Recently, I have been offered the chance to answer several questions asked by Marta París Boix (alias Marþa Skogsdottir) from Spanish projects Clan Hávamál and Hella, the Viking blog. When she was making her interview with Maxim Makarov, Marta found the interview I made with him, she contacted me and offered me an interview. The original version in Spanish was published on her websites; here you can find the English version.
I had the pleasure to meet virtually Tomáš Vlasatý (David Stříbrný) whom I decided to interview after seeing his long career as reenactor and also his contribution in projects like Marobud, “Karel’s journey – pilgrimage to Rome”, “Early medieval woodworking tools”, “The Library of the group Marobud”, “Viking Age Forging”, “Early medieval tablets”, “10th century Norway”, “Valknut – triquetra”, “Historické přilby – Helmets of the Past”, etc. Since we cannot do the interview face to face due to he is in the Czech Republic and I am in Barcelona, this time I will show you a written interview.
Hi, Tomáš. Thank you very much for accepting this interview and dedicating us some of your time. It is a great honor for us to have the opportunity to interview a reenactor with your experience and knowledge.
Greetings to all of you and thank you very much for this interview. I am honoured as well. In the beginning of the 21th century, it is rare that somebody wants to hear the opinion of another person.
I would like to start this interview by asking you, when did your interest for Scandinavian culture come from? How did it all begin?
Well, it started around 2004. Originally, there was a pure fascination based on books, games, music. Old Norse mythology was also an very important element. After some time, I decided to buy some Viking-related products (in fact, those objects was purely fantasy stuff) and to visit small Viking Age events in the Czech Republic. I met some reenactors there, and they showed me their gear, the way of thinking and the reenactor culture. I think that my beginning was similar to the experience of anybody interested in Old Norse culture. In 2008, I started to translate and to study sagas, and this kind of sources brought a completely new light to my reenactor career.
As far as I know, specially after checking the projects that you are administrating at the moment, you have a wide knowledge of Scandinavian culture, and I was wondering if you could please tell us how do you think it must be the daily life of a viking from the 10th century.
Firstly, I have to make clear that Old Norse people did not call themselves as “vikings”. If we are talking about average people, they call themselves “Northerners”, or rather “people of [a region or a clan]”. Basically, there is no bigger change between our lives – people want to live, to earn money, to prosper. The way how to achieve is the thing what changes, as well as mindset and demand for comfort. Secondly, most people lived on farms with their kins and did what was needed for living. The household was run on two different levels, inner and outer. The “inner life” took place only within the house and its fence – I mean regular work like the care of livestock, crafts and repairs, making of food etc., also including the entertainment. The “outer life” consisted for example from visits (friends, kin members, assemblies, shrines and churches), trading and warfare. It is obvious that Old Norse people mastered many crafts in order to be self-sufficient (I recommend to read Rígsþula). The households were considered to be separated microcosmoses, and the law was accustomed to this state. This separation between the Inner and the Outer is connected not only to law, but also to gender – from sources, we can clearly see that the “outer life” was dominated by men, and the man remaining at home all the time was called heimskr (“stay-at-home”, but also “dull”). As Hávamál says, only the far-travelling man can be called wise. On the other hand, women were expected to stay at home and take care of the household, the most important place in life. To sum up, there were strict lines in Old Norse daily life.
It is worth to mention that, in case you visit a museum, you will see many decorated objects from precious metal. However, these artefacts do not fully reflect the living reality of average people staying in the background. We reenactors are often obsessed by these elite objects, without taking care of the rest of 90% of the original population. Another fact is that we often say we represent Vikings, without noticing that we are focused only on Anglo-Saxon, Frankish or Russian sources. Sadly said, for most of reenactors, the life of average people of Scandinavia is not interesting. Generally speaking, war activities are the biggest attraction in the reenactment; in addition, Viking Age reenactment has the element of religious and free thought manifesto.
How do you imagine a viking burg (merchant city and/or village)? What kind of structure do you think it should have had?
I will take the word “viking” in the sense “Old Norse”, okay? In Scandinavia, there were several towns (Birka, Haithabu etc.). The word for a town is borg, which means also “a fortified place”. In towns, up to a thousand people could live, and they needed the protection and supplies. That’s why, as a rule, towns had ramparts (and palisades) and were located at the bank of the river or the sea. The town was always protected by the power of the ruler, who gained fees from both local and long-distance merchants. It is noteworthy that the town was not self-sufficient and the trade was necessary. This fact can explain why there are so exotic objects in towns.
Is there any event that you’ve ever attended to, whose structure of tents, longhouses, etc… was similar to a real viking city? How was your experience there?
The problem is that there are not so many events in open-air museums and the number of reenactors is often much bigger that the number of houses, so they have to sleep in tents. I am a bit fed up with tents, because of the fact that common people usually used buildings on travels if possible.
