They found one in Birka…

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Today,a little technical talk about the little world of reenactors, and the problems we are dealing with. Prepare for some strong opinions, for this is a matter that touches each reenactor in one way or another, and most of us feel pretty strong about it.

What am I talking about? Something I touched upon before, mainly the authenticity and the rules of our competitive “game”. Long ago, I talked about what authenticity is for your average reenactor, why we use authentic standards, and how we aspire to achieve them.

This time however, I am going to highlight some problems I see in reenactment, and my opinions about them. I hope you’re ready- let the rant begin!!

Looking the part- when is authentic inauthentic?

Let’s take a look at our imaginary dedicated reenactor. He looks great, does he not? Look at the splendid lamellar armour, and the owl-guard helmet with huge aventail, all lovingly polished and maintained. Look at the supple fur cloak (no doubt faux, to spare animal suffering and avoid a vicious beating at the hands of nude PETA models). Take in the detail of armguards, and the incredible detail that went into the haft of damascene steel axe. Thor’s hammer, displayed proudly, rivals best modern jewelry pieces when it comes to intricate design. And let us not forget those incredible tatoos, visible when the armour is off!

But wait a moment… Our guy is supposed to be a viking warrior in mid-tenth century, A Dane raiding in Egland, Frankia and the Irish sea. He is well-to-do, but certainly not wealthy (if he was, he would hung up his axe and shield, and go spend his cash on mead, women, mead, more mead and a pet polar bear. Or get himself a warband to do his raiding for him). So, why does he use damascene steel, the most expensive type known at the time? Not only for his sword, but also axe, knife, seax and Thor-knows-what else. A metal which we know for a fact was used only for choices, most expensive weapons- almost exclusively swords, and harder to get your hands on than almost anything imaginable at the time. So, we have all the right things, made the right way… But of the wrong material. And the fur? No one wore fur cloaks, and we know this also, for a fact. Why do some insist to use fur “because they had it” is beyond me. Fur was used for hats sometimes, as it was for trimmings in cloaks and gloves, or to sleep upon. Only royalty could afford fur cloaks, and even they did not wear it around like an every-day garment. Just two examples or doing the wright thing- wrong.

Next up, is the armour. How exactly did our Dane, get his hands on a suit of lamellar armour, which in every material available, written, archaeological or illustrated, only Slavsic, Asiatic and Byzantine warriors used lamellar armour. Europe, warriors used mail- Vikings, Saxons, Franks, Normans, Celts and every other nation. We have mentions of various leather armour, but these are inconclusive, scant and very vague. It is an established fact, the mail was used throughout Europe, as body armour.

“Aha!” I hear a familiar voice. “They found one in Birka, Sweden, they found lamellar in there, dated to 9th century!”. Yes, so they did. ONE, singular plate of a lamellar armour, with no real idea, whether it was from a whole suit, or just a loose piece for sale or a spare. Also, have a look at the map. Birka, is in Eastern Sweden, far out on the Baltic shore. It is closer to Slavic and Rus states than it is to England or Frankia. So, logically, by trade or war, some stuff from the East made it there. But would the busy merchants of Birka export suits of armour to Britain, Danemark and beyond? How come, by the same extension, we do not use Coppergate helmets in Poland, or Saxons-style coats in Kiev? Where are all the beautiful Irish items, which I have no doubt German and Danish warriors would love to wear?

No one uses them- or if they do, very rarely, practically unnoticeable. But it seems, when exports from East are concerned, there is not a distance they would not go. Lamellar armour, Slavic “cavarly axes” and Asiatic sabers and re-curve bows: all of these seem to make their way as far as the shores of Spain, with no evidence at all. Except for that one piece of metal found in Birka. Because, obviously, this justifies the use of this anywhere. Never mind, that there were Slavic tribes near river Oder, who used these items, much closer than Birka was geographically. No, we know for sure that the two styles did not mix on that border. But if it was in Birka, than that settles it, it’s fine anywhere at all.

Obviously, if you are actually portraying a Rus warrior from near the Volga river, than the Eastern style equipment is a must. But do not pass it off as ok, for a Norse invader in the Irish sea basin, please. Same applies for those living in America, Australia and all other places around the globe- pick a time, a place, and create your character based on these, please, do not create a “no timeline” mesh of five different styles…

Playing the game: When is it too much?

As most of you will know, combat in reenactment is more than just a show. It is also a competitive sport, and we all try to outdo each other, or compete to be better warriors/groups. My problem is, when people turn a historically accurate (within reason) sport, into a game which look thus:

“Whoever can touch the other guy with the metal bit first, wins!”

Enter a host of problems, like those listed below. List is probably not exhaustive, but it should give a god idea of most prevalent issues:

Holding one’s spear by the very end of it, with a head so light it may as well be an arrow, and a shaft so thin, it could be mistaken for a pool cue.

Using overly long axe haft, similarly thin to spear one, with  a tiny axe-head, more resembling a flattened nail than a tool of war.

Waving around a sword (or two) with the combined weight of a walking stick, and no broader than two fingers put together. Because the term “broadsword” was always metaphorical, wasn’t it?

Creating spears so long, they are actually pikes. Authentic viking pikes, just like you’ve seen… Exactly. Nowhere.

Spearmen crouching on their legs so low, their heads are at crotch level, poking and slashing at lower legs in the hope of touching a right spot for a “valid hit”.

Swordsmen spending their whole duel desperately trying to brush each other’s shoulders with tips of their swords, with one half spent in a high, static bind and the other spent with both warriors on their tip-toes, and shields stuck firmly up their chins. Swap shoulders for heads and arms, depending on which rules you fight by (as some rules allow heads and/or arms as valid targets).

These, of course, only happen with some warriors and generally do not disturb our fights. But when you see combatants trying to bend rules, it stands out all tho more, for being uncommon practice. The issues relate both to safety and to authenticity.

How can you control a spear, held out by the very end? with five feet if shaft and a spearhead ahead of you, you just cannot do it properly. Try, see how well you do! Unless you create a weapon unrealistically thin and light- which means, in a real fight, it would never create enough energy to actually cause harm. Not to mention one firm tap of an axe would break that five-feet arrow in a second. Authenticity is also compromised, when we make weapons and equipment merely resembling the actual ones. So what, if the sword is the right shape, if it also is so thin, it may as well be a skewer. It is important, that reenactors aim for historical accuracy, as well as a fun game.

Mountain out of a molehill- sort of!

Good news is, that, like any issues they always seem bigger than they actually are. There is enough of “bad practice” going round to make us grumble, but all in all, we are all having fun and loving it. We manage to stick to our ethos, and provide exactly what we aim to: informative entertainment, for us and the public. We like our hobby the way it is, and though there are problems around, they are not in any way interfering with our enjoyment.

So what was the point of this long rant the, you might ask, if you can put up with the problems you’ve listed? Well, we all like a good grumble, don’t we? Also, I am hoping to stir some discussion and comments on this topic, hopefully from my supporters as well as critics. Because regardless of who is actually correct, it is good to exchange views. Till next time!

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “They found one in Birka…

  1. I just stumbled onto this blog, and thank you for your insights! I too am a Viking reenactor, though not from a martial perspective. I also have trouble telling people why that is not entirely authentic, even if there is evidence for it. Thank you for laying it out so clearly!

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