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

Archive for March, 2014


In 1492, wise and resourceful explorer Cristóbal Colon set foot on America, sailing all the way to Columbus, Ohio and establishing a city to convert the heathen Native Americans, who inexplicably called themselves “Indians.” He did this for all Christian mankind and even was so humble and loveable that he allowed someone to name it “America” after that individual. Today, we hold magnificent large parades in his honor which would no doubt cause him to blush, because that’s how darn humble and loveable he was!

Or so, far too many good Americans believe. Bring up the name of Leif Eiriksson and L’Ans aux Meadows, and a dim flicker of recognition may flash across their faces. Bring up Eirik Þorvaldsson and Grænland, and you might get recognition of an island a mile or two off the coast of Norway. Very few people will recognize the name of the real first European to set foot on continental America or even onto an island that is part of North America. Google those names, and they will come back with pictures of Columbus because that is what you really or that you should be interested in!

But I have gone on about this at length in the past. Everyone knows—or should know—that I consider Columbus a fool for several reasons, and everyone should now that I am very respectful of Leif and his daddy. Hopefully those who know of my beliefs will not just automatically dump me into the same midden reserved for believers in the Newport Tower, the Kensington Stone and the Heavener Stone. But can anyone answer this question…

A bit of background first. Iceland is on the continental divide between America and Europe and so was technically at least partially the New World. I will disregard that.

But Grænland is very much a part of North America. It is not regarded as a separate continent by most persons. Europeans attained Grænland, settled there, prospered to some extent there (during the period, Grænland was better known than Ísland) and maintained their outposts there for at least five centuries. And yet, Eirik the Red is not regarded by most as the “discoverer” of the New World (actually, American Indians were) and his emigrant are not regarded again by most as the first Europeans in the New World. Why?

Is it because Eirik was only on an island and not on the mainland? But Columbus only ran into islands considerably smaller than Grænland and never set foot on the mainland.

Is it because the people on Grænland did not enslave, decimate or convert the natives? One hopes not, but no one has really proven the truth to me either way (And actually, there is great evidence that the Inuit and the Norse ran into the uninhabited continent at about the same time, although they settled in different places).

Is it because the Columbus encounter changed the view of the world? Ah, now, that is probably very true and very close to the prejudice. Not the concept that the earth was round; folk had supposed that for millennia, but that all the land mass was in a circle on one side of the globe. It has been suggested that Leif and Eirik and their fellows supposed that if they went far enough, they would just run into Africa. The Scandinavians and, perhaps, the English sailed to the New World shopping mart for centuries after the end of attempted colonization, and never even considered that the New World that Columbus encountered was part of the world they had known about for centuries.

Perhaps that is worthy, in some minds, of discarding the Norse in favor of Columbus. But to my thought, that is the equivalent of many Americans knowing and loudly proclaiming that John Glenn was the first human in outer space.


Wm. Booth, Draper at the Sign of the Unicorn, a purveyor of fine period fabrics—mostly 18C, but they will work with reenactors of other eras—brought a blog entry to our attention. They said, “This is a nice short read on living history. When we started in the 1970s we laugh at ourselves—what we wore, used, etc. But everyone starts somewhere. I know so many people who started doing things one way but now have grown into some of the finest in the hobby.”

In this blog entry, the author speaks about the community of reenactors, noting that members—presumably whether they initially think of the relationship or not—should work together and help others, whether their philosophies are exactly the same or not. It is uncertain whether she is speaking only of eighteenth-century reenactors or of reenactors of any era, but in this piece, I am speaking of reenactors of any era. I personally have a lot more in common—in terms of research, in terms of depiction, in terms of making certain that the atmosphere is consistent and high-quality—with the reenactor of a vastly different era than with someone interested in NASCAR. We both want to strive for, to discover and to present the truth!

