Do you do living history?

As some of you guys might have noticed, I’ve been very silent on the blog for quite some time; I last wrote in March 2014. This is because I’ve been doing a lot of serious thinking about myself and what I’ve been doing, but now the time has come for me to tell you a li’l story.

My dad was once invited to be toastmaster at a wedding. The invitation said ”Black suit and tie”, but my dad had just recently bought a tan summer suit and asked the host if he could come without buying a whole new suit. The host accepted and said that he didn’t think people would pay much attention to the dress code anyway – my dad would certainly not be alone in a light colored suit.

So my dad went. And he was the only one wearing a light colored suit. Everybody else was dressed in black suit and tie or the equivalent clothing for women. He told me that he had never been so ashamed in his life.

This is a pretty funny little anecdote but it has served as a reminder for me to never disregard someone’s wishes when being invited to an event of any sort. I take pride in dressing up as requested by the host, and I would never question his or her choices; it is not my party and not my place. I am sure you feel the same. You wouldn’t ever come to a party dressed in your sweats when the invitation says evening dress – of that I am sure. You are not disrespectful – you are kind of happy you got invited and want to look smart according to your host’s wishes.

And then there’s my kids. It doesn’t matter how much I wash, clean, wipe, dust, vacuum, cook, shop and pick up their shit – they will go ballistic if I ask them to take out the trash; ”Why must I always have to do everything?”. This can provoke me to no end and I believe you are familiar with the situation. You might even be thinking: ”Oh, you scrawny little spoiled shitheads! If you were my kids I would give you a thorough earful or a whole barrel of whoopass”. As a grown up I wouldn’t even dream of behaving like that. It’s right down embarrassing.

Now, let me tell you: a combination of these two is happening as we speak. Grown ups questioning dress code and rules for an event and at the same time whining about it. Believe it or not – it’s real. There are actual people saying that the requirements for an event is to strict and kind of aggressively stating that they don’t have the, time, money or inclination to meet the organizer’s standards. This makes me think: ”Oh, you scrawny little spoiled shitheads! If you were here I would give you a thorough earful or a whole barrel of whoopass”. And they would deserve it, as they are being disrespectful nags with little or no understanding for reenactment/living history as a phenomenon, for organizer’s visions and dreams, for audience watching the whole shebang and for their fellow reenactors.

Perhaps you wonder why. I’ll let you know. Reenactment and living history is defined by its essence of constantly developing and constantly chasing the illusive truth of lost times. There is no such thing as an absolute truth in human sciences like history and archaeology but without the constant quest for it we would never grow any better at what we do. ”Did I read ‘sciences like history and archaeology’?” you ask. Correct. It leads me to the next step in my explanation.

Reenactment and living history (henceforth RAL) is based on the intense and everlasting study of history, art history, archaeology and the like. A RAL perpetrator is expected to do his/her own research – preferably from first hand sources and never ever from third hand (like looking at someone’s outfit and making a copy of it).

The aim of RAL is to be as historically accurate as humanly possible. Some people do this extremely well. I know of some guys that actually spin their wool to yarn, dye it, weave it to fabric (based on existing archaeological finds) and full it before they cut it with handmade scissors of 14th century model and stitch it together with a bronze needle and hand made flax thread, using stitches that were used in the 14th century. To request something like that would indeed be ”strict”. Others I know buy machine woven fabric and they even machine stitch their clothes. They know it’s not correct (and sometimes they don’t), but they strive to get better and to make fewer mistakes next time. Both are OK. I guess I am somewhere in between the two but I am always trying to get better, to be more accurate and to spend more money, time and work on my stuff. The goal must always be the immaculately perfectly historically correct. Otherwise you will let your fellow RAL:s, your organizers, your public and ultimately yourself down. RAL is like a living museum – people expect it to be totally correct.

Money, time and work is another issue when dealing with this immensely complex and all consuming hobby. Let’s realize something: what I have been writing up to this point indicates that you need to be freaking rich, have all the time in the world, able to read medieval Latin and be a textile genius. In a way that’s true. You need to spend a lot of your money on medieval stuff. You need to cut down on pub nights or tennis practice. You need to learn things you have never even tried before.

You can’t have both. There’s no time to go to the tennis court four nights a week and you can’t afford binge drinking eight nights a month. You need to spend your time and your cash on RAL. Sure – you can have a bit of both, but it’s a question of priorities. You and I both have 24 hours a day. If you choose to do anything else than RAL you have other priorities, which is totally OK, but just don’t expect to be a textile genius or a medieval Latin equilibrist. Similarly, you can forget to be able to buy the stuff you need if you spend money on other things. This is basic understanding but for some reason people become offended when I tell them.

