LH – Living History characterisation tips for re-enactors
Living History is fun, it is exciting, it is valuable, the more we do it the more we want to be involved; to deepen the experience.
As a member of Vanaheim, the University of York Medieval Society Viking group, within the Great Britain-wide group The Vikings, I have gathered together ideas, particularly for Viking encampments. Encampments which in British groups and in UK attraction / museum work are generally referred to as Living History, and I guess, without properly realising this, I have written this for my mates! Not consciously, but with them in mind.
They say write about what you know, so hopefully I know enough to be of help.
There should be helpful ideas here for anybody making some sort of history come alive for any period, (anywhere and anywhen), so not just Vikings.
To keep everyone else reading this then I guess it will be a lot of fun.
Beside many of the followers of this blog read it cos they want to know the details of my complex life (again mainly for the fun of it).
There is a lot in here, but it breaks down into two or possibly three basic concepts – get a grip of them and you are on your way to being dynamic.
There is also a Golden Rule, well actually there are about six Golden Rules, each of which is the most important one!
As for what Living History is…
Well it’s a tent innit.
The front is open and we are in ‘fancy dress’ looking out being hopeful.
Fancy dress is actually a terrible insult and bodily coverings and adornments are generally referred to as KIT.
Bumper stickers are known to exist stating, re-enactors do it with their kit on.
I prefer to think of it as ‘becoming’.
In Norway they have the expression, ‘Naked’ (in Norwegian). Being a Viking in Scandinavia leans more towards being a life-style choice. There is a whole lot more living in their living history in my experience. To the degree that if they agree to meet up without their ‘kit’ they say they will be naked.
For me, if I am caught leaving anywhere in modern day clothing I say I am dressed up as a person.
If you are setting up a Viking encampment at a generic festival or a museum event type thing, you tend to be there sort of nine to five. There are artefacts and they are discussed and interacted with. There can also be reconstructions of life-style, often with drama involved.
If you are away for a weekend at such as the Battle of Hastings you will be living in the tent and some will be life-style, some will be presentations of interesting stuff, some will demonstrate skills and some will be selling from a stall. A combination of the lot is also good.
Ah, the other thing one is often doing, is preparing for the battle or for a show.
Oooo I forgot one, making things. That happens too.
I do feeling that we do better at these things if we get there early. If there are a few days to set up and live there before the public come in their proper numbers we settle into it more. This, in fact, is my first proper bit of advice, the longer you have been settled in and striving to live as a Viking where others can see, the happier you feel. There is a feel for visitors when they arrive that this is ‘real’ and you are living there.
If you are living for a week at a time or even for a couple of weeks at one event, or even if you are doing the whole season and travelling from one thing to another, spring to late summer, then you are probably in Scandinavia.
There they have markets, not battles or festivals, but markets.
People live in tents, they run courses, they sell items, they foretell, they hang out, they trade, they cook, they serve, they tell, they train, they watch or take part in entertainments, shows, battles, skirmishes. They wrestle and they scream out Galda.
Ah, perhaps more importantly, they sleep.
I am more accustomed to this environment, as you probably know. Spending a week or two at a time mixing between my shows and activities. I cook for a dozen, I do readings, I mix and I laugh. We learn from each other as we go.
As an honorary member of Njardar Vikinglag (But not Njardar Vikingslag) and as a privileged accompaniment of Bjorgvin Marknad I have lived. But that is all history. Always. History I shall live again and again and again. We are our experiences and we echo through time.
I guess the more one can experience this, the better, the settling into it. Once you have been around a bit you can do that anywhere, for any length of time; with a cape and a hat or with an enclave of enticement.
We all learn from our experiences and our repeated experiences. As Skald to the Chieftain at Gudvangen Vikingby in Norway I find ideas can take a year to develop into a reality. I do the activities I did the time before but with subtle additions, adapting to the needs of the environment. Then when we are relaxing over mead new ideas spring from our sharing and the next year they come into being.
That happens to all of us. It happens from listening and chatting with visitors too.
There will of course be environments and activities which I have missed out, do please let me know of these.
