A few days ago, while getting ready to make a right turn, I was interrupted by someone in the left turn lane who peeled out and made a right-hand turn in front of me. The car had a big sticker on it, proclaiming the driver’s political views, and it occurred to me that I was tempted to be unfair and ascribe such selfish, illegal motives to all his fellow believers.
Then, as I made the turn safely, I mused that anyone with a sticker on his car was setting himself up as a representative of his cause and was almost honor bound to behave in a responsible manner. They are the representatives, whether they like it or not, of all people who share these beliefs. Then I expanded it to t-shirt slogans and logos, and before I reached home, I had expanded it as I do so many things to living history.
Let me step back for a moment. When someone is wearing a uniform of any sort, I consider him a representative of everyone wearing such a uniform, and I often hold him to a higher standard than others. For example, if I see someone in a police uniform, I hold that person to a higher expectation than I do someone in civvies. I expect him to help, of course, but I always expect him to be friendly and not to use that uniform as an effort to receive perks. If he behaves in a privileged, jack-boot manner, it leads to my wanting to avoid all persons wearing police uniforms because they are loose cannon.
But uniforms, in my mind are not just police or military or the such. For me, the costume that a reenactor wears is a uniform. I see someone in historical clothing–no matter what era–and I expect them to behave in a certain manner, to have certain standards and to represent, for better or worse, all reenactors. Not merely in their actions but in the quality of their interpretation. If he is wearing sneakers or sunglasses or the like—unless, of course, that such is appropriate for his impression—it is tarring how folk see all reenactors. If he is either unwittingly or knowingly farby, he is telling every onlooker, I’m doing this for cosplay or a lark, and I really don’t care whether it’s right as long as I’m having fun!
There are those who say, of course, that a society or subculture should be judged by the best representative. I can’t agree. If the reenactor is gracious and kind, helping a non-reenactor, making certain that kit is exemplary and accurate…all that is forgotten by one rude, inaccurate reenactor. If a person thinking about getting into reenacting sees a lousy impression, he might think, “So that’s all I have to do!” I love the saying that an AWI reenacting veteran said: “What is permitted is promoted.”
How stringent are you about your actions and demeanor when you’re in your reenacting kit? How stringent are you in creating appropriate kit? I know that when I wear or make a bit of reenacting kit, how it will be received and perceived by others is always in my mind!
In a recent Facebook post, featuring some extremely farby gear that I found hilarious, there were some snarky remarks. One person—who owns the group and who loves claiming that a fantasy LARP is a reenactment society—wrote: “Stop complaining. Who cares?”
Earlier responses laughed at the gear if it was being passed off as accurate. After this gentleman made his statement, many people told him in no uncertain terms who cared. They beat me to the punch!
You see, as a matter of fact, anyone who is interested in doing serious living history cares. We have dealt with that before that I care, and many of my friends care. It is my feeling that any good living history is going to be educational and not merely entertaining. Saying that you are doing living history implies a responsibility and a contract. The responsibility is that you are telling the truth, and the contract is a personal commitment to see that this responsibility is fulfilled! If you do not feel these, then there is nothing the matter with being involved in a fancy-dress party, in a drama of some sort or in a fantasy LARP; the only thing wrong to my mind is to characterize it as living history, reenactment or any kind of accuracy! But if you are doing what you consider living history
As to how extreme you want to be in requiring provenance, is more or less up to the individual and to the society whose Authenticity Regs he has promised to uphold. In some extreme cases, if there are not three physical artifact that exists, it will not be allowed. But in other instances, there is a degree of compromise, If something is not out-and-out incorrect and is based on interpretation, or if financial or hygienic limitations are restrictive or if the period practice is just dangerous and unsafe, then generally a one-step link, where a single logical leap of intuition is allowed (although most reputable societies require that this variance be approved or modified by an Authenticity Officer). For example, hemp might be used for trousers, though dark black hemp would not be. If any derivations or compromises are are made or used, then admission of this fact must be made to all MoPs and certainly to any participants. Rebated weapons are compromises, though even the most extreme probably do not want people to head onto the field to use sharpies against each other. The compromise should be elucidated and explained if necessary (perhaps as a warning to MoPs who want to imitate it). It is honorable at the very least to acknowledge the compromise, to state what was actually used and why the new variation is being used. As far as I am concerned, such an explanation is essential!
Creating an inaccurate physical presentation to the MoPs is roughly analogous to entries in books which are presented as hard fact but which are not backed by any proof whatsoever, no resources or provenance. It is likely to be anti-educational even if the interpretation is correct. But in many cases, it is an attempt to perpetuate certain comfortable mythologies or cozy commonly held inaccuracies.
A reader looking into the histories of tattoos must realize that they were not known as tattoos since that is a Polynesian term that originated in the eighteenth century in a journal by Captain James Cook (it is one of two words in the standard English lexicon that comes from Polynesian sources; the other is taboo). Tattoos were indelible pigmentation inserted under the skin and were before 1760 known as markings, incisions, pricking or even painting. We see samples on the “Iceman” Ötzi, in China, in Egypt, Japan and, of course, Polynesia.
Tattoos were used by the Celts, by the Anglo-Saxons and by the Norse. Ahmed ibn Fadlan’s description of the marks on Rus Vikings is well known, and tattoo enthusiasts have come up with an exaggerated history of their use that takes the slightest indication and expand it immeasurably. For the most part, these tattoos were symbols of heathen faith, and there was a steady attempt by the Church to get rid of them, though that never seems to have been complete.
