Saturday, 27 June 2015

Review of the New Vic 'Hoard' Festival

Review:  "Unearthed" and "The Gift" at the New Vic Theatre's 'Hoard' Festival

Over the past few months we have been excited to follow the development of the Hoard festival at Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre; a national-theatre and Arts Council funded project which began with a modest aim to tell the story of the famous Staffordshire Hoard and has since snowballed into the most ambitious project the theater has undertaken to date.

The festival has grown to include four stage plays ‘in the round’, a pair of studio-plays, a series of table-plays designed to entertain visitors in the theatre’s atrium and bar areas, and ‘400 pieces’; an unusual project involving volunteers and taking the drama out into the community.

During the later stages of development of the festival, the Thegns have been involved, in a small way, in advising the props, costume and set-design teams, helping the team develop a ‘look’ and ‘feel’ for those plays set at the time of the Hoard based on material-culture represented in archaeology from the time. We were highly honoured to be given front-row seats for the press-night during launch-week for the first set of plays; ‘Unearthed’ by Theresa Heskins, and ‘The Gift’ by Jemma Kennedy, and as the team had been keen not to spoil or leak any of the content of these plays to us save for the technical details, it is fair to say we sat down in the impressive theatre-in-the-round, feet quite literally on the stage, unsure of what to expect…

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.