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

Beyond Re-enactment: Rescuing History from Recreation

This is a revised version of a paper presented to the “History, Text, Culture” Conference at the University of Melbourne in February 1999.

In 1978 a youth bought a rather imposing axe from a stall at the St Kilda Esplanade market. In response to his questioning, the purveyor of the axe gave the youth the name and address of some recreational medievalists. That young man was me, and that event set me on a rather unusual path.

Whence had come the interest that prompted my purchase and my questions? Had I been inspired by my exposure to medieval history at school? Had I read inspiring history books? Alas, no. Neither my hazy recollections of school history classes, nor the exposure I have had to it since, suggests that conventional school history classes are very effective at instilling any understanding of, or lasting interest in, history.
Rather I had been an avid reader of science fiction and epic fantasy, and it was the latter especially which had inspired me to consider recreational medievalism as a pursuit.
The group I was put in touch with, was not the first to have existed in Melbourne and never amounted to anything, but its name incorporated a significant term, “re–enactment”.

Through this paper I shall use the term “Recreational Medievalism” to denote any indulgence of an interest in pre–modern history in some more active manner than merely reading about it, and “Re–enactment” to describe a particular subset, which I shall discuss at some length. I do not plan to say very much about the practitioners of “recreational medievalism” who do not regard themselves as “re–enactment” such as most of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Mulaniacs and so on, because I tend to view them, in the famous phrase, as “Mostly Harmless”.

Even in those distant days the concept of "historical re-enactment" already brought with it a sheaf of established doctrinal assumptions. The first was that there was a “Real History” which was accessible with relatively little effort. The second was that “Authenticity” was the yardstick of success in evoking this “Real History”. A sub-text to these, was the never quite articulated, but always enacted, principle that the only “Real History” of any importance was military.
Twenty years later, notwithstanding the ferment that academic attitudes to history have gone through in the interim, nor the vast expansion and aging of the pre-colonial re-enactment community in Australia, these three propositions remain essentially unchallenged.
Although my initial interest was fantastical, I rapidly absorbed these doctrinal assumptions, in the normal uncritical manner. I have never lost my interest in Fantasy, yet the more I looked into it, the more I found that what human beings had done, how they had lived, as far as we can establish it, was much more curious, bizarre, and important, than the contrivances of modern creators.

In 1983 I took a job with a business which toured secondary schools giving displays devoted to ancient and medieval military history. This confirmed, in that formal context at least, the educational virtue of an active representation of aspects of history. In late 1985 I launched my own business in the area, performing more diverse displays for schools and tourists in the upper Blue Mountains of New South Wales.
Although those who came to the performances I ran then were uniformly enthusiastic, the location was too distant from the market to be sustainable, so by mid 1987 insolvency loomed and I cast about for what I might do until a prospective bankruptcy was discharged. Throughout the performances, teachers especially had been astonished that I had no formal qualifications. So I decided to go to University to get the bit of paper everyone tended to assume I had anyhow.

I continued my recreational medievalist activities while studying, yet academic study shortly left me in No-Man's Land. I had come from a milieu in which a theory or interpretation is put to a simple test; “Does it work?” and where one finds all too often that academic theories about practical matters in history do not work. So I had, and retain somewhat, reservations about academia. (Anyone wishing a further exposition on this should look at my 1993 Byzantine Studies Conference paper) On the other hand, the exposure to the methodology of scholarly study, and issues of historiographical theory fermented with my long-standing frustration with the narrow militarism and fragmentary nature of recreational medievalism and “re-enactment” especially to produce grave doubts as to whether they can have any virtue beyond idle recreation.

Bound up with the definition of re-enactment as distinct from other forms of recreational medievalism is the ultimate talismanic expression: “Authenticity”. “Authenticity” is constantly invoked by re-enactors. It serves to validate their own activities, and the activities of those of whom they approve. The charge of the lack of it is the ultimate condemnation. Vocal re-enactors have touted “Authenticity” so dogmatically over the last decade, and projected it so aggressively onto others, that more honestly self-indulgent recreational medievalists, and even enthusiasts of epic fantasy literature, have felt the validity of their recreations threatened.

Such vocal re-enactors almost always use the concept of “Authenticity” as though it were discrete entity whose parameters are known. On the very few occasions when it has been discussed philosophically in the re-enactment field in this country, the overwhelming tactic has been the simplistic regurgitation of post-modernist slogans to justify a pre-existing framework. That framework decrees that all that is required is an accumulation of artefacts copied, sometimes accurately, from surviving examples or representations. These artefacts need not bear any clear relation to each other. Nor is the accumulation of artefacts informed by any strong appreciation of social or ideological context in the broadest sense. Indeed, it has been explicitly stated by some of the most vocal ideologues of Australian pre-Colonial re-enactment that re-enactors ought never attempt to represent social, ideological or psychological factors, because we can never understand enough about them.1 The reason offered cannot be faulted in the simple sense. We can never understand enough about them. However it seems to me that the virtue lies not in imagining that we can ever understand enough about them, but in working towards maximising our understanding as much as possible. This the sort of work recreational medievalists shirk most diligently.
Furthermore, despite the construction of the title: “re-en-act-ment” The actions which take place around this accumulation of material objects are hardly ever constructed as if they were reproduced historical artefacts with anything remotely resembling the diligence or research that goes into even the average physical reproduction.

Why should re-enactment be so problematical?