What were the tattoos for? Apparently as magical symbols, as medicinal marks, for identification and for the same reason that many tattoos are applied nowadays, because they’re cool art. Were they part of the sex life or considered sexually attractive? Probably so, though you can never tell since they are not generally talked about.
What did the tattoos look like? Well, we have those on the body of Ötzi, which predates the Viking Age quite a bit; and we have the ambiguous description by ibn Fadlan, that the Viking males were covered from “fingernails to neck” with dark blue or dark green “tree patterns” and other “figures.” Whether this was actual flora knotwork or runes remains uncertain, so we do not know what tattoos were worn by the Norse!
It is interesting to note that some folk—particularly prudes and modern tattoo-removal doctors—insist that the Norse had no tattoos. The ultimate truth, perhaps, will not be revealed until we find a flash frozen Norse Ötzi!
The most prevalent form of transportation during our era was by foot. This was not only inexpensive, but most people never traveled more than ten miles away from home! Skis and skates (both used with ski poles) were known for balance and propulsion across the snow and ice in the North.
Asses, Horses and Mules
Other animals were used for locomotion, no doubt. Dogs and goats were used to draw such things as buggies, carts and sleds, both then and in later times, but for the most part oxen, asses and horses were used to pull waggons and perhaps carts. When it came to riding, asses and horses were predominantly used. We can see them being used in illustrations such as the Bayeux Embroidery, the Oseberg Tapestry and the picture stone from Gotland.
Saddles had an ancient pedigree, and the invention and dissemination of stirrups in the eight century made riding on the beasts more convenient and led to mounted warfare (soldiers used their mounts to travel to a battle site before then, but then dismounted for combat, sort of like dismounted cavalry later. These were sometimes very ornamented and like the horses themselves were an indicator of wealth and social status.
Prior to the introduction of the larger Arabian horses and the development of palfreys in the eleventh century, the horses were primarily small. Hybridization and breeding changed the size of the animals, and today the closest horse to what was used in the early middle ages is probably the small, intelligent and agile Icelandic horse. No other type of horse has been allowed on the island, and any Icelandic horse that leaves the island or that is born elsewhere is not allowed to return.
Camels and elephants, while known in other cultures for providing transportation, were almost certainly not used in Northern Europe, though these animals might have been used as modes of transportation when the northern Europeans were in the Mid-East. The offspring of an ass and a horse, the mule, has an ancient pedigree and was no doubt used this time. The Old English word for a mule was mul while the Old Norse was múli, indicating that the hybrid was used in those cultures.
This was a common design that dated both to earlier times and to later. The waggons were plain in some cases, but they could also be carved and decorated. See, for example, the waggons in the Oseberg tapestry, as well as the one found in that burial.
The waggons were large and cumbersome, able to carry large loads but were drawn by oxen and by horses, not by human power.
Sleighs or Sledges
Especially in Scandinavia, sleighs appear to have been popular. In many aspects, they were similar to waggons, being used for both transportation of people and goods, pulled by draft animals. The popularity of sleighs might be indicated by the presence of four separate sleighs in the Oseberg burial. Three of these were carved and decorated.
The “Viking ship”—the drakkar, the knarr and other sorts designed for special purposes—was important enough that it gave the name to an entire era. It was the most advanced technology of the time; the Viking Ship was exemplified by its low draft (generally no more than three feet when loaded), was swift (as swift under the right conditions as modern racing yachts), moved in both directions (which allowed quick raids) and was propelled both by oars and—the thing that made the ships really unique—wind. The clinker construction—where boards were laid atop each other, made water tight with caulking or rags, and this method of construction seems to have created an airfoil kind of effect.
The design was developed by the Norse and copied by many other cultures, some related to the Norse and some not. The ships seen in the Bayeux Embroidery are examples. Earlier designs did not use the sail as well as the Viking ship did. There are many examples of these ships, for example the ship used in the burial at Sutton Hoo. Some earlier and later ships were propelled by slave power at the oars, but the oarsmen on Viking ships all appear to have been freemen.
The predominance of Viking ships was overtaken when cogs started to be built in the early new millennium. In earlier combat, the ships were brought together, and warfare ranged over the ships in pretty much the same way that land warfare was waged. The higher towers of the cogs meant that ships drawing close to each other could engage, throwing rocks and shooting arrows down from the towers. The Viking ships tried to get the best of both and started to build towers on their decks, but they succeeded only in creating ships that were easily toppled. The cogs were predominant by the twelfth century. Viking-style ships were still being built, and they are still built today, but they are no longer the size of the stereotypical drakkar or knarr.
The cogs were phased out by the development of gunpowder and the use of cannon on shipboard. The new ships were more in the style of later galleons.
Two-wheeled vehicles were most frequently seen at this time, mainly for poorer people, since they were less expensive. Some define carts as conveyances that are propelled by only human labor, and carried timber, vegetables and other goods. See, for example, the June illustration of the Julius Work Calendar; this cart might well not be human-propelled, since we see oxen waiting nearby as the coach is loaded.
Chariots were popular in many civilizations early than the Viking Age, including the Roman, but had largely fallen out of use and popularity by this time, although once again semantics and definitions are important.