They found one in Birka…

Standard

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Authenticity- the what and the why

Standard

This time, to break the monotony of combat tips, I shall indulge on the authenticity, and my personal views on it. Authenticity, as the names says, is the standard by which we judge how historically accurate an item is.

10410981_776271245765992_5860235235164587288_n

For example- mail armour is authentic, as evidenced by written records, archeological finds and art of the day. Horned helmets are not, as there are not evidence what-so-ever for their existence and they are simply impractical.

10172680_697258747000576_3156533864540993613_n

When you are a historical reenactor, you do more than just hit people with live steel weapons, as I have discussed in my posts about Living History. If combat itself was the purpose, we would not call ourselves Historical Reenactors, but the Fight Club.

10411098_740143796045404_5894796585720916699_n

We strive, as best as we can, to present a historically accurate image of the Vikings and Saxons, as well as their contemporaries. We use authentic clothing, armour and weapons, we cook authentic foods over authentic fires and sleep in authentic tents and in authentic camps/villages, and we produce authentic artwork and craftsmanship.

10341880_697251513667966_8497440743394217117_n

But it was not always so- I myself do not remember the early days of reenactment, I was not even born at that time, but those who have been in the business for twenty years or more can testify, that historical accuracy at the early stages of the hobby was dubious at best. But we have evolved since then, and we have worked hard to raise our standards of accuracy, to the point, where we are the closest thing to the actual Vikings there is.

10337731_747570681969382_327104400149515016_n

So, what actually is authentic? Anything for which we have evidence from the period and the place. Important- it is not enough, that a samurai helmet was made in the 10th century AD- since the Samurai were in Japan, and none have made it over to Europe ( to our best knowledge), we are not allowed to use samurai helmets, no matter how historically accurate they might be. Same goes for re-curve bows, American Indian knives, or sabres from the Middle East. As accurate as these items are, they are not considered authentic, because they did not appear in Northern Europe at the time of the Vikings. Although some exceptions do exists (occasional merchant, mercenary, traveller or a slave), generally people and items from far-off lands are not allowed.

10252051_697258947000556_3847796393204335385_n

I do not need to mention, I hope, that items which do not belong to the period (Celtic wargear, Migration Period items, or items made in the later centuries) are also not authentic, even though they are accurate to the place.

10301596_697269260332858_6430649918384500262_n

There are (small) exceptions to the rule of “Time and Place”- we do occasionally see a Frankish or Continental character, as well as people using Slavic and Eastern wargear (lamellar armour for example). Exceptions can also be made on the grounds of ethnicity (for example a black person who wants to be a Moorish merchant or a mercenary would be allowed to use items from the Moor kingdom, but to a limited degree). These cannot be pushed too much though, as it would defeat the point completely, fi we allowed anything and everything, just because “it is cool”.

10314732_697254860334298_2002678895910252775_n

But that is not all about authenticity- for apart from setting us a standard to follow, it must also have its limitations. We cannot reasonably expect people to remove tatoos, dreadlocks or to manually weave their own cloth.

We must not forget, that after all, this is a hobby and too strict guidelines will turn people away from it. So, authenticity-nazis, who ban people off the field because of a wrong toggle on a shoe, or on the grounds of inauthentic underwear, are universally mocked and pushed into obscurity, where they will, hopefully, remain.

10325556_708799089179875_8224618167330325937_n (720x540)

Having said that, one cannot push the limits, and so ideas such as carbon-fibre shields, polar bear trousers, naked-torso fighting, outlandish weapon designs and Byzantine leg armour are regularly turned down.

We are a hobby, but, it is my opinion, we have a responsibility as well, if we want to call ourselves Historical Reenactors. There must be a standard upheld for all that we do, and it is at the moment a very high standard, with many people contributing to it. I, for one, am proud to be a part of this hobby and proud to represent the Vikings in the most accurate fashion I can, with the help of my fellow hobbyists. And now, after a long, long rumble- it is time for some authentic 21st Century ale!

 

Safety Measures

Standard

This time, I am going to talk a little bit more about how we, the warriors keep ourselves safe on the battlefield. Viking and early medieval combat displays are very exciting events, that gather a lot of attention. The reenactors always ensure that the displays are dramatic, entertaining, competitive and as close to the historical combat techniques as practicable, whilst also remaining safe for all those involved.

It is fairly easy, when it comes to public safety- separate battlefield/fighting arena, double set of ropes, instructions from the organizers, signs etc.

But how do the fighters keep themselves from harm?

