Just how accurate do you want us
to be and still remain sane?
Around a thousand years ago a phenomenon swept across Europe bringing terror in its very wake. An early form of VAT, this horror was known a Viking Added Tax and worked on a principle so simple that the Chancellor himself would be proud. The VAT collectors turned up, you paid your taxes or "protection money", they went away. Sometimes the people fought back, occasionally they won. Sometimes the VAT collectors fought other gatherers; those from Norway, Sweden or Denmark. Some were Christianised, then simply took their collection in the name of the Church. Other VAT collectors came, but did not go away, they settled in what became the Danelaw.
A quarter of a century ago, a new leisure concept emerged in Britain and has since gently spread throughout Europe. This time I am talking about re-enactment and over the last 20 years, many societies covering most periods from the Iron Age Celts to the Falklands conflict have sprung up. This new leisure form was partially competitive, in the sense that battles were fought and winners would emerge. They were partly like plays, two minutes of dialogue to explain why the battle was being fought, preceding two seconds of death and mayhem. And finally they were partially educational in that some flavour of the old sagas could be conveyed to the audience through the costume and the portrayal of heroic deeds.
Whilst the tales of romance and bravado provided the inspiration for our early re-enactors, the practice of hitting one another with large lumps of iron produced special problems regarding costume. Early attempts at costume reconstruction paid more attention to armour than to dress. Thus an early viking re-enactors' costume may have consisted of huge padded gloves, thick leather arm-guards, a padded battle jacket, moon-boots or womble-boots, a 't' shirt length (and sized) tunic, trousers (optional-but not jeans) and as many chains and pendants as you could fit round your neck without falling forward.
Criteria for how authentic an item was considered was based on how long it took to convert an every day item into the said armour. Thus Grannys' old fur coat transformed into a battle jack, was considered fairly typical; whilst to cut up your washing machine with an angle grinder, weld on some plates, re-enforce with leather and emblazon with Celtic knot work create gloves of some merit.
Joking aside, these early attempts at looking like Vikings should not be derided, because they were right for the time. Very little archaeological material was available, and even less in the way of authentic reconstruction's were in print to aid the re-enactor in constructing Viking dress. Far more was published as to what the Vikings did, or at any rate what they were supposed to have done. Our early members were there re-enacting those stories with the emphasis of getting out there and doing it! I was there in that early period when people clashed purely for the entertainment of the public but if we had concentrated more on the costume perhaps the battle side of re-enactment may never have got off the ground.
I know of Viking re-enactment groups in several Scandinavian countries where the emphasis was on costume and craft, yet they would not entertain the concept of 'fighting battles' as recently as five years ago. In fact many of our Scandinavian cousins have been taught how to fight, and how to do so safely, by British Dark Age re-enactors.
Two main turning points in our quarter of a century old society stick in my mind. The first was when a fairly newish member of the society stood up at an Althing and suggested that instead of adopting the token: "Well, we look like the vikings in the old Kirk Douglas movie" approach to authenticity, The Vikings should become really authentic. This idea was greeted with some amusement, older vikings looked at each other knowingly. Some sniggered, others reached out and started sharpening their swords, scimitars & Lugers. Of course, he wasn't the first to suggest authentic authenticity, there had been others. But then he stunned the ensemble by trotting out the simple equation: "But if we don't want to be authentic vikings that's fine; but we shouldn't call ourselves VIKINGS!"
To be fair, members did take time to consider this option and the newish member was eventually made into the Society Authenticity Officer.
The second turning point occurred at the Battle of Maldon in 1992. That was when all the research and guides were enforced in what was probably the largest gear check ever carried out. In return for this harsh and somewhat controversial Mega Authenticity Drive, The Vikings gained a great deal of respect. Firstly from the organisers of large shows, and secondly from other societies that had chosen the rocky path of authenticity.
So where are we now? Well, I think we have a society that can call ourselves The Vikings (at last),
"Wear a helmet, 'cos a sword in the face often offends "
...where authenticity has been tempered with cost effectiveness :
"Machine woven fabric is okay, because it looks the part and can be one tenth of the cost!"
and where authenticity has been tempered with practicality :-
"Yes okay, you would never have found a village in the tenth century where Vikings, Saxons, Britons and Normans would have all been collected together. But this is our society and we owe it to our members to look after all their interests. So we have a large sign at the village entrance to explain all this!
The aim of the Society Authenticity Officers is to get as many people onto the field as we can, not to ban as many people as possible. To re-enact this period we have to have standards, and although they may seem high, they are fair. This is the only way we can maintain our credibility. Prospective members can adopt the costume of many racial types including Viking, Saxon, Briton, Anglo Dane, Hiberno Norse and Rus Viking
Finally, we have come a long way in the last few years and we shouldn't let our standards slip. We are flexible, in our approach to authenticity, allowing all the different racial types, women warriors, mixed villages and even Normans, but what we must never forget is that for all our decisions and policies regarding authenticity, the one thing we can never change by legislation is what the Vikings actually did.
Russell Scott is the Society Authenticity Officer and runs a Historic Crafts Company
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