Around the year with Lena and Espen, a modern-day medieval family
LENA EIKELAND-KUTSCHERA & ESPEN KUTSCHERA
How did Lena and Espen, mother and father of “the family from the past” from Bergen spend the year of the coronavirus? In the Middle Ages, of course! Read about the handicrafts and adventures that helped them make the most of the time of the pandemic as they journey back in time.
The year 2020 is one we will remember but hardly miss. We have been among the lucky ones, who neither took ill nor were financially affected, so we should not complain too loudly. It was first and foremost a different year, characterized by adjustments at work, a lot of time at home, little socializing, and few historical adventures. However, it has not been just misery, and as usual, we have been busy with our handicraft projects.
At least the year started out well, with a relatively high activity level compared with most winters. The weekend of Jan. 18–19, Bryggens Museum in Bergen was finally able to celebrate reopening with new permanent exhibitions. This was also the official start of the city of Bergen’s 950th anniversary. Several of us from our crafts group Bjørgvin Handverkslag participated throughout the opening weekend. We had a camp outside the museum with hands on activities for visitors, in addition to firing several salutes with medieval handgonnes (hand-held cannons). As an employee of the City Museum, Espen was also involved in creating the new exhibitions.
In February, we had a small stall at the medieval festival at Re, in the eastern part of Norway, followed by an archeology dissemination seminar in Tønsberg. Espen stayed on for a few days with his good friend Hans Gunnar to dive further into the subject of historical footwear and to visit museums and ancient monuments, and he enjoyed drinking some good beer as well.
The same month, an international film company suddenly bought almost all the needle-bound socks we had in stock (quite a few actually). Although we are always happy to have big sales, it was uncomfortable to have one of our signature products suddenly cleared out. We feared that we would not be able to rebuild the stock of socks before the summer’s historical markets, and we both frantically embarked on a sock-binding spree. Obviously, it would quickly become clear that there would be greater challenges ahead than the lack of socks …
We wrote a blog post on March 17, when we realized for sure that there were no normal days to come for a long time, neither at work nor in our free time; it looked bad for this summer’s events, festivals and markets. At the very beginning of the pandemic, we went all out and made all sorts of things on our leisure time to cope with the transition to home office. After the refilling the needle-binding stock, we started making shoes and other leather goods for sale in the future, whether it would be in months or years.
In April, we gradually switched to producing historical clothing and equipment for ourselves. Lena eventually ended up on a knitting spree, making crime story hats (a short story word by word on different hats by several knitters), a “coastal culture sweater,” and other projects, large and small. Like many others in these coronavirus times, we spent much of our spare time renovating and painting our house throughout the spring and summer. For a while, stitching and leatherwork were displaced by carpentry, painting, and maintenance. The biggest renovation was a new roof with integrated solar cells, but that required real professionals.
As expected, one event after another was canceled, both those we had planned ourselves and the markets and festivals we were to attend. We had even planned to take part in the Oslo Medieval Festival, which unfortunately ended up as a digital celebration. To compensate, we had a gathering in the garden with as many friends from Bjørgvin Handverkslag as were allowed to gather at that time. Of course, it was extra sad that there was no Bjørgvin Viking & Medieval Market, which tends to be one of the absolute highlights of the year.
A step back in time in medieval shoes
A highlight of our summer was a little pilgrimage hike. The hike was not meant for only exercise or breathing the fresh mountain air, nor was it a pilgrimage into our “inner landscape.” The main goal was to get an impression of what it would be like to go hiking in the Middle Ages in medieval-style footwear.
Of course, all clothing and equipment are important when embarking on a long trip, whether you use modern or old-fashioned gear. There can be many things you might want to try out, but for us, testing footwear was the most important element. We are not unfamiliar with wearing medieval shoes for many hours or days in a row, but to walk for miles in such footwear through a demanding terrain was something completely different.
We never take the use of period shoes for historical costumes lightly; footwear is just as important as anything else to reproduce the proper attire. And for us, dressing up for reenactment and living history is not just about how you look, but also what it feels like to wear the outfit. When you want to experience what a longer hike would have felt like, the footwear and comfort associated with this absolutely crucial. After all, those who lived before us managed to get through all sorts weather and hardships in their (from a modern point of view) primitive footwear.
Well-off medieval people probably had several pairs of shoes and boots for different uses, but most people probably wore out one pair of shoes at a time, if they could afford proper shoes at all. We discussed whether to make high-top shoes or even boots, but we decided to use shoes we already had on hand. However, we chose two different approaches.
Lena put on the shoes she usually wears with a medieval costume. They are several years old, broken in, made of relatively thin leather, the soles almost worn-out. She otherwise wore only thin stockings.
Espen, who has always been used to wearing heavy mountain boots with thick wool socks on a mountain hike, chose a pair of brand new, heavy shoes in slightly thicker leather, one size too large, with room for a pair of thick needle-bound socks, in addition to the woolen hose.
We both had horsehair insoles in our shoes, which probably provides a little cushioning, but first and foremost, protects your feet from moisture and cold. The shoes were heavily greased and therefore reasonably water-repellent. We both used shoes with a rand, a leather strip between the sole and the upper, which protects the seam, in addition to keeping water from leaking in. This proved to be a good choice, as the terrain we walked through was very wet. Without the rand, the sole seam could also easily have been damaged by sharp stones and twigs, of which there were many.
