The Vikings Society primarily re-enacts the period c.800-c.1100 in the British Isles. While we are occasionally asked to support shows with different datelines or locations, our core period remains c.800-1100 in the British Isles. As such, the Society’s resources focus on the ‘viking ages’ in Britain.
Relevant evidence and its context
One of the greatest challenges for any student of the early medieval world (c.400-1100) is the imperfect and inconsistent nature of the evidence. For example, we have strong literary evidence for maille hauberks being relatively common among the late Anglo-Saxon warrior elite – but only one maille shirt survives from the entire Anglo-Saxon period (from the early seventh-century Sutton Hoo ship burial).
Given the significant gaps in the available knowledge, a wide range of evidence needs to be considered. However, it is essential that the date, location and context of any sources or finds be scrutinised. Conclusions on the value and relevance of an individual piece of evidence will usually be on a case-by-case basis.
Sources of evidence
The authenticity team will draw upon a wide range of sources of evidence, such as:
- Written sources, including annals, histories, hagiography (saints’ lives), lawcodes, charters (land documents) and specialised texts (such as liturgical manuscripts or leechbooks). In some cases the manuscripts themselves are evidence (codicology, the study of manuscripts, and palaeography, the study of script).
- Archaeological sources, including site reports, detailed analysis of finds and items published under the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This also includes numismatic (coin) evidence.
- Linguistic evidence, including onomastic (place-name evidence, indicative of the language spoken in a region).
- Illustrations, images, carvings and other pictorial evidence.
Chronology of evidence
The authenticity team will generally prioritise evidence based on its chronological proximity to the period we cover (c.800-1100), in approximate order:
- Contemporary evidence is preferred to earlier or later evidence, i.e. written sources produced shortly after the events they describe; finds or sites securely dated to a point within the period we cover.
- Evidence of uncertain date within the period we cover is much more common than securely dated evidence, e.g. sites or finds dated to a century rather than a narrow range of years.
- Evidence significantly earlier or later than the period we cover will often provide useful context and may – provided it is sufficiently reliable – be the next best thing to a primary source. For example, most of the narrative sources for the Norman Conquest come from histories written in the first half of the twelfth century. Equally, the Icelandic sagas, written down during the thirteenth century, reveal a great deal about the cultural world of tenth- and eleventh-century Scandinavia, but may reflect contemporary (13th century) fashions in clothing, arms etc.
It is worth noting that, where there is evidence before and after our period but not during it, we should not make assumptions about continuity. For example, many manufacturing techniques used in Roman Britain fell out of use (or were consciously rejected) and were re-discovered or reintroduced in the later medieval period.
Geographical range of evidence
The authenticity team will generally prioritise evidence from the British Isles or from Scandinavia in the period we cover, in approximate order:
- Evidence from the ‘home’ region will be preferred when considering a particular racial type, i.e. sources from England are of greatest relevance for the Anglo-Saxons.
- Evidence from related regions within the British Isles is of considerable relevance, e.g. using evidence from Anglo-Saxon England to draw inferences for Wales or Scotland, in the absence of clearer information from these areas.
- Evidence from related regions within northern Europe, primarily Scandinavia, is of considerable relevance. There was a high degree of cultural interchange between the ‘Danelaw’ region of England and Scandinavia; the viking settlements in Orkney, Caithness and the Hebrides seem to have had similarly strong links, especially with Norway.
- Evidence from regions with limited interaction with the British Isles is of more limited relevance. In particular:
- While documentary sources from the Frankish world may be useful (particularly for the history of Scandinavia), the distinctive Frankish fashions should not be used as evidence for Britain or Scandinavia without wider corroboration.
- Eastern Scandinavia (modern Sweden) and the Baltic had its own distinctive material culture in this period, heavily influenced by trade links with the Rus and beyond. Evidence from this region (including the trading centre of Birka and the Baltic island of Gotland) should not be taken as representative of Scandinavia as a whole – let alone Britain – without wider corroboration.
- The cities of the Rus developed their own distinctive material culture, heavily influenced by the steppe tribes. While they maintained strong trading and cultural links with eastern Scandinavia, evidence from Russia cannot be taken as representative of Scandinavia – let alone Britain – without wider corroboration.
Context of evidence
Any source of evidence, whether documentary or archaeological, needs to be considered in its own context.
- Documentary sources need to be challenged for bias:
- Who was the author, and how close (chronologically, geographically and in awareness) was he to the events he described?
- What was the intended audience of the source? How does that affect the way it is written?
- What is the likely bias of the source? Did the author (sub)consciously favour one side in a conflict? Was the author following a personal or institutional agenda?
- Archaeological sources need to have their context understood:
- In what context was the item found? Is it a stray find or from a specific site? Did the process of uncovering it reveal or destroy any further evidence?
- Was the item found in a stratified layer during excavation? If so, how closely can it be dated?
- Whereabouts on a site was the item found? What does that suggest about its use, the status of its owner etc?
- Was the item deliberately thrown away (or destroyed) or accidentally lost?
- How common or rare was the item in the site? In comparable sites?
- How typical is the site of other archaeological sites across the country? Across northern Europe in the early medieval period?
A documentary source with heavy bias is not necessarily untrustworthy – but it may need to be taken with a pinch of salt or checked against other evidence. Similarly a decontextualized stray find may be useful, especially if it can be compared with similar finds from more certainly located archaeological sites.
Understanding the context of a source can often reveal as much as the source itself.
This category has the following 3 subcategories, out of 3 total.