This is the second part of a lecture delivered to members of the public at the Twelfth Tournament at the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology, Caboolture, Queensland, Australia on June 23rd 2001. The first part is called Middle of what?.
Ladies and gentlemen, when you attend the Abbey Tournament, the Brisbane Medieval Faire, or any other such event, you see recreational societies performing for you who generally claim they are re-enacting history or doing living history. Embodied in these expressions is the claim that what you will see is a valid and accurate representation of History. You will hear the words authentic and authenticity bandied about. I want to discuss with you the foundations that these claims are built upon.
It has to be acknowledged that whenever History is represented in three dimensions there are always limitations. In the first instance there can never be enough information to reconstruct anything but the simplest artefact without some guesswork. This is true even for professional scholars who study History full time and who are acquainted with the original languages that record the events of the past. How much more is it true for members of recreational societies who do the activity in their spare time, who usually have no training in historical study, and who rarely go beyond readily accessible secondary source material written in English.
Two other things are always in short supply: skills and money. Some skills have, of course, been lost with the passage of time. Even where archaic skills can be recovered, weekend practitioners will never achieve the level of accomplishment routinely attained by professional artisans who were the norm in the past.
With skills that still survive, where a high level of competence might still be gained, the limitation of money may intervene, forestalling or degrading by lack of funds a reproduction or activity which is otherwise technically feasible. This is, of course, particularly a problem for people who want to represent the aristocracy or royalty, but it can be just as much of a problem at a lower social level depending on the disposable income of the modern participants. You might think about the prices of linen and woollen cloth, which are relatively much more expensive now than cotton, a rare fabric in the Middle Ages, let alone synthetic fibres.
Another lack which takes its toll is that of people. A club which can put 5, 10 or even 20 members into a display can hardly represent the full diversity of an entire society. It is true, though, that this problem can be moderated by a careful choice of the social situation being depicted, and there are some societies who do this with some success.
The last limitation is the one of the time available for performance. Life is an ongoing process that cannot be chopped into manageable, interesting chunks very easily.
So with all these restrictions, it becomes essential to decide what are the most important things to things to show to audiences on an occasion like this. To make decisions about what most captures the essence of a historical society or situation.
From the outset we have to be quite honest. You folk evidently have a more serious interest in what is being presented here, simply because you have taken the time to listen to a lecture. On the other hand most people attending these events do it merely for a days entertainment. Some of them may feel better about it because they can think that they are being entertained by something real: that is History instead of Fantasy, but many hardly care.
In addition, these clubs are now often being paid significant amounts of money to perform at many events. The result is that there is increasing competition for that money, directly and by means of gaining greater public attention and members. This produces a strong imperative for each club to try to be seen to be more colourful and entertaining than their rivals. This seems to me to pose a few questions. To what degree is History an entertainment? Is daily life and death a performance? You can all come up with some answers to those questions yourself, because your lives are much a part of History as anyone elses.
So, when one of these clubs heads out onto the field and stages an entertaining performance, how much can it really be a valid representation of History? Again, I leave that question with you to think about.
In recent years Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance groups have turned more and more to what is called living history. In principle, this is a very good thing. It is meant to get around the limitation of performance time, and it usually involves setting up a camp and using that to evoke an impression of a lifestyle.
Certainly anyone who has attended these events for some years will have seen larger and larger amounts of stuff on show, being presented as the material trappings of a lifestyle. The competition for attention between societies that I just spoke about has also had its effect in this. In setting up their camps clubs compete with each other to look the most appealing. They peg out bigger and brighter tents, lay out more ornate and numerous chests and tableware, and strew about ever more opulent furnishings. And while pursuing this imperative of attractiveness how much do those presenting the exhibits consider whether such a quantity and style of stuff is justified by the historical evidence, or even whether the individual items bear any accurate resemblance to original examples? The rhetoric will always be of historical accuracy, but does the reality have more to with bright plumage?
Yet there is a more basic question than the historicity of the objects. Would you think that tents and chairs and flags and dresses and so on are the most important features of a past lifestyle or society? Do you believe that material objects are so important that they are virtually all we see? What about immaterial things like social relationships, religious and philosophical attitudes? Do they have any relevance in understanding History and what it might tell us? Personally, I think that they are very important. And that differences in social relationships and organisation at least as great and as important as differences in how, for example, how clothes looked, or whether people sat on chairs or on the ground. But I notice as I look around here that I seem to be in a small minority in holding that opinion.
To conclude. Nowadays, techniques of practical experimentation and reconstruction are well accepted as a very valuable ally of the older type of historical study. Live representation can also be a very valuable method for giving a more vivid and memorable impression of History.
Yet every representation of History, whether it is an official Heritage Site, a film, or a medievalist club performance, is inevitably the product of interpretation of the historical evidence that can often be highly selective. There are always questions which can, and should, be asked about the why and how of every such presentation.
So I urge you to think about these questions, and especially to ask them pressingly of and about the historical recreation clubs you see here and elsewhere.
Catch up with Part One.