Reenactment….Past Lives, Medieval History and Iron Horses….
As a young child of 8 or 9, my parents got me a juvenile version of Bullfinch's Mythology. I was fascinated by the gods and demons, ancient cities and mythological creatures. So began my journey into the past…and future.
Flash forward a few more years and I was reading super hero comic books and then the Tom Swift Jr. books and moving on to the Ace science fiction double novels. An author and particular artist caught my mind and mind's eye. His name was Robert E. Howard and Conan was his claim to fame, along with Solomon Kane and Kull of Atlantis. More reading, more swashbucklers…Rafael Sabatini's books, The Hornblower series. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Prince Valiant, Ivanhoe, Sword and Sorcery novels. I was hooked on far away places and sharp pointy things. The artist was Frank Frazetta and his work took my breath away. He gave form to my imagination.
College came with a fine art degree and extracurricular activities included learning how to fence, with foil, epee and saber, then later with rapier and dagger. Going to science fiction conventions to find folk of a similar ilk caused me to investigate the Society for Creative Anachronism, my first experience with reenactment. I joined in 1977 and met a number of people that would later become life-long friends and fellow conspirators in the current middle ages and later in the viking age.
At some point I got into motorcycles. I couldn't afford the upkeep of a horse, but the metallic beasties allowed me my fantasy of riding a black freisian with full barding. I was a two-wheeled knight errant on my iron horse with a damsel clinging to my back as I charged over hill and dale.
I learned new skills, among which was the pounding of hot metal from a forge to make those sharp, pointy things. To be truthful, I thought I had done it before, as it came so easily to me…a blacksmith in a past life, perhaps. Who can say for sure? I thought of doing a past life regression, but realized I was having more fun in the present, playing in the past.
I continued in the SCA for a number of years, learning more about medieval life and times, but the SCA didn't quite suit my historical leanings, so I became less enchanted and only showed up at events once or twice a year.
In 2005 or thereabouts, I was talking with one of my fellow reenactor friends, who had been active in reenactment since the beginning of the SCA, as one of its founders. He had been to England in the year 2000 and participated in a major reenactment of the Battle of Hastings. After seeing his pictures and speaking with him about the event, I was hooked. This was "real" reenactment and just the thing to get me back in the groove of creating things with my hands again. Along with a couple of other friends, we decided we would attend the "Next Big One, as the future event was described.
We made dozens of hand-fletched arrows. We made leather quivers. We acquired wooden long bows. We made turn shoes based on historical evidence. We made leather belts and since none of us sewed clothing, enlisted the help of another old SCA friend and she made period Norman tunics for us. Our friend, Henrik was going over as a Norman knight. We were to be Norman archers.
So, thusly encumbered, we arrived at San Francisco Airport shortly before the day of October 13, 2006 and prepared to debark from America back to medieval England. I won't bore the reader with our trials and tribulations of transporting metal helmets, sharp, pointy things and other accouterments, but needless to say that between TSA and customs, we probably "entertained" more than one government official.
We arrived the morning of the day before the reenactment at Battle, England, and after stowing our gear, walked the very ground that King Harold Godwinson and Duke William of Normandy fought to claim as their own on October 14, 1066, the throne of England, to be exact. We were excited and the anticipation of the morrow's battle sequence seemed almost a dream.
There are many anecdotes that I can tell of my experiences over that two day period, but one really stands out in my mind. I find it easy to replay it…over and over, because it seems still so real.
My friend Brian and I were part of a contingent of archers that were to advance in front of the Norman infantry and conrois and loose arrows upon the Anglo-Saxons. As we waited for the battle to begin, there was a slight foggy haze in the air, mist like in it's quality. At some distance, it was difficult to discern objects. We heard the yelling of commands to mass our groups. This was it, finally we would be in the coming battle sequence.
As we stood there on the grass covered ground, we could feel the stamping of the horses hooves from the conroi behind us, we could hear the cacophony of swords slapping shields and the rustle of chainmail and we could smell the scented wood incense from the sensors of the priests as they swung them, walking in front of us and giving us God's blessings.
Now, here's the strange part and it's like nothing I've ever experienced previously. Brian and I are of Judaic extraction and we were witnessing our fellow reenactors taking a knee in advance of the priests to be blessed. We both looked at each other….not knowing what to do. This was outside our experience. Then almost simultaneously, we went to our knees. I know I didn't know how to cross myself, and I'm sure Brian didn't, as well. So, I guess we faked it…but in the process something happened.
It was almost like tunnel vision, shutting out everything else. My heart rate increased, I began to perspire in the cold English morning. All I could hear were those sounds of impending battle, the vibration from the ground as the conrois advanced, the trumpeting of horses keying off the excitement of their riders. The battle commands of our officers, the cheers of our fellows all spoke to me. I was no longer in the present. I had been transported.
We charged up the hill, our commanders formed us in a line and we set up for our first volley against the Anglo-Saxons. Nock, draw and loose by volley fire as hundreds of arrows arched into the sky. As they came down, I thought of black rain. We formed up and moved up the hill again with more commands of nock, draw, and loose. We did this many times, each time with better effect against the enemy.
Suddenly, as I was drawing back the bow, I was struck in the belly by an Anglo-Saxon fired arrow. Sure, these were blunts, but it drove me to my knees and I fell over, playing dead, just like a real archer might have in 1066. I realized then, it wasn't all fun and games. This was real and had that arrow been real I would not have survived.
Suffice to say, that no amount of historical reading and research could have prepared me for that feeling. Now, I was experiencing history first hand…and I was dead. Thirty seconds later, Brian says to me, "Get up or you'll be trampled by the infantry." They are right behind us and are moving quickly up the hill. I stood and was resurrected and was able to "play" again. However, I've never forgotten the moment or the feelings I had. If that arrow had been real, it would have severed my femoral artery and I would have bled out within minutes.
Now, some seven years later, I have further honed my reenactment knowledge to that of the viking age (the Normans were vikings, 100 years removed). I have a revised kit, based on the original. I've manufactured more items and learned many new things about a culture that was extant for only about 350 years.
Do I want to go back to England and "play" one more time? The answer is yes. I may not be able to run up Senlac Hill as I used to. I may have to become an Anglo-Saxon and shoot arrow down the hill at the Normans. I may have to learn about an entirely different culture.
That’s what I do…I learn about history and try to understand its lessons by reenacting how an individual might have lived within a specific time period or historical group.
Ed Berland is the creative director for Berland Design Group, a multi-disciplinary media company. He currently plays with the Vikings of Bjornstad, a dark ages reenactment group.