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?