Historical Perspective

In the land of the colorblind, no one knows who is king

By Sid Simpson


As Heathens, we are drawn into watching just about anything that is labelled historic and is ostensibly about the DARK AGES. Sometimes, we can find entertainment there. But it is rare that we find any movie or TV show that is truly historically accurate. It is easy for even the most casual history student to pick out glaring errors of plot, armor, and music. We are given bleak landscapes and dour, raggedy, bleak clothes and lately a lot of smeared black eyeliner, all to emphasize those DARK AGES. But the most glaring error that is made is that very focus on darkness. The Historic Heathen period was a time of riotous color which was an important part of the Historic Heathen worldview. Removing that color completely changes the perspective of the viewer and the impact of the narratives.

All anybody needs to do to start to understand how bright the Dark Ages actually were is to do a search for wildflowers of Scandinavia or the indigenous flora of Saxony. Yes, at some times of year all these ancient Heathen landscapes were barren and dark. But the majority of the year they were filled with lush plants of many varieties. Those plants were more than just pretty to look at. Plants provided a wide array of dyes that colored everything from spun wool to painted shields. Clothes were especially colorful. Dye plants included woad, weld, madder, bladderwrack, parsley, carrots, onions, etc. Madder is a common dye stuff all across Europe and the range of lively reds and oranges it provides was seen across the European continent and into the British Isles [1] Some plants yielded dyes easily and were accessible to even the lowest classes. Other plants, especially those that provided saturated and bright colors, required lengthy and sophisticated processes to “take” to the fabric and remain colorfast. Colors could be overdyed on top of each other to achieve an incredibly rich range of shades. Dyes could also be combined with the range of natural colors that came from sheep and linen. However, black was a very hard color to obtain via dying and maintain through wear and tear thus it was available to only the highest classes. It is a rare color in the archeological textile record[2]. Dying things to these deeper colors called for a great deal of dedicated time and resources. Subsequently, bright color display became an aspect of wealth display and clothes made the man.

In the poetic Edda it is said “The Naked man is naught.”[3] Wealth display via textiles was not limited to clothing. Scientific analysis of archeological remains from Sutton Hoo to the Oseberg Ship Burial shows bright colors were utilized in clothes, decoration of clothes like tablet woven trims and decorative stitching, housewares such as cushions, wall hangings, etc. Contemporary accounts of Dark Ages people talk about certain populations being known for their brightly colored textiles.

One such account tells that Alcuin warned English clerics not to wear gaudy dress on the Continent as they might make too frivolous an impression[4]. In the Landnamabok, the Icelandic Book of Settlements, men are described as attending their father’s funeral dressed so well that attendees thought “ the Æsir had come.” The best clothing was worn for the most important occasions as a mark of honor.[5] Viga-Glúmr, in the Laxdæla Saga, wears his best black tunic and blue cloak when he upholds his family pride by committing an honor killing.[6] And, much as in modern times, a bride was bedecked with all the finery her family could muster. Guðrún tells of how she bedecked her daughter in golds and silks. And in both the Rigsƥula and the Þrymskviða, brides are described as wearing fine linen and dangling keys.[7] Additionally, bright colors were utilized in adornment via jewelry, accessories like pouches and sword mounts, metal working, furniture making, etc. Examples of this are easy to find; a quick search for the Sutton Hoo treasures reveals a stunning array of red enameled jewelry and belt fittings. Another search for Merovingian garnets or Byzantine tableware will also lead to a dazzling display. These were the items of the highest classes, but there were simpler splashes of color to be had in the form of polychromatic glass beads that were accessible to the lower ranks. Multicolor beads were found across cultures in the years prior to 1000CE and made up the iconic festoons and necklaces of many women. [8]

