Geteld tents

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Getelds tents derive from the pictures we have of them in Psalters. These are generally assumed to be much later than the Oseberg or Gokstad ship burials so it is assumed that the Getelt is a later invention than the A frame and therefore possibly replaced the A frame. Again this is a misconception. The Utrecht Psalter is dated to around 815 to 830, with the latest date for it being 850 ; the psalter has three or four pictures of getelds, and which makes the geteld at least contemporary with the A frame. The Gokstad burial is at least half a century later than the Utrecht Psalter which suggests that maybe the A frame is later than the geteld, the complete reverse of the common perception of tent type datelines.

Of specific note here almost all of the period getelds shown in psalters have end opening doors, similar to A frame tents. There are no pictures of the common side opening geteld that again is a modern invention based upon much later tent developments. If we wanted to be fully authentic then 90% of getelts in use have no provenance whatsoever. Again this is not suggested, the side opening geteld is an accepted design for use within the society.

The size of getelts is also interesting, because those shown in psalters compared with the size of people next to then suggests that only the smaller of the modern getelts are the right size. Huge long and tall getelts over say 4m long are not shown in the psalters at all, agains suggesting that the larger modern getelts are completely inaccurate and inauthentic. Again large getelt owners please do not panic ; we are not going to ban them.

The pictures we have of getelts means that we know what they look like when assembled, but we do not know what holds them up. We have no illustrations of the actual frame that supports a getelt. The modern reenactment getelt with the goal-post frame is in fact derived once again from modern tents and technology, and the frame poles are made in sections to allow the tent to be reduced to a size that will fit in a car. Period getelds would definitely not have sectioned poles. They would be in one piece, and therefore just as long, indeed possibly longer then the average A frame pole.

The argument is used that a geteld only needs 3 pieces of timber to support them, so even if using long poles they would still be easier to transport. The counter argument to this is that a tent is actually a pretty expensive piece of kit. Just think about the amount of cloth involved, and it has to be strong good cloth that will take the strain of wind and rain. Such cloth is expensive. Add to this the fact that only the wealthy travelled around, with most peasants being born, live and die within 15 miles of home. It quickly becomes apparent that if someone can afford a tent then they have the carts or ships, and lots of servants and slaves to transport the tent. What is important is how comfortable the tent is in use, not how difficult it is to move around.

In this the goal-post geteld has a serious flaw, and one that is time and again proven by our reenactment activities. The goal-post geteld is unstable in high winds, and relies on the tension and strength of the tent cloth to hold it up. This is not inconceivable in our period, because a sail can take enormous strain under wind, so a tent cloth would in theory be able to do the same. The issue here is not the strength of the cloth but the anchor that a tent peg will give. We all know that in high winds you have to constantly check the pegs on a geteld, because if they start to pull out, or if the loops to the cloth start to break, then the tent will collapse. This in turn means that you cannot use a geteld where the ground is too soft because the pegs pull out too easily, or where the ground is too hard, because you cannot get the tent pegs adequately hammered in to start with.

It follows that the modern geteld design is somehow wrong, because a well to do noble is not going to put up with a tent that is somehow not guaranteed to stay up if the weather gets a tad rough. The weather of course being just as unpredictable then as it is now. Also considering here that a modern geteld is made from very heavy modern canvas that wasn't available in our period, and the tent is usually machine stitched to industrial standards and has all the subtle modern tweaks learnt over the last 1000 years. A period geteld would presumably be a little more fragile than our modern equivalents.

It is possible that a period geteld is not actually based on a goal-post frame, and that it had an internal A frame allowing the tent to at least stand up and remain up without undue strain being put on the cloth or the tent pegs. To support this theory, at least one picture of a geteld from the Utrecht psalter shows a person stood in the end door way of a geteld just where you would expect the goal-post upright to be.

Credits: with thanks to Steve Lines.