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

Archive for October, 2014

Things I Hate–Part Two

Triptych Sitting Female

This is the next in a series of tryptychs that will regularly appear here that show what some people think is an adequate representation, what is an adequate representation (in my mind at least) and the original inspiration for my view.

My thanks to K’La Albertini–not a reenactor–who dyed her hair and helped me out in this project!


To my mind, the main purpose of reenacting is not merely to entertain but to educate. I realize that for many reenactors and for many societies this is not a popular view. They are doing things, they tell me, for fun, to honor their ancestors and things a little bit wrong is not a serious matter. To a generation raised on fantasy novels, on fantasy films and on fantasy comic books, this is often a foreign concept. If they are wearing something that is a little bit different from modern dress, that often seems to be enough, but to my mind that is not enough at all! Perhaps the most significant thing learned from a recent weekend was that any so-called reenactor who wears or uses something that is out of period, that is imaginative or fanciful and not based on solid research is actually performing an act of misinformation. Any of the MoPs who look at them tend to think that they are all absolute accurate in their garments and gear, that they have all done exhaustive research and that they all have the highest integrity. The MoP might therefore assume that the average Norseman of the period wore black, wore spectacles, wore turtlenecks, wore leather loafers and wore a belt at least five inches wide. As I waited at the table set up before the showing of “Vikings Live from the British Museum” at a local theatre, one of the curious asked how much I liked “Vikings.” I replied that I did not like the inaccuracies, and he looked surprised. “Like what?” I replied, like the clothing. He then asked, “What do you mean, what they wore was not accurate? What did the Vikings normally wear?” I stood and stepped back. Something like this, I said. Trousers, an under tunic and an over tunic. In linen in wool, and certainly not leather leaving the arms or chest bare. He nodded and said, “Oh. I see what you mean.” I would have been unable to do this if my clothing was not accurate, and I would certainly have felt responsible for miseducating him. So whenever you are presenting a display for the public, not a bufu (By Us, For Us) event where you can present as much fantasy as you want, you are obligated to make everything as accurate as possible, just to educate the MoPs properly. You are dealing with people who are not members of your society who are looking at you, who are judging your presentation and who are trusting that you will be able to learn from you. You must make certain that you dress in the most accurate manner, that you use the most accurate gear, and when you must compromise the accuracy—generally for safety reasons or because the actual thing would be too expensive—you must note the deviation from true accuracy. For example, in my laece cist, I have the copy of a whip that was used to beat out the demons that caused madness. The original was made of porpoise hide; but because that is now illegal, I worked with my leather supplier for a likely alternative. I used lamb leather, which was grey, light and smooth enough that it stood in good stead, but I always mention this to the curious MoP. Most MoPs will readily understand this, appreciate the candor and as a result of this honesty, learn something they did not previously know. Unfortunately, it seems as if some reenactors do not want to educate people; that is too much like school. They just want to entertain people as well as possible and to receive as much applause as they feel they deserve. In one of the most disturbing conversations I had recently, a participants told me that she did not want to do reality-based reenacting because that was simply too difficult, that it was disagreeable, that she was doing this just to have fun. I do not know if she was denigrating research entirely or just the research that a good impression required, but it left me shaking my head. In my mind, I was thinking that she should not call her society a medieval one, that she should go do steampunk or cosplay at a science-fiction convention. Because the idea of dressing up and presenting yourself in quasi-accurate clothing and saying that this clothing is an accurate representation of the clothing of the time portrayed—when they are not—is not proper. Even surrounding yourself with articles not of that period is unsettling to me; and I hope that I do not do that in my impressions! For me, being surrounded by fellow reenactors who share this belief is a relaxing and enjoyable experience. To have the little points of inaccuracy in the portrayals is to me very unsatisfactory and something that I hope I never do regularly again!


It came to me recently that people might be interested in knowing what books on the Viking Age I value over all the others. These are books mainly on Scandinavia and on England, which are the center of my interests. Please note that in many of these cases, I list two or more books in the same category and counted them only as one book. Mea culpa. It was a way to publicize a few more worthy volumes that I recommend that people read and keep in their libraries.

I have stayed away, for the most part, from popular overviews, pure academia, lists of facts, histories of kings, historical fiction and books on reenacting philosophy. We are interested here in exploring the everyday life of the time, something between Susan M. Margeson Eyewitness Book for children, Viking, and Marianne Vedeler’s specialty academic book, Silk for Gold.

I realized as I was editing this I did not include any martial books. While I realize the thud and blunder for many Norse reenactors, I guess that it is not that important to me. I also have eleven categories and was unable to include Stephen Pollington’s Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing, but I would like to state here that any of Stephen’s books are very worthwhile!