382668_521885114537941_317158279_n (800x600)

1. The Equipment

Warriors use protective equipment, to keep safe. Some of it mandatory, some optional. Let us start with a couple of mandatory items:

10407696_10152430746534590_7002120455383659543_n

Gloves. Possibly the least authentic bit of gear we use, as the Vikings or their counterparts would not use them. A thick mitten or leather-reinforced gauntlet will not stop a sword blow cutting your fingers off. But it will stop a blunt weapon from breaking your fingers, by taking most of the force away from the blow. Without appropriately armoured gloves, a reenactor’s career would be very short and painful indeed, and finger/hand injuries are the most common ones seen on the field.

10356694_747571255302658_9217038556965154321_n

Helmets. Although not every reenactment society makes them mandatory, the one I am a member of does, and for a good reason. Head injuries can be very serious, and face injuries are not uncommon. A helmet provides essential protection to a warrior’s head, and gives him extra safety when getting into closely-packed shieldwall combat, where it is very easy for a blow to go astray.

Now, onto the optional pieces of protection, starting with the most basic and obvious one- a shield. No explanation necessary, I trust, and although it is not mandatory, as some warriors are using  two-handed weapons, or maybe a weapon in each hand, each warrior owns one, because hand weapon + shield is the most common and basic weapon combination in reenactment.

1014348_708865042506613_5459362858988764167_n

10330424_708869695839481_4580732262804408912_n

Arm-guards. Again, not every warrior is using them- but I can attest to the fact, that they are very useful indeed. Made of thick, hardened leather, and cut into an appropriate shape, they are great at taking the “sting” out of a blow. The protection they offer to forearms and elbows has saved many a warrior from bruises, cuts and fractured bones. Especially, when a warrior uses an aggressive style of combat, or likes getting close to his enemies, thus exposing himself to more blows. In that situation, arm-guard are just amazing.

10363978_708870089172775_7122907969425847554_n

Padded armour. Otherwise known as gambesons. a gambeson will protect the warrior’s torso, legs and shoulders, as well as his arms. Made of multiple layers of batting and cloth, padded armour is amazing at absorbing kinetic force of the attack, and in doing so, preventing injuries. It is also a very good-looking piece of kit, and warriors wearing it appear more fearsome, and look more like professional warriors, ready for battle. The authenticity of padded armour in the Viking age is still disputed, but  so far no one has come up with evidence, that it was not used, and so, it is allowed, with appropriate materials and patters being used. And did I mention, it looks cool?

391459_10200774340375924_894024069_n (800x600)

Chain Mail. The best, most costly form of armour in the Viking age, mail offers supreme protection to its user. It is great at stopping cuts and was the dominant form of armour for many hundreds of years. Mail comes in many varieties, and a warrior may have a small “t-shirt”, or a full-length suit of armour, depending of his preference and availability of cash. Historically,  mail was very expensive and only the richest and the elite warriors could afford one. In reenactment, mail is used as an elite kit item, representing warriors wealth and status- but it also offers great protection from incoming attacks, by absorbing their force. Plus, it looks even better than padded armour, and make a warrior seem truly formidable!

Miscellaneous. Many warriors also use additional protective equipment, such as modern knee-braces, or elbow pads, even jaw guards. Whilst not really authentic, these items can, and do prevent many injuries on vulnerable parts of the body, and warriors with long years of experience will tell you, that they area very good investment.

But equipment is not everything! even with blunt and rounded-off weapons, helmets and all protection imaginable, injuries would happen everyday if not for the most important factor- the warriors and their training.

10421642_708860522507065_491210098643775619_n

2. The Warriors

Each warrior, who takes part in a combat display, must do so in a safe and controlled manner. It does not suffice to say “ok, I will be careful, not to take someone’s eye”. Each warrior must pass a series of safety and combat tests, to make sure he/she knows what they are doing. It takes skill and practice, to learn to use weapons in an entertaining, accurate and safe manner.

10300502_10152430746709590_7587981521652644691_n

For each weapon they use, a warrior must pass a competency test, to prove he/she is able to use it safely and with skill. Warriors train regularly, and training officers watch over them, to make sure safety rules are adhered to. Whilst in combat, there are rules by which warriors must abide. There are body parts, we may not attack (head for example), blows we cannot perform (like thrusts). Warriors must also “control” their blows and “pull” them, when making contact with another warriors body.

What does it mean? It means, that the blow is made to look like it can kill, but is actually very precisely controlled, and never hits the opponent at a full force, but only hard enough to make it look convincing. Warriors are taught techniques, that make their attacks look vicious and deadly, whilst remaining fully controlled.

