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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Kelmarsh- History Live!

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So, last weekend I have attended my first ever Major reenactment show- Kelmarsh History Live festival. It was an amazing event, there was so much to see and so much to do, it felt like the standard 24 hour day was much to little.

Not having a car, I have managed to catch a lift, with a few good friends from Y Ddraig- Thorstein, Thorkell and Yngvar ( I am using authentic names here). After a merry drive in Thorstein’s fab Ford KA, we have arrived at Kelmarsh on friday evening, just in time to pitch out tents and go for a quick visit to a local supermarket, for supplies.

In the meantime, I have managed to take a quick photo of the campsite, which was really huge and jam-packed full of reenactors (there were two camp sites actually – “plastic” and “authentic”, both huge and both lots of fun):

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We have pitched our tents just before dark, and just in time to enjoy beer and snacks, before tomorrow. Also, just to make my point, my tent is not a “Hovel”, regardless of what Yngvar says. It may not be a “Love Palace”, as there are only two tents in Y Ddraig to have earned that name, but I will not have my tent insulted thus!

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In the morning, after we woke up and recovered from last night’s merriment, it was time to kit up, and get ready for battle! This year, our group was to take part in two battles, one called the Battle of The Standards, fought between the Scots and the English Normans, and the second The Battle of Stoke Field, fought in 1487 during War of the Roses. No actual Viking Age battle for us, but it was no obstacle whatsoever. In the first battle we appeared as Scottish rabble, and in the second as Irish Kern and Gallowglass mercenaries (after appropriate kit modifications of course).

First came the Battle of the Standards, where we would fight against Normano-English scum, in a suitably undisciplined and mob-like fashion. Unfortunately, the Scots have lost the battle and so we were destined to die or rout off the field. We fought hard none the less, and being a rabble proved hugely entertaining! WE screamed, we taunted, we were shot at with arrows, we charged down hill and run back when met with stout resistance, than charged again, until defeated. The only downside was the lack of fighting spirit from the Normano-English side, who were reluctant to advance or turn on their savage side. If only the fight was competitive, we would own them… One can dream, right?

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And, after a quick change of kit (only 30 minutes before the next battle!) we were ready to play the part of Irish mercenaries:

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This time, unfortunately we were yet again on the loosing side, as the York followers were beaten by the Lancastrians. Regardless of that fact, we still had huge fun, me especially, as it was my first time fighting against Medieval reenactors, who use different weapons, different armour and different rules. The battle was immense fun, with tonnes of shouting, charging, retreating, and facing off against men so heavily armoured, they seemed like actual tanks. Plus, we were peppered with arrows, shot at with cannons and hand guns, and even charged by cavalry! And, in the midst of it all, young members of Y Ddraig shouted defiantly their mysterious warcries (Euthanize!!! Forth Eorlingas!!! For money, money, more money and grapefruit!!!), while fighting savagely until their eventual deaths.

And, once the battles were done, and we have had our rest, it was time to explore the event. There was so much to see, so much to do! Trading stalls, lecture tent, beer tent, every possible kind of reeactment, from Romans and World War II to Victorian prisoners and the Suffragette movement. As soon as we were able, me, Yngvar, Thorstein and Thorkell went on a shopping/tourist spree amongst all the chaos:

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What have we seen, what have we heard, what delicacies have we tried? I could talk for days and days, and still not finish. Let us just say, we have seen it all, and still wanted more. Two days of glorious battles and incredible shows, visiting stalls and enjoying the amazing event that is Kelmarsh History Live.

And then, there was of course, the Saturday Beer Tent party, with live band, endless beer and cider, fancy dress and several hundred (or did we reach over a thousand?) reenactors having jolly good time. Cue Star Wars cosplay, 80’s dress up, mandatory man in a mankini, mosh-pit full of mead-crazed Vikings and all sorts of party craziness, carrying well into the night. Only one word describes it- epic.

I can only look forward to the rest of the season, and hope I can have at least half as fun as I had at Kelmarsh. Huge thank you to all involved, high-five to Thorstein for giving me and the rest of our gang a lift, and massive thanks to Baggsy for taking all the great photos of our group when I was too busy swinging an axe. Hail!!

 

 

 

 

A bit about Living History

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If you have ever attended a reenactment show, you will surely have seen something like this before:

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This is what we call a Living History display. It is a big part of our hobby, and for a great many fo us, an essential one. Living History is not that easy to define actually- but let me give it a try. We always learn the most through personal experience. Something we have seen or touched will be remembered and understood much easier than something we have only read about. That is why museums are such a great asset. Living History, is as close to time travel as we can go- people recreating lives of the people of the past, in as much detail as practical.

In almost every reenactment show, there is some sort of Living History. An event with nothing but battles and duels would quickly bore the public, and not much would be gained from just watching a bunch of guys trashing each other with swords and axes.

