The centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, sometimes referred to as the 'Dark Ages', were ones of upheaval and decline in Europe. The reestablishment of strong government by Charlemagne and his predecessors in the 8th century led to the revival in trade and culture which was to allow the continent to blossom once more, yet this period has been little covered by figure manufacturers. Strelets have sought to redress that situation with this combined set.
The Strelets policy of no repeating poses is continued in this set, with 21 Viking and 24 Frankish figures included. Our general disapproval of mixing troops in a set in this way is once again tempered by the sheer number of poses on offer, though we would have preferred to see two sets, with perhaps two of each pose.
The Vikings, which are shown in the top scans on this page, do indeed seem to be a fearsome bunch as legend tells us. Most fought in their everyday clothing of woollen coat reaching to mid-thigh and baggy trousers, sometimes tied at the knee. The more affluent ones would wear a mail hauberk or whatever armour they could afford. The style of helmet would again depend on the wealth of the wearer, with the poorer warriors making do with leather helmets or none at all. Many different types of helmets have been found in graves, though we cannot be sure which were the most common. These figures show both armoured and unarmoured warriors, with a number of different helmets and many styles of clothing. All match known examples or illustrations, so seem to be accurate, apart that is from the three helmets with horns. It seems the temptation to produce such helmets is too much for manufacturers, despite the fact that such helmets are a 19th century fantasy and never appeared on the field of battle. However they are easily removed, so no harm is done.
The set seems to include one of the famous Berserks - men who allegedly charged into battle without armour, and hoped to prevail by their sheer ferocity and determination. Though it was once thought these men were bare-chested, we cannot be sure as there is no firm evidence, and indeed even their supposed behaviour is as doubtful as their appearance. The 'berserker' in this set is without helmet or shirt, and wears just trousers and a hlad (a ribbon worn round the head, presumably to keep the hair out of the way). He is swinging an enormous club, and appears to be rather overweight - perhaps the result of too many drinking binges. Still he certainly seems to capture the spirit of this unusual kind of fighter, or at least of a fighter that is particularly ferocious.
The sword is the main weapon, as it should be, but there are a good number of axes in use also, with some nice single- and double-headed examples. There are also some archers, though it is thought that these were not commonly used in battle. Shields are very varied, with some being moulded to the figure and some separate. In some cases the shield is separate even when it does not need to be for the mould, so this is presumably done to allow the customer some choice. The shields attach via a hole onto a peg on the figure, but this has not been well sculpted and requires glue and/or carving to achieve a lasting join.
The Viking poses are generally very good, and when you have so many poses to play with you can really let your imagination have its head. Of particular note is the warrior carrying a child in his arms, and another dragging a woman by her hair. Though no one has ever tried this here, we feel that this is a very inefficient way to move someone, and therefore not a very likely course of action.
There is also a frustrating lack of convincing evidence about the appearance of Carolingian armies. Most of the figures in this set are wearing lamella armour, though it is thought that such armour would only have been worn by the more wealthy soldiers - a minority of the whole infantry. As with the Vikings there is no uniformity of dress, with different garments and armour on display. Helmets too are a mixed bunch, with older styles mixing with those imported from other regions. All of this is realistic as far as we know, though we cannot be sure of the proportions.
Where there does seem to be more firm evidence is with the weaponry. The spear is thought to be the main weapon, though very few spearmen are included here. The majority in this set have a sword, which was very expensive, or the seax, a short sword that was cheaper and so more common. There are several archers with a mixture of bow styles, and some men are simply armed with clubs. Finally one slinger has also been included. Shields are equally diverse, which again is probably a fair reflection of the actual subject. Some of the shields are moulded on, and some are separate.
Like the Vikings, the poses are pretty good. The archer pressing his foot against his bow is presumably in the process of restringing it, and the man blowing the horn is, we are told, none other than Roland, the epitome of the ideal Frankish knight but not a real individual. A Christian priest is also to be found, holding aloft a cross and showing an open book (presumably the Bible) on his chest. With the invention of printing still several centuries away, books were immensely valuable and precious things, and not to be treated like this. Charlemagne himself is also represented, and looking every inch the king with his crown, muscle cuirass and greaves.
Because of the huge variety of figures in this set, this review has become something of an epic. So how does the epic end? Well, we liked the poses and the variety, and while not completely removed there is much less flash than in previous sets from this manufacturer. There was too high a proportion of armoured warriors on both sides for our liking though, and the difficulties of attaching the shields was disappointing. The standard of sculpting, though quite detailed, is not an improvement on previous sets, and still falls short of the output from the more established companies. Still this set certainly covers its subject in considerable detail, and has a lot that is of interest.