This article is to help those that want to immerse themselves into re-enacting a barbarian culture. From dipping your toes to diving right in. It is a short piece that tries to explain the do’s and do nots, keep in mind that it is by no means a complete set of instructions. As a matter of fact these are NOT instructions, they are merely suggestions. A means by which someone who has never tried re-enacting, can dip their toes into the giant ocean of information out there. So, on to creating a barbarian persona . All around the world there are many people that are historically considered to be “barbarians”. At Skaldvik, we are concentrating on life in England in 1010, where the Danelaw was populated by various settlers from Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and western Eurasia.
Step One: Forget what you know!
So what is a ‘Barbarian’? Well, keep in mind that during the Crusades, aside from calling each other “infidel” and “heretic” the Crusaders and the Muslims also called each other “barbarian”. Does this mean you can portray a Norman or Syrian knight and be a barbarian? No.
The first thing you need to do when creating a barbarian persona based on earth’s history is to forget everything you think you know about barbarians. Most everything you have seen or read from movies and television, to fiction/fantasy and comics, or any media that was created to entertain you has got it basically wrong. While beloved by many, Conan the Barbarian does a very poor job of depicting what we know as historical and factual ways by which “real” barbarians lived their lives.
Secondly, understand that the word “barbarian” was coined by the ancient Greeks to describe people who were not Greeks. It did not matter if you came from Rome, Egypt, or Mesopotamia (Persia), the cradle of civilization even. You were a barbarian. Simply put, if you were not born in the Greek speaking city states, you were a barbarian. Remember Jeff Foxworthy’s skit “You might be a redneck?” I think it was taken from an old Greek comedian’s skit called, “You just might be a barbarian.” (Yes, that was a joke.)
The Romans followed the Greek example and began to use the word to describe people and cultures conquered by the Romans or living outside the borders of the Roman Empire. Pretty soon the word barbarian was turned into a curse, a slight on one’s behavior as well as one’s genealogical and cultural background. Of course, we all know what happened later on: the word “barbarian” became a word of fear.
Last thing you need to forget is the stereotype “stupid” barbarian. By no means were the people classified by the Greeks or Romans as barbarian a culture of stupid people. If the people of the pre-Christian Cornish islands lived in caves or huts made of stone and mud, it was not because they were too stupid to make anything better. Those islands presented difficult living conditions; they had more important things to do like feed and clothe themselves.
When Caesar brought his legions into Gaul he found small cities and large towns. If they were built of wood instead of stone and marble, it is not because the Gauls were too stupid to create architectural works of art from stone, it is because the biggest supply of building material in Gaul was wood, unlike Greece and Rome where it was stone and marble.
Like I said, if you want to create a barbarian persona, forget all you think you know about the people you want to portray as a re-enactor, and that is what this ‘Barbarian Encampment“ is, a form of re-enactment, though for entertainment and practical purposes, not a 100% pure re-enactment. We still need to keep it close enough so that a student from NYU majoring in Viking or Visigoth culture and history will not laugh at us. We live and play next door to a capitol of education and learning, New York City. We can not just put on a fur and chain mail outfit, grab a large two-handed sword and call ourselves “barbarians’.
Step Two: Reality
Traditionally when we speak of barbarians, we think of nomads like the Huns, the Tatars, the Mongols, the Turks, or the Tuareg and the Berbers of the deep Sahara and Arabian deserts. Then there were the barbarians who settled-down, primarily depicted by (but not limited to) the Gauls, Celts, Picts, Goths, Visigoths, Slavs and, of course, the most famous of them all, the Vikings. These are also the Rus, the Sassanids, the Dacians, and dozens more. Though called “barbarians”, each of these had cultures and civilizations just as rich in traditions, language, art, music, medicine, and philosophy just as much as the Greeks and Romans. Many even had a rich cultural tradition of literature. Just because they carved it into stones and metals or painted it on parchment made from animal skins because they did not have paper, does not make them uncivilized.
