Steps to an authentic Early Medieval belt

The text presented below is a free follow-up to the article The Length of Early Medieval Belts and maps my path to an ideal reproduction of an Early medieval belt even with wrong twists and turns. As a whole, it can serve as a recommendation for others who want to buy a historic belt.


15 years, 8 belts

The belt is one of the most basic parts of a reenactor’s costume, which one buys together with the first tunic, trousers, shoes and a knife. Significantly, reenactors tend to buy the most readily available belts, without proper market or sources research. In the same way, I bought a large number of belts during my Early Middle Ages “career”. If I remember correctly, there were no less than 8 (or 10 if I count the sword belts). After a long period of fifteen years, I believe that I finally achieved authentic, functional and aesthetically interesting belts I will be satisfied with for a longer period of time. For the purposes of the article, I found out when and at what prices I bought all my belts:

  • 1st belt from 2006 – 18 EUR

  • 2nd belt from 2009 – 23 EUR

  • 3rd belt from 2011 – 23 EUR

  • 4th belt from 2013 – 27 EUR

  • 5th belt from 2017 – 135 EUR

  • 6th belt from 2019 – 23 EUR

  • 7th-8th belt from 2021 – 2 × 77 EUR

What does this data suggest? Over the course of 14 years (2006-2020), I purchased 6 belts with a total value of more than 250 EUR, which served an average of 2-4 years. In most cases, the reason for their exclusion was a broken buckle, made of soft and non-historical metal, but also my own increasing demands. For the belts I bought during this period, it is typical that I looked at the low price and decorative design of metal components, while ignoring the material of the metal and the look of the leather part, which resulted in being satisfied with very long belts from thick leather and with a soft buckle. Once I realized how much money I had spent on non-historical equipment, I realized that it was more cost-effective to invest in a belt that would be more expensive, but each of its individual parts would last longer. I realized that in all respects it is better for me to have a custom-made belt made, which can not be criticized from a historical point of view, lasts five to ten years and is more functional than tolerating historically unsuitable, ready-made belts with significantly shorter service life. An important condition here is that I plan to use the item repeatedly and in the long term.

If you are a beginning reenactor who has been planning to participate in historical activities for more than 5 years, I can wholeheartedly recommend investing in a proper, custom belt. In addition, it will have the consequence that you give the job to a craftsman from the community and you will have a belt that will be immune to rising standards (of the community, of your group and your own). However, as in all other cases, the saying “never trust the trader” applies in the sense that one’s own research always comes first, because the trader can be wrong and is often financially motivated not to disclose all the information.

Comparison of belt opposites:

Left – belt in a standardized length of 150 cm, made of 3 mm thick leather, components cast of pewter and fastened with modern rivets. Buckle without plate; belt without a loop. Price 29 EUR. Production Wulflund.com.
Right – belts custom made to the required size, made of folded and stitched 1 mm thick leather, iron components. The buckles have plates and the belts are equipped with loops. Price 77 EUR per piece. Production Roman Král.


Belt length

If you set out on a journey towards a custom-designed belt, the first point that you will be confronted with as a client is the length of the belt. This topic was discussed quite thoroughly in the article The Length of Early Medieval Belts, but here I would like to warn you beyond the scope of the article about some of the pitfalls that I discovered in the form of personal mistakes. Since I have never owned a long-ended composite belt, this advice will only apply to simple short-ended belts.

From the article above, it is obvious that the belts should not be longer than 20 cm compared to your current waist circumference. It often even seems that the length of the belts of the Early Middle Ages did not exceed the belt by more than 10 cm – in other words, the belts were really personalized. This may conflict with our reenactment needs if:

  • you want to own one belt for both civilian and combat costume. If your combat costume consists of a thick padding, the difference between the circumferences can be more than 10 cm. If you are not willing to reduce the padding, then it is appropriate to purchase two belts of different lengths. Personally, I am a mail user with 1 woolen layer under it, so the difference is only in units of centimeters. In the past, when I owned a thick padding, of course I used one universal, extremely long belt for both purposes, which is not the happiest scenario.

  • you significantly change your waist circumference due to gaining or losing weight. In this case, there is a risk that your existing belts will no longer be fitting and you will need new ones. My latest order for belts was motivated by losing about 15 kg, which resulted in a loss of at least 12 cm at the waist. All the belts I had until then became unusable.