9068_521616871231432_623583881_n (800x600)

Warriors, and their training are the most important part of our safety system. It is a game after all, a hobby, and we want to make it safe for all those involved. Accidents and injuries do happen, as it is a combat sport. From common bruises, to serious injuries requiring hospital attention- but such occurrences are rare, and very seldom something actually happens, though many times warriors come close to an accident. It is because of our level of competency, safety rules and equipment, that we are able to enjoy our hobby, and share it with the public, for the benefit of all.

10411098_740143796045404_5894796585720916699_n

How I made Viking Trousers (the simplest design)

Standard

When it comes to kit and clothing, a lot of reenactors agree, that there is one item which gives us all more trouble than all others combined- trousers (gloves come in as a close second).

They rip, they tear, they end up with holes in all the awkward places. I had the same problem with my old trousers and so, with the onset of the new season, it was time for a new pair.

What I used:

2 square metres of wool (remember to choose appropriate colour and weave, they must be authentic for the period and region, see here and here for weave advice and here and here for colours, these are all taken from Vikingsonline.org)

scissors, measuring tape, needle and thread

chalk, safety pins

and a pair of old trousers which still fit me but I never wore them (you know the type- stained with oil or paint, holes at knees, damaged hems or zips, faded colour etc.)

I have cut these trousers into two halves (two separate legs), and then opened them up alongside the inner seam. These will for a basic cut-out for my trousers:

20140617_154748 (800x600)

I traced the outline with chalk for both legs, and here is the pattern I arrived at:

20140617_155053 (800x600)

Then using the information found on this link for the Vikingsonline.org I modified the pattern slightly, to make it historically accurate. Remember, to leave some extra space on the pattern for seams, hems and the like.

Now, I cut the two legs out, and was ready to sew them together. At first I made them all separate, and only after I finished sewing the legs, I joined them together at the crotch, making sure my stitching was strong and tight:

20140617_184723 (800x600) 20140703_095450 (800x600)

Having done that, I have inserted a small gusset into the crotch, to give that extra space for stretching and moving about. This way there is less stress on the seams and the trousers are less likely to split:

20140703_095617 (800x600)

The trousers are basically finished now, all I need to do, is to hem their legs in, and the tp as well, making sure I can insert a drawstring, to tie the trousers up with:

20140707_113147 (800x600) 20140707_120906 (800x600) 20140707_120932 (800x600)

After some more work, that was it! A brand new pair of trousers, fitted and ready for use:

20140707_124914 (600x800)

I have used these on a few occasions now, and they have not split, or ripped at all. They are durable, stretch just fine and provide all the freedom of movement I may need. And, that’s it for you- Viking trousers, made simple!

Making My Own Gambeson

Standard

Hello!

As promised, today I will show you, how I have made my own Gambeson, or as it is otherwise known- padded armour. It was a type of light armour, worn underneath chainmail, or as main armour by poorer warriors. It consisted of many layers of linen sawn together, to cretate protection capable of absorbing shock of the blow and stop cuts and thrusts. It is in some ways similar to modern day Kevlar armour.

Historically, early medieval gambesons would have been made of many layers of linen, usually between 17 and 21. For the purposes of reenactment however, it is just as good and far more practical to use linen as outer fabric, with woolen or similar padding inside.

So, what materials do you need? Here’s the list of what I have used:

  • cheap woolen blanket/mixed wool fabric
  • linen and or coarse linen/felt
  • strong sewing thread, preferably linen
  • quality needle
  • pins (lots)
  • chalk, pencil
  • measuring tape and LOTS of patience

I have made my gambeson in a simplest design possible- a vest with laced arms. Such desing would be common place in Viking times, and is far more practical, than sewn-on arms (and much easier to make too).

I have designed my pattern by looking at many, many pictures online, to get a good idea of what a gambeson should look like. I have looked at other people’s projects and finally, I took my own measurements. I also used my own T-shirt as a base shape, modified to look like a gambeson. Here’s the basic pattern I arrived at:

Image

I then adjusted the measurements, making it bigger and leaving more space. Trust me, it is infinitely easier to make your garment too big and then cut it down, than to make it bigger once you find it’s too small! The pattern includes the front and back piece, and an arm. Front piece would be cut into two pieces, allowing it to be laced together when put on. Arms would be detachable and laced on to the vest once the gambeson is complete.

Image

ImageAs you can see, I have used three layers of wool, to create padding for my gambeson. It is a good balance between protection and weight, and provides a better, more realistic look to my gambeson, than thinner padding would. The choice is entirely up to you. Remember, the more layers of padding you add, the heavier and hotter the gambeson will be!

ImageHere is the front end, cut into two even halves.

ImageHere is the back part of the gambeson, with split in the middle. This split provides better movement, and improves your agility, it is essential if your gambeson is any longer than down to waist. My gambeson goes down almost to my knee, to protect my thighs, and this split reaches to just above my tailbone.

