Vikings bring history to life

Kevin Berry

Weekend warriors who re-enact ancient battles are using their hobby to gain a new qualification, reports Kevin Berry.

THE fierce-looking Viking charging around a battlefield has been practising close quarter combat throughout the winter. The more peaceful Vikings in the living history camp have studied the crafts they are demonstrating to City amp; Guilds level.

Indeed, by this time next year some Vikings might have a national vocational qualification in living history.

Many of our historic sites, such as castles and battlefields, have visits from weekend warriors. They like to be called re-enactors, and there is a re-enactment society for most historical periods. The enthusiasts want to show what life was like in the 10th century by dressing accurately, using the correct implements and possibly even speaking in the manner of the period. They are dedicated, but at the same time cheerily self-mocking.

"We want to bring history alive, to give the public a real feeling of being there at that time," says Tony Sayer, the Vikings' chieftain. "No Viking re-enactor is allowed on to the battlefield or into a living history situation until he or she has had their costume verified and their knowledge of Viking life tested.

"Each Viking has to create his own character, with a Viking name and a detailed biography. Then they are paired with an experienced Viking. They must be able to answer any of the public's questions - including the usual one about Vikings wearing horned helmets."

The Viking battle stunts are as impressively choreographed as anything you will see on film, and are often much better. Living history situations, such as cooking or weapon-making, require ad-vanced drama and craft skills. A re-enactor will spend weekends honing his or her particular skill ready for summer gatherings throughout the country.

The public has been enthusiastic about the Viking displays, which will now be taken into schools.

A number of Viking re-enactors who were unemployed began to look upon their visits as a good way to make a living, and now they treat living history as real employment. Museums and festival organisers began to take an interest and Viking leaders, keenly aware of their society's reputation for a quality show, knew that standards would be important. Membrs of the Viking Society are now planning to start a Viking job club in Birmingham for its full-time re-enactors.

"Our warriors had always had a points system, and they could work their way up to nine points and achieve the top ranking," says Roz Sheard. "So Tony (Sayer) asked me to sort something out for the craftspeople."

Roz is the Jarl of living history for the Vikings, a sort of chief education officer for the society. Eighteen months ago, she came up with a system to enable Vikings who wanted to study and research crafts, such as blacksmithing and navigation, to have their work recognised with a qualification. She has a course model that can be applied to any craft.

Candidates study the craft as it was practised by the Vikings, and as it can be done in the 21st century. Calligraphy and needlework courses, without the Viking title, are being offered to the general public at many FE centres.

"The City amp; Guilds people seem to like the way we are rescuing forgotten crafts," Roz says.

An official at the Birmingham office of City amp; Guilds suggested to Roz that her work could be continued to NVQ level. Roz and her Viking colleagues busied themselves, and their curriculum details have had RSA officials making enthusiastic noises. Final approval from the RSA is now near.

Members of a Viking living history group appearing at the West Stowe Anglo-Saxon settlement in Suffolk are being taught Old English by Steve Pollington, an acknowledged expert. Their work may lead to the setting up of yet another qualification.

"I will be teaching them Old English with some Norse," says Steve.

"They want to work out the relationship between the two so that they can extrapolate from one to the other if they need to - that's what was happening in the period.

"I give them an aggregate pronunciation which is based on spellings from surviving texts. We really can't be any more precise than that. Everyday conversations will be a new venture for me because previously my teaching has always been based around a specific text or a fixed piece of language. I'm excited by it."

The Vikings will eventually have their own language teaching pack, probably with a CD-Rom, for use by Viking and Saxon enthusiasts. It will also be for sale to the general public.

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Kevin Berry

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