Living history has two purposes. First- to give us, the reenactors, opportunity to leave our modern lives behind, and become Vikings or Saxons or medieval knights or Napoleonic soldiers for a couple of days. I can only tell you, how immensely fun it is to be able to live like a Viking for a weekend, eat and drink and fight and sleep and dress exactly like they would. Second purpose- is to entertain and educate the public.

Reenactors would talk, answer questions, produce artwork, demonstrate various crafts. The public can take a “peek” at what life would be for the people of the Viking Age. Through such personal experience they would gain much more understanding and knowledge than by just reading or watching a TV programme. Plus, it is always fun to see a Viking camp, or a village, and watch the people in it go about their day. It is like a museum come alive.

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I myself was only really exposed to this concept, after becoming a reenactor myself. I have embraced it totally and I am ever eager to learn more and take as much part in any Living History event as I can. Through the use of living history, we are able to create a link with the past. We come to understand the people who lived in those times, we become connected. Living History is also a great resource for historians and scholars. Practical experiments, such as building Viking longships, or reconstructing houses gives us much insight into many questions. Sometime, it is only by practice, that we can find out how certain things were made, or how they were used. In this way, Living History makes a great contribution to our knowledge of the past.

Not to mention, that most reencators acquire new skills as well. Dress making, metalworking, woodcarving- these are just examples of crafts many of us learn and utilize, as part of our hobby.

Some people push the concept even further, turning it into a lifestyle. Just look up stories of Kassa Lajos, who has alomst single handedly brought back the art of horse archery through his living history lessons and everyday practice. Or the enthusiasts from Wolin in Poland, who are reconstructing a Viking Age settlement, to use it as a living museum, complete with 27 houses, a palisade, port and a shipyard and workshops for crafts of the Viking Age.

http://www.lovasijaszat.hu/volgy/?lang=2 – look at the story of Kassa Lajos, hungarian horse archery master, who made Living History into his lifestyle

http://www.jomsborg-vineta.com/- webpage of the Association of Slavs and Vikings Wolin-Jomsborg-Vineta who are reconstructing 10th century settlement and also organise the annual Wolin festival, one of the biggest reenactment events in Europe. Website unfortunately unavailable in English, but check out the gallery!

 

I am looking forward to the summer season, where hopefully I will attend a good few shows and when I will be able to tell you more about the Living History experience, as it is for the reenactor!

The Training

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So, I thought in this post, I would write a little about how the training looks for a viking re-enactor. I am a member of a re-enactment group based in Staffordshire, called “Y DDraig”. We meet most Mondays for combat training, as the biggest (and most spectacular) part of our hobby is the fighting, and to fight well, one must train hard!

Let me start by sharing a few photos taken at one of our sessions:100_7500 100_7506 As you can see, we are traning (mostly) in our civilian clothes, wearing only the necessary protective gear, for convenince. The protective equipment includes: thick gloves (mandatory, unless you fancy broken fingers), a helmet (also mandatory, broken teeth and cracked skulls are no fun), and optionally, a shield, armguards, kneed pads etc.- anything to prevent injury. Many of us train in their authentic costume and armour (well as much of it as we can be bothered with), either becasue we just like it, or to get used to wearing it in the field, or both.

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One on one combat is an essential part of training- this is where we work on footwork, basic and advanced attacks and parries, and, most importantly, try get get the better of one another! Learning the movements and various fighting tricks, as well as practising our speed and reflexes, takes up most of our time at trainings. Even walking must be practiced, as without good footwork a warrior will never win a fight- balance and swift movement are everything.

In the photos you can see me (wearing white tunic and a coloured hood) fighting two members of the group, one a tutor, teaching new me some new techniques and moves (above) and the other, a fellow warrior in a competetive fight, where we use the stuff we learned before in practice (below).

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And, of course we also train to fight as a group, in formation. We will split into tow sides and hone our skill as a group, fighting in a line, against an enemy and trying to overcome them. This is even more important tham individual combat, as when we attend events and battles, we always fight as a group, and without knowing how to do it we can never win, no matter how great we are individually. We learn manouvers, teamwork, commands and what to watch out for in the shield wall, and we learn how to fight as a single, effective unit:

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All this hard training, has one purpose of course- so that when we attend a show, or a battle, we can be the winning side! No one likes to spend the entire battle as a corpse, staring at the clouds, so learning how to stay alive is essential. We we also must know how to make kills, so that our side may prevail in the battle. And, obviously, we must learn how to fight safely, avoiding injury to ourselves and any other warriors on the field, or indeed, the public.