It is worth mentioning that some historical pieces, like modern belts, were equipped with metal or leather loops into which the end of the belt could be inserted. From the position of a person who has been processing orders and complaints in a historic store for several years, I would like to draw attention to several problems in which one can make mistakes:

  • How to find a waist? The waist is not necessarily located at the navel line. We measure the waist at the narrowest point of the abdomen, approximately halfway between the upper edge of the hip bone and the lowest rib.

  • How to measure a waist? Standing up, on a naked body, with loose hands, in a calm exhalation, with a tape that fits snugly but does not choke.

  • How to send dimensions to the crafter? Ideally, we say the length of the waist (position of the first hole) and the desired length of the belt. In the past, I have witnessed unpleasant situations where these two values have been swapped.

If you should remember anything from this chapter, then it is certainly that a belt reaching to the wearer’s thighs or knees is not a sign of a good belt, which I say as a person who until recently boasted with a long belt as a sign of luxury and prestige in the community.


Belt construction

In the current Early medieval reenactment, a single-layer simply cut leather belt 2-3 cm wide has an extremely strong representation, to the extent that in the Czechoslovak community, numbering about 500-700 active reenactors, only small units of cases will not correspond to this description. Since there has never been a proper discussion in the community, the vast majority of reenactors have no idea that there are alternatives. I didn’t know about them for a long time! Let’s now roughly summarize the construction of European belts in the period of 9th-12th century:

  • textile (single-layer)

  • birch bark (single-layer)

  • Polyporus fungi (single-layer)

  • leather

    • single-layer

    • double-layer

      • one-piece, folded

      • two-piece, stitched

    • triple-layer

      • leather wrapped in folded leather

  • combining different materials

    • leather wrapped in silk

    • birch bark wrapped in leather

    • birch bark wrapped in silk

We may be surprised by the presence of composite belts. This relatively laborious construction, which in the case of a one-piece and folded belt includes about a thousand holes per meter, has been used not only in the case of long belts with numerous components, but also in the case of undecorated, utility belts. The use of multiple layers not only pursues a longer service life, but also allows the combination of materials of different strengths, resilience, memory and aesthetic qualities. Personally, I think that if you want to have a belt with numerous metal components, you cannot avoid a composite belt, and you should definitely consider the composite construction even in the case of simpler and less decorative belts. This chapter could be summarized by the advice that the belt material should be given at least the same care as the selection of metal parts of the belt.

Folded multilayer belts without components.
Top left: belt from Norwich Castle Museum. Source: Tom Betts.
Top right: fragments of harness from the ship grave from Haithabu. Source: Müller-Wille 1976: Abb. 42.
Bottom: back of a reproduction. Production Roman Král.

Folded multilayer belts with components.
Above: Volga region belt, private collection. Source: Jes Lund-Jacobsen.
Bottom: reproduction of a composite belt with components. Production Ferenc Tavasz.


Buckles, strap ends and other metal components

If you are honest about the Early medieval reconstruction and ultimately want to save money, you will choose buckles and strap ends that are made of the following materials:

  • hammered

    • iron

    • iron with silver or copper alloy inlay

    • copper alloy

  • cast

    • lead alloy

    • copper alloy

    • gilded copper alloy

    • silver

    • gold

  • carved

    • bone / antler / ivory / walrus ivory

Alternatively, you can choose a buckle-less version of the belt. There are no other options for you. In particular, you should avoid tin or zinc alloys with various patinas, which you will recognize very easily due to their low price (2-10 EUR) and usually the poor quality of the casting. The components you are interested in as a reenactor start at a price of about 6 EUR (bronze buckles) or 10 EUR (iron buckles) per piece and can end in the hundreds of EUR – depending on whether you choose a series-cast model or want custom production. Although I understand that it is easy to open an e-shop, choose a few components that you like, pay for and don’t worry anymore, we all subconsciously know that this is not the right way to go. If I could suggest alternatives, you can try Vasily “Gudred” Majskiy, from the Czech region you can try to address Storrvara, Kedar Foundry or Skallagrim – Jewelry and Forge. If communication with craftsmen is an unfeasible way for you and you prefer an e-shop, it is always better to choose, for example, Armour And Castings or True History Shop than domestic sellers who do not offer goods in the same quality and price. Buying from abroad can also have the advantage of helping to differentiate you from others in the local scene – in my career I have seen a maximum of two dozen buckle models in Czech community, although there are hundreds of different original pieces.

Two versions of the same buckle, both labeled as reproductions of the find from Bj 750 in Birka. Source: Václav Maňha.

