There has been a big upsurge of living history events across Europe over the last few years as well as a rising popular interest in the Viking Age. A lot of this might be fuelled by the roaring success of a certain, glaringly unhistorical, TV show. At the same time, a lot of archaeologists are realizing that living history happens to be a very effective way of promoting cultural heritage. Whatever the reason, a lot people now show an interest in having fun while dressing up as a Viking, which also means that a lot of people are wondering how to make a start in this wonderful past-time.
If you are asking yourself about who am I to give you advice on this, then here is a disclaimer:
I have only attended my first proper Viking market in the summer of 2015 and since then I have progressed at lightning speed. In the summer of 2016, I have attended, and even contributed to, events in Norway, Russia, Lithuania and Estonia. In early 2017, organizers actually go out of the way invite me to their events.
During spring and early summer of 2016, I have also guided a Arheofakt – group of Slovenian archaeologists – through the process of getting ready for their first event – The Viking Way. There they went from having no experience with living history, to sleeping under the midnight sun on a hay-covered floor of a makeshift shelter and holding a workshop on early medieval pottery.
So, I might not be the most experienced re-enactor, but I do know a bit about getting started and making the most of it.
Do note that this not meant to be an all-encompassing guide on how to make every little bit of equipment, or where to buy it. Instead, I have aimed to present to you a philosophy and method which you should adopt to make your journey from first steps to first event a bit smoother. The purpose of this guide is to show you what you should prioritize in your first season as a re-enactor in order to maximise your success.
This guide is aimed primarily on those interested in re-enacting camp life and craft activities. I have no experience with combat re-enactment, since my interest in that is very limited. What I can tell you is that requires a whole set of combat gear in addition to your basic (civilian) costume. This creates its own set of additional challenges and expenses. Should you want to pursue that path, you might need some additional advice.
STEP 1: Find a Local Living History Group
There is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. You should try to come in contact with those who have prior experience with living history. A good organisation or club will have experienced people who will be able to guide you through the process of creating you kit. They will already have found the most convenient suppliers of materials and might even have a club discount. They will also help you get into a historic event as a participant. Furthermore, they will have some communal camp equipment and you might be even able to borrow some of your personal kit from some of the members for your first events.
In other words, joining a good group of respected and experienced re-enactors has a plethora of advantages and you would be a fool not take the chance. But, you might not have the luxury of having an active living history group in your area. Also, even provided that there is a living history group in your area, how do you know that they are any good?
You will have to do a bit interned searching and approach the members. Here some signs to keep an eye out for:
Do they have a professional website which describes their activities and authenticity standards? Are they actually knowledgeable about the time period? Can they tell you something about their outfit? What finds is it based on? How is it made? Do they have skills such as crafts? Do they do interesting projects or do they just sit around and drink while playing dress-up? Lastly, are they the kind of people you would like to spend you free time with?
I never joined any of the groups in my native Slovenia, because they did not fulfill my expectations. Only once I, by some weird twist of fate, happened to end up at a Viking market organised by a fabulous group from Norway, did I realize that I found a tribe which shared my convictions.
Should there be no satisfactory group available in in your vicinity, that does not mean you can not come in contact with experienced re-enactors. There are plenty of groups dedicated to living history, equipment and various time periods on social media such as Facebook. These can be a good platform for debate and a source of informative, although it may sometimes seem as if they are filled with people who are on a mission to disagree on absolutely everything. Blogs like this one also offer guidance and resource collections.
You might follow my example and join a group abroad, although you should keep in mind that this brings with it a whole new range of logistic and budgeting issues. (In my case, Trondheim Vikinglag was based on the other end of Europe, in a country with a much higher standard of living.)
There is also the option of gathering around yourself an assembly of like minded individuals and starting your own living history group. It is going to be a steep learning curve, but you will be in it together to share the laughter and tears. You might even be onto something great. You never know.
STEP 2: Assemble Your Kit
After you have hopefully found a group to join, you should start working on assembling your first historical outfit.
But where does one start?
You probably have some ideas about what kind of character you would like to represent and how you would like to look. There are now probably on your mind some really cool things, which you might have seen in photos. You might hear some veteran living history participants talking about their project to reconstruct a specific grave context. Maybe you are already imagining yourself wearing a fancy qaftan, a complex belt set made in your favourite Viking art style, a selection of silver jewellery, a huge damascus knife with a sheath covered in enough brass to make a cauldron, etc… STOP. RIGHT. NOW.
