Last weekend (1-2 April 2017) I dressed up extra-smartly to attend and present at the 4th Regia Anglorum annual conference at St Bridget’s Centre, West Kirby, Wirral. There were insightful and far-ranging talks on early medieval topics by:

  • Danica Ramsey-Brimberg on Viking-period burial in the Irish Sea region,
  • Sue Oosthuizen on common rights and the development of the Anglo-Saxon landscape,
  • Rob Philpott on Viking-period settlements on the Wirral,
  • Louise Archer on Hedeby
  • Rory Naismith on the 10th-century Forum (Rome) Hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins.

I decided to deliver a presentation related to one of my three published articles on Viking-period ‘hogbacks’: published in November 2016 in the Antiquaries Journal. ‘The West Kirby Stone in its Regional Context’ was the title on the programme, but I’m quite sure that wasn’t the precise title I proposed. Instead, I used a title I’ve deployed elsewhere: ‘Clumsy and Illogical: Reconsidering the West Kirby Hogback’

I’ve outlined my ideas on the West Kirby 4 ‘hogback’ on this blog before here, here,  here and also here. In summary, I’ve argued that the West Kirby 4 monument lacks precise parallels as a ‘hogback’ and indeed, its ‘Viking’ status needs to be queried. Instead, I proposed how it has other interesting stories to tell us regarding its regional and local connections and its possible function as a multi-phased funerary monument.

This deserves a blog post since I’ve never spoken to a re-enactment and living history society before. As anticipated, the audience was informed, keen and sharp in their comments, and appreciated my paper. I got lots of testing and interesting questions.

It was also great giving a talk so close to early medieval stone sculpture – as I’ve previously done at Brompton and St John’s Chester – so delegates could hear my talk having recently seen the stones themselves in the museum and church.

En route, I found further conclusive evidence of Vikings with horned helmets on the Wirral

Finally, it is worth noting that, en route to West Kirby, I got to pass by ‘The Viking’  Pub and Bakehouse . How far removed this is from the careful attention to detail and historicity of the re-enactors I was talking to!

I think there is actually no hard-and-fast rule between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ early medieval costume. Indeed, there is clear evidence, as argued elsewhere, that while ‘horned headgear’ might very well have been ceremonial, and even martial items, of dress in the Early Middle Ages, even if not precisely in the form depicted in modern art and replicas which are a 19th-century contrivance. This is contrary to the avid desire to dispell them completely as a ‘myth’ as discussed here.

Be that as it may, and hate them as much as ‘serious’ academics and re-enactors may, horned helmets are certainly alive and well as a fantastical dimension of all things Norse in contemporary culture. In this regard they are a key part of modern ‘Viking’ imaginings. This is a widespread, but not ubiquitous symbol, but it means different things in different places. In the specific context of this pub: context is everything. The ‘Viking’ identity of the Wirral is one perpetuated in contemporary popular culture, and this pub serves as a striking dimension to the Norse in popular local imagination.

I wonder what my re-enactment audience would have thought if I’d tried to argue that horned helmets have an ‘authenticity’ in this regard! I fear that no matter how nuanced our interpretations of society and identity in the Early Middle Ages might become, it is the popular fantasy of pub names and horned helmets that still looms large and cannot be fully dismissed as a mechanism of engaging people in the early medieval past.