Okay, what was THAT at Birka? My “Romanov Romanova” makes her one and only SCA appearance.

Probably the crappiest attempt at 17th C. Imperial Russian you’ll ever see, but it was coated in bling so it doesn’t matter.

This story begins, as so many do, with the quintessential opening of, “So no sh*t, there I was…” It was February of 2016. I was at a tiny pop culture convention at UConn with some friends who I’ve known in the comic artist circuit for no less than googlety years.

…Yes, I draw, by the way. My first degree is in art, and I’ve been working on and off in the pop culture industry now since 2002. The latest thing I churned out was this Master Chief for my brother-in law. This is not relevant to my post. I just wanted to show it off because I slayed that bristol board.

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Image is watermarked. Please don’t steal art, it’s not nice.

Long story short, I had secured badges for San Diego Comic-Con International, yes, the big one, and I was chatting it up with a friend in our hotel room on a freezing cold night in Storrs, CT. She randomly suggested something along the lines of, “You should totally do a historically accurate Black Widow.” And I only half heard it. So while she was talking about art, I heard “costume for Comic-Con”, and the rest was history.

The kicker was getting in a position to make it before the con. Our move from New Hampshire to California had already been scheduled, and I was in the middle of writing and sewing my thesis. So what it came down to was waiting until I actually lived in San Diego to get started. This would not have been so bad, if we didn’t wait a month for our household goods to come in. When all was said and done, I had 3 weeks to pull it together. I began ordering supplies before I had a sewing machine in my house, and basically launched this project on a Hail Mary.

Since I made this for convention cosplay, versus SCA wear, I decided to focus on the look of the costumes from the 1903 Ball at the Winter Palace, in which the theme was to wear 17th Century court dress. So it was already going to be anachronistic in addition to costumey. I chose the look of the coat of Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, sister of Czar Nicholas II, and the kokoshnik from another noblewoman.

 


I shorted the hem of the layers to make sure I wouldn’t trip and fall in a convention center. I used every machine trick I had to save time, and collected plastic beads, rhinestones, vintage beaded trims, buttons with black widow spiders on them, and embroidered patches churned out on a friend’s embroidery machine. In the end, most of the handwork involved was just on the kokoshnik. I threw lace on the forehead instead of beads, because I don’t know how to do that type of beading and there was like zero time to try to learn. The patterns are overly simplified to facilitate speed. I’m pretty sure Russian coats were not made like t-tunics.

I was sewing up to the night I wore it, but it paid off in the end: I was awarded a hall costume blue ribbon from the Hollywood Costumer’s Guild, and got to meet Terry Dresbach, the former costume designer from “Outlander”, who immediately recognized my attempt at a historical version of Black Widow. I didn’t get my picture with her, but I did with others from their group.

Here is a full gallery of the construction and wearing of the costume at SDCC. Note the crazy nuances like my makeup, and nose ring. This was never intended for SCA wear, it’s more like a Las Vegas Imperial Russian.

 

And then the costume got put away in my closet, and came out again for Costume College in 2017, but I didn’t wear it.

And then the 2019 Birka Garb Challenge was announced as “Marvel and DC Superheroes and Villains”, and I was like, “Well, okay. I’m skipping this one. Unfair.” And then I got talked back into it. Originally, I was going to enter as Thanos in full crazy 12th Century Byzantine complete with chased and repoussed “armor” as a loros, and then decided I didn’t want to do that much work. So, I backed out again, in prep of doing the medieval persona hike here in Trimaris in February at Corsair’s Heart, which I figured would give me a better avenue for re-wearable garb.

…And then I got asked to trot this haute mess back out. Since nobody back in the East Kingdom actually saw it in person, I had a few people who really wanted me to bring it. I had even more people who didn’t remember, or know, that I did this, so when I posted a few pics to social media that one was coming out of the vaults, I think it really intimidated a lot of other participants. For their benefit, and my own, I decided I wouldn’t enter the fashion show, and opted in to judging it instead, which, honestly, was so much fun, I would totally do it again. I loved sitting on the panel and admiring all of the entries with the other judges, TRM East, Her Highness East, and Her Highness Atlantia. We had an absolute blast.