While it would be popular to list such books as The Havamal and The King’s Mirror, various sagas and the eddas, the fact remains that these are not really products of the Viking Age. They were transmitted orally, probably changed over time and location. The sagas and other writings were not written down until two or three hundred years after the end of the Viking Age by Christian writers for Christian authors and probably contain vastly altered or even invented segments and details. Whether they started out as factual accounts or not, they no longer necessarily are. Still, the Sagas are illuminating and valuable pieces of literature, I recommend The Sagas of the Icelanders, a collection of Icelandic sagas which contain not merely new translations of the sagas but extensive appendices, notes, glossaries and illustrations that are very helpful in understanding the Viking Age. In terms of historical writings, one needs to look at Beowulf. It is considered the first English epic, though it might have originated elsewhere, It comes down to us from a written copy created in the tenth or eleventh century, so we know that this is probably what the people thought of at this time and was not being interpreted by later writers according to later viewpoints. Modern translations and editions are often abridgements or rewritings, and you need to carefully regard your volume. I recommend the recent translation by Seamus Heaney, which is available in several editions (including an audiobook so you can hear it orally in the way its original audience did and an illustrated version that gives illustrations to what is described in the verse). It manages to promote the alliterative verse of the original and still be very artistic and poetic. Reading Beowulf, especially in connection with recent discoveries such as the Staffordshire Hoard, shows that the writer was aware of what various artifacts looked like. And if one must look beyond the obvious, to the kennings and poetic allusions, that is a small thing to do and in fact helps you understand the era a little bit better.


Of earlier books, I might mention two of the first solid pieces of scholarship of the Victorian Age and early twentieth century: The Viking Age I and The Viking Age II by Paul D. Chaillu (perhaps the first book on the culture and still rewarding even if it is not uniformly up to date, featuring line drawings of artifacts) and Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age by Mary Wilhelmine Williams (from the early twentieth century, a combination of Victorian and Modern prose). Somewhat later is The Viking by Bertil Almgren, a large-format and heavily illustrated book that tells a lot about how certain things were accomplished Norse culture. Outdated in some areas, but well worth it if you are willing to check on statements; a good overview of inaccuracies may be found at Carolyn Priest-Dorman’s “Brief Critique.”


We have avoided books collecting prints of artwork, though there are many, often of high quality. However, because of its content we have included this. There are many books on the Embroidery, ranging from large-format facsimile reproductions of the Embroidery to an excellent history of the Embroidery, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story by Carola Hicks. However, my favorite is the French-published The Bayeux Tapestry Embroidering the Facts of History edited by Bouet, which has a number of interesting articles, including one on the physical items seen in the embroidery and one that shows photographs of the back of the Embroidery.


We have mostly stayed away from books with photos of artifacts, though they can be greatly helpful. We have also avoided for the most part books of line illustrations, partly because we remember Herbert Norris. However, this oop museum catalog, From Viking to Crusader, is an invaluable collection of photographs and descriptions of artifacts. Later books have larger photographs in color but not nearly as extensive and illuminating. This book should be brought back into print but probably never will be 😦


There are a number of volumes available from the York Archaeological Trust, and they are all very well written, well illustrated and highly recommended. Books are available in print editions, and many out of print are books available as free pdf downloads. My favorite, dealing with shoes, belts and scabbards is Leather and Leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York by Quita Mould, Ian Carlisle and Esther Cameron.


I have a failing for Iceland and its history. While there is an excellent book by Magnus Magnusson called Iceland Saga, I find myself returning to Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock, which contains much information about culture and life of that era that I find rewarding and illuminating.


Katherine Holman’s The Northern Conquest is a wonderful look at the invasions and conquests of the Norse in Britain and in Ireland. It is based on much of the most recent research and discoveries, and she makes worthy statements on Norse-Englisc communication, on Norse religion and on the assimilation of the Norse into foreign cultures. Very worthwhile.


There are a number of books on everyday life in the era, usually entitled Every Life… or Daily Life… I have an acknowledged failing for volumes that speak on everyday life rather than on the lives of the posh and royal, and certainly not on lists of dates, events and war. My favorites are Daily Life of the Vikings (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series) by Kirsten Wolf and Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series) by Sally Crawford. These volumes are part of an exemplary series that is miles above similar volumes such as those by Simpson and Quennell.


Two very good and recommended overviews of recent and older clothing research are Viking Age Clothing by Þor Ewing and Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Revised and Enlarged Edition by Gale R. Owen-Crocker. It is worth noting that Owen-Crocker’s book deals not only with the Englisc but with Norse living in England as well. Both are well illustrated.

1—THE YEAR 1000

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger is a very readable account of everyday life in England during the eleventh century, hinging on the illustrations of the Julius Work Calendar. I find myself returning to it time and again and always finding new revelations, explanations and accounts. The one book on the era that I would want on a desert island!

