Finding Your Inner Barbarian

By Chieftian Morgan mac Maelain

This series is for those Freeholder members interested in learning more about the time period from which the Freehold derives most, if not all, of its titles and institutions, like chieftain and Althing. Specifically the years from the fall of Rome in 476 CE, to the Norman conquest of Saxon England in 1066, the 6th through the 10th centuries.

The last half of this period is now far easier to research than it was during the first years of the Society. The 8th through the 10th centuries are now much better documented. Recognized as the high point of Viking/Scandinavian culture, archaeologists and historians, aided by some spectacular burial and ship finds, have produced a wealth of information. Likewise, French interest in the period of Charlemagne, late 8th and early 9th centuries, as well as the expansion of Anglo-Saxon studies in England, and the publication of the laws and learning of early medieval Ireland have made the last half of the early medieval period much better known.

The first part of the early medieval period began with the fall of Rome. This time is known as the period of the Migrations as Germanic tribes, which were being "pushed" by Huns and Avars and other tribes from Central Asia, flooded into the territory of the former Western Roman Empire. They were called barbarians, from the Greek barbaros, meaning non-Greek or foreign, and which was adopted into Latin as barbarus, meaning non-Roman or foreign. This time period will be the focus of these articles.

To help us try to create, refine or improve our early period personas, we will look at historical topics like the Dark Ages and early medieval ships, as well as how to do research. Iíll highlight books, articles and electronic media that can help us with constructing our early period lives and put us in touch with our inner barbarian.

Finding Your Inner Barbarian - Part 2

The first few centuries after the fall of Rome in 476 CE, is referred to in several different ways. The most common is calling that time the "Dark Ages." Supposedly this refers to the light of civilization flickering out after the fall of Classical Roman culture. The question that we want to explore is if it really was a "dark age," with all of the negativity and backwardness that the term implies?

The reason the term "Dark Ages" is so prevalent is connected to our tendency as Americans to avoid learning other languages. We think English is sufficient; everyone should put everything in that language. This limits our reading to authors that write in English. The term "Dark Ages" is used almost exclusively by English historians, writing before 1980. If you read German historians the term for these centuries would be "early medieval." French historians would use "early medieval" as well as "late antiquity" for the 5th Ė 8th centuries. Why the differences?

In France, the 7th thru the 8th centuries saw the rise of the Merovingian dynasty that would lead to the age of Charlemagne, when France dominated continental Europe. Charlemagneís court was a center for arts and learning led by the British monk Alcuin. The methods and techniques that Alcuin implemented created many of the pieces of medieval culture that we love, including a revised uncial script, used on all scrolls and documents. Archaeological evidence indicates that the 6th & 7th centuries is when the city of Marseille became a major port. It certainly wasnít a "Dark Age" for the French!

In Britain, this was not the case. The peace and order that Britain had enjoyed as a Roman province was now gone. Saxon invaders were carving out kingdoms at the expense of the native Britons, when they werenít fighting each other. It was a slow extinguishing of Roman civilization, and in its place came a time of almost constant warfare. It would take almost five centuries for the British to become a united kingdom again. This period of warfare was also the origin of legend of Arthur. [In a future article I will talk about the 2003 Disney movie that portrays Arthur as a Romano-British leader. It is reasonably accurate!] The period of transition simply took longer in Britain.

For those of us with non-British personas from the late antiquity period [Yes, "late antiquity" is now the preferred usage], this wasnít a "Dark Age." For Vikings, Irish Celts, Franks and others, the period of late antiquity is a highpoint for our cultures. Was it non-traditional and based on "barbarian", i.e. non-Roman values, yes, but a "dark age"? Most certainly not!

Finding Your Inner Barbarian - Part 3

This installment will review some of the movies that are focused on our time period of choice, the early medieval centuries. The costuming in all of them contains useful ideas for SCA or any other re-enactors. The problem is sitting through thru some of these films to get to the interesting parts.

The first of these films is "The Last Legion." The history that this film destroys is the fate of the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus. No, he didnít get whisked off to Britain to eventually become Arthurís father. Actually, Romulus Augustulus was one of the few emperors to die in his bed; when Odovacar deposed him he was sent to an imperial estate in southern Italy where he proceeded to found a monastery. Iím not even going to discuss the female "ninja" action sequences. ButÖat the culminating battle between Merlin and the forces of good against the evil dark magicianís army (Iím not kidding; this stinker of a plot did get worse), when the re-constituted legion comes marching over the hill the costumes look pretty cool with very little shiny steel and a lot of leather. Okay, this film is best viewed by selecting the last three scenes from the scene selector menu.

