Levantia title



Skylitzes Varangians

Varang Re–enactment

Templar Re–enactment

“Varangian Rhomfaia”

Varangian “Uniform”

What is “Byzantine”?



Beyond Re–enactment

“Middle” Ages?

Re–enactment issues

Uses of the Varangians

Academic Historiography and Historical Re–enactment

This is a revised version of a paper presented to the Eighth Australian Byzantine Studies Conference 1993.

I shall begin this paper by defining the terminology I shall employ. To define the poles I shall use terms “Historiographers” and “Re–enactors”. The reason for this is that I believe and hope to illustrate that the expression “Historian” should be applied to those whose research is designed for the representation of history by action as much as to those who describe history in writing.

European Australia is a nation with a scanty history and in the latter part of this century, up at least until the last few years, a very scanty sense of history amongst the general population. Yet for decades there has been a sub–culture of historical re–enactment groups quietly doing their business. Those working in the Australian colonial period have always had a certain acceptance and respectability, even when their quality of presentation and authenticity did not warrant it, simply on account of misty nationalism. Groups working in pre–colonial eras have had rather more trouble gaining acceptance, both amongst the general public and amongst historiographers.

The problems pre–colonial re–enactors have with the public could be a paper in their own right, and are not very relevant here, so I shall pass over them.

At one extreme the attitudes of academics to re–enactors have sometimes been those of contempt and disdain. Such reactions are all to often valid. like all sub–cultures historical re–enactment attracts what I should perhaps call “the socially challenged”. Lynda1 herself could tell you enough about such a situation, for her relations with myself were at first adversely coloured by prior exposure to one such socially challenged individual. Similarly there are altogether too many organisations which profess to be doing historical re–enactment which must incur the contempt of anyone who is serious about historical study and representation, because their scholarship and presentation are of such a low standards or entirely absent. Finally there are also organisations which officially do not pretend to be doing re–enactment, but whose more zealous, misguided or dishonest members may make contrary claims. Encounters with these groups understandably produce negative reactions, but I hope that in future there will be less likelihood of these reactions encompassing all groups which may superficially look similar.

At the Salamanca Writers’ Weekend in 1988 Steven Knight, then Professor of English at the University of Melbourne and specialist in medieval literature, gave a paper which was subsequently reprinted in Island magazine. The paper was primarily intended to challenge the historiographical theories of David Lowenthal, but in passing Knight discharges some volleys in the direction of “medievalists”. He makes two main criticisms. He dismisses them as merely self–indulgent escapists, and says that “their information can be of great value at times, though they will not know that; others have to make present use of their treasured, indeed reified, information” As an aside I would curious to know which organisations Steven Knight had been looking at, since I suspect he is most likely to have seen one of the non–re–enactment examples, but that information would not really affect the nature of his comments or my response.

Both these criticisms are in a sense true, yet they are both also mistaken. Necessarily there must be an element of self–indulgence and escapism in amateur re–enactment. The people who do it are not getting paid for it, indeed they are investing a lot of money of the their own to do it. It is a recreation for them and so they attend to those bits which interest them and give them satisfaction. Where self–indulgence swamps historical rigour and that is all that happens, whether deliberately, as in some of the groups I have already alluded to, or by default, the activity should not even be considered to be “historical re–enactment” but rather “quasi–historical recreation”. Otherwise, where a group’s ethos and leadership preserves historical rigour, escapism and self–indulgence become the very driving forces that produce successful re–enactment scenarios. One such, a wedding, occurred at the Seventh Conference of Australian pre–colonial re–enactment societies in 1993 and is illustrated on the video that will be seen later.

Professor Knight’s other criticism, that re–enactors do not know the value of their information, is true in so far as that there is a rump of re–enactors who simply enjoy the arts, crafts and activities that are involved in the pursuit and go no deeper, but those people follow behind others who most certainly are aware of the deeper significance of their activities. The re–enactment field has its share of vigourous, and even acrimonious, theoretical debate about objectives, limitations and methods. I would also say that those who do not reflect on such issues do not do the sort of research and re–construction that produces information of significant value.

On the other side, re–enactors just as often have a very mixed attitude to historiographers. They must use the results of their work, yet all too often find the work riddled with errors which seem elementary to a re–enactor's practical experience and approach.

This brings me to the major point I want to make in this paper. I believe that there are presently two distinct mind–sets between re–enactors and historiographers. Mind–sets which acting alone often produce errors and dead ends, but which if allied can yield a more accurate picture of history more easily. These mind–sets can be summed up in the terms “Practicality” and “Abstraction”.

Re–enactors working without any of the methods of evidence gathering and analysis that have evolved in the tradition of formal historiography produce an image of history that can range from the outright fanciful, to ludicrously flawed versions of tertiary sources. While their practicality and craftsmanship can produce some beautiful objects copied from original pieces, such people rarely produce valuable information even accidentally.

