At the end of the 1970s precolonial reenactment scarcely existed in Australia. Two groups had been formed early in the decade: the Viking Society of Australasia in my home town of Melbourne; and the Ancient and Medieval Martial Arts Society (AMMAS) in Sydney. Later in the decade the Viking Society fragmented and disappeared leaving a few late stragglers to maintain some sporadic, low grade activity as The Medieval Society. My best mate and I had met the latter and done some stuff with them, but they were also winding down, which was, to be quite honest, a good thing as their knowledge base was nonexistent and the quality of their presentation was dire. After a lull, the rebirth came in 1981 with the creation of a new group which, largely by accident, came to be called the New Varangian Guard I was elected as founding president. The first challenge was the fact that we knew nothing. In particular, we knew nothing about the Varangians. Indeed, neither I, nor anyone else involved in the founding except the person who had suggested the name, had even heard of Byzantium. We all had some idea of Vikings, and that was all most of the founding members wanted, but as we had the name, and would be seen in public in due course, someone had to be able to explain it. Obviously as president that task fell to me. That imperative set me on the road to being the Byzantinist I am now.
Back then naturally, in our naïvety, we still thought that Osprey publications like Ian Heaths Byzantine Armies: 8861118 actually had something valid to tell us. Admittedly, along with the idea of the Varangians as an elite force, the wholesale adoption by the New Varangian Guard of the image of the booted, red-uniformed Varangian that Ian Heath had Angus McBride created did much to forge an esprit de corps and ambition which pushed the club ahead in the early years. A facet of that ambition was the early creation of the publication, Varangian Voice. This became the conduit for both the research I and others did, and also debate about how the results of that research should be enacted. The New Varangian Guard has made many, if not all, of Varangian Voice available on the web, so you can weigh the terms of the debate for yourself.1
Doubts about the Ospreys accumulated rapidly. A little more digging brought better scholarship to light. The standard work was, and still is, Sigfus Blöndal, The Varangians of Byzantium, revised by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge, 1978. It is normal for academic and scholars working in the traditional mode not to mention mundanities like the details of clothes or military equipment, so we needed to head for the primary sources. The famous literary sources are Mikhail Psellos Chronographia and Anna Komnênês Alexiad. We cannot, however, use E.R.A. Sewters English translations of them because he preserves vestiges of the literary stylisation called Atticism which simply confuses the issue. (That is what misled Ian Heath and all those who follow him. See my article on the Varangian rhomphaia) There are other literary sources of the same era which mention the Varangians from Komnênês husband, Nikêphoros Bryennios, and from Iôannês Skylitzês and Mikhail Attaleiatês. They also Atticise, but it hardly matters, for going back to the Greek texts simply shows us that Blöndal/Benedikz were true to them. They tell us nothing about the Varangians dress and virtually nothing about their equipment.
What about pictorial sources? Once again, there are none. There is no basis for thinking that the cluster of pictures upon which Ian Heath based his Osprey plate is a Varangian, as I have explained in my article On the supposed Uniform of the Varangian Guard elsewhere on this site, and there is very good reason to recognise them as an entirely different category of men, as I have explained in my volume By the Emperors Hand.
But there is the Madrid manuscript of the Skylitzês Chronicle! I hear some people say. Contrary to the way it has been long misrepresented, it is NOT a Byzantine source. It was made in Sicily around 1150. Some of the illustrators were copying from Byzantine sources quite skillfully, but scholars have recognised that they had plainly never been to Constantinople. and were not working from direct observation. Taking the often-reproduced usurpation scene as a typical example, the Varangians in it are simply illustrated in the standard semi-stylised way of middle Byzantine soldiery, except with the addition of the big axes which are referred to in the texts. Another example can be found in my article The other Varangians of the illustrated Skylitzês Chronicle on this site, along with further discussion of the points I have just made.
Clothes = nothing;
Armour = nothing;
Weapons = big axes, swords (unspecified), spears (unspecified).
And that, of course, leaves Varangian re-enactment in an even more difficult place than usual. In the absence of such data, the default scenario for many seems, depressingly, to be what I would call the Silk Road Rag and Bone Merchant the idea that as a peripatetic mercenary, the character would have accumulated kit from anywhere West of China, and often, it seems, from Year Dot to 1650! Lets just not go there!
In terms of gear, the least problematical avenue is to be just off the boat. Therefore clad and equipped as would be a man in Scandia or England. It is true that a man who had been in City a good while and who had been as well paid as many people assume the Varangians were,2 might well have bought himself some posh clothes. Military equipment, however, is another matter. One one hand, as I have noted in my article The Uses of the Varangians, the point of the unit was as much ideological as military, and in that context it was an advantage for them to look foreign. Hence, they may well have been discouraged from acquiring too much Byzantine military equipment, even if they could do so. And even if they could, it is unlikely that any would have been able to leave with it. In one of those uncanny presages of the modern era, the middle Byzantine bureaucratic protocols forbid the export of military material.3 They also forbid the export of certain non-military goods, even by visitors who had legitimately purchased them within the City.4
Yet there are more fundamental issues than gear. Two questions that must be asked of anyone claiming to re-enact a Varangian are Where are you? and Where is the Emperor? The nature of the Varangians is defined by them being an imperial life guard. (It took the NVG a considerable while to address that issue.) A group might present themselves as a detached unit acting on imperial business, such as arresting clerics, but the historical evidence is clear that they rarely left Constantinople at all, and virtually never without the Emperor. It must also be noted that the upper officers of the Varangians were Rômaikoi, not Norse or Saxon. The position of manglavitês attributed to Harald Hardraada was a very lowly functional position with no status or authority. A man or group of men alone, and said to be outside Constantinople, cannot be Varangians. They are merely wandering Western Ronin. It cannot be claimed, for example, that he/they are an embassy or imperial agent. Common barbarian mercenaries were never entrusted with such important tasks.
In the light of the evidence and lack of it, any presentation which aspires to depict Varangians with the least inaccuracy must be necessarily very circumscribed. A group of soldiery clad in Western dress and equipment with very limited Byzantine additions, commanded by a Byzantine officer, at least, if not standing attendance upon the Emperor himself. In the former case it must be set notionally within Constantinople. In the latter case, it might go beyond with an imperial military expedition, although even that means no further than the Balkans in the West, Armenia in the East or the edge of Mesopotamia in the South.
To anyone who would like to present himself as an ex-Varangian who has moved on or come home, I remind them of the restrictions on the export of military equipment and silks. You could get away with a nice fine woollen tunic in Byzantine style as Bolli Bollason is described as having in the Laxdaela Saga, but that is it.
There were no Varangian women. It is, however, likely that longer term Varangians married Roman women and set them up in households in the City. Those wives would not have been present when Varangians were acting in any official capacity.