I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!


I think that one of the things I hate most about living history is the tendency to compartmentalize eras. I am certainly not speaking in favor of anachronisms; I am referring to cross-pollination.

If I had a nickel for every time the reenactor of one period—ironically, usually one who decries that no one else is up to his standards—I could probably afford Starbucks for the rest of my life! There seems sometimes to be a prejudice against other eras. I was told that so,meone thought Micel Folcland was beneath contempt because it was not American Civil War. Several AWI reenactors regularly refer to Civil War reenactors as Silly War reenactors and announce that articles on the French and Indian war is beneath their dignity. Reenactors of one era note they will not buy a magazine which features articles on eras that they do not recreate. Reenactors of American living history want nothing to do with medieval—”we had a war to get rid of that crap”—and medieval reenactors note they want nothing to do with American “because it’s not old enough to be real history.” And so on. You’ve probably encountered similar statements and perhaps—I hope not—said them yourself!

The fact is, as I noted while in Norse drag to a cowboy and a Colonial American reenactor at Reenactorfest a few years ago, we reenactors have much more in common than our different eras show how different we are. After a moment of thought, they agreed. After all:

• We both do the same kind of research for our impressions (though as an Anglo-Saxon reenactor noted, it’s far easier for the ACW reenactors!)

• We both wear funny costume

• We usually both adopt pseudonyms for our impressions

• We both use obsolete or “old-time” technology (even persons doing more recent eras in many instances)

• We even often employ the same tools, kit and instruments in many instances (a friend who did several eras called this “cross-timing,” a term that I have adopted; however, reserch things befoe using them!)

And again, so on. The differences are, in the end, rather trivial, sometimes more akin to different cultures from the same era than to segregating influences. There is also the matter that much of earlier culture did not change as fast as today’s OSs and Ipods do, and there was a tendency to not throw away things even if they were “out of fashion.” There are samples of Norse and Anglo-Saxons at the turn of the millennium who used materials from the Roman Empire; there is every indication that the famous Sutton Hoo helmet was at least a century old and even repaired for further use before being placed in the grave! Knowing what went on in the past is often as important as knowing what is going on in the era that you recreate!

A quarter century ago, Donlyn Myers of Smoke and Fire News  (a multi-era newspaper) noted that she and I were two of the few people who were really interested in more than one era. While that has changed, I think, there is still tendency among many to remain oblivious or even antagonistic to reenactors from other eras. That is indeed, unfortunate, because the people who are wear such blinders continually are forced to reinvent the wheel, not to take advantage of what another era has learned and can offer (both intellectual and physical). What can you learn from another era:

• What to avoid without trying it yourself (or changing it for better results)

• What to do (without reinventing the wheel; the number of times groupsw from different eras have virtually the same threads going at the same time—and refuse to listen to anyone who says that “in such-and-such a century they…”—would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic)

• Where to send someone who is interested in another era (instead of trying to pound a square peg into around hole)

• Everyday details of another era (entertaining and educational even if they are not practically useful for your impression; plus, if you are doing a third person, you can use these details to better explain details in your own era)

• As mentioned before, what is offered by sutlers and other vendors of another era that you might use in your own era

• Examples of how to better research and to determine the truth of your era

• Examples for recruiting, kit spex and other ways that your group runs things

The list goes on. These reenactors of other eras can be instructors, students, sometimes even mentors and always fellow travelers.

I have always liked talking to folks from other eras. I like being able to share things, especially with people who regard anachronisms the same way I do. I really like timelines, and I try to go to reenactments from other eras to schmooze and enjoy the ambiance.

What brings this up is that we were recently in Gettysburg and, quite unwittingly, wandered into its second largest reenacting event of the year, Remembrance Day. We stayed an extra day to see the parade, to visit sutlers, to talk with fellow travelers, to trade ways of doing things and to watch thousands of very good reenactors. We had a great time, and we picked up a number of items—tent stakes, bees’ wax candles and lye soap for example—for use in our camp, as well as a few items that were just neat. It was fun and instructive, and if I go back, it’s going to be during an event like this. I heartily urge others from this and other eras to go to such a reenactment, to see, to learn and hopefully to improve!

I also urge folk to go to timeline and other multi-era events. My favorite of the year is ReenactorFest (now Military Odessey Fest, but it will always be ReenactorFest to me!) in Chicagoland in February. And to mix and to mingle with the folks that do another era but who have a Clew!

5 responses

  1. Yes, this! As you know well, we feel the same way 🙂

    December 6, 2011 at 09:12

  2. Elaine

    One needs to also remember that history is linear. Each era is effected by the technologies that came before and each effects the eras that come after. What is excellent about an event like Military History Fest (formerly ReenactorFest) is the opportunity to talk to re-enactors/living historians who are as passionate and knowledgeable about the eras before and after “yours” as you are about the era that gets you going. When one has a particular interest, such as medicine or foodways or certainly clothing, one can follow that interest through the timeline of history talking to people who have researched that subject extensively. Good times had by all.

    December 6, 2011 at 17:15

  3. Keith

    I got out of reenacting for the f\very reason that I could never settle on any one eras, and certainly couldn’t afford to do them all. What chiefly interests me are the commonalities between all eras. In short, how we tried to answer the same problems throughout all eras from Hallstatt through The Great War. I’m generally less interested in WHAT was done than I am in HOW it was done and WHY THAT METHOD HAS CHANGED, or has not. This is why when I do anything historical, I prefer to take the part of a tradesman. It ives me more chance to discuss the hows and whys.

    December 6, 2011 at 20:57

  4. With long involvement, I have certainly seen the formalization to rigidity of what are *choices* in interpretive approaches into fixed *standards* – eventually held as *truth*. My favourite example are the fire boxes used by Regia Angolorum in the UK, developed because of restrictions on the use of ground fires – NOT because of the existence of any existing actual artifact.
    Historical Interpretation is an important clue to the mechanism of Living History. One that too many observers (inside and outside) forget.
    Take the iron smelt done at L’Anse aux Meadows NHSC by DARC in 2010. Although we did do very serious research, and made an exceptional effort to replicate VA type tools and our best estimate of the historic process, it can never be stated we *exactly duplicated* the historic smelting or iron in Vinland. It was at best “A” way – we can *never* be sure of “THE” way.
    I find it very frustrating when individuals do not understand *why* specific choices have been made in how their current group is interpreting history. Most especially when they get dogmatic about it!

    December 7, 2011 at 08:03

  5. I might point out that the fireboxes are not used onl in the UK. At some sites here in the States, they forbid ground fires, so they have to be used here ads well!

    December 7, 2011 at 08:10

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