Friday, 6 March 2015

In Defense of Non-Combat Living History

Opinion: In defense of Non-Combat Living History

Please note that the commentary herein is the opinion of an individual contributor and does not necessary represent the collective opinion or position held by the Thegns of Mercia organisation. 

On a recent  weekend (February 2015) we had the pleasure of visiting the famous Jorvik Viking Festival in York; a unique annual event which brings together diverse groups of reenactors, living-historians, craftspeople, traders and members of the public from across Britain and elsewhere, all united by an interest in the early Medieval period.  Jorvik, in particular, is a very 'social' event providing an opportunity for like-minded but geographically dispersed people within what could be called the 'Dark-Age reenactment community' to meet and socialize. 
Such gatherings are usually very good natured but, inevitably, one of the common topics of discussion is the relative accuracy, legitimacy or validity of different groups' approaches. Such comparisons offer valuable opportunities for groups to learn from each other and, as long as those involved remain fair-minded and accepting of constructive criticism, are arguably good for all involved.

It was interesting this year that, in conversation with various participants, a common topic of discussion was the legitimacy/validity (or lack thereof) of  non-combat living history (as regards the Viking Age or Early Medieval period). In truth I found it somewhat bewildering to see many reenactors challenge the legitimacy of groups which don't focus on, or participate in combat, given that, for my part, I had thought the value of such groups and their contributions were self evident. I was all the more surprised to hear from a number of my colleagues, in subsequent discussion, that they had encountered fellow living historians who had expressed this view. 
The challenge can be divided into two: first, that non-combat living historians somehow lack legitimacy or validity, and second, more specifically, that 'living historians' playing the role of warriors, who do not themselves participate in combat reenactment, lack legitimacy or validity. 

Arguably, such challenges are most easily rebutted by pointing out that it is up to clients to decide what is legitimate. Non-combat groups do not struggle to find meaningful work. 
Nevertheless, as a relatively well-fed, 5ft9 pain-averse living historian with little interest in physical violence, I thought I might use this soapbox to speak up for my kind.  

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Winingas / Leg Windings

Last year (2014) not long after we had arrived at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village we learned of the death of an old friend; Roy Bickerstaffe, a long-standing fellow member of Þa Engliscan Gesiþas - the Anglo-Saxon Society, archery enthusiast and inspirational medievalist. A number of founding members of the Thegns had had many of their first experiences of living history with Roy, who's support and great knowledge had always been an inspiration.
Later that evening, as we sat around the hall-fire, wrapped in our cloaks, having eaten and drunk well, we toasted Roy’s memory, the person with whom we had shared much ale in the past.
I dedicate this article to his memory.


Winingas are long strips of cloth which were wrapped around the lower legs. Also known as ‘leg bindings’, they are similar to the ‘puttees’ worn by British soldiers at the time of the Great War.
These items of clothing, although sometimes an annoyance for the modern living historian, have considerable utility, are almost ubiquitous on manuscript depictions of men during the Anglo-Saxon period, and are worth a brief study.

Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Shield from Bidford-on-Avon Grave 182 (2/2)

The Shield from Bidford-on-Avon Grave 182  (Part 2) 

Bidford-182 boss  (with permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)
In the previous article we discussed the importance of the early Anglian cemetery of Bidford-on-Avon and the unique shield remains found in in a warrior grave known as grave-182, excavated in 1923. While this mixed-burial-rite cemetery has yielded many impressive finds (mostly dated to the 6th and early 7th centuries) the grave-182 shield remains are of huge interest and have few comparisons.

 Following two years of research, acquisition of materials, and after personal examination of the finds (kindly facilitated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections Dept.), we attempted to produce a convincing reconstruction of what this high-status shield may have originally looked like, using authentic materials and techniques.
The result, we hope, will help shed new light on and raise awareness of the long forgotten find, allow the story of the find to be told, and allow greater appreciation of the skilled craftspeople who built the original.

Nb. we are greatly indebted to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections Department, without who's help we could not have pieced together the story of the find. Examination of the original fragments in spring 2014, in particular, was crucial to achieving a representative reconstruction. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Shield from Bidford-on-Avon Grave 182 (1/2)

The Shield from Bidford-on-Avon Grave 182  (Part 1) 

While some of the Early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms have yielded much archaeology, and continue to yield extensive cemeteries and settlement sites for study, others are arguably less well served. The ancient kingdom of Mercia - of particular interest to our group, could in many ways be seen as such a case, and this presents a particular challenge when attempting to recreate the effects of this purportedly powerful, wealthy and sophisticated culture. Beyond the Staffordshire Hoard (itself mostly belonging to the mid-late 7th century and containing a very selective subset of items), at a glance one might be forgiven for thinking the Midlands lacked much in the way of early Anglo-Saxon archaeology.

In fact, there are a handful of archaeological sites which have yielded impressive finds, which are relevant to the earliest times of the Mercian kingdom - it is just that many were excavated in the early days of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and their finds forgotten, lost, or hidden from view.

One such case; the large cemetery of Bidford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, initially excavated between 1923 and 1924 (Humphreys et. al., 1925) sheds valuable light on early Anglo-Saxon Mercia and has yielded many impressive finds, including a great quantity of feminine items of decidedly Anglian (rather than Saxon) affinities, including one of the most impressive square-headed brooches ever found. Among a number of warrior graves, the most impressive item, however, was a shield-boss decorated in such a way as to make it entirely exceptional, artistically, and of a status (within the British Isles) second perhaps only to the kingly shield of Sutton-Hoo Mound 1.

The impressive shield-boss from Bidford-on-Avon grave 182 is not on public display, residing with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. To raise awareness of this find and explore what this piece of warrior gear may have looked like in its day, in 2012 we embarked on a lengthy process to reconstruct the shield, using authentic materials and techniques.

Nb. we are greatly indebted to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections Department, without who's help we could not have pieced together the story of the find. Examination of the original fragments in spring 2014, in particular, was crucial to achieving a representative reconstruction.