At this point you need to be reminded of the Rule of K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Quality Over Quantity. You will have to pick something that you can afford and what you can put together in a reasonable time-frame. A rich costume does not necessarily equal a good costume.
Focus on having fewer things of the highest quality (level of authenticity) attainable in your situation. This is a mindset which will serve you well in everyday life as well.
Most beginner re-enactors immediately start dreaming about all the fancy baubles they want to get. Stay away from the bling! That can come later, should you really wan it or need it. Contrary to what you might see at historical markets and festivals, the past was not populated mainly by nobles prancing around to show of their clothes. Most people were farmers, craftsmen, traders, even slaves. Most of the time they wore practical work clothes. Having a quality re-enactment kit does not mean that you need to look like a chieftain. Creating a good commoner’s outfit might get you more respect from some of the seasoned re-enactors.
The Basic Costume
Your basic costume can lay the foundation for years to come, so you should be ready to invest some thought and money into it.
You can of course buy the clothes ready made, but unless you are willing to pay a lot, these will might leave something to be desired. Keep in mind that there is simply no way that your outfit can be at once GOOD, AFFORDABLE and QUICK. At most you will be able to achieve 2 of these traits.
Try to make most of your clothes yourself. It will teach you a lot about historical clothing and you will have a lot more respect for your gear. There will be plenty of chances to spend money buying things such as knives and other accessories, which might be a bit harder to make yourself depending on your current skills and equipment.
There are plenty of patterns and guides to making your clothes available online, some of which you can find on my Resources page. For a general overview of the costume, you may cast your eye on Hurstwic’s introduction to Viking clothing.
Should you really want to sink your teeth into the nitty-gritty of Viking clothing, then you would do well to pick up a copy Thor Ewing’s (2006) book Viking Clothing, published by The History Press.
Assembling your kit takes some time and provided you do not want to stress over it, you should start early. Winter and spring is the perfect time to designate a few cosy evenings to sewing clothes.
Gentlemen of the Viking age wore a tunic and pants, while the ladies wore a dress. The tunic is mid-thigh to knee length, while the ladies’ dress is ankle length. The material of choice is either plain (unbleached) linen or natural wool cloth. Your choice will be influence by the weather where you intend to do your re-enacting, personal preference and availability of material.
Let us break this down a bit further:
Simple linen tunic/shirt – linen breathes well and is easy to wash, which will come as a boon on hot summer days.
Woolen tunic – this is often worn over your linen tunic, since many find wearing wool on bare skin uncomfortable. The wool will keep you warm on a chilly evening and repel any lighter rain. If you plan on doing your first events in places with very hot weather, then you might not even need the wool.
Pants – you may choose between linen or wool.
Linen dress – this is a simple an ankle-length dress, with enough widening towards the bottom to allow freedom of movement.
Wool dress – this can be a dress similar to the linen version or you might go for the apron dress (hangerock). Again, if you plan to do this in very hot weather only, then you can do without.
Belt – both men and women will need a belt. Go either for a narrow leather belt with a simple iron or bronze buckle (no need for all the fancy and expensive fittings), a tablet woven cloth belt or even just a piece of rope.
Shoes (optional) – leather turn-shoes are a bit harder to make than clothes, but not something which is unachievable, provided you have access to some vegetable tanned leather. Otherwise, you may go and invest in a pair, but beware, good handmade shoes do not come cheap. Alternatively, you may choose to go barefoot, which is completely appropriate, since you are not trying to represent a higher-status persona.
Socks (if you are wearing shoes) – these are made in the technique of needlebinding, which can be picked up very quickly and all it requires is some 100% natural wool yarn and thick needle with a large hole. Alternatively, there is always somebody selling these at markets. The hat can also be sown from fabric.
Hat/Cap (optional) – Some kind of head cover will be welcome on chillier weather. Can be either needlebound like the socks, or sown from woven fabric.
Wooden bowl and spoon – you will need to eat from something. A basic bowl and spoon can be made quite quickly if you are a bit crafty and have access to a sharp gouge, a knife and an axe, as well as some greenwood (e.g. fresh birch).
