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

Archive for December, 2016

THE SCALE OF ACCURACY

It should go without saying that there is a scale of accuracy in living-history practices, and it is this scale that I would like to examine today.

If they’da haddit, they woulda used it. The existence of objects—or references in accounts written before the present or modern interpretations or period facts or a desire to believe that fantasy is actually true—is seen by many dabblers in living history as provenance for its existence and use. For example:

•    The trousers of Ragnar Lodbrok (Shaggybreeches) were made of fur coated with pitch
•    Leather reindeer armor is mentioned in a saga
•    Bersarks were a common feature of the Scandinavian culture
•    Shields were elaborately detailed
•    The so-called “blood eagle” was a common Norse torture
•    Viking warriors all wore horned helmets
•    The copper Buddha indicated that there was a Buddhist subculture in Sweden

Unfortunately, there is little reason to justify the existence of many such objects. Most if not all of these are reenactorisms. Even the single physical existence of an object—or an interpretation that such an object or action might have existed—does not provide justification for its wide use. Let us look closer at these cases of “provenance” for wide and justified usage.

Fur trousers has no provenance except in the stores of Ragnar, and there it might be a fantasy or might simply be so unusual that it is not only stressed but giv3es him his soubriquet.

While leather trousers might have been worn as work clothing (in one translation, Ælfric indicates that leather breeches were manufactured), they do not appear to have been armor.

Because many of these are so obviously plot devices in sagas, or misinterpretation of earlier writings. The concept of bersarks, for example, certainly seems not to have dated much earlier than the twelfth century (the object in the Lewis chessmen of a warrior biting his shield) and perhaps no earlier than the thirteenth century). The appearance of the bersarks in sagas—tales written down by Christians for a Christian audience—are both late and obviously plot devices. Reindeer leather—not only notoriously thin but enchanted—is obviously not a practical thing. We cannot assume that every warrior went around in leather armor (enchanted or not) because of its appearance in a saga, but it becomes a reason for many reenactors to wear leather armor. Accepting even the appearance of the enchanted reindeer armor in the sagas as true fact is somewhat similar to embracing ghosts, divination and other supernatural events as the gospel truth since they appear in sagas!

Most shields seem to have had simple geometric designs (see the Gokstad shields) and not elaborate motifs. After all, most shields were apparently expected to serve for a single battle so elaborate designs would only have been temporary and had to be repeated for any later shields.

The blood eagle—the lungs of a living person are drawn out through incisions in the back so that they look like wings—was a discreditrf interpretation of a poetic kenning in a poem of Ivar the Boneless in which the poet marked an eagle on the back of Ælla, his enemy. It was probably a poetic kenning, referring to the fact that he was killed and made likely food for carrion birds, but later interpretations changed into a factual appearance and has continued to evolve so that now salt is rubbed into the wounds to increase Ælla’s torment.

Undoubtedly, the idea of Viking helmets with cow horns first appeared in the nineteenth century, although there is some indication that heathen priests of a thousand years before performed rituals while wearing metal protuberances which could be interpreted as horns, and many people wishing to justify their use of horned helmets will spin this as provenance.

There is little doubt that the Buddha actually exists, but that does not mean that it was commonly found. The Buddha was manufactured in India and was apparently passed from merchant to merchant until it ended up in Holgö Sweden. It seems to have been a unique object in the Scandinavia world, perhaps picked up for sentimental reason and not an indication of the proof the Buddhist faith in the culture and certainly not that everyone went out to obtain a Buddha to be part of the in crowd (the so-called Buddha on the bucket is merely an imaginative interpretation in my opinion).

Many people religiously believe the old trope that something would logically exist—using modern logic—even if such an article has not been found. For some people, especially members of fantasy LARPs, a single occurrence or literary reference is all that is needed to adapt these into their appearances, and the multiple appearance of a unique artifact is not only tolerated but encouraged. To have a whole bucketload of supposedly unique things is considered commendable. One such person said that his personal attempts to “recreate” the culture of the past hinges on the appearance of unique and romantic items. They speak the loudest to him, and they represent what sort of an impression that he wishes to present. He seeks to avoid the more usual and conventional objects and to present unusual items as the artifacts that define that earlier time. It is as though he has been most influenced by popular culture, by novels and film about the era.