It should be stressed that this is not a definitive list but a very idiosyncratic, personal list. Paraphrasing Win Scott Eckert, there is no doubt that fans of the Viking Age, both in England and in Scandinavia, will take issue with this list or certainly with aspects of it. There might be other volumes that people have found equally or more valuable for them and their interests. I would love to hear from any reader who has another contribution as well as a critique for or against he books listed.


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My wife and I just returned from a journey to Minot, North Dakota, where we set up for the seventeenth annual Norsk Høstfest ON 1–4 October, 2014. We were invited up by Tim Jorgensen to be part of the Viking Village. It was a long, exhausting and rushed trip. Certainly if I go again, I will be taking more time and make it a more leisurely trip. Driving 18 hours a day, setting up and being on stage for four days and then turning around to drive 18 hours home is hardly my idea of a vacation!

It was a very pleasurable event. Large and important, it featured singers such as Merle Haggard and was advertised on a billboard as far away as Bismarck. The building set aside for the Viking Village was a bit off from the main hall so there was not much pass through on the first day or two. Then measures were taken by Tim and others to bring attention to us, and the attendance did increase.

The MoP—the participants at the Fest—seemed to be doing things from a grim determination to do justice to their Scandinavian roots, not to have fun but rather just to experience things. Many people, when I went to the main hall, seemed to be walking around with an intent frown on their faces. Fortunately, those who came over to the Viking Village were—or became—much more cordial and smiling. Those who came by were very knowledgeable, asked intelligent questions and did not ask the usual foolish tourist questions. While the fest itself was filled with the usual travel please, Scandinavian kitsch and food (but no herring 🙂 ), intermingled with some stunning artwork and other goods.

The Viking Village was designed, apparently, to be a sideshow that the attendees could enjoy. The fair wanted there to be as many “Vikings” as possible, and accuracy took a very back seat. There were no authenticity regs and no sort of a jury.


There were, to be certain, some very incredible artisans: Woodcarvers, moneyers, metalworkers, beard makes and weavers—and also Telge Glima, a Swedish gaming troupe, and a Jomviking combat group. In addition, there were people selling books, gaming boards, horns and much else. This was the first Viking Age event for some participants, so costumes, accoutrements and the like were not always exemplary. Some interpretations of Norse dress—if interpretations they were and not merely fantastical imaginings—were incredibly dubious. There were some attempts at Viking shoes, but nearly none were turnshoes; one attempt was a modern suede boot with fake fur attached to it!

Interestingly enough, the MoPs we talked to apparently understood how farby some were, and they talked enthusiastically about what we were attempting to do. Julie wrote about one experience:

“On the first day of Høstfest (Wednesday), I was wearing my new grey wool hangeroc and walking in one of the many halls for shopping and one merchant who sewed traditional costumes for dolls came out to greet me and pointed to the top row where there was a doll in a blue hangeroc. She said, ‘I’m still refining the pattern—” I think she wanted to make her doll costume look more like mine! We had a discussion about my tortoise broaches, and how they were not buttons. On the last day, Saturday. she came to find me in the Viking Village because she wanted to get another look and to take pictures. We had a happy conversation, and she took pictures of how the broach was attached. I had Folo take a picture of the two of us because I liked that she wanted to get it right. She then had Folo take a picture with her camera. The whole conversation was very satisfying.”

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But the participants were friendly, and some presentations were incredible and seemed to attract a lot of attention. They included Jay Haavik, a master woodcarver, who did carving for a recent Oseberg ship; the great folk from Telge Glima; Dawson Lewis, a coin moneyer; Cameron Christian-Weir, an arrowmaker; Pedro Bedard; a metal worker and horn carver; Wendy Speary, who cooked; Rita Nauman, a fiber dyer; Elspeth McBain, a weaver; Craig, a lathe worker; Alysa Harron, a beadmaker; Phil Lacher, a woodworker; Doug Swenson, a blacksmith; and a group from the Sons of Norway. For many, it was their first Viking Age event! Some started out doors, but inclement—cold and wet—drove them all indoors!

In the end, I would like to thank Tim for inviting us and for working so hard in a difficult job! And I want to thank those people who I met and who did very admirable jobs. If we are invited to attend again, I think that I will go. I had a lot of fun, and only the event’s great distance gives any sort of a real downswing to the event! On the whole, it was a very good experience, and I encourage that anyone who is interested in Scandinavian culture to attend and to have an enjoyable time!

Revision: Dawson points out thi was the thirty-seventh Høstfest; the literature I quoted said seventeen, but I had heard the 37 as well and will willingly admit I chose the wrong one. 😦