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So yeah, if you saw this, and wondered what the frack it was, this is what it was. The ribbon hangs in my studio, underneath a ribbon I won at Arisia 2009 for my first ever Byzantine ensemble. They’re a nice reminder to stay humble. 😉

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“So, you wanna be a Varangian?”

I field more emails and more online questions about the Varangian Guard than I do actual Byzantine personae. I lifted most of the information below from my Byzantine Personal Basics page above, but I’ve included a bibliography to hopefully help those on the path find what they’re looking for.

I’m going to preface this by saying that I have nothing against Varangian personae, but I’m about to be very blunt: Varangians are not Byzantine.

The Romans viewed them as barbarians and outsiders, and despite the fun tales from the Norse Sagas, chances are, they weren’t well liked in the City. The truth of the matter is that there are currently more Varangians in the SCA than there ever was serving an emperor at one point in time due to the fact that it gives Norse personae an excuse to wear lamellar when it’s hot (which is fine, we don’t need anybody dropping dead at war, please). Not everybody could show up at the Blachernae Palace steps from somewhere up North and demand they be admitted into service to the Purple. It was a bit more complicated than that, and each emperor had different requirements. Not to mention, Varangians were only predominantly Norse for a short period of time in the mid 11th Century if we assume what the Sagas say is true.

The first Varangian Guard was not established until the late 10th Century (around 980) when Basil II was given thousands of Kievan soldiers in exchange for marriage of a Byzantine princess to the Prince of Kiev in order to defeat the Bulgarians. The Kievan Rus were not Norse, they were Slavic, potentially with Norse ancestry, but the term “Viking” itself is a particular Norse occupation. The “Viking Age” was pretty much over at this time. We do have record of plenty of Norse travelers coming to Constantinople prior to this, but the “Viking raid” in 860 was actually Rus that had come down into the Black Sea from what is now Ukraine.

To further screw things up, the term “Varangian” itself was used by both the Romans and the Rus to refer to Norse Vikings prior to the 10th Century. So, if this is the route you desire to go, determining if you’re just a Norse traveler from early period, or an actual member of the Emperor’s elite guard is important.

If you do decide to go Varangian GUARD, here is a list of “waves” of ethnicities that served at specific times. This is by no means set in stone, but it provides a guide for those that want to pinpoint a specific time period that suits their goals:

988 – 1020ish: Kievan Rus

1020-1070ish: Scandinavian (Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish) Bolli Bollason and Harald Hardrada served at this time.

1070-1204ish: Danish and English (Anglo-Saxon). The term “Danes” comes up in Byzantine literature often to describe the Varangians, and the English were escaping Norman rule in England at this time. This is documented in the saga of Edward the Confessor. Siward Barn served at this time. Normans were NOT permitted to be apart of the Varangian Guard, but some may have served as mercenaries in other capacities.

The Fourth Crusade has probably some of the best documented accounts of the Varangian Guard in action protecting Constantinople. After the retaking of Constantinople and re-establishing the empire, however, there didn’t appear to be as formal of a guard unit, and those that were a part of it, had fully assimilated into the Roman culture. It is unclear if the Varangian Guard really remained a thing until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

There are a lot of myths surrounded what they actually wore, especially in the SCA. The “red is for the Emperor’s service” and “green is for the Empress’s service” is totally a SCAdianism as far as I’ve found. It looks like the on-duty color for the guard was blue or red, while off-duty, you see them in nothing more than plain tunics and slim-fitting trousers or hose, which was typical for men’s casual wear throughout the empire. Earlier travelers would have continued to wear the clothing of their culture, versus picking up stuff along the way. Clothing was expensive and difficult to carry and launder, so the other SCAdianism of having a diverse wardrobe boasting the latest fashions of every exotic port of call you visited is also inaccurate. They would, however, assimilate over time if they decided to stay put in an area. This does not include trade goods, but items that were exchanged in business were not necessarily the same as the clothes you wore on your back.

As far as religion goes, during the period of the active guard, most serving were already Christian, or converted to Orthodoxy from Arian Christianity which was more common in Eastern Europe and the Scandinavian countries early. Please, remember that Arianism IS NOT THE SAME THING as Aryanism. Mind your i’s and y’s! Either way, the idea of your persona dripping in lovely Asatru regalia would be incorrect as a guardsman, but as a very early Norse traveler to Constantinople, still possible.