The blog has a very insightful look at the living-history phenomenon, on what is important and what is not important. It asks the all-important question of “What is the purpose of living history?” That is a very broad subject, and it boils down to another question: What is good living history?

The trouble is that “living history” has mutated since it was coined in the 1960s and popularized in the 1980s so that it often is used to describe many things that would have been alien to those who coined and popularized the term (though their standards were considerably lower than those of many of today’s living-history societies; living history is an evolutionary process, where practitioners are always clamoring on the shoulders of those who came before them!). It has been used for causes as diverse as a book of modern political memoirs, to describe philately to cosplay that is only tangentially related to any historical subject and what we might think of as living history proper. To quote the definition set forth by Jay Anderson in Time Machines (1984): Living history “can be defined as an attempt by people to simulate life in another time.”

That is a suitably useful but immoderately broad definition, and I have often used it with the annotation that something is “good living history” and something is “bad living history.” For example, a society which has no authenticity regulations, which covers a very broad sphere of time, which willingly allows oop spex, sneakers, artificial materials and which tends to perpetuate inaccurate historical interpretations from the Victorian Age is living history. Just bad living history. Another society, which demands physical artifacts—not even literary sources are good enough—as the provenance for anything it portrays is good living history. Most societies lie somewhere between.

Are they all valid? Well, they are certainly what the members want, and they would not exist if they did appeal to such a desire. The big difficulty to me is the honesty and integrity of the descriptions of what they want to do. If the first society I noted above merely said in all its publicity that it attempts to foster a loose romantic vision of the past, I would have no problem; when they say they are “medieval reenactment” as they so often do, they have set up standards and expectations that might affect all facets of living history and which might affect someone joining the society in all good faith!

It is not here my intention to run down a list of farby and unsatisfying societies—of many eras, though we are most concerned with the Viking Age—just to note that such things exist, and potential members should always examine what the society offers and demands of its members! Hopefully, the members of the society will portray themselves honestly and not try to be everything for everyone and, because of that, is nothing for nobody.

For me, the goal is good living history. The extent of the accuracy is high, but not absolute. I accept literary references in many cases, and I am willing to make one leap of logic (sometimes a tricky slope to be certain). I have a preference for putting on shows and for educating MoPs (Members of the Public), but I recognize the legitimacy of BUFU (By Us For Us) societies. In either case, education is being passed on. Hopefully legitimate education and not merely incorrect myths, superstitions or untrue stereotypes!

In the blog entry that inspired this, Christina, the author, notes:

“I personally take pleasure in the details and the research—not at the expense of my interpretation, but rather to the enrichment of it….Are we going to get all of the details 100% right? Probably not. Are we going to be 100% engaging in our narratives to 100% of our audience all of the time? Probably not. Should we ever sacrifice one of these parts for the sake of other? Definitely not. Should we come together as a community to build into each other, and to positively invest in each other rather than continue to divide, deride, and dishearten? If we want living history to survive and thrive in the coming years, I believe the answer must be yes. An overwhelming, resounding yes.”

I think that pretty well sums up my views as well!


Leather & Fur

Leather and fur were not used in most clothing as it was in earlier times. Shoes were mainly made of leather, and there is probability that leather was used in trousers (some translations of Æfric note leather pants, and there is Ragnar Shaggy Britches). Leather should not be dyed, since there is a controversy about whether dyes were used, and black leather should especially be avoided. Suede was invented in the nineteenth century, and obviously chrome finished leather is totally inappropriate.

Brain-tanned leather is appropriate, but the most available type is vegetable-tanned, unfinished leather.

The width and uses of different sizes of leather vary greatly. The Tandy Leather Factory prints a good guide for choosing thickness and types of leather.

Fur, which is stereotypically used by popular media to indicate macho barbarism, was not used; most types of fur seem to be used for cold-weather gear, with the fur inside for greater warmth, and fur was probably used mostly as blankets and rugs.


