Description of Scricfinnia, year 1555

Post by blogger | July 18, 2011      

Olaus Magnus

Military skiers, Olaus Magnus.

Military skiers woodcut, by historian Olaus Magnus from 1555. Check out the guys riding the reindeer. Did they really do that, or was Olaus dreaming? Move over 10th Mountain Division!

(Editor’s note: This is known as the oldest detailed written description of skiing, but few publishers acknowledge or perhaps even understand the description of climbing skins that’s included. We love it.)

“Scricfinnia is a country between Biarmia and Finmarck [Wildsnow note: at the top of Norway]; yet it hath one long corner that stretcheth southward and towards the Bothrick Sea; it is called a Tail principally, because the Inhabitants of it slide very swift, having their feet fastened to crooked pieces of wood made plain and bent like a bow in the former part, with a staff in their hands to guide them; and by these, at their pleasure they can transport themselves upward, downward, or obliquely, over the tops of snow; yet ever observing that proportion, that one of these pieces of wood shall be longer than the other a full foot, according as the men or women are in tallness: so that if a man or woman be six feet high the one piece of wood shall be just so long, and the other piece of wood shall be seven foot.

Moreover, they provide that those pieces of wood be covered beneath with the tender skin of a young fawn, the form and color whereof is like to a deer skin but it is far longer and larger [WildSnow: who knew, fawn skin makes the best?]. But why the pieces of wood are covered with these tender skins there be diverse causes given; namely that they may transport themselves the swifter over these deep snows, that they may the more nimbly avoid cliffs of rocks, and steep places with an overthwart motion [Wildsnow note: transverse, meaning a shuffling stride], that when they ascend to a place they may not fall backward: because the hair of the skin will rise like spears, or Hedg-Hog Bristles, and by an admirable power of nature hinder them from falling down.

Ancient backcountry skiing, Olaus Magnus.

Sled and skiers, ancient backcountry skiing, Olaus Magnus. While the skis are depicted without a rearward section, we suspect that's just how they were rendered for some reason, and that the actual skis used in the north country were like any other of the ancient planks we know of and had some length behind the foot.

Therefore with such instruments and the art they have to run they are wont, especially in winter, to pass over the inaccessible places of mountains and valleys; but not so easily in summer, though the snow be there, because the Wood soon sinks into them. Nor is there any rock too prominent, but they can cunningly run up to the top of it, by winding course [switchbacking?]. For first leaving the deep places of valleys, they pass over the feet of the mountains, with crooked motion round about; and they so turn to and fro, until they come to the highest parts of those winding hills; sometimes they do in the nead of hunting (WildSnow: we can relate), sometimes to try their skill and to contend for mastery therein, as those who race to win the prize.

Ancient backcountry skiing, Olaus Magnus.

Hunter on skis, Olaus Magnus.

Ancient backcountry skiing, Olaus Magnus.

Family on skis, picnic? Olaus Magnus.


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15 Responses to “Description of Scricfinnia, year 1555”

  1. Robert Tangen July 18th, 2011 12:15 pm

    Re: “While the skis are depicted whout a rearward section, we suspect that’s just how they were rendered for some reason, and that the actual skis used in the north country were like any other of the ancient planks we know of and had some length behind the foot.”
    I’m sure some of the skis were normal, consisting of long planks, but I can’t imagine that the illustrators all just made up the short, rear-less things we see in the woodcuts, with exactly the same features. They must have been copying something real. Could they have invented the “snow skate” as well as the ski? In the first woodcut, the guy on the left has is rear thing-a-majig perpendicular to his front. Is he about to push off in a skating movement?

  2. Lou July 18th, 2011 12:27 pm

    Robert, good point but from what I’ve seen illustrators of that time were prone to pretty wild imaginings and interpretations. I think all you have to do is look at the history of Scandinavian skis, as well as know how a ski would perform, to know that there would have to be something behind the foot for the skis to even function in any situation other than firm snow they didn’t sink into.

    I also wonder about the reindeer riders shooting arrows. That seems a bit out there as well. Any folks from that region care to comment.

  3. brian h July 18th, 2011 2:22 pm

    Would shooting a bow from a reindeer be much different from shooting one from a horse? Bow length would have to be shorter than a typical euro longbow but I always thought those Lapplanders were pretty good deer riders.

  4. Lou July 18th, 2011 2:41 pm

    I doubt that anyone ever did much in the way of effective bow shooting from a galloping or even standing horse, other than in the movies or if they were some kind of genetic prodigy. Even shooting a gun from a galloping horse would be ridiculous other than for prodigy marksman. I’ve done plenty of archery and gun shooting, and done plenty of riding… so the above is an experience based opinion… Perhaps if the horse was trained to stand really really still, but anyone who shoots knows how much the smallest movement results in inaccuracy.