I call this trying to find an individual occurrence to justify an existing supposition to be retro-research. For me, retro-research is frustrating and causes anyone who does it to grasp at straws: To read something and then to try to interpret it in the manner that best supports the theory the reader wants to prove.

At the other end of the scale from what I choose to call romantic recreation is a more common convention in living history, that reenactors should be trying to recreate the ordinary life of the time. A person must find at least three occurrences of an artifact or three separate literary descriptions before it can be considered factual and routinely used or done. Determining what are three separate descriptions and not merely a duplication of something from an earlier account or source can sometimes be difficult, but this is one reason that extensive research is essential to good living history!

There are people who proclaim that they hate the authenticity police and want to be able to do anything that is not from the present day or at least common in the present day. There are people who say that unless an object or action has at least three proven and separate instances, you should avoid its use even if some object is needed and the proven article is unavailable, too expensive or dangerous. Many people take up a position somewhere in the center, and I suppose that if I was totally honest, I do as well. But I certainly veer toward the more accurate end of the scale!

What about you?

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HOMOSEXUALITY

Homosexuality did not exist until 1869, when the German Austrian-born novelist,  Karl-Maria Kertbeny, used the term in a pamphlet against Prussian anti-sodomy laws. It did go into popular use until almost twenty years later, when Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms homosexual and heterosexual in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, and it did not lead to the creation of a distinct sub-culture until even later.

Before this time, homosexuality was neither a culture nor a description; instead, people were more concerned with physical activities. Therefore, a common description of what we now call a homosexual was sodomite, which referred of course to sodomy—defined as man on man sex—which was decried by a church which was concerned with any sexual activity that did not lead to procreation.

And that brings us to the whole question of homosexuality in the Viking Age. By this time, the Anglo-Saxons had been converted for several centuries, so they probably followed the Church’s prejudices fairly well, at least in public. However, the Norse converted toward the end of the era, and we already know of the various ways in which the Norse went their own way in cases of activities, beliefs and practices. Let us look for a moment at the manner in which the Norse approached sodomy and same-gender affection.

Let’s face it, the Church little cared about same-gender affection; it was the act of sodomy to which they objected. If you look at correspondence and actions later in time, such intimate friendships were criticized only when they involved people of different classes. Norse laws, poetry and folklore were not written down in general until after the Viking Age, when Christianity was already deeply rooted, and much of what is generally thought of as indicative of Norse culture was invented by Christians from Christian viewpoints.

As Christine Ward-Wiedland motes, “myths and legends show that honored gods and heroes were believed to have taken part in homosexual acts, which may indicate that pre-Christian Viking Scandinavia was more tolerant of homosexuality.” The fact that during the Christian era that laws had to be drafted which dealt with and had injunctions against homosexuality is of the same cloth as etiquette rules: Their very existence indicate that people performed these activities.

Wolf notes that “Heterosexuality was the norm in Viking-age Scandinavia, but that homosexual relations between men were recognized as social phenomena were clear from Old Norse-Icelandic literature, especially the sagas.” While on the one hand, there was a general Norse dislike of effeminate men as well as non-effeminate women, this apparently had nothing to do with private sexual practices but instead with public behavior. In fact, the only offense noted in the secular law only prohibited the actions of the passive male.

However, it is interesting to note that “The secular laws of Viking Age Iceland do not mention homosexuality. The only place where homosexuality is documentably prohibited is by the Christian Church.”

From all this, a single decision is inevitable, that the Norse allowed homosexuality so long as the homosexual was not betraying gender stereotypes. Literary evidence is unavailable except when seeing what the Church warns against—suggesting that such activities were being practiced—and since any literary accounts were written down by Christians, and of course adhered to the Christian mythos.

It is interesting to note that lesbianism was not mentioned, but it was pretty well standard. After all, “according to the church sexual desires were evil and sinful…therefore women were not to orgasm or enjoy sex. Many times sex with men was not gentle because it was not meant to please the woman. It seems likely to me that since there were often more men than women in a stead, that they might have turned to each other, like cowboys on the range in a later time, for sexual release. The men did not apparently object to this and, in that manner, they might have been behaving in ways very close to conventional sexist ways seen today!

It seems obvious from these and other references that the Norse were very likely to behave in a manner that was convenient and pleasurable, a freedom that is duplicated in the modern time!

Christine Ward-Wieland’s take on the subject may be found at The Viking Answer Lady.