Bright colors were not just reserved for personal adornment or textiles. [9] Names, like Eric the Red and Thorstein the Black, utilized color as distinction and made a man’s reputation all that much more memorable. Being memorable and recognizable were important traits in the past that made sure your Gefrain was created and reported which increased your chances of being remembered after death. It was important then that life afforded many opportunities to allow color to tell tales of the words and deeds of men. The halls where these people recounted their deeds and said words over the horn were certainly painted with whitewash and other colors, although exactly what colors is a point of current debate. [10] Glassware for the feasts of kings in shades of green, blue, yellow, and amber spoke to their glory and favor as well as the wealth of their households[11]. Outside the hall, upon the battle field, warriors were resplendent in fine clothes and expertly crafted armor that were screened by brightly colored shields. Painted shields, which helped to identify individuals at a distance, were references in various parts of the sagas and in Beowulf. [12] Once battles were won and territories were claimed, monuments were erected to commemorate these actions. Many of the Norse monuments erected to recount the acts of men were originally painted in bright mineral based colors. [13] As with colored textiles, colored objects required time and skill to create which, like personal ornament, were part of wealth display. It follows then that wealth display, the physical manifestation of honor, was part of accountability via demonstrating success. Furthermore, wealth display through clothing and adornment communicated the signifigance of an event. In the above reference from the Laxdæla Saga, Viga-Glúmr’s brother knows, when he sees the bright blue cloak and dark tunic, that something of signifigance has happened. [14] From the Historical Heathen perspective, material wealth was a distinction of the highest classes and was a component of proving their worth and honor thus reinforcing the rightness of their position with their people. Within the cultural media of the era, bright strong colors quickly conveyed great worth and great worth is what makes a man a king.

Why then, if there is so much information about color as being a primary communicative tool in Dark Ages culture, is there such a lack of it in entertainment focused on that time period? In an interview published on April 26, 2013 for the Pret-A-Porter website( linked to Billboard magazine) the costume designer for the show “Vikings” talks about researching the range of colors available to the Norse and how she sought to incorporate them into her work and hopefully thereby dispel myths about Viking appearance and hygiene. [15] And yet, an image search for “The Vikings” TV show shows a dark palate. Colorblindness has set in. There are some blues and reds evident on primary characters- mostly women-but they are like to be washed in grey and there is little good hygiene displayed on many of the characters.

What is more incongruent with the historical record is the fact that the lower classes of people- the farmers called to battle, the bachelor warriors, etc. are dressed in black- as previously mentioned a color really only obtainable to the wealthiest and highest of classes. It is all very contrary. An image search for “The Thirteenth Warrior”, that other bastion of Norseness, displays a washed out and dark beige overall palate. “The Last Kingdom” is a swath of muddled grey as evidenced in image searches and production photos displayed on the BBC website for the show. Clues to these disconnects can be found in an interview done with Kate Benton, the hair and makeup designer for “The Last Kingdom”. She talks about creating signature looks and styles for each group of characters and how those styles emulate the characters’ lifestyles, moods, and ambitions. More pointedly, she talks about emulating styles that she sees on the streets of London as a way to connect the audience to the show. [16]

The disconnects between the historic record and the modern presentation exist for a very important reason. Most people who watch these shows and films are not scholars. Average audience members have amassed a base of context knowledge regarding the Dark Ages based on other TV shows, music presentations, and a variety of styles of books which are not particularly scholarly. Indeed, a romanticized view of Vikings is one of the most popular entertainment topics today. For example, here is a Viking Romance best sellers list from Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Viking-Historical-Romance/zgbs/books/7538391011. The obligation of the producers of these shows is to create a product that appeals to the widest possible audience. The majority of the audience does not come to the show with wide enough context fields to understand just how sophisticated ancient Heathens were; the viewers are not there to be educated; they are there to be entertained. Thus, costume, hair/makeup and set designers have to make stylistic choices that tie into that Dark Ages idea. Dark= brooding and scrappy and fierce. It is the bad guys who are frequently portrayed in bright colors such as Earl Haroldson played by Gabriel Byrne in season one of “The Vikings”. In this modern media landscape, bright colors indicate vanity and rage. Dark colors indicate a willingness to fight, the romance of the outlaw, and a drive to be super cool.