 An Age of Wood

It might be convenient to note that people of the time only used wood that was available in the area, the truth is that wood was sometimes imported from elsewhere for use (including North America, since Norse contact seems to have continued even after colonization failed). A good guide for what woods were used may be found in my book, Age of Wood, while an abbreviated list may be found elsewhere on this blog.  Woods of American derivation may be used but only if the style is similar to that which was found in the area during the Viking Age.

Metals That Are Appropriate

Many of today’s common elements such as aluminum, bismuth, chromium, nickel, platinum, zinc and zirconium were all invented or discovered after the Viking Age—at least in Europe—and are not appropriate. Their use should be avoided. In the Viking Age, the seven ancient metals were copper, gold, iron, lead, mercury, silver and tin Alloys such as bronze (copper and tin), brass (copper, tin and other elements) and pewter (tin with lead and other elements) were commonly used and are all legitimate. Even steel was known, being iron infused with carbon (commonly known as cal), though the heat of the furnaces were not high enough to form high-quality steel. But steel was expensive and used sparingly. For example, the cutting edge of steel was often sandwiched between two pieces of more common iron to make the axe more affordable, and cast iron was not developed until the fifteenth century and not commercially feasible until the eighteenth.

The metals were often of a lesser quality than we know today, though just looking at them is not usually affected. However, certain types of metal that are commonly available today but which do look different should not be used. For example, stainless steel is a high-carbon steel that was not developed until the late nineteenth century (chromium was not discovered until the early part of the century), and results were too brittle to be practical. It was not commercially practical until the twentieth.

Galvanization, the introduction of zinc to steel in an effort to inhibit its corrosion, was not developed until the nineteenth century either, when it was applied electrically and also known as Faradism. In many cases, galvanized metal may be used, but the zinc must be removed, generally by melting it off in a fire.

Period pewter had a high lead content, and pewter that is available today contain other, safer elements. Its use, since it looks and responds like the high-lead pewter, is not discouraged. In fact, lead pewter is actually discouraged, as is the use of actual lead, which we know is poisonous and toxic. It is not introduced into the body by touch per sé although it can be ingestion, if the lead is placed into the mouth by fingers that have been coated with lead dust, by inhaling lead dust in the air and especially by smoking if there is any lead dust around.


The colors, paints and dyes, were more limited than those available today.

Hazel Uzzell has set down paint hues that were available in the period, and a list of and notes on these colors are availableModern equivalents have been set forth.  Acrylic paints were, of course, unavailable, and most paints of the time were oil based or milk paints, and milk paints give a very durable and aesthetically pleasing result. A list of milk paints, if unavailable in your area, may be found on-line from the Old Fashioned Milk Paint company.

Regia Anglorum has done extensive testing for natural dyestuffs that might have been available for folks in Northern Europe of the Viking Age, and the results of the Regia Anglorum Natural Dye Project have been published, and a listing of modern thread equivalents which may be used for recreation purposes is also available. The latter article also contains notes on what color might be worn by what social class.


While it is true that the peoples of this time generally resorted to whatever was easily available— as we noted earlier, and in addition they tended not to waste anything—there are a few rules of thumb that you should keep in mind when accumulating materials for a project.

Materials That Postdated the Time

These are generally artificial materials, which include nylon and other plastics. The earliest such substance—rayon—was not invented until 1855 and was not commercially viable for another 75 years. Rayon was originally known as Viscose and was not truly an artificial, being made from wooden cellulose, but was man-made. A true artificial fabric, nylon, was not devised until 1939. Why these should be avoided should be very self evident!

There are two main exceptions. The first is artificial sinew lacing, since real sinew is so scarce and not always available. Please note that I am not saying that this is the best, just that it is sometimes necessary when you want to use sinew lacing!

The second are blends of natural and artificial fabrics that look and behave like a natural fabric. However, they will never react totally like natural fibers, and this should be done only when natural fabrics are not available.

