REENACTING, ACCURACY & EVOLUTION
To some extent there have always been historical reenactors. In ancient Rome, there were reenactors who performed in fates and festivals. There were reenactors in the Middle Ages who recreated Biblical and historical scenes. This did not mean that they had any sense of what was correct or accurate or even that the costume of the previous day was not the same as the costume used at that time. Look, for example, at art featuring Biblical scenes in which the participants are dressed in a current fashion. While they may have been able to know when such and such an activity happened, they could not will you the appearance of the participants.
Reenactors continued for some time being people who wanted to celebrate the past but who did not knowing how the past might look. For example if you look at any of the popular art and fiction during the eight5eenth and nineteenth centuries when interest in “Viking” folklore began. You can see that they had a very minimal idea of what was going on at that time and, probably little desire to present anything that was in opposition to what they believed. This attitude continued well into the twentieth century and is seen in many depictions yet today!
If we look at the first medieval reenactment in the United States—actually in British-held Philadelphia—the costumes and equipment were less historically accurate than romantic and appealing to the participants and spectators. We have some illustrations from the event, known as the Mischianza, done by Major John André, that show this quite well!
A couple generations later, what was known as The Last Tournament was planned but because of weather conditions postponed. Armor was actually taken from drawing rooms, but it is uncertain whether the armor was used or if, indeed, it survived because was not. It was about this time that people had begun to realize that the costumes, the kit and the accouterments of the earlier day were indeed different from those of the current day. But this was during the Romantic, neo-Gothic era of the Victorian era, a tendency to have costumes based on that which was found by the archaeologists, though there was still a tendency to interpret it according to contemporary morés and tastes. In photos of the nineteenth century medieval and Viking reenactments, the costumes are a curious mixture of the accurate and the fanciful. But then, even into the early twentieth century, such a freewheeling amount of interpretation was seen in artistic representations, in films (and is still seen today in many infancies) and in such places as books by Wilcox and Norris was still seen and still commonly available. Total uncritical acceptance must be guarded against!
The fact that the myth of the Viking helmet with horn was born in the middle of the nineteenth century—originally a theatrical design from Carl Emil Doepler for Wagner’Ring cycle and achieved vast popularity that is seen yet today needs not, I hope, be mentioned with any intense investigation…
It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that a true sense of what was proper—and not merely the illusion of it, as was seen in pageants, plays and, later, films. Most of the early manifestation of reenactors were in the black powder community and in the counter-cultural societies of the mid 1960s, and they were more concerned with idealized technology—and its adaptation to modern requirements—than with the accuracy of costuming. However, as you look at photographs of the various examples of historical costume, you can tell the development of research and knowledge, so that many of the reenactments of today are very accuracy itself, and some of the fiction and films also mirrors at least part of this accuracy.
The fact is that much early reenacting was bound up in the American Civil War centennial, but not only were these reenactments seen—in the words of President Kennedy—as “sham battles,” but participants were content to wear modern suit jackets of blue or grey and to use bb guns. But there among those folk some who were more concerned with historical accuracy, and an increasing spiral upwards toward accuracy was seen. The start of renn faires and LARPs in the 1960s saw a culture more influence by Victorian misinterpretations than by strict accuracy, and this continues to this day, although there again were people who began to do more research and to try to attain a greater accuracy. There are now societies that demand greater accuracy and even in the farbier societies, places of extreme accuracy (although the phrase created by progressives—”what you permit you promote”—is well seen in these subcultures).
In the end, the increasing prominence—or at least knowledge of—reenactors in modern society and its mass media has increased in the past few decades. You can be jaded and note that this has occurred because mainstream media has become more concerned with the representation of the past but not wholly with accuracy, just the illusion of accuracy. People want to dress in a peculiar manner, but the interest is primarily in being able to look different from the mainstream and to stand out, rather than to recreate any sort of historical accuracy and validity. Any change in this attitude has been gradual and often in one area or another, and it has progressed at different speeds in many different sub-communities. To a great extent, the societies who have stringent authenticity regs—and therefore exacting requirements for your appearance before you can participate—are being praised by the media even when they cannot understand it or denigrate it with a back-handed compliment!
Today we see that reenacting and reenactors are treated with a familiarity by the popular media that is on one hand a very welcoming sensation but on the other hand and at the same time is treated in a degrading manner by a mas media that seems to want to create a lower class of people who their mainstream audience can feel superior to and, feeling superior, can purchase the products being promoted by their commercials! Members of the more realistic subculture are not treated as serious historians but rather as jokes, so you will see reenactors being portrayed as humorous in such things as comic strips, in films and even in news coverage of their events. Even any desire for accuracy is presented as a kind of joke, with the media inviting their audience to laugh at the anal types who are attempting to attain any kind of accuracy!
Therefore, with the varied perception by the media, by the mainstream and even by academia, will the perception of reenacting attain a sort of somber acceptance and respect, or will it continue to be the degraded third cousin who likes to wear peculiar outfits. In the end and for me, it little matters. I will, despite the perception and the level of respect and acceptance, continue to try to evolve and to present the most correct interpretations. Perhaps that is a failing on my part…but I can do no less. Hopefully, nether can you!