First published in VICE, August 2017.
Steve Close thinks ignoring the past is dangerous. For 18 years Close has been co-running the Europa Re-enactment Society, a Blue Mountains living history group that recreates the lives of Vikings who occupied England in the 10th and 11th century. He tells me that dedicating his time to recreating ancient languages, crafts, and combat isn’t just down to historical fascination. It’s about honing the survival skills our culture has lost.
“The past is not well-respected and we need to understand it for the future, for post-apocalypse happenings,” says Close, who has a long, white beard and wears a sky-blue tunic. “We’re re-enacting the fall of the Roman Empire at a time when manufacturing stopped and people couldn’t make pottery, and they had to learn to make everything again. Right now, products are imported from China, you can buy things readymade at Bunnings. But what if someone declared war on us? We can’t make anything anymore. It tells me that in modern society, we’re making some fundamental mistakes.”
We’re at Buttenshaw Park, a nondescript reserve off the Great Western Highway in Sydney’s Lower Blue Mountains where the group hold combat training sessions every Saturday. Around us, long-haired children gather twigs and women sit on sheepskins, knitting with needles made from animal bones. Men in chainmail fight each other with swords and circular shields. There’s some kind of high-pitched music, which sounds to me somewhere between an angry sparrow and a church organ. I later find out it’s coming from Close, who’s taught himself to play a Medieval stringed instrument called a hurdy-gurdy.
I sit down with Heatha Plummer, a soft-spoken, purple-haired woman in a brown, hand-knitted cloak fastened with a clasp. Although Plummer originally joined the group so her family could collectively explore their interest in history, her passion soon snowballed.
“My husband and I took our boys overseas to England and saw a lot of re-enactment over there,” she says, smiling. “When we got back, we found out that there was a group in Springwood and I thought it was something we could do together. At first, it wasn’t my thing but I’ve been part of it for nearly eight years now. When I decide that I’m going to do something, I tend to really throw myself at it.”
Plummer shows me the delicate needles she’s spent years learning to carve. She’s scoured books and historical records to understand the tools Viking women used in minute detail and teach herself Nålebinding, an ancient technique that’s a cross between knitting and crochet.
“This needle is steel, this one is bronze, this one is made out of lamb bone, left over from dinner and this one is antler—I get these from deer farms because the antlers usually drop off and the owners are happy to give them to you,” says Plummer, who tells me that the Europa Re-Enactment Association, which has about 30 members, make every piece of their clothes, tents, and armour from scratch. “We research, we look at archaeological objects and come up with theories about what this or that piece of equipment might have been used for and sometimes you find that what you theorise isn’t right.”
The community also takes part in camps, where they recreate Dark Ages villages and practice Viking-style combat and archery competitions, along with groups that travel from as far away as New Zealand and the US. Plummer says that communal feasts also play a major part.
“I’ve learnt to preserve food in brine, how to salt, smoke meat, and pickle,” she says. “At our camps, I’ve cook fish porridge and stewed fruit. I’ve baked bread in a cauldron and whole fish, wrapped in dough. I’m also working on a cookbook, The Five-Day Meal Planner for the Filthy Rich Viking Who Wants to Impress His Lord. It’s July so we have to be careful with resources this time of year. If you’re not, by the time it’s spring, you’ll starve to death! A lot of the Western world has lost is connection with community, with appreciating what we have. If it takes you 12 months to make a tunic, it stops you throwing it out! During re-enactment, even food scraps get used. If they’re not edible, we feed them to animals and turn them into dyes. [In modern times] we take a lot for granted.”
According to an August 2012 Australian Geographic report, living history groups first appeared in Australia in the 1970s. The Australian Living History Federation counts 100 groups—re-living everything from periods such as Ancient Greece and the Second World War. Still, there’s something fascinating about the Europa members’ level of dedication to recreating Viking life.
When I ask Leigh Broderick, a gentle guy who’s taken a temporary break from jousting, why he joined the group, he says it’s the endpoint of a lifelong obsession.
“I joined Europa in 2000 after they did a show at my school,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in Medieval history and once I heard about it, there was no debate, I was straight in. They had an urban culture during Medieval times but that disappeared during the Dark Ages and it’s more about local production, making stuff yourself. I’ve been practising Viking combat for a long time and because there are no manuals, it’s hard to recreate. We have to learn from old books, from re-enacting battle together and from the shape of Viking swords. People think it’s a Barbarian bashfest but it’s not, there’s a lot of finesse and training.”
He says that he’s gripped by the “decentralisation of power” in Viking society. It’s an idea with which Plummer is also on board.
“The women had more power than any culture at the time,” she explains. “If a Viking woman who had land got married that property was still hers, she made all the decisions and her husband could work for her or have his own trade. And she could divorce her husband, leave the property to whomever she wanted, even her eldest daughter. Obviously, there was a lot of raiding. But when the Normans came, women became personal property again.”
Sure, the antler bones, the jousting, the weekly gatherings and elaborate camping are a serious commitment. But it’s starting to dawn on me that all this meticulous historical recreation might not actually be so unfamiliar. Down the road from my apartment, an overpriced organic store sells Pete Evan’s range of ready meals based on the diet of Palaeolithic humans. My yoga instructor regularly chants in ancient sanskrit. Mjölnir, a Surry Hills bar named after Thor’s hammer pours drunk investment bankers craft beer in giant Viking horns. Our culture prides itself on turning ancient knowledge into a fetish for authenticity. Maybe a group that spends its weekends researching and emulating the traditions of people who lived a millennium ago aren’t that different. But instead of simply repackaging the past, they do everything they can to honour it.
“Although it was a warrior culture, modern society can learn a lot from that era,” Broderick says. “Every good thing has its downsides. And for their time, the Vikings were rather forward-thinking.”