Drinking cup – we do not want you to dehydrate, do we. Not to mention the fact, that re-enactors generally tend to enjoy a drink or two. If you made a wooden bowl, then you can carve yourself a cup as well. Buying an appropriate clay cup is also not a huge expense, and you will usually find a potter selling these at most historical markets.
Knife with sheath – a knife is just an all-around useful tool when you get engaged in camp life. Go for something small and simple. Men and women wore knives in the early middle ages or Viking age. Hang it on your belt and soon you will be wondering why you don’t constantly wear a knife in everyday life.
Pouch/Bag (optional) – not completely essential, yet very useful. A simple pouch can be made from a circular piece of leather and a leather string.
STEP 3: Attend Your First Market
So you have put together a kit. You are standing in front of your bedroom mirror, clad in various shades of grey and brown, with the essential accessories sitting on a shelf. What now? Well… Now it is time for you to finally engage in what many consider the raison d’être of living history – the historical market/festival.
But how does one go about that?
Your living history group (see Step 1 above) will be very helpful at this stage, since they will again guide you through your first living history experience. They will generally know which events to attend and will also be receiving invites to markets. Furthermore, your group will have the needed camp equipment such as historical tents.
But what if you were not able to join an established group and are instead jumping into this with a few friends as fresh as yourself? It is going to be a bit tougher.
First of all, you might not be able to afford all the camp equipment, but this is not the end of the world. Some events offer the use of communal tents to participants. If the market is held in a wooded area, you might be able to set up a temporary shelter out of the available natural materials. Should that not be the case, some events have a hidden area where one can set up modern sleeping tents.
Secondly, where does one find, and get to participate at, an event? Some events operate on invitation only, but most have some kind of open registration that you can apply to. Check social media for events and ask around.
Not all events are created equal, there are some great great, some mediocre and some horrendous experiences to be had out there. In Northern Europe a distinction is made between markets and festivals. The main distinction between the two is the audience to which they cater and therefore the type of content provided. Do keep in mind, that elsewhere in Europe the same distinctions may not apply and the term ‘festival’ might be applied to all kinds of historical events.
At markets re-enactors primarily gather to trade, perform crafts and re-enact camp life. There might be also a fight show put on for the visitors. Sometimes there might also be a public lecture or a concert. As the name implies, historical markets are a great place to buy some of your missing equipment and interact with the artisans and other re-enactors.
Festivals, on the other hand, primarily concern themselves with providing entertainment to a paying public. Much less attention is being paid to authenticity on the premise is that the public does not know the difference. Expect to see more sale of random baubles and souvenirs, and less genuine craft products. The organizers are interested in participants who can put on some kind of show for the participants.
Before you decide to pick an event, do try to get some opinions on it. Look at any photos or videos published from previous years. Provided that it has been around for a while, it should not be hard to figure out what type of event it is. As a rule of thumb, stay away from anything describing itself as an ‘authentic historical spectacle’. Most often, such events are neither of those things.
Now you are finally there, you have a place to sleep. You have some food and drink. You are walking around, meeting interesting, possibly buying something from that craftsman who has just spent half an hour explain his work process to you.
Here is my last piece of advice: Have fun and don’t be a jerk!
Be friendly, laugh a lot. Offer you help to others and give thanks when due. Playing the diva at your first events is a good away of sabotaging your status in the community. As with all incidents relating to hospitality, make sure that you do not show up empty handed. Bring with you some fine drink or food to share. Offering a cup of ale is always a good invitation for someone to share their story. You might be on the first step to gaining a good friend.
One does not need to give a man only a big gift:
often one purchases praises for oneself with little.
With half a loaf and a leaning cup
I acquired for myself a comrade.
(Hávamál stanza 52, Ursula Dronke translation)
After the event is over and you have returned to civilization, where you have taken that first, satisfying shower to wash of the dirt, you may congratulate yourself. You are now officially a modern-day Viking. You have now gained plenty of new connections, learned about other events and what to do next. From here on, the story will unravel itself.
So here it is. The end of the lengthy 3 step guide. If you need to boil it down to a concept, then it would be this: Keep it simple, dream big, yet stay humble. Adventure will follow.
Are you new to re-enactment and interested in a particular topic? Are you part of this scene and would like to share how you got started? Do write in the comments bellow.