I totally just ganked these images off of Wikipedia since I know they’re there, but you can check out the Madrid Skylitzes here: https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10625/

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“On Duty” Varangian Guardsmen in the gold armor with blue garments beneath. They are armed with rhomphaioi (axes), and shields. Note the round and teardrop shields. From the Madrid Skylitzes, 12th Century.

 

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A woman kills her Varangian would-be rapist, and then is presented with his belongings from the other guardsmen. Note how they don’t look very “Norse” or Scandinavian – Dark hair and eyes, probably Eastern European, though at the time the manuscript was produced, they would have been mostly English (Anglo-Saxon). Plain tunics and slim-fitting trousers with boots- Typical of a Byzantine common man instead of a fancy hodgepodge of Norse and Byzantine that is common in the SCA.  Also from the Madrid Skylitzes.

And for those that want to actually do homework, here are the goods:

Suggested Readings

Primary Sources

Of Aguilers, Raymond. Historia Francorum Qui Ceperint Jerusalem. Translated by John H, and
Laurita L. Hill. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. 1968; Medieval
Sourcebook, 1997. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/raymond-cde.asp

Choniates, Niketas. O City of Byzantium. Translated by Harry J. Magoulas. Detroit: Wayne State
University Press. 1984.

de Clari, Robert. The Conquest of Constantinople. Translated by Edgar Holmes McNeal.
New York: Columbia University Press. 2005.

of Edessa, Matthew. The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa. Translated by Ara Edmond
Dostourian. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms. 1972.

Komnene, Anna. The Alexiad. Translated by E.R.A. Sewter. London: Penguin Books. 2009.

The Laxdaela Saga. Translated by Muriel Press. London: The Temple Classics, 1899. The Online Medieval and Classical Library, 1996. http://www.omacl.org/laxdaela/

Porphyrogénnētos, Constantine. De Admininstrando Imperio. Translated by  R.J.H. Jenkins.
Budapest: Pázmány Péter Tudományegyetemi Görög Filológiai Intézet. 1949-1962.

——. De Ceremonii. Translated by Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall. Canberra: Byzantina
Australiensia. 2012.

Psellus, Michael. Chronographia. Translated by E.R.A Sewter. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1953; Medieval Sourcebook, 1999.
http://origin-rh.web.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/psellus-chronographia.asp

The Saga of Edward the Confessor. Translated by George Dasent. 1894.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ice/is3/is324.htm.

Sturleson, Snorri. Heimskringla (Saga of the Kings.) Translated by Samuel Laing. London: 1844;
         The Online Medieval and Classical Library, 1996. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/

de Villehardouin, Geoffrey. Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of
Constantinople.
Translated by Frank T. Marzials. London: J. M. Dent. 1908; Medieval
Sourcebook, 1996. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/villehardouin.asp

 

Books and Articles

Blöndal, Sigfús. The Varangians of Byzantium. Translated by Benedikt S. Benedikz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1978.

D’Amato, Raffaele. The Varangian Guard: 988-1453. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2010.

Madden, Thomas F. The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield. 2006.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. New York: Knopf. 1995.

Queller, Donald E. and Thomas F. Madden.  The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1999.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1987.

Dawkins, R.M. “The Later History of the Varangian Guard: Some Notes.” The Journal of
Roman Studies Parts 1 and 2.
1947. http://www.jstor.org/stable/298453.

Doxey, Gary B. “Norwegian Crusaders and the Balearic Islands.” Scandinavian Studies.
            http://www.jstor.org/stable/40919854.

Madden, Thomas. “Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade.” The International History Review.
1995. http://www.jstor.org/stable/401107441.

Pappas, Nicholas C. J. “English Refugees in the Byzantine Armed Forces: The Varangian Guard
and Anglo Saxon Ethnic Consciousness.” De Re Militari.
http://deremilitari.org/resources/articles/pappas1.htm

Shepard, Jonathan. “The English and Byzantium: A Study of Their Role in the Byzantine Army During the Later Eleventh Century.” Traditio Vol. 29 (1973): 53-92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27830955.