Now, the public events is where our hobby really shines! Everyone in full authentic kit, no modern stuff allowed, spending a day or two (or three if we are lucky) as Vikings! And, of course the more fights the better! After all this is what we came here for! The thrill of battle an dthe fight to come is something truly amazing, and for me the adrenaline rush, the noise, the nerves and the experience of fighting for your life (well, not quite, but as close to it as me can make it) is something I absolutely love! There is no better feeling, than fighting in the thick of battle, parrying blows, making kills and facing your opponents. Whether you live or die, does not matter, as long as you have fun- and the more you train the more fun you will have!

Here aresome photos for you to see what such event looks like and why training is so important! And hopefully, you will get a feeling of what it feels like to be “in the shield wall”:

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So much for the description of training, and how important it is to train and fight well. Next time: a very special post, about making your own padded armour!

How did it all begin?

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To get started in medieval (or any other) re-enactment, there is one thing which is absolutely necessary- keen interest in history, preferably combined with interest in crafts, combat and a sportsman’s attitude.

This, I had ever since I was a child. I was devouring novels, movies, TV shows, magazines. Characters like Ivarr The Boneless, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, King Arthur, King Leonidas, Julius Caesar, and many others, were my inspiration as a child and a teenager. Many hours were spent hitting my brother with a stick (and being hit too), while pretending to be a knight/Viking/Roman legionnaire, and just as many, if not more playing at war with Lego figures, which later turned into keen interest in tabletop wargaming.

I also attended re-enactment festivals a few times, something that introduced me to the idea- watching these guys dress up in armour and fight battles, duels and making all the fantastic stuff they displayed in their camp, really left a lasting impression on me.

Finally, in was in Staffordshire, where I have turned my interest into an actual hobby, as I have found an advert for local re-enactment group and decided to come along for their weekly meeting, to see what is was actually like and if I could do it.

And so, I came along, met with existing group members and some newbies who, just like me, came along for the first time. We had great fun, we found out what the group and the hobby is all about , we learned our first fighting moves and had a go at using all the various weapons and pieces of equipment that the members had with them.

It was a fantastic evening, and after trying it once, I was hooked- the rest, as they say is history…

 

The most important part, if one wants to become a re-enactor, is to actively look for fellow minded people. Internet searches are by far the fastest way, but you may also have a friend, or a friend of a friend who is already into this and may introduce you. Look and you shall find!

 

Keen interest is all you need for a start- the rest comes after. The clothes, the armour, the weapons, skill in battle, knowledge various crafts, miscellaneous equipment. Every re-enactor acquires these as he/she goes along, and fortunately the hobby (at least early medieval re-enactment) is not terribly expensive and will not hurt your budget too much (unless you absolutely MUST have that shiny sword with silver fittings and fitted chainmail!).

 

And now, for your entertainment, here is a link to a wonderful video taken at a show at Wantage last year- just to show you how much fun there is to be had in re-enactment!

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So, what is this about then?

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 „The battle is the shield wall. It’s smelling your enemy’s breath as he tries to disembowel you with an axe.”

Bernard Cornwell, The Pagan Lord

My name is Ubbe Thorgilsson. Not my real name actually, but my “stage” name, name I adopt when re-creating a character from the Viking age, or as re-enactors call it an “authentic” name.

So, what is historical re-enactment?

Well it is a process where enthusiasts, hobbyists and sometimes historians and researchers re-create the life as it was in the ages past. Using authentic costume, food, materials and other equipment, groups of people create villages, camps, create works of art and craftsmanship, all in the spirit of the past, and as close to it as possible. We wear armour and use weapons as close to historical ones as possible and we fight battles, often re-creating famous battles, like Hastings, or Clontarf, but even more often making up simple pitch-battle between two opposing sides on different shows throughout the country. They do so, to entertain, to educate and to connect to their own past and forge a living connection with our history- many treat it as a sport also, and a competitive one at that.

Or, you might say that it is a bunch of men and women, dressing up as Vikings, Normans, Celts etc., and fighting mock battles and duels with each other- most for sport, some to make a good show. Some are even crazy enough to create villages and camps, build boats and houses, all in the “olden days” style, like they were making a movie!

Pick your own definition.

I am one such re-enactor, a member of a society that re-creates Viking, Saxons, Normans and Celts in the early medieval period, between 9th and 10th century (but we venture as far “back”: as 7th century, or as far “forward” as 12th century, if needs be).

I have been into this hobby for just over a year, and it is fair to say I am a beginner in this field. In this blog, I will put my experiences in the re-enactment, I will document my exploits and those of my friends, I will talk about fighting, costume, travel and anything else connected to Viking re-enactment. And I will do so, from a perspective of someone, who is still learning about the hobby, making new discoveries and finding out new things all the time.

I hope, that you will follow me in my journey and learn with me, and that you will enjoy reading about my life as a Viking.

Welcome to my blog!