Our feet stayed dry for a long time, but when you walk for miles and hours in marshy terrain, sooner or later, water will seep in over the edges of your shoes. In the end, you don’t care and march through marshes and streams. Higher shoes, or even boots, would have been preferable for sure, which we have noted for the next time. At least we were happy that we had shoes with front laces, as opposed to side laces.
Smooth leather soles can be a challenge, even in wet grass on almost flat ground. On this trip, there were many steep inclines and declines, and plenty of muddy places, roots, and slippery rocks and boulders. Lacking a proper grip, one uses a lot of extra energy. We were very happy that we brought long walking sticks, which naturally acted as a third leg on the steep slopes, both to push us upward and to hold back when going downhill. The poles were also very good for crossing wet and dirty spots along the trail.
We have also previously noticed that using shoes with thin soles gives us a different gait than we are used to. You take your steps in a different way, more on the front foot, or even with the whole sole, rather than stepping down with the heel first. The sole gives in to the surface, and one can adjust for uneven terrain or rocks, roots, or other things that protrude. One can also to some extent use the toes to grip onto something. Medieval people were probably more used to long hikes than modern people, and most certainly, they were accustomed to walking without cushioned soles. As expected, we exhausted our feet more than usual, probably mostly because of lack of cushioning and support, a different gait, and slippery soles. We were a bit tired in our arms, obviously because of our active use of the poles.
In the end, none of us suffered any injuries or ailments on our hike, despite the intimate relationship we had with the surface we walked upon. It was most unpleasant to walk on the barren mountain, on large rocks and rough, hard ground, with about 1500 steps down from Bergen’s Mount Ulriken. None of us got any blisters, since the shoes were soft and pliable, but our feet got a little swollen. It seems that Lena’s thin shoes worked just as well as Espen’s heavy shoes, at least on a summer hike like this. We never had to use our shoe repair kit or the extra shoes we brought along.
Gliding into 2021—on bone skates
Christmas 2020 passed by, and we welcomed the year 2021. The typical mild winter of western Norway had returned, but then in February, we had a long period of unusually cold weather. Many of the lakes around Bergen froze, and there was even ice several places in the fjords. Finally, we got to test our bone skates. We have had them lying about for years without being able to test them.
Bone skates are made from the leg bones of usually domestic animals, which are tied or strapped to the shoes, and used to skate on the ice. The oldest known ones are from Finland, from the end of the Stone Age. They have possibly been used for millennia in Norway, too. In any case, bone skates are common finds from Norwegian medieval towns, and have been used on the countryside right up to modern times, as they are well represented in the collections of our folk museums. True enough, skates with blades were invented in the Netherlands as early as the 13th and 14th centuries, and we know such skates were in use here in the Nordic countries by the middle of the 16th century. For most people, though, it was probably more affordable to use bone skates. Transforming a leg bone into a skate does not take much work.
We took a break from our coronavirus home office to try out the ice on our little local lake, wearing medieval clothes to set the mood, and, of course, to get some nice pictures. Some neighbors had shoveled away snow to make a small ice rink, but the ice surface was a bit rough, with a thin layer of snow, making it difficult to work up to a good speed.
Later on, we got word there was thick, shiny and smooth ice on the fjord close by and decided to go there the next day. What a magic day! Ice on the fjord in our area is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a sunny Saturday morning, with ice as far as we could see on the fjord, and hundreds of people skating on it. This time, we just strapped the bone skates to our regular shoes, without dressing in medieval costumes. It turned out that people found skates from another time period more than exotic, even though the skaters were dressed in modern clothes. On the shiny ice, we could glide along more than the day before, even though our speed, flow, and elegance hardly represented what an experienced ice runner could achieve back in the days.
The underside of a bone skate is flat and smooth, which gives a good glide on the ice. As there is no grip on the surface, a spiked stick is needed to accelerate. Bone skates are also much more difficult to turn and stop than skates with blades. On a smooth surface, it was best to get speed by using the spike rod between the legs, which we can also see from old illustrations. On rougher and fluffier ice, we tried out different techniques, with the rod on one side or diagonally to gain speed and to keep the balance. The spike rod could also be used to steer and swing in addition to propulsion.
First and foremost, bone skates were probably used for quick and safe transportation on frozen waters and fjords. However, skating for fun has also been reported in several European medieval sources. A variation in sizes shows that bone both children and adults must have used bone skates. Olaus Magnus, who published “The History of the Nordic People” in 1555, tells about bone skate prize races.
Whether in times of the past or in moments of the present, the crafts and adventures of the Middle Ages have created unforgettable moments even in the year of coronavirus, as we continue on our journey through time.
All photos courtesy of Lena Eikeland Kutschera and Espen Kutshera.
Lena Eikeland Kutschera is an ethnologist employed as the team leader at the Western Norwegian Emigration Center in Radøy, Norway. Espen Kutschera is a museum educator at the Bergen City Museum/Hordamuseet . They have three children: Oline (21), Malvin (16), and Sigvald (13). Nowadays, it is mostly Sigvald who accompanies them on their time travels.
Follow “Fortidsfamilien,” Lena and Espen, on their blog at fortidsfamilien.com (in Norwegian and English).
This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.