Now, using safety pins, I have put the front and back parts together, and put it on for a try, to see if I needed any adjustments. Once I was sure, the gambeson fitted ok, I was ready to sew the padding together. Remember, to check the fit of the garment at each stage of making, so that you can make necessary adjustments. I have made several to mine through the whole process, to make it fit better. Remember, measure twice, cut once!

Image

ImageI have used rough, undyed linen for both the facing and the shell of my gambeson (inner and outer layers of fabric, between which the padding is “sandwiched”). It is authentic and very durable material, and as I portray a warrior with limited money, undyed material made more sense than dyed one, which would have been more expensive. If you want a coloured gambeson, do it by all means, just remember to us authentic colours and shades, and aboce all keep in mind that it was a piece of armour, not a fashion item and practicality is the top priority.The linen facing/shell is about 5cm bigger than the padding, as you can see This is because I fold it on top of the padding and then sew it together, like on the pictures below. It is important to leave a little bit of space with no padding in it, just the folded edge of the facing. It will be important, when putting the whole gambeson together later.

Image

ImageI left about 5mm of hanging edge, for stitching the pieces together later on. The stitch you can see runs about 3cm away from the edge, this is deliberate, as it makes it easier to put them together later and provides better resilience to the finished piece.

Image

ImageOnce the facing was sewn on, I started on the outer shell, using exactly same method as before, with a larger in size linen piece, folded and sewn on to the padding, creating a finished piece.

Image

ImageYou can see that again, there is about 5mm left of just linen edge.

ImageAs you can see, there are two lines of stitching on this side of the piece- this is deliberate, as separating the stitching provides for a stronger edge of material. It is also easy to tell the facing and the outer shell apart, as the double stitching only shows on one side of the piece. This way, when you are putting the gambeson together, you can readily assemble ot the right way, without wondering which side is which.

I achieved this effect by stitching the outer shell on only about 1.5cm away from the edge, instead of 3cm away, like I have done with the facing.

Now, after making and finising the separate pieces, I had three pieces of gambeson which needed sewing together. I did it by sewing the edges of the pieces together, like so:

Image

Image

Note, that this time I have made my stitching close to the edge of the material. This was why I have made the linen parts bigger than padding, so when I sew it together, the linen can be sewn together separately, without the need to punch the needle through the padding, This creates a tighter, stronger stitch and makes it far more elastic and easy to move, once the armour is finished.

ImageOnce the stitching is done, I flip the joined pieces over. I have stitched it together, when they were “inside out”, so that when it is “outside out” the seam is hidden away, like with all clothing.

Now, that I have out the three pieces together, they looked like this:

Image

Image

Image

I have made the arms in the same way, only not attatched them on to the main part of the gambeson- they would be laced on instead.

Laced on arms are much easier to make (I am no tailor but I had no problems with them at all) and far more durable than thse pernamently sewn on. There is also greater freedom of movement, without any restrictions on your arms. They also provide a convenient ventilating system, something very important when wearing armour!

To create lacings, I had to make what is called “agilet” holes, through which the laces would go.

I have made them with a nail, and then widened the holes using a pencil:

ImageRemember to make the holes at least 2cm away from the edge! This is to make sure they are not going to create a rip through your armour, which is what will happen if you make them too close to the edge.

Image

Then, I used linen thread to sew around the hole, using jumping stitch- this way the hole was made larger and more durable, but not only that- it is now better looking too! Same lacing were put on the front piece of my gambeson as well, to lace it together. You can use straps instead, but lacings are much cheaper and so I went with this option instead.

Before lacing the pieces together, I had one more job to do- quilting the material, to give it the characterictic “striped” look and stiffen it up, creating better armour.

Now, usually the quilting is done BEFORE the pieces are sawn together, because it may cause shrinkage. I did mine after instead, because my stripes were spaced wide apart, thus creating no shrinkage on the material. The reason why I spaced my straps wide apart was twofold. Firstly- it was easier and took half the time, than if I did it closely together. Secondly- as a poorer warrior I look appropiately in armour which took less time to make and would be therefore cheaper.

I created the quilting, by frst drawing straight lines on the material. Then, I stitched along those lines, making sure that the fabric did not shift, while I did it. Tight and strong stitches made the armour stiffer, more resilient and provided the final look. Simple!

Image

Image

Finaly, using leathern shoe laces available from any cobbler/shoe repair point I created the lacing and put all of my armour together, to create a finished gambeson.

It took almost two months to make and was a right pain in the thumb, but it was all worth if, for now I have my own, authentic gambeson, ready for battle!

Image

I hope you enjoyed this post- until next time!!!