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


I first published this nearly twenty years agom but it is still amusing and pertunent…

The past was not safe. There was a reason that the average life expectancy was so low.

There were no regulations to ensure your safety. There were no guard rails. No warning label on swords (This Sword May Be Dangerous to your Health.) No nutrition sticker on the skyr you drank this morning. You were on your own, and you learned how to avoid dying or…well, you didn’t. See above about the average life expectancy.

People took responsibility for their own actions and probably kept an eye out for someone who would have torn that warning sticker off the sword.

Nowadays, we don’t. We take it for granted that if we do this, we take that or we wear this that we will live forever. People expect that they will be protected. Anything that might remotely be unsafe is not good, and all too many people justify an action by cloaking it in safety concerns, and there is probably a coterie of lawyers somewhere sending their kids through college by writing safety regulations. Many of these safely regulations are good. Others protect the lowest common denominator. Not all safety legislation and guidelines are foolish or superfluous, and I am certain not in favor of removing all such protection, but in many cases, they become absurd. What is needed is common sense and to tell when the accuracy of something must be compromised for safety concerns.

If today’s safety specialists had their way back then, when a Norse rode a bicycle into combat, he’d have had to wear a bike helmet and just paint the horns on the side. Now you might say that Norse never wore horned helmets, but then bicycle crash helmets had never been invented during the Viking Age and even the most rudimentary bicycles themselves were undreamt of. But let’s use bicycles and bicycle helmets in this essay.


Obviously, if you want any sort of accuracy, you would not use bicycles in your Viking-Age reenactment. Not even if you “disguise” it, so that it looks like a horse, or a goat, or a dragon, or anything else. What it will end up looking like will be a fairly nice variable speed Huffy with a furry blanket over it. Not exactly how you want to educate the tourists.

The bicycle did not exist. One can rant about thinking outside the box all her wants, but the fact that you can’t find proof that the Norse-Cycle didn’t exist—you’ll never find, “Olaf went off to the Fjords on his Huffy, so some people might affirm to some people that means that he might have had a bicycle. He didn’t. A person putting forth that theory is wrong. Misguided perhaps or stupid perhaps but wrong definitely. An Oseberg bicycle was not found, and bicycles weren’t sunk in that fjord by Roskilde and even Lee Majors didn’t ride a bicycle in The Norsemen. I don’t care. You can sort through Norse graves until Doomsday (some time in the eleventh century, I believe), you could squint at all the runestones you wanted to and you could read any translation of the Sagas you want, and you will not find a bicycle. The bicycle did not exist. Take a deep breath, and repeat after me: The-Bicycle-Did-Not-Exist.

Bicycles aren’t the only thing that the revisionist history and retro-documentation wants to believe exist. But unless you have a clear, uncomplicated description or proven artifact or some other unimpeachable authority, it did not exist. Washing does not make it so, believing crackpot theories does not make it so and finding something that looks like it if you squint at it from five miles off in the dark while wearing your Uncle Joel’s glasses does not make it so. Go try to make a good reproduction of one of the many Norse artefacts that do exist and quit wasting your time and everyone else’s by trying to prove that your fifth-grade art project was real.


Let’s forget the fact that bicycle helmets are as anachronistic as the bicycles. Without bicycles, bicycle helmets just would be superfluous. It’s much the same as if you had a grizyk helmet today, when gryziks won’t be invented for another 240 years. You could have chariot helmets or maybe waggon helmets or maybe horsie helmets. But they didn’t. Remember all those Frederick Remington paintings of cowboys wearing horsie helmets astride their cow ponies. I don’t either.
Considering the modern state of litigation, as well as the safety first mind set, common sense seldom comes into the equation in modern reenactment. There will always been risks that you have to take in order to do something. Just leaving the house can be dangerous. You might be struck by a bus, have a heart attack while walking down the street or be hit on the head by the remnants of a meteor. Chances are, though, that no dire thing will happen. You have to balance the possibility of harm with the probability.

However, most of what we deem safety issues are convenience issues. Wearing comfy shoes is a comfort issue to most persons. So is wearing spectacles, modern jewelry or that great bleeding goat in a pentangle that you got at the naked pagan fest. Do the benefits outweigh the compromises? Does it give an miseducational or unrealistic spin on history? Does it conflict with the established regulations of the group or the site? Is it a genuine safety concern, or is that just a rationale to retain comfort?

Most safety concerns, such as horsie helmets, must be carefully studied and examined with common sense. Only if a practice is, after due reflection, suitably unsafe to require a compromise should that compromise be made.


Let’s say that there is a nearby reenctment. You ride a bicycle to it. You wear a bicycle helmet. But when you get to the event, keep the bicycle out of the living-history areas. Quite obviously, most people will have to use a bicycle, or some form of modern transportation, to get to a reenactment. That does not invalidate the historical concerns. It is a compromise that you have to make, and there are other compromises which you must make almost without thinking.
Safety is paramount in this hobby, if for no other reason than a preventable injury in such a controversial and ill-understood hobby would be disastrous. A pr nightmare even if it did not involve legal action. There are hard and fast rules about safety. Compromises are made all the time without us even thinking about them. No one—well, no reasonable person—will fault you for opting out of complete and total accuracy. Firepits are kept well away from the public behind ropelines although ropelines are hard accurate. In rebated steel combat, you hardly ever see a combatant bragging to a buddy how sharp his seax is or, for that instant, a Civil War reenactment that uses live rounds. There are hardly any groups that force you to butcher your own meat at the show, and even fewer make certain there are weevils in the bread. You don’t have to wear lead make-up if you’re Elizabethan, eat off lead pewter if you’re colonial or rip out fillings or inject yourself with some exotic infection. Compromise, as I noted, is common sense. Use it.
And be certain that you ride a bike to use wingas!

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