  5. brian h July 18th, 2011 3:29 pm

    What about the Sioux, Comanche, Kiowa etc., or on the other side of the globe, the Mongols? I’m pretty sure there is some fairly supported history as to their ability to shoot from horseback. These were people who were riding from about the time they could walk, and who had a bow in their hands that early as well. I guess “running” buffalo would involve fairly short range, and perhaps the effect of Mongol arrows was more volley fire, but legends always start from something real.

  6. Lou July 18th, 2011 4:21 pm

    I love the legend, just wondering how often those guys could really hit something lethaly. It’s one thing doing stunts at a wild west show, combat is a different story. I know guys sit on horses and shoot elk, but then, the elk are not shooting back and they also many times get more than one chance if they miss. Elk are a huge target, as well…

  7. TomW July 18th, 2011 5:43 pm

    Many mammals will have a communication between the pleural spaces allowing a relatively minor lung penetration (arrow) on one side to create a bilateral tension pneumothorax with fatal outcome. Occasionally referred to as “buffalo syndrome”. Hence, no need for a heart shot. But still requiring remarkable horseman (or reindeer) and bow skills. But good tale.

  8. Ian July 18th, 2011 7:59 pm

    Good thing they didn’t see that video with the pole spear or they’d have taken over the world and we’d all be speaking bloody Norwegian.

  9. Lou July 18th, 2011 8:00 pm

    Good point Ian!

  10. Wayne Nicholson July 19th, 2011 7:07 am

    Crazy, skiing was around in the 1500s. Would love to go back and enjoy the endless and uncharted backcountry from those times!

    No ski patrol to tell you what you can’t do too!

  11. Lou July 19th, 2011 8:45 am

    …other then some guy riding a reindeer and shooting arrows at you because you’re intruding on his hunting ground!

  12. John Milne July 19th, 2011 8:59 am

    @Lou See for reference to one of the better know tactics of horse archers in ancient times.

    It wasn’t hard to get a fatal hit either; as TomW points out, you can easily hit a lung, major organ, intestines, or major artery and kill a man. They’re not always instantly fatal, but e.g. if you sever the femoral artery in your leg, you can bleed out in minutes. Plus, you have to remember that there were no antiseptics, no germ theory, nothing resembling modern medicine in the slightest. Even if they did manage to patch you up, you’d still have to fight off the inevitable infection.

  13. Lou July 19th, 2011 9:02 am

    John, thanks, seems like those guys might have indeed been more effective than my first impression…

  14. Ilkka Leskelä September 22nd, 2011 6:44 am

    Hello from Finland,

    Being a Finnish historian, I might offer some insight into some historical questions discussed here.

    1. On riding reindeers

    Riding a reindeer can be compared to riding a cow or sheep. It is not commonly practiced by Laplanders (the Saami people).

    Riding on reindeer is done for show during the annual gatherings of semi-wild reindeer. Reindeer are not trained to carry riders, and don’t take it easily. Thus, this is pretty close to rodeo-riding, the difference being that reindeer are smaller than horse, and thus a little bit easier to control or at least to subdue.

    There are no records on effective usage of any kind of weaponry when riding a reindeer. Thus, no reindeer cavalry.

    2. On ski types & length

    While Olaus himself quite surely knew what he was writing about, his Italian illustrators did not. Thus the text portions of Olaus’ work are relatively credible, while the illustrations in many cases are fantastic.

    It is apparent that the illustrators knew about wooden/bone skates, and based on Olaus’ text depicted something similar. This is the reason for the odd and completely fantastic shape of the “skis” in the pictures.

    However, Finnish (and Nordic) skis came in many forms, and for many functions. The most common type was a combination of a short and a long ski, where the short ski was used to kicking & guiding, and the long one predominantly for sliding. The long ski usually was longer than the person skiing was tall, while the shorter ski was substantially shorter than the person was tall. The short ski had the furry skin underneath. In a way, it functioned like a prolonged snow-shoe.

    3. On reindeer herding and hunting in general

    Reindeer herding is a relatively new thing in Lappish history, connected to ecological change (cold period) and economic pressures (increased taxes) in the late medieval & early modern periods (say, around 1500).

    Before this time, reindeer packs were hunted. In addition to bows, “suopunki” (akin to bolas) was used. A common practice to hunt whole packs of reindeer was driving the pack through a narrow isthmus or canyon, where holes were dug in advance. This practice dates back to stone age hunting practices in the northern hemisphere, and was actively used also in the south of Finland, when there still were big packs of deer.

    Olaus’ work is one of the sources showing that reindeer are not only hunted, but that there was some sort of semi-domestication taking place already in the 16th century. But even today, reindeer are not domesticated, albeit for a few individuals which are kept fenced for the tourists.

    Ilkka Leskelä

  15. Lou September 22nd, 2011 6:47 am

    Thanks Ilkka, your info is greatly appreciated!

    As you point out, Olaus does note the length of skis in his text, one the same length as the height of the user, the other a bit longer.


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