So to begin with, a culture you wish to portray or to depict. This is the easy part. The next step is harder. Research.
We can give you a list of websites from historical departments in colleges and universities across the entire globe that are stocked full of free to download information on all of these cultures (and we do have lists). I promise you, the reading of this information will be dry, boring and make no sense to you. It is not that you need to be a history major or a college professor to understand any of this. It is just that it is very clinical and devoid of passion. And right now you have a bit of passion in you about the persona you wish to create. Because you are passionate and I wish you to remain like that, I am not including a list of websites.
Instead I want you to get to your nearest internet browsing devise, desk top, laptop, tablet or whatever, and I want you Google the culture you wish to represent. Then I want you to click on the Images section of the search and spend some time looking at historical images or images of other re-enactors or artistic renderings.
Even though mostly inaccurate you can still get pretty good ideas from movie or television shows. Some of these though are quite inaccurate, like the show Vikings, so be careful what you use to model your look after. The best images to look at are from other re-enactors especially if they are part of a museum, even though museums as well take certain liberties. Let these images be your first guide, let them fire up your mind even more. Let them breed in your head and give birth to an image of you and how you may want to look.
After that go to wikipedia and read up on them. Now I know there are a lot of scholarly people out there who scoff at wiki. Well you are not writing a paper or preparing a scholarly presentation, just yet. No, you are dipping your toes into a vast ocean of information. Go slow, read the wikipedia. Find something about this culture you wish to portray that really grabs you. Then, you can go swimming into the deep ocean of knowledge to get more technical information.
Step Three: Plain clothes vs. being a Fashionista.
As enthusiasts, actors or re-enactors we all want to tell a story and a large part of it is in how we dress or present our personas and behave. So you could be sitting there right now and saying to your self, “But I want to wear the furs and the leathers and look like I just walked off the set of Conan the Barbarian, or from A Game of Thrones”. You could already have a gorgeous set of fantasy leather armor and a giant two handed sword and wish to wear them. Unfortunately, from what you have read so far, you are beginning to despair. Well, fret not!
I guarantee you one thing. Somewhere out there between the Mongolian steppes and Sub Saharan African steppes, you will find a culture that by definition were “Barbarians” and who wore something close to what you have or may want to have to wear. The problem comes from trying to decide what to wear and how to behave while trying to tell a story. Do not fool yourselves, you will be telling a story, from opening gate to closing and even beyond.
The Barbarian Encampment is a living working community. From tending fires to cooking, light construction and even chopping wood. You do not want to be doing a demo of working a garden while wearing a fine linen tunic with fancy stitching and or needle work, or hauling wood, or building an A-frame for a tent. You will not be doing any kind of hot sweaty labor in full leather armor or any armor, you will not even be wearing a sword. Not for authenticity’s sake but for simplicity. Now, when it comes time to roam the village (the Renaissance Faire) or do parade(s) or appear at shows, then you quickly change into your finery and go out and do these things.
Now I bet I know what you are thinking. “I do not have that kind of money to go and get two outfits for every day or more.” Well that is fine, few of us do. But what we do have is good base of people who know how to sew. I know for a fact that there will be people involved in this project that know their way around a sewing machine. I will even try to get a list together for you in due time so that you can contact them, talk to them and working together create new outfits.
Also we are lucky in that there is a booth on site that can cater to the inner barbarian in us. Thorny Rose, even if you do not see tunics for sale on opening day, ask about them. (They are located exactly where Dra was. They bought the booth at the end of last season.) Best thing is their prices are reasonable and while they mostly bring renaissance garb to faire, they got their renown doing SCA events and most of their business is with the SCA so they can sell you anything from women’s Viking style dresses to tunics and breeches worn by both males and females.
Do a search for Thorny Rose on facebook and you will find them. There are a couple of them listed, the one you want is; https://www.facebook.com/ThornyRose91?fref=ts
Once you have the garb, as we all know, everything else falls into place. Even a little research into the customs of the cultures you are interested in will provide the basic information you will need to portray that culture.
