THE RANGE OF LIVING HISTORY
Wm. Booth, Draper at the Sign of the Unicorn, a purveyor of fine period fabrics—mostly 18C, but they will work with reenactors of other eras—brought a blog entry to our attention. They said, “This is a nice short read on living history. When we started in the 1970s we laugh at ourselves—what we wore, used, etc. But everyone starts somewhere. I know so many people who started doing things one way but now have grown into some of the finest in the hobby.”
In this blog entry, the author speaks about the community of reenactors, noting that members—presumably whether they initially think of the relationship or not—should work together and help others, whether their philosophies are exactly the same or not. It is uncertain whether she is speaking only of eighteenth-century reenactors or of reenactors of any era, but in this piece, I am speaking of reenactors of any era. I personally have a lot more in common—in terms of research, in terms of depiction, in terms of making certain that the atmosphere is consistent and high-quality—with the reenactor of a vastly different era than with someone interested in NASCAR. We both want to strive for, to discover and to present the truth!
The blog has a very insightful look at the living-history phenomenon, on what is important and what is not important. It asks the all-important question of “What is the purpose of living history?” That is a very broad subject, and it boils down to another question: What is good living history?
The trouble is that “living history” has mutated since it was coined in the 1960s and popularized in the 1980s so that it often is used to describe many things that would have been alien to those who coined and popularized the term (though their standards were considerably lower than those of many of today’s living-history societies; living history is an evolutionary process, where practitioners are always clamoring on the shoulders of those who came before them!). It has been used for causes as diverse as a book of modern political memoirs, to describe philately to cosplay that is only tangentially related to any historical subject and what we might think of as living history proper. To quote the definition set forth by Jay Anderson in Time Machines (1984): Living history “can be defined as an attempt by people to simulate life in another time.”
That is a suitably useful but immoderately broad definition, and I have often used it with the annotation that something is “good living history” and something is “bad living history.” For example, a society which has no authenticity regulations, which covers a very broad sphere of time, which willingly allows oop spex, sneakers, artificial materials and which tends to perpetuate inaccurate historical interpretations from the Victorian Age is living history. Just bad living history. Another society, which demands physical artifacts—not even literary sources are good enough—as the provenance for anything it portrays is good living history. Most societies lie somewhere between.
Are they all valid? Well, they are certainly what the members want, and they would not exist if they did appeal to such a desire. The big difficulty to me is the honesty and integrity of the descriptions of what they want to do. If the first society I noted above merely said in all its publicity that it attempts to foster a loose romantic vision of the past, I would have no problem; when they say they are “medieval reenactment” as they so often do, they have set up standards and expectations that might affect all facets of living history and which might affect someone joining the society in all good faith!
It is not here my intention to run down a list of farby and unsatisfying societies—of many eras, though we are most concerned with the Viking Age—just to note that such things exist, and potential members should always examine what the society offers and demands of its members! Hopefully, the members of the society will portray themselves honestly and not try to be everything for everyone and, because of that, is nothing for nobody.
For me, the goal is good living history. The extent of the accuracy is high, but not absolute. I accept literary references in many cases, and I am willing to make one leap of logic (sometimes a tricky slope to be certain). I have a preference for putting on shows and for educating MoPs (Members of the Public), but I recognize the legitimacy of BUFU (By Us For Us) societies. In either case, education is being passed on. Hopefully legitimate education and not merely incorrect myths, superstitions or untrue stereotypes!
In the blog entry that inspired this, Christina, the author, notes:
“I personally take pleasure in the details and the research—not at the expense of my interpretation, but rather to the enrichment of it….Are we going to get all of the details 100% right? Probably not. Are we going to be 100% engaging in our narratives to 100% of our audience all of the time? Probably not. Should we ever sacrifice one of these parts for the sake of other? Definitely not. Should we come together as a community to build into each other, and to positively invest in each other rather than continue to divide, deride, and dishearten? If we want living history to survive and thrive in the coming years, I believe the answer must be yes. An overwhelming, resounding yes.”
I think that pretty well sums up my views as well!