It should be noted that artificial fabrics will melt in extreme heat, so they should certainly not be used in clothing that will b worn around an open fire. Threads should be natural fabrics, and while some people will okay the use of cotton, other threads are readily available and should be used if at all possible.

Materials That Were Expensive in Period

Or not easily obtainable. For example, cotton was readily available in Constantinople and other Mediterranean cities. However, it seems never to have been imported into northern Europe and would probably have been more expensive than silk. Some commentators have noted that it was not unique in the way that silk is, and folk of the era and area had ready access to local goods that served much better for less expense, such as wool, flax, hemp and nettle.

Silk was imported and not duplicated by a local fabric, but it was very expensive (about 25 times more expensive than readily available wool). Unless you were very wealthy, you did not make garments entirely out of silk, and silk would be used only as trim.

Silk noil is also known by the misnomer of raw silk and should be avoided even though sellers describe it in glowing terms. It is, according to the Fiber Encyclopedia “the short fiber left over from combing wool or spinning silk and used as a decorative additive for many spinning projects, like rovings and yarns.” It dates in Europe from no earlier than the fourteenth century, perhaps the seventeenth century and, according to some sources, even later. Certainly not appropriate for the construction of clothing of the Viking Age.

Linen is Appropriate

Linen is a durable fabric woven from thread made from the long, strong bast fibers that form in the outer portions of several plants. Linen cloth comes in a variety of weights and weaves, from thick to quite thin and becomes softer with repeated washings. Although it is now almost exclusively seen as the product of the flax plant, in period, it was made from several plants, including flax, hemp and nettle. Because the bast fiber degenerates, it is difficult to tell the difference.

Flax linen is today primarily available and is certainly period. However, in period, “Linen was commonly available, but its use was restricted to upper, wealthier classes.”

Wool Was Inexpensive and Plentiful

Wool is a fabric woven from the threads made from sheep wool. England has always been famed for its sheep, and because of its plentitude, it was inexpensive and high quality. Wool is a very versatile fabric, breathing so that it is not overly hot or suffocating, warm when necessary (even when wet) and forgiving. It should never be dried, since it has a tendency to full, and some folk say that it should never been washed, only brushed. Many persons are allergic to wool—or rather to the lanolin—and cannot or hesitate to wear; use linen instead or as a barrier between it and your skin.

There are a number of weaves that were used to produce wool fabric in our period. The different appropriate weaves include Diamond, Broken Diamond, Herringbone, Cross, Diagonal, Tabby and Honeycombe. Elisabeth Da’Born Art and Textiles has an incomplete photographic record of the different weaves on Facebook.

—To Be Continued




Personal projects will not magically appear. They must be worked on with tools, and we can divide tools used on these projects into three categories:

1. Authentic and Accurate

2. Traditional and Manual

3. Modern and Powered

What you choose is not as important as where you use them, and a lot is dependent upon what you feel about selecting and using tools. If you are planning to use the tools behind the ropeline, in the view of the Members of the Public, all tools should be category 1. Historically accurate tools are readily available and may be easily purchased.

The tools in the second category are generally of a more advanced technical nature, often made of more sophisticated materials, such as better metal or more sophisticated and regular file marks. The tools are all manual and, therefore not very different from those in category 1, though they should not be used behind the ropeline. Their use is not experimental archaeology, but it still requires that the worker use his own strength and abilities in their use.

The tools in the third category include such things as power drills, drill presses and table saws, all of them driven by electrical motors or by some other sort of powered motor. The advantage is of course that the worker is able to do things that might be precluded by his own strength or by the time devoted to the project should never be used behind the ropeline, and they do not have any aspects of experimental archaeology.

Dennis Riley is the man behind the excellent reproductions at the Daegrad Tool Company, and he is also the author of Anglo-Saxon Tools, a book dealing with tools of the era and which feature illustrations not of the rusted originals but of modern reproductions crafted by Riley.