As with the ideas and suggestions below. You will no doubt bounce off and adapt – I want to know.
Now here is Golden Rule no. 1 the most important one: be brief.
The first major concept: They are going to want to ask a question.
Golden rule no. 2 the most vital of all: There will be a point to it.
The other major concept: The vast majority of things you are doing, thinking and chatty about are appropriate.
There is going to be a whole lot more on these below and no doubt I will think up a few more concepts and golden rules as I go along in my erratic way. For instance Golden Rule no. 3 the only one you need to know: People don’t buy anything until they have bought something.
Right let’s start with that one, but don’t let it put you off; because I got this idea at a car boot sale (so don’t talk about it loudly in camp!). There are lots of things of interest, there are lots of things we would like, we are not sure we have enough money, there is a whole weekend ahead. We might come back on Sunday. Then we spot something that we really want and it is cheaper than we expected. The excitement of that purchase means that in the next ten minutes we are far more susceptible to purchases. There will be a bag full, and we will need to buy a proper bag.
Well that was a really bad start because it was digression for the proper topic, before we have even got started too and to make matters worse here is another one. There are a few things on your stall they like the look of but don’t really want. There is one thing they find out the price of and it is far cheaper than they expected. Suddenly all the things on that stall are wanted and we want to grab them. This is a bargain stall, grab stuff.
Right back to Vikings
That Golden Rule no. 1 – yes this is numero uno. Be brief.
Yes there are lots of tents and events and loudspeakers. People are roaming and trying to get a taste of it all or just trying to find their pal. As well as moving on shortly they have something to say. They are wanting to chat. They are unlikely to join in with the characterisation.
If you say, “You look like the son of royalty, will you marry me?” They will laugh as they approach but they are unlikely to bend to one knee for you. They are more likely to ask about your pommel. (I am not sure what one of those is so I hope it makes sense.)
And that main concept; asking a question. They have one; mark my words. They are an early-retired professional who reads the Independent And they have been thinking long and hard about their question. They brought it with them – on the tip of the tongue. Some might have a few, but mainly they have one that is so good that everyone is going to want to be asked. So that’s where this dialogue is going. Swiftly away from drama. Swiftly away from the many things you want to talk about. Nowhere near all the things you are desperate to show. This is moving directly to The Question. They, of course, did a degree in history or the arts or something and never got to use it in their career so they are trying to make up for lost time by impressing you. So hence The Question.
And now look at you. You are trying to answer that question aren’t you. You are giving it a very good stab. You are honestly thinking that they want the benefit of your knowledge and are intrigued to hear. They are hardly listening. As soon as you finish, they have another question to fire at you – but this time it is a rhetorical question. “So how come they didn’t pick their berries with a…” “So why haven’t you converted to Christianity?” “Have you ever thought that they would have known each other well?” “You do realise they must have buried more in the area too don’t you?” Those sorts of things.
This is because. They have A Point. Yes the Golden Rule of pointed golden rules; they have a point. Point. And they are going to make it, At every tent.
This is clearly something that is definitely right, (‘It must be’), but nobody in the history of historical researchiness has ever thought of it. (I know this to be true because I do it all the time.)
They will point downwards towards you in a jiggerly way, ‘Ah ha hah hah hah hah hah, ah ha hah har har har.’ They will do this with a knowing look until you nod in forced agreement. You may even have to smile in admiration of their wisdom before they will move on.
So yes, when it comes to the being in character bit, be prepared to be brief.
Take that as a warning, before we move on to the bits that are actually useful at last. Well hopefully they will be.
That other major concept: you are appropriate.
You are there and you are doing it. I’ve been there I’ve seen you.
I was inspired by my pals in their pre battle mode. There was all the when will we meet, where, where are they. Look you can see the smoke from their encampment. It doesn’t take much. Do you see, do you see.
You are the timeless entity that is history and are living it.
Just a little switch.
I saw the sweat and the tension. To be really honest the battle parts of it are not really my thing. But I felt part of it especially the prep. They were tense.
Then they were gone. We don’t know if they will come back. We don’t know if we will be safe. The children watch them go. No one looks back.