There are two answers. The first and simpler answer is “Fun”. The people who engage in all forms of recreational medievalism are, of course, amateurs who pour sometimes astonishing amounts of their free time and disposable income into their recreation. They do that for enjoyment. Thoughtful re-enactors do generally feel a tension between Authenticity and Fun, and will from time to time make an effort to do something different because they feel it is required for a greater degree of Authenticity, although just as often, even that is merely a mask for quest for moral dominance in a competitive market place. But in reality Fun rules, and Fun determines the boundaries of what is reproduced, what is re-enacted and how it is done.
The second is material. Recreational medievalists of all sorts have limited amounts of time and money, they are naturally going to devote those to what gives them the most satisfaction. Any who decide that the detailed, intensive, scholarly study of history is what gives them the fullest satisfaction, usually move out of this pastime, at least conceptually, even if they still participate to some degree. The rest meander along grasping at those snippets of history which interest them from moment to moment.

The inevitable result of these factors is that recreational medievalism is rarely anything but a sometimes disastrous pastiche, if not parody, of anything historical. For “re-enactment” with its grandiose claims, this ought to be a profound difficulty. But that seems not to be so, as I observe.

It may seem to some of you that I am labouring the obvious, however I feel obliged to repeat the warning. The trend of the last couple of decades for reconstructive history, “archaeology by experiment”, to quote a germinal title,2 and so on, has in places spilled over to shed an unduly flattering light on re-enactment through the nineteen nineties, both in the northern hemisphere and in this country. The University of Melbourne itself has seen a couple of major events at which “Viking” re-enactors participated very prominently, presenting not merely the usual sort of fanciful Small-Boys-at-Play military performance, but in one case I witnessed, where members gave public lectures in which one of them knowingly expounded falsehoods designed to cover lapses in their material presentation. Elsewhere, the Brisbane Museum has held two major exhibitions set up by what was in that era at least, the most blatantly dishonest so-called re-enactment group in Australia, the Companie of Knights Bachelor. This tendency is only likely to worsen as the field grows, and public and private organisations show a willingness to outlay larger amounts of money to fund such events.

Despite all this, I do still hold to the position I have argued in the past that there can be some benefit in a re-enactment style approach in testing research, and in such presentation for education, if one can winnow the chaff. I would suggest that anyone who might wish to engage, or co-operate with, any medievalist group apply a couple of simple tests.
The first is familiar: publications. Ask to see what publications have been put out by the group. Not promotional material, but research and educational information. A group which lacks such an information base must be viewed with reservations. If literature is available, it would be necessary to view some and assess its quality, bearing in mind that you would get the very best they have, not something representative.
The second test is to ask for a comprehensive script for any proposed event or display, preferably with photographs showing prominent components and personnel of the script.

I confess I am still groping a little, yet I have some ideas about how the systemic failings of “re-enactment” might be improved upon.
As I have implied previously, while I regard physical reconstruction of objects as sometimes having value, merely presenting a collection of objects tells us a very limited amount about life in the past. The rest is embodied in actions and relationships which must be evoked in some measure.

Much of the problem of creating a potentially viable scenario devolves upon the need to define space.
Physical space is a subset of the problem. Australia, of course, has a natural environment which is largely unlike anywhere in the Old World, and no original medieval buildings. Settlement has created areas which have less alien flora, but most historical presentations are done outdoors in urban areas.
Many recreational medievalist groups already make some attempt to manipulate the physical space by means of setting up tents and awnings which look less modern and may sometimes resemble historical precedents.
Going beyond such expedients as that demands a more difficult process, wherein most existing re-enactment organisations in this country fail completely. It is the definition of the Narrative Space.
Irrespective of whoever is presenting a historical display, even if they were professional historians doing a documentary, resources of information, time, money and performing personnel are inevitably limited. All these limitations, and that of physical space can be ameliorated to a degree by defining the bounds of the Narrative Space as narrowly as possible.
The primary components of Narrative Space are Period, Location and Social milieu. Within that Space the personae evoked are defined by the qualities of ethnicity, social class, gender, personal relationships and occupation. The interplay between all the various elements then defines the possibilities of the presentation. We can expect that the creation of a scenario will be guided by the intention to illustrate some particular aspect or complex of aspects in a society that are of interest to, or deemed important by, the presenter. These parameters should then serve to delineate a project which is more manageable in both research and execution.
Defining a narrow Narrative Space is also a technique which can be applied to the constitution of a re-enactment organisation. A measure of success has been demonstrated in several of the least objectionable recreational re-enactment clubs in Australia, the Pike and Musket Society, I Condottieri, and some branches of the New Varangian Guard. Unfortunately few recreational medievalists are willing to have their fun constrained so much.
An approach which may be more viable, whether for recreational organisation or even for an on-going more scholarly project, is to have a slightly broader Narrative Space defined as the envelope within which group of people might pursue a variety of interests and projects, with presentations or performances crystalising out on the basis of much more confined Narrative Spaces within the envelope.

I have put before you the results of many years of sometimes painful and disheartening observation, and some theories about a possible way forward. As yet I have had no chance to test the possibilities in practice. I am happy to field any comments on the situation when time allows. I am also very keen to hear from anyone who might be interested in helping to put it to test!

Timothy Dawson


  1. Steven Hand ‘The Past is a foreign country’ and Tim O’Neill ‘Historical reconstruction and historical role-playing’ both originally published in Nuntius, the journal of the defunct Tasmanian Medieval Society, February 1991, the latter was republished in New Hedeby , August 1992
  2. John Coles Archaeology by Experiment Hutchinson, London 1973