Of course I have some experience with living in buildings, both separated and bigger open-air museums. But the impression is never complete – there are too many modern elements, too many fantasy gear and the life of reenactors can’t be compared to life of period people, because modern men want to fight, to drink, to relax from work. There is no need for protection against the enemy, because there is no real enemy. Most of reenactment events last too short for taking the historicity seriously. So, my experience is that the reconstruction of the living in town is extremely hard, and we can reconstruct only small aspects of the life. In my opinion, the life in a single household would be more interesting and more possible.
Reenactors and museums play a great role when it comes to let people get to know how was life in Scandinavia in 10th century. As far as I know, there are museums that usually work hand in hand with reenactors to provide people a real life viking experience. Do museums in Czech Republic do that too? Have you ever collaborated with them?
The Central Europe has limited or none experience with Viking expansion, so Czech museums and academia pay matching (small) attention to the presentation of the Viking Age. In what was Czechoslovakia, the early states of Great Moravia and Bohemia are more interesting. Still, there is a huge gap between the early medieval academia and reenactors; scientists do not take reenactors seriously, reenactors are not very interested in scientific reconstruction, so the kind of relationship is mutual. On the other hand, there are some (mostly young) scientists in reenactment and they try to connect both areas. There are much better results in Celtic-oriented academia and reenactors. Let’s hope the future will bring better cooperation!
I personally collaborate with my friends scientist that are interested in early medieval period. So, a kind of collaboration is possible, at least on the personal level.
How do you think that people can get to know Viking era better: participating or attending to public reenactment events?
I believe that, from the broader perspective, the Viking phenomenon is already a very popular period, the popularity is on its peak and there will be a slow decline in future decade (of course, in some countries, the process will be slower). Usually, the Viking phenomenon is only a set of mostly historically incorrect thoughts and it would not be popular so much if it would be popularized in the correct way. For me, it is suprising that the Viking phenomenon is so widespread around the world, while other fascinating periods are not known. I often have to deal with people interested in Viking Age due to their afraid of immigration in Europe – these people are looking for the roots of the European traditions, but their will to learn specific data is rather superficial. Overall, it is extremely difficult for a normal modern person to find the time and the will to read and understand. Even the most of reenactors are not so deeply interested in the period, since Viking reenactment is a hobby without any stricter rule, so it is hard to popularize the general public more than now. I am deeply afraid that the deep experience is not what both visitors and the most of reenactors want. Therefore, true approach based on experiments and serious study will always be the matter of limited number of people.
I think it would be much better to change the whole trend, to prefer quality to quantity. The internet is very important medium today, as almost all people have the access to it, and that’s why it is important to create good articles and other online contents with pictures (visualisation is very crucial). Semi-long and long projects (months up to years) proved to be a very good method how to present history. What I really miss are Old Norse sources translated into national languages.
As a reenactor with more than 10 years of experience, you must have attended to a lot of events and because of that we would like to know if you consider that private events could are a good way to put on practice new techniques of work (craftsmen), cooking, combat etc… or do you consider that it is better to put them in practice in public events so that you can share knowledge with other groups and visitors?
My personal motto is “I do it for myself”. Events are not for visitors, they are for us, reenactors. That’s why we should focus on the exchange of knowledge and the cooperation on any occassion. However, bigger events and festivals are more focused on the battle and drinking, as there is no authority controlling the historicity. At smaller events, a larger scale of activities is present and the costume check is more possible. Period cooking is, in my opinion, a matter of fact at every event, as well as music, discussions and presentations.
What is the best reenactment event that you have ever been? What made it so special?
It is hard to say – almost each event is special in a way. Large battles with more than 1000 warriors are impressive, but the best authentic event I have visited was The Viking Way, which was organized by Trondheim Vikinglag near Trondheim. The concept was quite unique – the best crafters from Europe and USA met in a forest and shared knowledge for one week. No modern stuff, drinkable water in the rivulet, no modern toilets, no mobile signal, no battle.
And the worst?
It is relative and it depends what you are looking for. I personally enjoy when things are made in a historically correct way and the costume level is high. From this perspective, Wolin could be the worst event on the planet, but the festival has some good sides too. Basically, in my opinion, the worst events are small-scale battles that take only a few hours – these events do not deserve to be connected with reenactment at all, rather LARPs with iron weapons. On the other hand, those participated really enjoy controlled agressivity.
Last but not least, we would like to know if you could give advice to our audience who is interested in starting with reenactment or simply improve their skills as reenactors.
Read a lot and make contacts with foreign reenactors. Write a costume passport, a small document where every piece of your gear is mentioned and linked with the source. And do not be mad or angry – there will always be mistakes and people with different point of view, collaboration is better than hostility. The costume and your historical persona is fascinating never-ending story, and it will never be perfect. But it is worth of the try.
Thanks a million for your collaboration. We wish you the best of luck for the projects you are managing at the moment and keep up with the great job you are doing.
Thank you as well for the chance to speak.