Well this is LH let’s not get too carried away. We got to chatting and living and forgot about them. We were in a summer village in our ship-tent long away from the farm or the winter dwelling.
There was earlier we talked about that. We were calm and not worrying. Purposefully. There had been the panicers and the gossipers and the worriers. “What are we going to do about the wounded?” ”There will be prisoners?” “Who among us will be prisoners?” ”Some will be dragged out in front of the lines of enemy in tearful chains!” that sort of thing. Actually this was the planners an coordinators who make it all happen and look for volunteers. But it doesn’t take much. Does it.
We looked back in that way and busied ourselves. We cooked.
Reality was we are playing. They real cooking would be afterwards, when the dead returned. There would be slices of cured pig which we would grill on the fire, small loafs cut and filled with fat from milk another farmer had churned far far away from battle (hopefully). Right now we played.
The small celeriac we had procured were perfect for roasting, they were hunter – gather size. There was garlic, there were onions, there was Viking Rice. Sorry that is a modernism; it was pearl barley. It was cloggy, I nearly put the fire out by tipping the pan badly, and I needed much supervision. It was nearly ready. There was bread awaiting cutting. The fighters came back.
They were alive. No battle. They had mustered. They hadn’t skirmished or raided. But they were ready. They were tense. They didn’t have long.
They didn’t talk or acknowledge us. They ate. The fervour of battle was upon them and I will never forget. We were providing, fulfilling a timeless wild need. Then. They were gone.
And that. Is why. I am writing this.
It was real. We can take that reality and spread it across what we do. 90% . Maybe 95%, yes 95% of what we do is living history. You just have to realise that. Talk aloud, slightly louder than you normally. Bit of feeling there. And it is alive (until we die).
End of blog.
Ah no sorry, I got carried away, that moment lead to all sorts of ideas and, at last, we are there and I am just about to write a blog on how to bring more characterisation into your Living History experience.
It has started.
Well, I digress a little, for instance, what was the other 5% about? Metal.
Moving on to section c, d or is it five, I forget how many there’s been.
These are the bits, the bits section. A breakdown.
The Overheard – The what we are doing part
You are being in yourself. Like what we just said about 95%. We are just doing it a little bit more louder. It only needs to be of short duration and occasional. A bit like throw away humour I suppose. We know they are there and we were going to say this any way so we might as well make it into a bit. (See Lenny Bruce below.)
These are the things that you do turned into statements and vocal displays slipped between things which are real any way if we choose to look at this way.
Start that way.
“I worry about you in your pink leather hat. With this helm I am far safer.”
They arrived gleaming and now they are dead and a new foe arrives.
That bishop of St Albans started this, just because we are clean and popular with the women. He stirred them up to kill. Women in pits with dogs upon them, children in the gate hinge. We have to kill and we are here and ready.
Talk about the season, the ritual, the moment of the year.
Preparing for death.
Act drunk, or use other emotions or attitudes.
Then turn round and smile and welcome them.
“When are we changing into our Berserker outfits?”
Activity – The things you are practicing or working on.
You will be training, so do a dialogue. (I hate the word but…) simples.
While cooking ask, “Have you got anything salty?”
Have you any honey from Manuka? No maybe not.
Turn things you do into drama in an understated way. “We shall try this again my son, if you do not react properly and yet again I have to hold back my blow I shall disown you.”
“Watch the way my grip changes as I move.”
“Be careful with those onion skins they don’t grow in the ground you know! Every little bit needs to go in that pot of pee.”
Calling out – just moments that can sometimes lead to an afternoon (or a life together)
Try introducing each other ie have back story.
If we talk about our back story we sound like ourselves.
If we introduce another it sounds more real.
Be sure to have something to say in response mind.
“Let me introduce our greatest fighter, you can tell by the cut of his ‘thingy’ he has travelled far. This bead here; Icelandic.”
Build them, back stories. Try and have items upon you support this. Or the way you do things. Me? I am Hiberno-Norse settled in Jorvik after much travelling as a teller.
“He says there are little people in the mountains” “No in the woods, the ones in the mountains are big.”