On the other side, Byzantinists especially must be well acquainted with gibes about “Ivory Towers”, which do have some truth. I shall illustrate the kinds of errors that can arise with one simple and extreme but representative case. In the volume Early Medieval Kingship edited by P.H. Sawyer and I.N. Wood, Patrick Wormald discusses a provision in the law code of Alfred the Great which specifies penalties for accidental injury caused by a spear carried sloped across the shoulder. After recognising that this judgement arose from an actual case, Wormald expresses perplexity that this should have occurred while there is no mention of any similar cases involving any other weapons or implements2 and, it would seem, uses this to build up an impression of “haphazard” legal formation in the early middle ages.3 Both his perplexity and his conclusion are unjustified. Consider that a sword, for example, was carried scabbarded, thus, and rarely drawn other than in situations of conflict. Accidental contact with the blade, perhaps during cleaning, sharpening or display, was very unlikely, and if it did happen the result would be no more than a small cut. In contrast, take one shoulder, and one spear. Amongst my colleagues it is common to refer to a spear as “a knife on a stick”, and I am sure some of you will now be coming to understand just how much damage a careless man with a spear sloped across his shoulder could do. (At this point I was walking amongst the audience carrying a spear in the manner referred to, as I wore a sword introduced earlier.) One might counter that not many people walk around with spears across their shoulders nowadays, and that is true, but there is enough contemporary analogous behaviour that someone who is prone to thinking about things in practical terms could have dispelled the “mystery”. Analogies such as cleaners carrying brooms, builders with boards or especially that favourite of slapstick silent comedy films, the ladder sketch, could have shed light upon it. Even if the answer did not spring spontaneously to mind, someone with a practical bent might have seized a broom from his cupboard and waved it about contemplating the possibilities.

There has long been a few people working in the middle ground, combining the methods, although more in the fields of archæology4 and palæo–anthropology5 than history. In recent decades encroachment on the middle ground has become more common from both sides, albeit in a patchy manner. Maritime reconstruction has almost become an industry in its own right due to the spectacularity of the results and the ease of getting resources, while there are other areas which could benefit which are as yet untried. This encroachment can be expected to continue and accelerate, with, I predict, more from the side of re–enactment, than Academia. The group of which I was founding president and member for many years, the New Varangian Guard, for long while generated a growing amount of its own scholarship; of necessity, since the material and social history of Byzantium and the Near East remains even more under–researched than the political and religious history of the area compared to Europe. There is also a growing tendency for people initially enthused by participation in re–enactment to take up academic historical study as a vocation. I suggest furthermore that a greater number of people from a re–enactment background venturing into historiography will ultimately show a distinct change in the character of their historical research and writing. The mind–set of practicality has an all–pervading influence. Beyond small and probably mostly inconsequential reconstruction projects, this mind–set subtly influences the choice of subject matter studied and how evidence is amassed, analysed and tested. Allied with academic methods this has the potential to produce scholarship that is less vague, tortuous and prone to dead ends, even in areas that are not materially testable. A rash claim, perhaps, and one that only time will prove or dispel, but one I am prepared to stand by, and which can be illustrated anecdotally even now. My own honours essay on post antique Byzantine slavery is one example, for I was motivated by a desire to get some impression of what it meant to the people of the time rather than to make a study of legal or broad social factors. Ultimately an impossible goal, but one which originally guided the choice of topic and its treatment. There is unlikely to be any effect upon the treatment of the broad sweep of historical development in this development, but social history and more specialised fields might well see significant change.

There is another reason why there ought to be more of a rapprochement between historiographers and serious re–enactors, public education. Most such organisations do public appearances, and those with better presentation and scholarship also perform for schools. Displays for the public can do much to increase the community's awareness of history as a cultural process, and for schools always do a great deal to make the subject much less dead and irrelevant to pupils, and, as I have observed over a decade of educational performances, can be a scholastic turning point for some students. Groups working in less established areas, like Byzantium and the realm of Islam also does a lot to fill in the the blank patches in Anglo–Saxon Australia’s traditional version of history.

Finally, any academic historian who does conceive a theory that can be practically tested might well benefit from consulting some of the more serious re–enactors working in the same or close fields. He or she could find a pool of established relevant skills practiced by people who are already experienced in applying them to historical projects, or, as Steven Knight implied, may even find that the problem has been wholly or partially solved.

I hope I have managed to present persuasively to you good reasons for greater rapprochement and cooperation between historiographers and the more serious historical re–enactors, and foreshadow some of the benefits and changes to historical study and education that can result.

Timothy Dawson


  1. Dr. Lynda Garland lecturer in Byzantine studies at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia.
  2. Sawyer and Wood Early Medieval Kingship, School of History University of Leeds 1977—79, pp. 113–4.
  3. ibidem.
  4. John Coles, Archaeology by Experiment, Hutchinson, London, 1973.
  5. For example ‘Humans in the Ancient Levant’, Scientific American, April, 1993.