much the way that Proverbs is attributed to Solomon. It appears as a single poem in the Poetic Edda but was a combination of different individual poems that presents advice for living, proper conduct and wisdom. For example, it notes: 25 The unwise man thinks them all to be his friends, those who laugh at him; then he finds when he comes to the Thing (assembly) that he has few supporters. Citation From this, we can assume that many persons trust too much those who re friendly during good times, which must have occurred regularly. Reading, studying and appreciating the different stanzas of The Havamal can be illuminating! Kennings and Meanings Kennings are poetic phrases the are used to refer to other common phrases. “Kennings are like riddles, allegories, metaphors, and allusions rolled all into one.” They are listed in the Prose Edda of the Christian writer, Snorri Sturluson, and their meanings are often portals into the minds of the writer and the people of the time: Aegir’s daughters waves Baldur’s bane mistletoe blood-ember axe blood-worm sword breaker of rings King or chieftain breaker of trees wind As such, the Prose Edda should be read and studied! What it might tell you bout the mindset of the time—or at least that of a couple centuries later, based on a comprehension of previous times—is very fruitful! To Be Continued Probably the best courtesy book for Viking reenactors is The Havamal, a collection of sayings and epigrams that tells those—presumably but not exclusively the young—how they should properly behave.


No matter what some reenactors seem to believe,  we are not Norse warriors of the last millennium. Hell, we are not even Norse anything of the last millennium. We are play-actors of this millennium—of this century—who are dressing in the same style of clothing that might have been worn during the last millennium, who are doing things that night have been done during the last millennium, who are giving the illusion of dwelling in the culture of the last millennium. In fact, giving the illusion of culture—hopefully everyday—of a previous millennium is the very root of all living history, but the big drawback is that the reenactor has been educated by modern education. He is familiar with the modern culture and, unless special efforts and study are taken, he is making decisions according to a modern aesthetic. He is using taste and preferences and, yes, logic, that he has been taught by modern culture.

Any attempt to get beyond these ingrained aesthetics is difficult and rather artificial. Writings from the period are very important and influential, and surprisingly, there are more than a  few.

Military Commands

Actually, this is how this whole article started. Military conduct is today so ingrained into our modern cultures, that it seems natural to have existed.

Old Norse and Old English military commands are very evocative, but were they used in period? I cannot find any good examples. Certainly there was training in weapons use, and inevitably training in forming a shield wall, &c., but I am wondering about the modern concept of military drill, training and commands during the Viking Age era. Rob Thomas very pertinently notes that “If orders weren’t given…How would you get your line to move forward? Prodding your army in the back with your sword will just cause resentment amongst the troops.” And Kim Siddorn adds, “It wasn’t the sort if thing anyone was writing down in a semi-literate age.”

It seems then that, for the most part and outside of using musical instruments whose sounds carried farther than even the loudest voice, the idea of adapting conventional military commands to the time is rather anachronistic and appeals more to the modern military mind! There simply was no von Steuben military manual for the time! Having standard commands was an alien to most mindsets as specified uniforms until far later in time, and neither perhaps should be standard for reenactors of the period!

Nonetheless, the advantages of having conventional commands—both Englisc  and Norse—in modern reenacting is advantageous both for the reenactors to understand what is expected and being done but for spectators to appreciate a taste of the culture:


Old English

Old Norse

Stand at ease

Standeth softie






Forth on gewinn gangeth


Form up


Reisa alvaepni








The illusion of life in another century is concentrated on the garments that the participants wear. More than man other eras, there seems to be a tendency to wear incorrect garments in films and other popular portrayal of the Viking Age, and for many reenactors seeing these errors so gleefully and ubiquitously presented in so many places means that they are foremost in some viewers’ minds. While many variation in interpretations are possible among honest researchers, there seems to be a movement for non-period garments, for such things as lamellar armor and greaves, for incorrect fabrics such as leather and for such later manifestations such as cross gaiters.

This is, in many ways, not as it was common as during the previous eras, because easy access to good research is available. Gail Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England and Þor Ewing’s Viking Clothing are as easily available as works by Iris Brooks and by Ruth Turner Wilcox, which are unfortunately just as ubiquitously available. Even the work by Herbert Norris, which are very useful in some aspects, are marred by a tendency to misinterpret graphics. Unless one is discerning and learns the basics of costume at the time, there is often a tendency to incorporate the incorrect and more fanciful interpretations!

Reading the readily available research and documentation—such as that in Þor Ewing’s overview of Viking Clothing—is required. A person who merely uncritically believes an undocumented presentation is going to end up more a version of Lee Majors in “The Norseman” rather than a believable presentation of the appearance of the time!

—To Be Continued

Many books on accurate costuming is readily available from such sources as Barnes and Noble , but the purchaser should be careful and critical, since books by Iris Brooks and others of her type are also readily available!