You probably have one of these built in your imagination, imagine more and build. Then of course ‘share’, so your team know you. Pretty soon the passers-by will know you too.
Get them to sit down. A wonderful Viking woman in Gudvangen Market does this. It should perhaps be a golden rule for it is a very powerful tool if done right. Not as a big thing, almost throws away that invitation. She sits there as part of the scene she is living and being, (because she is enjoying it), she looks around slowly and smiles, for a little too long. Then she pats the stool. “Sit a while.” Thats it, she doesn’t say anything.
They do. They belong.
Try using a reason to get them to sit down, “We will have reason enough to stand against another soon enough.”
“Join us or be against us.”
Act as if passers-by are real! Ask them questions. “Who do you fight for today.”
“Are you the Glima wrestlers we are expecting?”
“We want to make a new hat how should we do it?”
“Come here and settle an argument…”
“What do you know of the situation in Norway?”
Comment as they pass.
“Much strength to your arm.”
“Do you know any good Galda?”
We will take one of your children. You shall take one of ours. The peace and understanding will come from the way they learn. Bring them back though, when they are grown.
If they speak badly of you they will know all the ways into your home.
(They did it then, it was still happening (as a one way only trade) to Roma in the eighties in Norway.)
Quote lines. This is a trick. Think of a line from a movie, a book, a game, a wise person, a saga, one of the clichés you all repeat. Rework them. Vikingize them.
Betrothals. Seeking such agreements from those walking along.
“Today is a good day to die.”
Prepare lines in other languages (not Klingon).
Complain about the next tents philosophy.
Set up dialogues with opposite encampments.
Have you got any salt?
Would your daughter be interested in my son?
Insult the person next to you to the passer by.
Where are you camped?
You have come on the wrong day, talk of what will happen tomorrow or yesterday.
We haven’t got a storyteller, do you know the one about the…. ?????
It is my matrimonial day tomorrow, (pause for congratulations) I just need a partner.
The witch told me that…….
What We Do – The 95%
Talking about what has happened; just slightly louder. You will get in the habit of it. Setting the scene, as if living life live, and remember that is real.
Be there longer than the battle come before. Feel you are living.
Yes Keep it brief, and as they are passing is a good time.
Just be a little louder and be over heard.
Mainly just be because you are actually living it.
And remember they really are only wanting to ask questions so that you will get to listen to their valuable point!
Demonstrate your skills – yes – but also try training a fellow in your skills in a slightly louder way and dramatise. “No! you will be banished if you fail to learn this time my son.”
Props in your pocket: walk forwards from the group as if it is a secret and show them something so only they see.
Remember, your authentics pouch doesn’t have to be fastened (unless there are sharps).
Conversational impressions; doing the other voice,
“I heard the bishop say…”
“It is lavely to have you all here, I know your king said you would be beheaded if you didn’t join us, and I know all your places of worship have been burnt down but it is still laverly that you decided to cam, laverly.” (The vicar out of Postman Pat gave me an idea for a voice.)
Describing what you are doing, ‘I am bringing forward the sack of gathered barley’. ‘I am cupping my hands into the barl…’
‘Do not invoke the old ways, do not speak in the old style. These are new and different times.’
Research – Go look at stuff. Go look at the stuff in your head.
Many of you will have seen my Hobb character; he is Hobb the Pigman and yet he has all sorts of adventures (see links below), he has done battle and had historic encounters but from his point of view, the view of an ordinary person, never forget it is a lot different than the important person’s record of events, a totally original perspective. You can view ‘your’ world that way.
I had an interesting insight into perspectives recently; German medieval societies mainly drink and fight, but because that is historically accurate. I am not suggesting you adapt this into early medieval living history, but it gives us ideas of ways to be from the known values and behaviour
Gift. Give a gift. This is an onerous responsibility for the recipient, for they must find a way to gift, a gift to you of equal value. If you give then a horse they will be trying to pay you back forever.
So rune readers say. Look at the runes generally for ideas of values.
Draw runes. Defence; “I give you this sign but I fear it will do you no good”.
Get thinking on this. Contemplation of the runes will bring you many inspirations. (or the bible.)