At this point, I would like to point to three recurring belt problems. The first is the fact that the buckle definitely does not condition the use of a strap end. Too often, reenactors long to buy sets of buckles and ends, but the Early medieval reality was such that not every belt had the strap end. I believe that one of the reasons we crave for strap end is that we cheat all parts of the belt, so they are affordable and can be afforded by anyone – for example, much of the cast copper alloy metal components have been gilded and the belt itself has been made in a more complex way, as indicated above.

The second common problem is the use of fittings that come from horse bridles. It can be quite difficult for a layman to distinguish between them, works from Muraševa (2000) and Hedenstierna-Jonson – Holmquist Olausson (2006) can help you. If you do not want to devote your time to the study of fittings and do not want to consult them, I recommend avoiding them completely.

The third problem is of a more complex nature and it is possible that some veteran reenactors will also protest against it. I am of the opinion that the use of buckles without holding plates is, at least in the case of personal belts, garters and spurs (ie not necessarily for belts used on a horse harness) a neglected bad habit. Of course, there are a number of buckles preserved without plates, yet I believe that in these cases they simply corroded or fell off during removal or preservation. In my opinion, the missing plate does not justify sewing the buckle into the leather, as is commonly done today. I myself have the buckles of some of my older belts sewn in this way – this fact bothers me and I am considering their general replacement.

Example of buckles sewn into the leather. Own archive.

When we look at any region of Europe in the period of 9th-11th century, well-preserved buckles are equipped with plates, which in the case of some Eastern European pieces are integral parts of castings. I see the advantages of the plate in the possibility of further decoration of the belt and in a stronger fastening, which does not block the inner space of the buckle which is often rather small.

Belt buckles from Birka. Source: Arbman 1940: Taf. 86.

Belt buckles from Haithabu. Source: Schietzel 2014: 197.

Belt buckles from Gotland. Source: Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Abb. 124-5.

Belt buckles from Anglo-Saxon England. Source: Paterson et al. 2014: Fig. 117-8.

Belt buckles from from Great Moravia. Source: Hrubý 1955: Obr. 34.

Belt buckles of Great Moravian garters. Source: Ungerman 2019: Abb. 7.

 

Steppe belt buckles of 8th-9th century. Source: Pletněva 1981: Рис. 60-1.

Old Rus belts from graves C-160 and C-191 from Gnězdovo. Source: Muraševa 2006: Abb. 11, 13.

Latvian belts. Source: Muraševa 2006: Abb. 13.


In any case, remember that even if you have a belt that is not one of the most suitable, it is never too late to start replacing it. It took me 15 years to realize it! In addition, many belts can be saved, for example, by shortening or adding the buckle plate.

If you have read this far, thank you for your time and I look forward to your comments. If you are lost in sources or contacts, write to me and I will happily help you to find the belts that are the cheapest, the most authentic and visually most interesting, as well as I can help you order goods from abroad. You can trust me that making custom historical equipment has never been easier.


Bibliography

Arbman, Holger (1940). Birka I. Die Gräber. Tafeln, Stockholm.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte – Holmquist Olausson, Lena (2006). The Oriental Mounts from Birka’s Garrison: An Expression of Warrior Rank and Status, Stockholm.

Hrubý, Vilém (1955). Staré Město. Velkomoravské pohřebiště „Na Valách“. Monumenta Archaeologica III, Praha.

Muraševa 2000 = Мурашева, В. В. (2000). Древнерусские ременные наборные украшения (Х-XIII вв.), Москва.

Muraševa, V. V. (2006). Kompositgürtel altrussischer Krieger aus dem 10. und dem Beginn des 11. Jahrhunderts. In: Eurasia Antiqua 12, Mainz, 353-368.

Müller-Wille, Michael (1976). Das Bootkammergrab von Haithabu. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 8, Neumünster.

Paterson, C. – Parsons, A. J. – Newman, R. M. – Johnson, Nick – Howard-Davis, Ch. (2014). Shadows in the sand : excavation of a Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria, Lancaster.

Pletněva 1981 = Плетнева, С. А. (1981). Степи Евразии в эпоху средневековья, Москва.

Schietzel, Kurt (2014). Spurensuche Haithabu, Neumünster – Hamburg.

Thunmark-Nylén, Lena (1998). Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands II : Typentafeln, Stockholm.

Ungerman, Šimon (2019). Die Wadenriemengarnituren im frühmittelalterlichen Mähren. In: Poláček, Lumír – Kouřil, Pavel (eds.). Internationale Tagungen in Mikulčice IX. Bewaffnung und Reiterausrüstung des 8. bis 10. Jahrhunderts in Mitteleuropa, Brno, 307-341.

4. února 2021

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