“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.

Fordham Conference Presentation Available Online

I just uploaded my paper and Powerpoint presentation from the 2018 Fordham Medieval Studies Conference on Dress and Identity in the Middle Ages to my Academia.edu account.

Feel free to download them for free here (Though you will need an account on the site, which is also free): https://unh.academia.edu/AngelaCostello/Conference-Presentations

This is both an abridged version of my Master’s Thesis and an expansion of sorts. It focuses solely on Kale’s garments and her inventory as such demonstrating her changing identity from noblewoman to nun. The Powerpoint has photos of my attempt at ecclesiastical dress and some dramatic poses for fun.

The publication of my thesis as a Compleat Anachronist (#177) is still available from the SCA Stock Clerk, here: https://members.sca.org/apps/#Store

Ladies, it’s time to ditch the Byzantine head donut.

You know, that head roll that SCAdians think is so Byzantine? You can buy them at Ren Fairs, they show up in commercial paper patterns. It basically looks like something you get at a medical supply store for bum cushioning.

Yeah, those.

Stop.

I know this sounds mean, but there is -zero- evidence that such a thing existed. Artwork from the early Byzantine period (300-899) shows -something-, and that something is called a fakiolion. It’s a turban, and it continues to be worn through the middle period, when art becomes more refined post-iconoclasm.

I’m far from innocent, of course. Here I am, 10 years ago and 50lbs lighter, wearing my hair donut in a photoshoot.  This was my first attempt at Byzantine garb, which over all wasn’t bad, but if I could go back and beat myself with a hammer for the donut, I would. It was a waste of fabric and pillow fill that makes zero sense in the case of medieval construction.

me

Here is the cut from Theodora’s procession at San Vitale. I know you see the stripes, and think that it has to be ribbons and spangles and fancy things wrapped around a roll to get that effect. The fact is, that the same effect can be made with a turban with the right designs on it.

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Then of course, there is the bust of the Byzantine Woman from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, believed to be Julia Amicia, Theodora’s zoste patrikia, shown as the third woman from the left above, you know, the one actually looking at us with her elegantly draped palla over her fakiolion. The front of this sure makes it confusing. Even I haven’t been able to completely figure out what that pucker is, but, thanks to my skills at museum yoga, I was able to get pictures of behind her head.  As you can see, it’s definitely not a donut. It almost reminds me of how a St. Birgitte’s Cap gathers in the back of the head. I wonder if this piece was polychromatic at one point, and, if the Met plans on having it investigated for color residue. I feel any trace of color on the hairpiece would probably make it easier to interpret.

The use of a turban rather than a head roll provides multiple benefits. One, it doesn’t use up fabric and filling that could have been better served in other capacities. Two, it keeps the hair out of the face, and most importantly, CLEAN. The use of silk on the hair also helps protect set styles, and women still use silk wraps today to wear over their rollers and other curling implements to bed in order to control frizz and damage. It was not uncommon for a Byzantine woman to leave her hair uncovered, even as a married woman, and noblewomen would have had the option of affording hair services such as ornate braids and temporary “perms” made with gum arabic. The fakiolion would have helped keep these styles in place and relatively clean, versus having to constantly re-set the hair on a daily basis. A head roll would have been useless in any of these applications. While Byzantines were known for conspicuous consumption, even that seems off the mark.

Here is my Byzan-bestie, Konstantia, showing her interpretation from the same period. Note that the stripes in scarf used to create the turban gives the same effect as you see above from the mosaic. It looks so much more elegant than the donut, don’t you think? You can read her blog post pertaining to Byzantine headwear, here: https://kaloethina.wordpress.com/2016/10/01/headgear/

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The trick, is to make sure that your fakiolion has the right grammata on it, or geometric designs. The Last Will and Testament of Kale Pakouriane describes these designs as being done in goldwork, and some scholars believe that grammata had pseudo-kufic script embroidered in, which was a popular design feature. Typically, you want the design to run parallel along the edges of the length of your turban fabric. Both Konstantia and I have found that commercially available hijabs do this nicely. And, since they’re designed to be worn on the head, they tend to not be stifling materials, and stay put.

Here’s a similar scarf to what Konstantia is wearing above, only worn by me, in the most flattering selfie imaginable, that just happens to have the best shot of my turban style. It also gives a nice railing for coronets to perch without the pinching or headaches associated with some heavy head jewelry. Konstantia rocks the look complete with a maforion, or veil over top of it, which was common for the early period, versus the middle period, when I’m supposed to be living. She used a pashima here, for added thickness and warmth.

And here I am in some 11th Century, emulating looks from The Menologion of Basil II as seen in my master’s thesis and Compleat Anachronist.

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My header of St. Pelagia’s minature from The Menologion, showing her wrapped turban in the center.