Spice and everything nice
Alright, you now have your basics. You put on your ‘Barbarian’ garb stand in front of the mirror, take a long look and realize …. You look boring. You think about your regular renn garb and all its jewelry, the pins and buttons, the flash and the jazz and you want to wear it. Well do not worry because some of what you wear with your fancy velvet and brocaded duds, may still be worn when portraying a barbarian.
Keep in mind that practically all of the barbarian cultures named above as well as many others were also raiders and pillagers as well as farmers and herdsmen. Even if all they raided was the next tribe over the hill, that tribe had raided further and had gotten booty from further away. And that other third tribe or clan had raided even further than that. And so on and so on.
A good historical example is the Mongols. How did they know that there were kingdoms and riches far to the west across the open steppes and forests of modern day Russia and China?
Since before even Christ was born merchants and adventurers from Europe had headed East. Alexander the Great had conquered lands all the way to Kurdistan and India. Tales of his armies and evidence of him and his life have been found in China. By the time of the fall of the Roman Empire there was the Silk Road. A system of trade routes that linked China with Europe. Once the Mongols had conquered China, learning about the West was easy.
Along with ideas and knowledge came material things. From jewelry to tapestries to clothing especially. By 1200 CE you could walk the streets of Constantinople and you could run into Eastern Nomads, Persians, Afghans, Indians, Arabs, Moors, Norse (and do not forget the Imperial Byzantine Guard were all Norse Mercenaries called the Varangian Guard.)
So, realistically speaking, you could be a Viking woman from 1000 CE and be wearing a gorgeous gown of silk, cut in the Viking style, adorned with traditional amber and tortoise, as well as trimmed with Egyptian linen, or with an Italian linen under dress. Your hands could be adorned with jewels and rings of Byzantine gold and silver. Your belt could be of crocodile skin with an elephant ivory buckle. Your belt knife could be steel from Damascus and the hilt of antelope horn from the Sub Saharan steppes of Africa. When indoors your feet could be in slippers from India and you could be drinking your mead from a leather jack (tankard) from England.
But this would be rare. Very rare. As long as your basic look is authentic enough, your accessories could really be from anywhere. The only limits would be if something had not been made yet, is not current to the 11th Century Europeans.
Here is where your Authenticity Officers come into play. Kat McDermott ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) and my self, George Christodoulopoulos ( email@example.com ) are the Authenticity Officer and Assistant Authenticity officer, respectively.
We are not here to make you miserable. The both of us have spent countless hours researching and are still doing it every day, various cultures that can be played at Skaldvik. Ask us, show us your ideas. We can and we will help you.
Last but not least: Anachronisms
You know what I am talking about. The sunglasses, the cell phones, the ear buds and Bluetooth devises, the watches and the bandannas. Things that as a regular rennie in garb you can wear and get away with, but not get away with while participating as a re-enactor at the Barbarian encampment.
As a matter of fact, aside from prescription glasses, (not the ones with dark lenses) hearing aids and medical prosthetics, there is nothing else that should be on you that represents the 20th/21st Centuries. Leave the Steampunk goggles and gears as well as the pirate hats and even the cavalier hats at home. If you want to add some spice to your kit, think tribal instead.
And speaking of prescription glasses. Hand held lenses were used for reading and writing before Christ was born. Lenses in frames of wood were used before the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Wire frames were being used by 700ce to 800ce. Modern eye glasses may look anachronistic but we prefer you wear them than to falling into the fire pit. So, before you present yourself in public, look down at your outfit. Is anything showing that is modern?
Well, that is all I can think of for now. Doing a persona for re-enactment purposes seems daunting. In reality it is simple, and bottom line, a fun way to play dress up in new clothes and styles you may have never thought of before. I will be happy to answer anyone’s questions so feel free to contact me or Kat.