Hot! Why I Love the Dark Ages

Note: Today’s post is a guest post by my friend Sean Lothar, who has many early period impressions.  He has some great things to say about reenacting the Dark Ages, and if you’re considering switching to a new period or getting into the hobby as a new recruit, this is well worth a read!

I have been in this hobby for about eight years, and I tend to gravitate toward early period impressions for many reasons.   I thought, maybe if I shared what I love about the Dark Ages, it might inspire some of you to give an earlier period a shot.

First of all let me address the term “Dark Ages.”  Coined in the early modern era, this phrase was used to describe a period of cultural stagnation and political fragmentation, and was usually identified as the medieval period; that is, the period between the fall of the Roman Empire in the west and the Renaissance.  Later on it came to more narrowly define the period from the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne.  In truth, it is unfair to judge the cultural growth of one age by the standards of another.  The people of the Dark Ages wouldn’t have considered themselves to be living in a dark age.  They would have just considered it life.  Personally, I just like to use the phrase because it sounds so badass.  The Dark Ages.

So what is it about the Dark Ages that gets me so fired up to recreate it?

Comfort.  Medieval clothing, in my opinion, is the most comfortable clothing of any era, including the present.  Two reasons: fabrics and patterns.  First, let’s talk about fabrics.  Linen is the most comfortable, breathable fabric on earth.  It’s soft, cool in the summer, and wicks moisture away from your skin.  There is no other material I’d rather have against my body.   A simple tunic and pants are all you need for a hot summer day.  Wool of course provides the warmth during those cold winter events.  If I’m still cold, I just keep adding another tunic or cloak and I’ll be fine.  Dressing in layers is very medieval.  Wool also breathes, so I can wear it in the summer time and be more comfortable in it than I would be in a shirt and tie.  The second reason is the patterns (or lack thereof).  Medieval clothing patterns are simple and very easy to tailor to fit your body.  Really it’s all about rectangular construction.  How much easier can you get?  Medieval clothes are so comfortable that I wear them when I’m just hanging around the house or as pajamas.  If I could go to work every day in medieval clothes, I would.

No Uniforms.  The reason I tend to avoid 20th century reenactments is that it just isn’t visually exciting to me.  When I do living history, I don’t want to have to restrict myself to a particular outfit or even a particular color.  I love color; the more, the better.   I want to be bold.  I want to stand out.  Crack open an illuminated manuscript and look at the wide variety of colors on the clothing of the people in that era.  There are so many to choose from.  When I walk into a fabric store, I don’t look for a particular color that fits the garment I’m trying to make.  I look for the best color they have and then decide what garment would look magnificent in that color.  Color also makes a camp look more attractive to the public and draws them in to learn more.

 

Versatility.  Material culture didn’t change a great deal during the medieval period.  Many of the items I own can be used in multiple periods.  Basic clothing patterns and designs changed little from 700 to 1200.  Saxon tunic is also Viking tunic.  My crusader sword is also a Norman sword.  My Frankish shield is also a Saxon shield.  My cooking gear and tent fit into almost every period.  Heck, with just a few minor exceptions, I could use my entire Carolingian encampment 250 years later at the Battle of Hastings (or even into the colonial period).  This means I can participate in more events and portray more impressions without spending so much money.  And with so many interesting cultures to choose from, why limit myself?  While I’m on the subject of saving money…

Relatively inexpensive.  I’m cheap.  I admit it.  I hate buying things.  I prefer to make them.  Medieval clothes are easy to make.  Since you can rarely find good medieval clothing that is commercially available anyway, you have to make it yourself.  If you’re good at finding deals on linen and wool (and they’re out there if you look), then you can make a medieval outfit at a very low cost.  The weapons are much easier to find commercially.  But if I wanted to, I could probably make a spearhead or an ax myself.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t make a musket or a BAR though.  Another money-saving benefit of reenacting the Dark Ages is that I don’t have to buy blanks or black powder.  What’s true for zombie-hunting is also true for reenacting: edged weapons never need to be reloaded.

Easy to Get Started.  Add up those first four reasons and you’ll have the fifth one.  Dark Ages is an easy period for which to get a new person outfitted.  Simple patterns, inexpensive materials, and lack of uniforms make it easy to sew an outfit quickly.  The low initial starting cost doesn’t scare away potential recruits so easily.  Versatility of equipment means there’s usually plenty of loaner gear to go around.

Experimental Archaeology.   Generally, the later the period you recreate, the more documentation you have for it.  Some reenactors love to have documentation for everything they do: clothes, weapons, tools, foods.  No mystery why.  It allows them to put on the most accurate impression they can.  Not me, however.  Why?  It allows me to be creative.  I like to figure stuff out for myself.  I like examining a tiny picture in a manuscript and trying to reproduce the garment in real life.  I like researching neighboring cultures to find items that I can’t find in the one I’m trying to recreate.  I like to build something just to see if it works.   I love a puzzle.  One of these days I’ll figure out that Carolingian scalloped boot that appears in the Psalters.