It was requested that I do a video tutorial of my preferred turban wrapping, so, here it is:

I know the phrase goes, “All good things must come to an end”, but in short, that head roll was never good. It’s an early Faire/SCAbomination of garb based on Italian and Spanish Renaissance fashions that don’t fit in this culture,  has seen its day, and needs to be retired for a more accurate solution. Consider the fakiolion for your next event, and put your donut out to garb pasture for good.

hotness

Better late than never – St. Nicholas of Myra Icon

Story time with Auntie Anna:

Back in the day, which is always a Wednesday, before we began our Knowne World Tour, it was arranged for Jeff to get his Silver Crescent at the same event as his Maunche because he was leaving Portsmouth for San Diego. Because of this, scroll requests got backed up. I wrote the words for his Crescent that was read in court, but he had no scroll. I promised him I would write an icon for him. THEN-

He left for Caid.
I got assigned Konstantia’s Herald Extraordinary scroll.
I wrote my thesis.
I moved to Caid.
He deployed.
I got the gilding down on this.
His backlog scroll came in from the East, and it’s lovely and I gave up.
He came back.
I did things other than paint.
We moved to Trimaris.
I was like, “Oh I still have this.”
And he was like, “So where is it?”

Here it is. 3 years later.

Panel is one of my handmade ones on a birch art panel with my own gesso. It is a hot mess and was not easy to paint on. I noticed the places where I didn’t sand as well, or touched a lot during demos and displays were prone to pitting and bad adhesion of the tempera. On the bright side, a lot of the flaws I had were the same flaws I saw on very old post-period/in-period panels. So there’s that, I guess. If anyone can take my experimental art and actually like it, it would be Gieffrei, anyway.

Saint: Nicholas of Myra, known to most of us as Santa Claus, but also the patron saint of sailors, and, of course, heretic puncher supreme. The reason I chose him should be evident. (Hint: Nothing to do with punching heretics.) The pattern is modern. Most period icons of St. Nicholas are rather boring and rarely show him with a boat/in a boat. Those are all post-period.

Green sky/blue water = Jeff’s arms, sans martlets, though in retrospect, I could have drawn one in. Green is also his favorite color.

Silver Crescent is on the boat, not only because service to his kingdom, but also to his country.

Inscription around the border: Γοδεφρείδος, Αργυρά Ημισέληνος της Ανατολής. “Gieffrei (Godefredus in Latin and Greek), Silver Crescent of the East.”

Main inscription just says Saint Nikolas.

After it cures for a couple of weeks, I will oil it, let it sit for a month, and then it can join the gallery on the staircase as an actual scroll.

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The great shell massacre of 2018. Shells care of the Atlantic Ocean.

Progress Shots:

Finished:

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So pretty. So…messy compared to my porcelain palette.

Broken images

Apparently, WordPress decided to go full iconoclasm, and I’ve lost a lot of images in posts. I don’t know how many, but I’m trying to repair posts as I see them. Please, be patient while I work on this. It’s going to take some time.

Icon-a-long with Anna 6: Completion

So, I don’t have a ton of pictures of this, mostly just the end result. The total was 3 floats of highlights, then the embellishments, inscription, shell gold, and border. Total amount of time on this one board: 15 hours. A “light” amount of work. @_@

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After the 3rd day of painting.
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Done!

Use of a pattern doesn’t necessarily mean a copy, so I decided to veer from the original and give a contrast border. The inscription is in Latin, rather than Greek, since the original had the same (from what I could make out).

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I did have some issues getting lines thin enough with my brushes. I think it’s a combination of my own pressure, them wearing out, and just not being thin enough for fine line work on smaller details. For icons where I just do the head or bust, they’re probably still fine, but I need to invest in tinnier liners! I also got a bit carried away with the shell gold on the Hand of God, but everybody loves gold!

I’m also utterly surprised at how good the horse came out.

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It’s now setting up to be oiled in a few weeks, and hopefully dry before Pennsic and delivery to its commissioner. I hope they love it!

 

Next up is the War Sew-a-thon, but I’m hoping to get some paint down on the icon of St. Nicholas next, which is doubling as a backlog scroll for my husband’s Order of the Silver Crescent.

Icon-a-long with Anna 5: Highlighting

There’s not going to be many pictures from here on out, because I need to concentrate. So I probably won’t make another post until I do the finishing touches in a couple of days.

Anyways, the next step is layers of highlights and lowlights. This could be as few as two, or many, many more. So far, I’m thinking this is going to be a 3-highlight layer icon, but I could be surprised. Some areas, like the landscape, won’t need a ton of work, but the horse and skintone will take much more work. The detail lines are saved for the last day, along with the inscription and the outer border.

The trick with the egg tempera is to create different viscosities of the color to get the achieved effect. So you mix your color, then add water until you get what you need. This doesn’t always work smoothly and can take some time. Likewise, I had to go back and darken some of the more solid areas where the paint dried patchy. I lightened the background to create more contrast from the dark yellow ocher, and put back in the linework. Skin color takes on a chalky look, which is why the beggar looks a bit…weird, if not skeletal, this will soften up with the next layer.

This is when egg tempera gets fussy.  While it dries fast, it takes overnight to cure. If you go back over a spot that’s wet, or didn’t cure, fresh paint can take it right up and leave you a hole straight to the gesso. You can see that on the horse’s haunch in the picture below. The best thing to do when this happens is LEAVE IT ALONE. Let it cure overnight, and then revisit it the next day. You really only get 2-4 hours to work on it anyway before this starts happening pretty much everywhere if you keep touching things, hence why the daily limit is so important. This is when patience is key, but it’s also a lot of fun as each day you get closer to a finished piece. I worked on the board for about 3 hours.

I’ll see everyone in a couple of days when I’m ready to finish it, and set up for the long cure before oiling.

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