”But wait, you judgmental Nazi! I don’t want to part of you immaculately perfectly stupid ding-dong-shit! I wanna do it my way! I think this is good enough and I demand that you not criticize it!”

OOOO-K. I’ve got news for you my friend. I’m not out to please, so I’ll just say it. You are part of my experience, you are representing RAL, what you show and do is accepted by audience at events and the organizers have invited you because they think you can show an accurate portrait of a given period. That means you have a lot of responsibility. It’s just that your way is not good enough. How do I know? I know because good enough can be measured. If your stuff doesn’t correspond to first hand sources it’s not good enough. That’s why I can take a look at your stuff and say it doesn’t fly. It’s as simple as that. I don’t care if you want to be a bobinette princess or a tin can knight – if you choose not to base your stuff on sources you are not reenacting: you are doing something else. Oh, I can hear you just fine. You are saying: ”It is too!” Problem is that you are wrong. Again. You might have forgotten this little chestnut:

Reenactment and living history (henceforth RAL) is based on the intense and everlasting study of history, art history, archaeology and the like. A RAL perpetrator is expected to do his/her own research – preferably from first hand sources and never ever from third hand (like looking at someone’s outfit and making a copy of it).

How can a RAL Fascist like myself tell what’s right and wrong? Because I’ve been at this shit for more than ten years. Because I am an archaeologist dedicated to this particular period of time. Because I’ve been investigating thousands and thousands of images from Norway in the north to Italy in the south.

But yeah. I might be wrong. It happens all the time. I just need you to prove me wrong – that’s what it’s all about. I’d be happy to revise myself if you can give me good proof from first hand sources that I am mistaken. No. I won’t back down because you say so. Your gut feeling and History channel isn’t good enough. Ask yourself if a Professor of Archaeology would claim anything and refer to History channel or ”I just know it”. That’s right. She wouldn’t do anything like that, because in that case she wouldn’t ever have made it to be a Professor in the first place.

Strangely enough the reenactment scene right now is overflowing with ”I am right because I say so”-types who have no clue what so ever when it comes to the basics in human sciences and logic deduction. They are pissed off when I ask for proof and they call me an elitist prick for talking back to them via arguments that proves me right. They simply won’t listen to reason no matter what, and they would never admit to being wrong. They would rather happily skip about in their made up gear telling everyone how medieval it is (and at the same time giving serious reenactors grey hairs) even though they somewhere deep inside know that they aren’t entirely certain of the historical accuracy of their stuff. It makes me tired to the bone and it makes me want to leave this hobby.

But chill out. I promise not to criticize your stuff (hell, I’ll gladly help you improve it if you ask me) if you promise not to pretend like it’s the bee’s knees! You know that your stuff might not be perfect. Stop pretending like it is. Alright? Or as a wise man once said: 

This takes us to next step. If you step into a museum you assume that what’s shown is correct, right? Even if you have your doubts you don’t storm into the manager’s office and demand that he makes changes in his museum to suit your palate. The same should be true when it comes to RAL. There’s no law that states that you can go to every event you fancy. Accept it. You can’t always have what you want; sometimes you have to follow the rules and the dress code. If you are not ready to invest time, work and money in RAL it is perhaps not your hobby and if you feel that the requirements for an event is too strict for you, it is perhaps not your event. If it doesn’t suit you, just don’t go. There a loads of other hobbies to try out and even more events for you to go to and to be honest you won’t keel over and die if you can’t attend that event with those strict rules…

In short: please do not become offended when an organizer asks you to live up to her standards. You might not like it or you might even be able to prove her wrong but it’s her event and if she asks you to come in a black suit and tie just do it. Don’t even ask if a light colored suit is alright; if it was she would have said so in the first place.

20 reaktioner på ”Do you do living history?

  1. I know of some guys that actually spin their wool to yarn, dye it, weave it to fabric (based on existing archaeological finds) and full it before they cut it with handmade scissors of 14th century model and stitch it together with a bronze needle and hand made flax thread, using stitches that were used in the 14th century. To request something like that would indeed be ”strict”.

    strict and not necessarily all that accurate to the time, spinning and weaving were full scale industries in europe in the c14th, regulated by guilds so maintain quality. There were some remote areas where people wore homespun, but they were the minority in medieval europe just as they should be in modern re-enactment. the quality of fabric made by a modern amateur would not have passed a guild test and would probably have been burnt if offered for sale (at least in england) in the c14th. I know scandinavia has a stronger tradition of homeweaving than england, but from what I;ve read there was also a fair amount of commercial production, so I acknowledge there is also a context/geographical issue.

