Re-Enactment - Is it still a Hobby ?

The following is a collection of diverse thoughts all focused around re-enactment, what we do, how we do it and why we do it. It is not meant to be a statement of fact and will not conclude with any magical formula or the answer '42'. It may however help some re-enactors, old and new, to reflect on why they expend their energies in this peculiar pastime.

It is debatable when the first re-enactment happened, although in recent years it is accepted that Brigadier Peter Young was a significant influence on broadening the base of re-enactment. The society he founded, The Sealed Knot, was the first nationally organised re-enactment group with significant membership. Whilst it continues to have the largest membership numbers in this country, it does, however, have a lot of competition from many other societies, both large and small.

Many of us remember, with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, when we joined; the days when we just had a good time. Some societies have not changed. Certain new societies even have that philosophy. Possibly some re-enactors feel that these days some groups or individuals take it too seriously. It is true that our pastime can accommodate all types of re-enactors; from those willing to spend thousands of pounds to 'get it right' to those who really only appreciate the social side and just enjoy seeing friends.

Small groups have emerged, which specialise in a specific date or region and therefore find it easier to obtain a better degree of historical consistency than some of the larger and older groups. Hand in hand with this seems to be the style of presentation. Intimate presentations are becoming more popular with sponsors, and the anonymous battles, while far from dead, are definitely on the decline. Though presentations are becoming more significant, is the change in skills that we require being addressed? Can we still only treat what we do as purely a pastime or should we attempt to give the paying public more?

Some re-enactors believe that all the public expect is to be entertained. I believe that it is fundamentally necessary to maintain the public's interest, but would argue that this can be done by entertainment or by focused education or by a combination of both. It is inappropriate to say which is best, because that greatly depends upon the context of the presentation and more specifically the interests of the public viewing the presentation.

The one thing I believe we should all attempt to achieve is to be honest with our public. I do not think it actually matters how accurate you are with your information or your equipment, so long as you make that clear to the public so that they do not confuse fact with fiction. While this statement may be seen as blasphemous by certain re-enactors, I would ask them to consider two points:

Firstly we all compromise, with the possible exception of post WW2 re-enactment. History, being what it is, has gone and can never be faithfully reproduced with one hundred percent certainty of the facts. Re-enactors take the evidence and we fill in the gaps, hopefully in an objective way, but this is only inference. It is part and parcel of the toolkit we use in re-enactment. If we only stuck to the known evidence then in most cases our presentations would not be practicable.

Secondly we are, like it or not, a part of the heritage industry. This means we have to make certain compromises to ensure that we have a 'marketable product'. Typically these compromises include such things as the site, the cost of 'getting it right', health & safety issues and the needs of the sponsor. We cannot ignore these so we have to accommodate them.

Now to clarify, I do not follow the view held by some that 'they [the public] do not know any better so what does it matter '. We must recognise that "the public" is not a single entity and contains many amateur experts from all walks of life. To paraphrase: 'be sure your lies will find you out'. I have often seen, and fallen foul myself of, guessing on something, only to be pointed out the folly of my ignorance by a visitor. This is embarrassing when there is a handful of visitors and potentially a slow death for your group when the presentation is in front of hundreds of public.

So, we compromise. What should we do about it?

In some cases it is simple to just hide it, the cry (joke or serious !??) amongst many Seventeenth Century re-enactors is "cover it in hessian!" This can work, but I have to say large swathes of cover cloth can be self-defeating. "I wonder what is under there?" is a thought that does go through the minds of the public.

We can build it into our presentation. An example is light switches - I have been known to acknowledge that it is a Twentieth Century light switch and then smoothly discuss the problems of lighting in the period and how electric (& gas) light changed the workload of domestic household servants.

We can just not draw attention to it, many historic sites have a nasty habit of putting up permanent information boards, many historic buildings have light switches in inconveniently obvious places. If you do not draw attention to them then, in my experience, the majority of the time the public do not always see them. So what happens if they do? - well, I feel honesty is the best policy and if you can pretend it is to be part of the presentation then the public are usually satisfied.

We can ignore it and refuse to be drawn on it, this takes more presence of mind and care, so that you are not seen as arrogant and merely ignoring the paying public.

So if someone asks you a question and you are ignorant of the answer what can be done? I would say the cardinal rule is do not make it up and present that as fact (I have covered this earlier). Again, depending upon what you feel will be acceptable to the public, you have a number of options:

  • You could bluntly say 'I do not know', possibly directing them to someone who does.
  • You could explain to them your thoughts and theories, making it plain that is what they are.
  • Or what I consider is the best option in some cases - you could answer a subtly different question that you do know the answer to.

This now brings me to style of presentation; what is often called 'first person versus third person'. Pedantically those classifications are too narrow: First person; speaking as if you are the actual person, can be in modern speech (possibly avoiding anachronistic terminology) or period speak (pseudo period speak?), whereas third person (for example, "the soldiers of the period did this ...") is sensibly done in modern speech.

Keeping the classifications artificially narrow, I see no point in saying which one is best without placing them into context. While I believe that the majority of situations warrant either modernised first person or third person, there are certain situations and when dealing with certain public that straight first person is appropriate. Some would say that this is more akin to theatre than interpretation, however presentations, such as those at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, where a small first person cameo is followed by a third person question and answer session, can be very effective. The only rule I stick to is that I answer the question, providing a suitable answer that I think will satisfy the person. To explain: if a child asks "where is your cooker ?" then I can reply by explaining how I use the tools I have to cook, comparing them to the modern cooker (i.e. grill, hot plate, oven). If a child says "they did not have them in those days!" then you can use open questions to get the child to challenge their own thoughts.

To conclude: when as a re-enactor you are presenting to the public, discerning or otherwise, it is should be recognised that you are attempting to exercise skills and abilities akin to a combination of public speaker; teacher and actor. Among the many things you require, one of the most significant, of course, is some knowledge of the topic, though I hope I have illustrated that knowing the most intricate details is not necessarily the most important factor in a successful presentation. One skill, which is an asset, that re-enactors are rarely fortunate to be trained in, is that of presentation skills. Will such training destroy re-enactment as a hobby?

I apologise for the rambling nature of this article. It contains and infers many thoughts, some of which are at odds with others. It came about because of serious questions asked by a journalist for a European magazine about why my wife and I do what we do. Anybody who is passionate about something knows how difficult it is to be coherent.

Written by Mark Goodman,Copyright © 2000 Mark Goodman/Echoes Of The Past