This article was written late last century, and was based upon observations made in the Historical Recreation field in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s. From the perspective of late 2020 after near to two decades of involvement in Historical Recreation in England primarily, a lot of it is still depressingly applicable.
Practical Antiquarianism, to coin a phrase, has a long and truly noble (sic) history. Since the Renaissance at least, people with leisure and surplus wealth have been recreating versions of what they perceived to be the past for their own entertainment. At present in Australia some people try to claim a unique moral validity for one type of Practical Antiquarianism, called historical re-enactment, and in doing so set out to decry another variety, called creative anachronism. This campaign merits some close scrutiny.
Many compromises are made in historical re-enactment. Most, if not all, of those compromises stem from the fact that for almost all of the practitioners of it, historical re-enactment is a recreation, not a profession, let alone a matter of life and death.
This may seem, at first sight, like a banal statement, however some very important results flow from it in practice, some of them obvious and some very much less so.
An example of an obvious consequence is the fact that weapons used in re-enactment combat are blunt, and the combatants on the field (or at least the great majority of them) are not intending to do others actual lasting bodily harm.
Less obvious is the fact that few people make a habit of cultivating intestinal parasites or chronic malnutrition or any of the other afflictions which were endemic to most periods of history prior to the twentieth century and are still common in some parts of the world even today. This not such a foolish observation. An episode recounted in the fine documentary series on the American Civil War broadcast by S.B.S. some years ago is apposite. Some decades after the American Civil War some aged veterans of the Confederate forces were being féted at a dinner. Afterwards they were asked to give the famous Rebel Yell. One veteran replied, You just cant do it with a stomach full of food and a mouth full of false teeth! Another in the program observed that no one could reproduce the Rebel Yell who was not starving and intensely combat stressed. Chronic discomfort must needs have been the lot of most of the human race throughout history. Irritability, peevishness and an inclination to any sort action that would produce a reaction intense enough to overpower the background haze of pain was probably a significant influence on behaviour. I am told that some American Civil War re-enactors, representing Confederates especially, are in the habit of inducing dysentery for their longer events in order to get to the essence of the experience. I admire their dedication if this is true.
A still less obvious, yet utterly pervasive result is the main subject of this discussion. Escapism is an insult for many Australian re-enactors. They do it on weekends; yet not to escape uncongenial aspects of their twentieth century lives, of course. Thus, as we all know, they strive with thorough-going, selfless dedication to present the most complete and accurate picture of their chosen era of history.
Take the activity which dominates mediaeval re-enactment around the world: fighting. Overlooking just how little relationship individual combat methods normally bear to anything historical, did soldiers of antiquity, the middle ages and renaissance materialise on the surface of the Earth, fight their battles and then say Beam me up, Scotty? Hardly. They ended up there as the result of a complex mesh of social relationships and obligations. Nor did these social relationships and obligations end at edge of the battlefield, but determined how the warriors fought, and for how long they fought, quite as much as when and whether they fought. Do we see a hint of this on Australian re-enactment battlefields? Or any other aspect of social forms, which many scholars would say are more important differences between the middle ages and renaissance and the present than material things. Their duct-tape and rattan not-withstanding, the S.C.A. makes a better representation of that side of the past, as they march to war in their shires, baronies and kingdoms, and in the acts of obsequiousness performed in order to gain the attention of those higher up the hierarchy. There is an organic social dynamic at work there, which closely approximates that of the middle ages and renaissance, in spirit, if not in detail.
Off the battlefield what do we find re-enactors doing to represent the life of their times? It is clear that some still believe that having committed their acts of senseless violence they have done all that is necessary to that end and can light up a well-earned cigarette, although such are a declining minority and most are aware that more is needed. So there are greater attempts at period encampments than ever before. This is all to the good, yet some people see that as sufficient, and a bit of standing around tents does the job well enough to justify that well-earned cigarette. More adventurous folk go further. Crafts are gaining popularity. All the relevant crafts? Well, no. The women are set to their embroidery and perhaps some tablet weaving to show that they are not completely redundant, although heaven help them if they run out of thread, for carding and spinning do not get a look in. The boys usually confine themselves to the properly manly tasks of mail-making and running repairs to armour and weapons, but may go in for a little leather-work, or whittle a bit of wood. More ambitious groups sometimes take a small forge along so that bods can batter innocent pieces of steel into unrecognisable shapes. Wood-carvers, horn and bone-workers are rare, wood-turners and soap-stone carvers are unheard-of. Silver and gold-smiths? Get real! Illumination is not really an outdoor pursuit, admittedly, but there was always work for itinerant notaries.
Then there are the Arts. The what? Arts, you know; poetry, music, dancing. People do try now and again, but such activities always end up being an addendum, often stilted, done because a few believe they or their group ought to be seen to have Kulcha, not for actual enjoyment and with no natural place in the whole.
Why should this be so? Some of the answers are superficially easy. These things can require significant investment. Money to buy the equipment. Effort to master the skills, to get the gear to the show and perform. And a person cannot do everything. Yet is all this not just as true of fighting? So why do we see so few in the Movement (as pre-colonial re-enactment is often called in Australia) who commit themselves to a specialisation in craft or art the way so many apply themselves to one in combat? Well, I know, but I shall leave you to ponder it, because the answer does not bear upon my main point.
The social construct of the S.C.A. is not remotely historical in how it rewards and encourages arts and crafts yet it is none the less very effective despite that, and the result is that amongst its great number of participants there are a few people who are producing a wide range of medieval arts and crafts to a remarkable standard of quality and authenticity.
The real point of these examples is to illustrate that what most re-enactors (all round the world, in my observation) do is selective, and not necessarily selective on any rational basis. Bullshit aside, ladies and gentlemen, re-enactment is done for fun, and the participants pick and choose to reproduce a narrow selection of things and activities from the past on the basis of what they find enjoyable. Hell, re-enactors have even taken one activity that has been a mortal misery for millions of people throughout history, war, and turned it into a jolly little sport! How authentic is that?
Do not think for a moment that this is a characteristic only of Australian pre-colonial re-enactors. On the contrary, if one looks at the popular culture of virtually every race in the world across all the periods of history for which we have records one can find the same phenomenon at work. Historical facts are constantly reconstituted to be more congenial and satisfying to those telling the tale, or make political points and bolster the ambitions of nations and power-groups. (This, too, is deliberately done by clubs here.) I some places and times this became a pillar of official history. East Roman historiography was founded upon the practice of revising history as it ought to have been, and the same is true of the Soviet Union in the early part of our century. One of the main reasons why re-enactment is such an Anglo pastime in Australia is that many ethnic groups feel that they still own their history by virtue of have a strong folkloric tradition, yet those folkloric traditions bear little resemblance to the (at least more deliberately constructed) narratives of academic historiography. The simple fact is that revisionism is the normal, unreflective default view of history for human beings. Any re-enactment group which aspires to present a picture with some claim to historiographical validity must go to great lengths to fight against the tendency amongst its members and within its activities. Few do go to such lengths in practice.
The founders of the S.C.A. were aware of this fact and chose to go another way. Creative Anachronism is the conscious and deliberate indulgence of historical revisionism for its entertainment value.
To vilify the S.C.A. because most of its members are honest enough to admit that they pursue a self-indulgent farrago of antiquarianism is hypocritical. To claim that what re-enactors (or, alas, more and more often people claiming to do living history) do is some sort of realistic or valid representation of any era of the past is almost always dishonest or deluded.