    I think its important to keep things in perspective. many skils takes years to perfect. yes, by all means learn about them, try them, but I’m not sure how comfortable my authenticity officer head would be with someone passing off homespun as the norm in the late medeival period, esp for england (my area). When I’ve been demonstrating basic textile skills I know I’ve always been at pains to explain things like the guild system and the high standards that were expected, making sure people know I’m only an amatuer by comparison.

    • Sure. I won’t argue with you there. In lots of ways this practice is aimed on learning and on bigger understanding for what we are working with. However, I am just using the example to make a point and that point is that people can and should put in a lot of effort when dealing with living history, as I have argued. I am sure you agree.

      • And besides: I am pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a medieval fabric in mint condition and the fabric I mentioned. When it comes to machine made cloth however – which is used by the great majority of reenactors (and that’s totally OK – I am not saying that everyone should go full nerd and have their own loom) – it is easy to see which one is made in a modern textile industry🙂

  2. i think the quality machine made english meltons, of the type found at hainsworths etc, would be fairly indistinguishable from the top quality medieval cloths, but very few medeival folks would have been able to afford the very best quality. The aim of a weaver is perfection, and I rail constantly against those who argue that to look handmade an item should be riddled with faults (tablet weavers are the worst for this sin, there is some crap tw about).

    In england I think you could argue that we are wearing too much of the good stuff(but it is sooo nice), but then we have little alternative because the second and third qualities are no longer produced. (there was some italian wool at torm, but you tell by touch that it had some artificial fibre mixed in) we do have a couple of small weavers in england using handlooms to produce small batch twills, and they’re about the same price or cheaper than the meltons, but the supply is limited, lindy gets maybe 2-300 metres each market.

    • What I really like with Sweden is that we have a lot of finds with mistakes in them.
      And clearly a home produced fabric.

      I followed just recently a discussion and I can’t stop thinking that this kind of discussion wouldn’t happen in sports.
      ” I wanna play ice hockey, but I don’t have ice skates. Now I’m offended cause your rules suck”
      You wouldn’t hear that.

  3. Peter: I love you.

    Maria: I love you too!

    Opusanglicanum: If only people here (Belgium + The Netherlands) would be willing to pay the price of a Hainsworth piece of wool, I would be in heaven.

  4. Interesting read. However I want issue caution here. I believe that maybe the majority of re-enactors may not fully agree with your definitions, Peter.
    Now, this is mostly aimed at clothes and kit being as correct as possible. Having picked up HEMA I have come to see that activites such as combat practice is just as importany to get as good as possible.
    No, the security arguement does not hold water here. If we skip too much on how peoplr actually wielded spears, swords, worked in formations etc we are still giving a bad impression.

    For example, high medieval combat treasies, like the venerable I:33, show a style of combat with much more thrusts and flair that the shieldhammering sometimes seen in re-enactment fighting.
    Secondly, the impression of a warrior that people makes sometimes do not even go beneath the armour. The skeletons found after what have probably been warriors, knights and soldiers show men who have lived hard and trained hard.

    As I started working on portraying a veteran late roman soldier officer, I got painfully aware what a shoody figure I cut, and indeed what odd figures many re-enactors cut that were portraying professional soldiers. No amount of correct kit and clothes will make you look the part of a soldier if your physique betray you. Or you obviously have little knowledge about correct posture and how to handle your arms.

    I am lucky to be greystained and 40 years old. Just the age to portray a veteranii or grizzled centenarius/centurion. I could not portray the same role if I was say 25 and in roman eyes barely having learned the ropes.
    A year back I actually felt it was a bit silly, the way I looked, better able to portray a monk than a soldier. Sure, I was a modern homeguard soldier but that hardly equals the training and physique of Romes finest or medieval mercenaries. Not really a medieval farmer for that matter.

    So I am glad I finally started HEMA. Even if practicing twice a week is not near what a roman professional had, it has helped. It also enable me to partially go into the mindset of a historic warrior and access that feeling when I re-enact. If I see my opponent seem a bit nervous facing me, good, it is working. The training have given me bearing and together with the job of making and delivering graveatones started to build my physique. Nowaday I feel more able to give a true impression.

    Most re-enactors engaging in portraying fighters practice way to little with their arms and even if they do practice what is essentially not a historical way of fighting.
    A medieval knight would not have sewn his clothes, spun his own yarn etc. But he would have practiced the way of wars often if not daily.