Next is the 2006 release of "Tristan & Isolde." This film is an early medieval chick flick. The love sequences between John Franco and Sophia Myles are cute; I mean they really are touching. But does John Franco always have to look like he is going to cry? Do I really believe that this is one of the great warriors of the time? ButÖif you want to see creative gambesons, excellent leather armor and some pretty good battle sequences, this film will deliver. Actually if you root for the Irish oppressors of the poor underdog Britons, the film isnít bad. This is the one place where the film did not deliver authenticity. The Irish are depicted as a kind of generic barbarian, rather than the La Tene Celtic tribe they were. Overall, this film is worth a look, both for the fight sequences and the costuming. Oh yeah, also to see if Tristan finally does break down into a good whimper at the end.

In the next installment I will look at a couple of other movies the deliver a little more to our search our inner barbarian

Finding Your Inner Barbarian - Part 4

We want to revisit the film arena and take a look at some more of the movies that focus on our time period of choice, the early medieval centuries. This group is more interesting in terms of watchability; the history and mythic elements are not bad either. In terms of costuming and armor, they are more than worth the time and effort.

The first film is the 2005 release of "Beowulf & Grendel" with Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgard. Instead of a monster, Grendel is imagined as a 7 ft. troll, similar to people, but different. Different enough that Hrothgar (Skarsgard) persecutes them for that difference, killing Grendelís father in an early-on flashback sequence. This is not only a commentary on the fear that being different inspires in mortals but also an interesting plot twist; Grendel now has a motive for his attack on Hrothgarís hall. There are a few little kinks in this plot that deviate from the source legend; an Irish witch that bears Grendel a son, and Grendelís mom as an evil sea nymph, but all in all it is a well told tale, if a little on the long side. For garb and armor this is a good source of inspiration. Leather and mail dominate in the armor area and their garb is very period appropriate. If you see this film look, especially at the cloaks and belts, they are done particularly well.

Our final film is my personal favorite; the 2004 release of "King Arthur" with Clive Owen and Kiera Knightly. Historically, this is as close as I have seen Hollywood get to the version of the story that most historians now accept as being the probable origin of the Arthur legend. He was a Romano-Briton who was a leader in the wars against the invading Saxons. This film deliberately plays up the Roman angle and the latest Roman archaeology from England. Yes, there were Sarmatian troops along Hadrianís Wall; recent excavations at Vindolandia revealed their graffiti. Some of the dates in the film may conflict with other known dates, like the death of the monk Pelagius, the interpretation of these dates is open to question. The costuming is superb, with a multitude of different looks. Arthur has dress armor, field armor and horseback armor; all with a decidedly Roman look, and the other characters are equally well attired. If you like using furs and skins as part of your barbarian look, then these Saxons are perfect for you. They sport fabulous blends of fur and armor and garb; the story is set in winter so the cold weather clothing abounds. The plot moves quickly and the characters are believable. This is a very enjoyable film with lots of ideas for armor and garb.

So far the horizon is bleak for films set in the early medieval period but there has been a boom in History Channel style shows mixing scholars

Finding Your Inner Barbarian - Part 5

We want to revisit the film arena and take a look at some more of the movies that focus on our time period of choice, the early medieval centuries. So far the horizon is bleak for big-budget films set in the early medieval period but there has been a boom in History Channel productions mixing scholars and re-enactors. The most obvious choice of DVDĎs from the History Channel is, of course, The Barbarians Pts. I & II. These vignettes are about an hour and one half to two hours long. They do a high level survey of the following barbarian cultures: Vikings, Goths, Mongols, & Huns (Pt. I), Vandals, Saxons, Franks & Lombards (Pt. II). These are extremely well done overviews of the respective cultures; every hold should have a copy of the disc that refers to the culture that they portray.

From that happy note I have to give you a warning. Yes, I know that the History Channel has produced a title called ―The Dark Ages.‖ [We have already had the discussion about why I detest this term] Some bits of this are very good; I believe that a lot is a composite featuring footage from earlier productions like The Barbarians. But unless you are listening quite carefully to muttered dialogue you finish with the impression that the ―Dark Ages‖ extends through the period of the Crusades. This production could have been a lot better and more carefully put together. If you show it at a hold meeting, be prepared to have to edit it or do some explaining of the 'history'!

Copyright 2008-2011 by the author