Inclusiveness.  I wanted to make sure I was correct about this, so I checked with a female reenactor and she confirmed it.  The medieval period is more inclusive to women.  With its unfortunate emphasis on military history and warfare, reenactment tends to marginalize or even exclude female reenactors.  But it’s different in the middle ages.  The line between warrior and civilian was much blurrier and sometimes non-existent.  You can set up a household encampment and portray everyday activities at a military event under the premise that the men of the household might be called away to war at any moment.  Also, women often accompanied armies on the march in supporting roles.  Some women were even warriors themselves.  There were laws passed in the Viking lands to outlaw women dressing like men.  You don’t make laws to prevent behavior that isn’t already occurring.  So I see a lot more opportunities for women to participate in the Dark Ages.  In other words, my butter churn brings all the girls to the yard.  This leads to a more diverse camp.  And more diverse camp activities make for a more interesting experience for the public.

Food.  If you ever wander into my camp at an event the first thing you will notice will be all the food.  Food is a major part of my display.  There is so much to choose from.  If it could be found at a medieval market, on a farm, or in the woods in medieval Europe, then its fair game.  No hard tack or k-rations here.  Roasted meats, stews, fruits, veggies, cheese, bread, and fresh-churned butter are always on the menu.

There it is.  All of that added up makes reenacting the Dark Ages one heck of a fun and rewarding experience for me.  I hope no one takes my comments as criticism for their particular period.  They’re not meant to be.  I’m sure you have as many reasons to love your period as I do.  So, let me ask you:  Why do you love your period?

 

7 Comments

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  1. Well said! I portray the Iron Age Celts and like other early period reenactors the fact that we can make nearly EVERYTHING we need is very liberating and attractive to me. The number of items we’ve made ourselves over the past 12 years we’ve been doing this absolutely astonishing and the amount of money we’ve spent very small.

    Regarding inclusiveness, we actually have more women in our group than men. We also have a number of children and since we portray every day life this works out perfectly. It makes for a family inclusive environment that has helped support the continued success of our group.

    • I think early period stuff is sorely neglected. It might be that anything pre-17th century is associated with SCA and larping, but those are unfair assumptions that need to be challenged. I think that seeing early period done well at timeline events would help.

      • I believe medieval reenactors are drawn to the SCA because it provides are very large playground in which to do their thing. Its hard to argue with an organization with 50,000 members. They must be doing something right. I think the thing that the SCA does best is encourage and recognize its members for the work they do. I have seen amazing work at the Arts and Sciences displays at Pennsic that would blow away the competition at MTA. The downside of that is that most of that work is only seen by members of the SCA, not the general public. Although I know several people that do the SCA and living history, I think most SCA members don’t have the time (or money) to commit to both.

  2. Sean’s work is excellent and his camps are well worth a visit. I’m sometimes next to him, since we do Byzantine (the bright side of the Dark Ages). I would like to do more ‘dark ages’ as a Slav. Talk about an unknown story, the Slavs had conquered half of Europe… half of modern Germany and all of mainland Greece and few know about this. Obviously, they were doing something right militarily and culturally, and I view the Slavs as the princes and agents of the Dark Ages. (Because when they conquered a land they, unlike the wimpy Franks and Vikings, left no survivors to tell the story. (Stamping out literacy is 12% more Badass. Arrrrrrgh!))

  3. I’m looking for a Dark ages group in the mid Atlantic area that is living history and not fighting and drinking any advice?

    Thanks,

    Steve@trainingblades.com

  4. Great looking stuff! I’m going to be making a 12th Century Slavic/ Kievan Russ kit for the Dagorhir unit that I am a part of, and i was wondering if you had any helpful ideas or tutorials for some garb, it would be very much appreciated.

  5. I just found your post, and had to smile. I’m SCAdian, an An Tirian Laurel named Liutgard, who is a distant cousin of Charlemagne. I love the 8th century, for many of the reasons you listed. I’ve also found that there are huge avenues of opportunity for exploration that many people aren’t aware of. Even in my modern academic role (yes, I’m one of Those), I find that there are many areas in the study of the ‘Dark Ages’ that are neglected. I’m currently doing some fairly in-depth study into Carolingian food, and there are huge, empty places in the scholarship, just waiting to be filled!

    But I have to learn not to wear my good clothes in the kitchen- I spilled carmelized onions down my front at Crown last weekend, and wouldn’t you know, it fell on the silk trim and not the wool. Gah!