    • Thanks for writing Matti. You have a lot of valid points – I have for quite some time urged people to explore the cultural and social aspects of the past via RAL, and I too believe that you should ”play the part”. I do, however, reserve the right to define my hobby as I want it to be; it is kind of the point with this post: I no longer want to adapt to people who are telling me that I am an elitist shithead for having bigger ambitions than them.

  5. Some serious period-nazi-shit. Excellent! I mean, really. Your arguments for strict level of equipment standards are excellent. Of course, event organizers can and should decide how high they want to go, but they should be aware how they compare.

    It’s not right to claim that yes, all this is really autentically medieval, if it isn’t. It never is, though, and what you should be able to honestly say, is: ”it isn’t all perfect, we’re aware of that, but it’s the best reprecentation that we, the organizers and participants, our guests, can offer to you”.

    This puts responsibility to all who organize an event, large or small. We have great battles and living history camps with every aspect of medieval life, we have private parties just for ourselves, we have small scale presentations in museums for mixed audiences or children only. It’s important that the people who provide the ”show” to museum staff, big events staff (who think money and what they get for it) and others, know what they are doing and what they are offering.

    Sometimes ”medievalish fun for kids” is just what was agreed on, but often ”this is the best we can offer here and it gets better each time” is what is expected from us. And what we should expect from ourselves, as I think was Peter’s message under strict and harsh-looking wordings. Was it, Peter?

    • I do think that is just what Peter wanted to say. And it is something I have observed aswell. People do seem to view us as always showing how it was, or at least try to show how it was.

      But I say that there is a risk in focusing on equipment standard so much that we forget there are other equally important factors when it comes to re-enacting. I would never consider re-enacting for example a weaver. Never. I cannot weave and will not even consider weaving the cloth I would make clothes of. Even if I had a kit that is 100% correct for a weaver I cannot portray a weaver since I cannot weave. It would be an insult towards those of us who are good weavers.
      I would not like to portray a professional archer since since even if I can shot reasonably well I am far from the skill that St. Sebastian have. They have good kit but most of all they are serious about archery!

      So we should not claim that being as periodically correct about the kit but should be just as interested in being good in the medieval profession we portray. Hence why I have picked up HEMA and specifically sword and buckler and following the sources we have and for other time periods use analogizes and make careful studies of other period sources. In my case that means Roman sources to become better in acting the part of a late roman veteran soldier in his forties.

    • Spot on, Finnjävel! I have no quarrel with anyone who wants to learn and improve. Nobody is very good in the beginning and that is no shame. What is a shame is not to be willing to get better.

  6. Admittedly it’s always a bit awkward to enter a discussion without having read what originally caused the argument, but having read the outfit standards for Battle of Wisby I’m wondering what people are disagreeing with, as the standards were far less strict than what I had assumed from reading your post. And surely there are enough events in Europe with varying levels of strictness that everyone should be able to go to at least one event per year.

    But I will disagree with your last paragraph a little bit: if we are supposed to learn continuously and no-one of us is perfectly accurate, why ought I not inform an organizer if they are wrong about something? That way changes can be made for next year’s event and our hobby can develop a bit further.

    And as an aside, how does Hainsworth’s melton compare with the melton Medeltidsmode is selling?

    • Agreed. You really should tell the organizers if something isn’t right, but you should do that in an informative and polite manner, preferably in a private message; it serves nobody to whine about it and debate it in a public forum. I guess what I am trying to say is that you shouldn’t debate something with an organizer; speak up if you feel the need but accept the answer. Don’t try to convince her that you are right and that the rules and guidelines should be adapted to your conditions or demands. Again: if it doesn’t suit you it is probably not an event that fits you anyway.

  7. I just happened upon this blog via St Thomas Guild link. I really enjoyed this article because it speaks to a problem i see in the world of furniture which is my trade. So many people are passing off taking a few passes with a hand plane over a machine planed timber as being the same as made by hand. It is not, and the end result is not honest. It is true that it would be very hard to have 100% authenticity but i think the point of this article is to say we should do our best at trying to be authentic, and not try to fool others into thinking ‘approximating’ is good enough. On the subject of costumes at RAL events, i always hate it when i see people who treat it as more of a dress-up party than a serious undertaking. I think that to preserve and teach history requires as much accuracy as teaching maths!

    • This is an answer long due, but better late thannever, I guess. Thank you very much for your input. I have had a look at Johann international (that’s ypur blog, isn’t it?) site and I am truly impressed by your work. It os a shame that you are living across the water, as I am sure we could have had many a pleasant talk over a brew, or why not over a piece of work in the workshop. All the best, and take care.

  8. Ping: Six long years… |

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