Magnar I hear spoken of; Far better to have ridden on the dark-side and then decided to ride into the light than to simple have been good all your life. Far better.
Not sure the four horsemen give the same sort of message.
Death, birth, blessings, belief, what are you going to next? – or would have been going if you hadn’t died?
Talk about your death and what will be said of you when you are gone.
Where are you going?
How do such topics of contemplation effect the way you live generally.
(These are the sort of powers which make me the storyteller I am btw.)
There are snippets you know that you can bring alive, like that thing about eating garlic and onion porridge so if you are stabbed it will leak out and smell…. (fill in the rest of the story yourselves.)
Talk about the past. Your forefathers gave you wisdom. They shared stories. Taught you.
Like a bird building a nest you have those inbuilt skills of you past.
Your journey here, give us details. Share and ask.
Look stuff up, traditions, customs, use them. They are the stuff of life which shapes the skull.
Ooooo make cards to hand out secretly to fellow members so it is a game…
Acts against Humanity, barrels of doom.
Talk to larp people and dnd people.
Think of lines from films, books, sagas, change them a little and quote them.
Stones. The power of stones. The Hiberno-Norse came here to Yorkshire and they brought a huge leap in creativity with them. They had mixed and shared and in the mix was the stone carving vision of the pasts that came through the Irish contingent. All that they had learnt they shared with their off spring; the Hiberno-Norse. They came here.
Jelling holds beautiful carving upon a stone, the stone carving these later visitors brought here shared the actual stone. The Kirklevington cross stones share stories and images. They are story Use images to ‘convert’ onlookers.
Think of ways belief, ritual, folklore may have affected the way people act and talk. Note that this bit is not specific; it could fit anywhere, anywhen.
So yes, talk about the season, the ritual, the moment of the year.
Think on them too.
Bits – Like what you have bubbling around inside too
Aim for half a dozen times a day you are doing characterisation.
Draw on your own experiences larp drama etc.
For me happenings in DnD spring to mind: They hated each other but the witch poured a love potion over his sword. He grabbed the sword to kill, he swung it over his head, he fell in love, he dropped the sword behind him, he leant forward to kiss his once enemy, the sword was no long in his hand, he hated him, he grabbed the sword, he swung it over hi… You get the idea.
A bit silly I know, but there are transferable models in everything, everywhere.
Hey, relax and have a laugh, much will spring from it, as ideas burst out of your gob.
I suppose I was a bit glib and critical when I desperately sought to drag humour out of all this and went on about visitors and the points they have to make. They are not all like that. Not by a long way. Many are totally different. They are complete idiots!!!!
Sorry no, the term for them is tourists.
They have very vivid imaginations.
That Viking woman in Norway I talked about. She went for a walk. Not far. Just out the gate of the camp and sat in the sun by the Fjord waters. You can see all the camp but there is a fence around it, this is to keep out the non-payer. Not all visitors realise this though, one of these walked up to her and asked in a concerned voice, “Do they treat you well?”
If visitors can believe you are encamped in a reservation then they can believe anything.
Play on that sense of imagination.
If I can have ideas so can you. Sorry to sound pompous and patronising, of course you can, all you have to do is let them free. They roam around and pop about in thought and conversation, now there is a place for them.
I mention back story. Mine is Hiberno-Norse, and travelling storyteller, so my kit is eclectic.
I was inspired deep within my heart, (and in my roots?), by the idea of Norse venturing into Ireland, mixing, consorting, (finding and raiding monasteries together), planning, trading goods and power. They came here! (York that is, I live in York.)
The other bit: by the gods I am a great storyteller so that is reflected in my back story and in my ‘kit’. – The pinks would have been very expensive, so obviously I told stories to Queens. Either they loved my tales and gave me a gift or they hated them and as I ran I stole them.
My back story was further empowered by a purchase from Swanhildas Sweets (on Ebay). Viking trade route jewellery. A total inspiration. A necklace of stones that reflected my life path.
I have since demonstrated this jewellery in Scandinavia with amazing results.
It makes people who they really are.