Does any of this really matter? Well, we are going to be exposed to this stuff because it is everywhere and its popularity remains steady. Truth be told, some of us enjoy watching these types of programs for their simple entertainment value. We all are likely to engage in talk about the inaccuracies of armor, and weapons, and timeline to some degree. But we also need to know and talk about that lack of color. That lack of color shows that the greatest thing that is not right about the shows is the worldview of the characters. Bright color was the benchmark of success in the past. Avoiding use of bright color removes that visceral metric for judging worth from the narratives. Colorblindness in design for portrayals of this time period is a vehicle to convey equality where it did not exist.

The key to the Historic Heathen worldview was developing Frith between a leader and his people and earning worth within that tightly closed stratified social circle. If we cannot tell who the leader is in a given presentation, we may not be able to tell who is truly supposed to be in charge and who his people are. That creates the possibility that we may not be able to relate to those characters or understand the full measure of the heroic or romantic narrative. Eschewing the cultural literacy norms while attempting to illustrate the past deemphasizes who is on top thus creating a false narrative about political and social structures of ancient life. If we cannot tell who the king is at first glance when he is dressed the same as everyone else that leaves us at a disadvantage for seeing who is and is not leading a right good life. How then can we utilize these tales as learning tools in our own lives?

  1. Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo Saxon England pp. 304-307. Leahy, Kevin Anglo-Saxon Crafts, pp. 75-76. Krag, Anne Hedeager “Denmark-Europe: Dress and Fashion in Denmark’s Viking Age” NESAT VII pp. 29-35. Østergård, Else, Woven Into the Earth – Textiles from Norse Greenland pp. 89-92. Bruce-Mittford, Rupert The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial Vol. 3, 419-422.
  2. Bruce-Mittford, Rupert The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial Vol. 3, 466-467. Fitzhugh, William W. and Ward, Elizabeth I. Vikings the North Atlantic Saga pp. 76.
  3. Havamal 49
  4. Leahy, Kevin Anglo-Saxon Crafts, pp. 75-76
  5. Howlet, Janna Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages. pp 186
  6. Ewing, Thor, Viking Clothing. pp. 167.
  7. Ewing, Thor, Viking Clothing. pp. 169.
  8. Guido, Margaret The Glass Beads of Anglo-Saxon England. Dubin, Lois Sheer The History of Beads Concise Edition
  9. Jones. George Fenwick Honor in Germanic Literature p. 3
  10. https://thornews.com/2016/10/18/danish-archaeologists-strongly-disagree-about-viking-colors/ https://www.vfk.no/Tema-og-tjenester/Kulturarv/Hvordan-deler-vi-inn-fortiden/Vikinghistorie/Colours-and- Motifs-of-the-Royal-Halls/
  11. Pollington, Stephen The Mead Hall pp. 136
  12.  Dickinson,Tania and Harke , Heinrich Early Anglo Saxon Shields. Uzzell, Hazel “Shield Paints” 2012 for Regia Anglorum
  13. Bailey, Richard N. Viking Age Sculpture in Northern England (Collins Archaeology, No 1)
  14. Ewing, Thor, Viking Clothing. pp. 167.
  15. Snead, Elizabeth “The Vikings” Costume Designer Joan Bergin Dispells Norse Myths” http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/fash-track/vikings-costume-designer-joan-bergin-446667
  16. Benton, Kate , Interview for BBC Two http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5f457lZMp7YDYpvtKBHWZpd/kate-benton-we-have-all-the-different-types-you-can-imagine-like-dried-blood-old-blood-washable-blood-mouth-blood-eye-blood-all-of-those-things

Sid Simpson

Sid Simpson is a special education teacher in Florida who dreams of living in a land of Autumn leaves and picturesque snow. She has spent more than 30 years exploring the Historical Heathen era through historically based recreation societies, living history activities, and experimental archaeology research in the U.S, and the U.K.. Ms. Simpson is focused on “domestic sciences” such as textile and clothing production, cooking, and the overall resource management and material culture of the Arch Heathens and how these things translate into modern living. A staunch Reconstructionist Heathen, she feels strongly about the development of Hearth Cult as a basis for ensuring overall congregational prosperity. And she really likes dogs.

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