I told a Canadian guy that currently he felt he was a Canadian who dressed up to be in the company of his partner who was a ‘real’ Viking as a Norwegian. I pointed out that jasper had been found in digs off the coast of Canada and had proven to be the equivalent of flint and had been used by Vikings. If he bought the necklace he would become a Canadian Viking!!! He bought it and bought it.
A Norwegian lady whose father had been adopted from Thailand when tiny had become a Viking and was interested in materials from the silk routes to help her draw in her real heritage. She looked at the stuff and changed her mind, “I am going to be Irish.”
Real stuff comes out too, a guy told me how he hadn’t told anybody else, even his girlfriend yet, but he had been adopted at birth and given to a Christian family. He hadn’t discovered this till he was forty, when his real mother, (a Roma, found him and told him of the abduction policy of the Norwegian government. They were actively Christianising in this way right up to the late 90’s.)
Real stories come out when you inspire people.
Go out and buy stuff.
Back story stuff.
Being in character may be a way to deal with awkward or critical people. Plan an All Ting.
“We are putting holes in the ground like they do in Iceland to get the same space next year.”
Grapes? Think routes for conversations.
Have you had quirky thoughts lately use them.
Open your mind to the idea of interaction bearing in mind your own interests and deeper thoughts.
There is something you can say that has great challenging depth.
My quirky thinking, I like to come up with possible new understandings of how things were from piecing things together. Recently I found myself wondering what Thor’s second name would be? Thor Odinsson!!!!
Developing Drama – chunks of this stuff could go together
Perhaps there can be plays come of this or a mini drama by piecing bits together.
The highly controversial comedian Lenny Bruce talked of putting bits together. His act would be different every time, as he made his mind up all along. Sometimes though all the old bits would come rolling out in a new order and people would say what a great new set, all highly original. I really identify with this idea of bits from my own stuff (even though I am not funny). Ho wofeyen hbv eyou heard me say, “And now you have an opportunity to see my great acting ability when I say they were…”
You already have snippets and bits like this. They will slot in anywhere. They will bolt to new ideas. They will intersect with another. They will join with the bits of others (“Steady now at the back!”), and they will become something bigger (“I said steady!”). The next thing you know -You have a piece to perform with (I said stop it at the back).
He also talked of the room, less useful here maybe, but interesting. Everywhere he performed was a ‘room’, TV studios (well they never asked him back), stadiums, anywhere. It is the room. The room shapes your material, the room has a personality. You have to know the room. You have to know where to put yourself in the room. The room –wait for it – wait for it – is a field with tents in it.
Be ready to sense and to adapt.
It could be simple – That thing what you do. A great guy I know told me of going to a Wild West ~Weekend. There was a guy booked, (and paid), to entertain and all he did was sit in a hut. A shack, the door was open and you could see him there sitting sipping Bourbon straight from a bottle. Bottle after bottle. All he wore was dark pink dirty all-in-ones, with one button missing at the back so you could see half his bum. He had something laid across his knee. My pal was curious and stepped forward to go towards him. The thing on his knee was a shot gun, it was up in my mates face and his life was being threatened, loudly! My pal ran. He ran to the others. They all came over, and then ran.
That man was a star, and here we are still talking about him.
Allting. Spell it how you like. There seems to be plenty of variants. From land to land. This is governance. We gather. We sit. We hold parliament. Hold one now.
From an unobtrusive circle around the gap between your tent and the one opposite, with a couple of seats missing at each ‘end’. When people walk through pull in stools. They are part of the circle which suddenly comes into being. Announce the topic of debate and let them know they are most important and are invited to join the discussion.
Land and folks will die upon you decision.
Golden rules – I missed a few out
Don’t enjoy it that much you turn clique I am sure you have in jokes.
It is not about costumes and fight skills – or points.
Almost everything you think and say and hear is a role play statement, it just needs reworking a little.
Make your friend laugh by turning things you know into a role play
Ie think about what you and your mates say, and make it of the time.
Hey, we are living it already.
Living the Viking Way
My Performances at Gudvangen
The Battle of Hastings – this time we win
Hobb and the Normans