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Reenactment; a personal view

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Skirmish in December 2007.

Talk to reenactors and you will hear a lot of observations made about re-enactment and what is right and what is wrong. These are very personal views and there are always some very definite opinions expressed and not everyone will find them acceptable. The fact is that re-enactment is a very broad church, it covers all human history and activity. In fact the only definition I can come up with is this; Re-enactment is the re-creation of the human past. This article is my view of the nature and condition of re-enactment in the UK.

There is much made of authenticity amongst re-enactors, but how many actually think about the nature of authenticity? For many years now I have maintained that there are three authenticities. The first is authenticity of kit. By kit I mean clothing and equipment of all sorts. This is what most people think of where authenticity is concerned.

The second authenticity is that of procedure. By this I mean doing things as they were done in whatever period is being recreated. The simplest example of this is a military unit using the appropriate drill. In many ways this is the easiest authenticity in which to achieve high standards. It costs only time.

The third authenticity, and the one that is neglected to the point of being almost completely ignored, is that of scale. By this I mean doing things with the right numbers. As a result much re-enactment, particularly military re-enactment, is carried out with wargames sized, scaled down units.

Good re-enactment requires a balance of these three authenticities. A handful of soldiers, no matter how well turned out, cannot properly demonstrate the procedures of their period because they will not have the necessary numbers. Regardless of which piece of original uniform was used to provide a pattern for the carefully hand-stitched coats, no matter how well drilled as individuals, six soldiers cannot demonstrate the intricacies of Napoleonic musketry tactics. Four mid-18th century dragoons cannot demonstrate cavalry drill.

In judging the quality of a re-enactment group the least weight is given to the third authenticity. I have never heard of a group being criticised for not having the numbers to accurately portray whatever they have chosen to recreate. Likewise, I am not aware of any group that does achieve the correct numbers being particularly praised. This authenticity is either unrecognised or ignored as being mostly unachievable.

Authenticity of procedure is recognised, mostly in acknowledging that a group is using the correct drill. There is, however, no assessment of how good a group is at what they do. Their platoon firing might be so slow that it would have given an inspecting general apoplexy, but so long as they are going through the proper motions that is all that seems to matter.

By far and away the greatest weight in assessing the standard of a re-enactment group is given to the first authenticity. Of course, having the proper kit is important, but herein lies the root of one of the big problems facing re-enactment today. What is considered to be an acceptable level of authenticity of kit, and by implication the minimum acceptable level of authenticity, is an expensive thing to achieve. Sometimes there seems to be an almost perverse belief that the more your kit costs the better it is. I have heard the statement, “If you haven’t got £1500 don’t even think about joining us”. Costs are also inflated by an obsessive belief in hand stitching. Really good quality hand stitching, from the time before sewing machines, is indistinguishable from machine stitching on the outside. There is also considerable peer pressure brought to bear on people to “improve their kit” by authenticity snobs, who takes no account of an individual’s circumstances.

When I joined the Sealed Knot in 1973 as a pikeman in the King’s Guard I wore ordinary black lace up shoes, cut down cord jeans dyed burgundy, a coat made out of burgundy needle-cord to a pyjama jacket pattern (or so I was told), an old white nylon school shirt with a tie on cotton collar and elasticated cuffs. My buff coat was an ex-army driver’s jerkin turned inside out. The piece de resistance was surely the pink nylon sash! Was I mocked or ostracised? No, along with the rest of my company we were considered pretty good. The point is it cost me peanuts. Today I reckon I would be looking at about £500 to achieve an acceptable level of kit as a civil war pikeman.

The English Civil War is probably the cheapest period in which to start re-enacting today. Along with the mediaeval period it offers a variety of roles and levels of kit to suit the deepest or shallowest pocket. Other periods cost considerably more. Despite my best efforts I could not get the cost of becoming a member of Cobham’s dragoons, circa 1745, below about £1500, and that was without horse furniture.

The consequence of this is that re-enacting has become a predominantly middle-class and middle-aged hobby. (Conveniently ignoring that the majority of military reenactors are too old for soldiers in any period). As achieving a required level of authenticity of kit is entirely dependent on the ability of an individual to pay for it this is now about the only section of society that can afford to re-enact. The cost of authenticity has put this wonderful hobby beyond the reach of the young and less well off, denying them the benefits we have all enjoyed and potentially denying our hobby a future as it gets harder to recruit new blood.

If there is one aspect of authenticity that is guaranteed to divide the re-enactment world it is that of cross-dressing. Let me make it quite clear, I have never had a problem with it, not that I have ever done it myself. My very first unit had women musketeers and I certainly wasn’t going to argue with them! But why do some people get so worked up about it? The invariable response is that it is not authentic. To which my answer is that no one is authentic. I don’t mean that kit or procedure or numbers are not authentic, but we are not authentic. I used to re-enact an 18th century dragoon, I have fillings, I am too tall, I am too heavy, I do not have the beliefs or thought processes of an 18th century person, I am not authentic. Does it matter? Only if I am pretending to be an 18th century person.

I have done first person interpretation and it was great fun. I was privileged enough to have taken part in what is believed to be the first ever living history event in the UK. Organised by Charles Kightley of the Roundhead Association it took place at Doddington House, near Lincoln, in 1977. I was also at the first Kentwell in 1978, which, like Doddington, was English Civil War. They were great, but eventually I turned away from first person interpretation in favour of third person.

I believe that first person interpretation is doomed to fail. It might be hugely entertaining to the public and fun for the participants, trying to ignore or explain away anachronisms. “Listen, sonny, we’ve had three hundred kids through here this week and they’ve all told me what an aeroplane is!” But in the end it cannot do what it purports to do, that is to interpret the past. Some of you will know Andy Robertshaw, he is an old friend of mine and great proponent of first person. But when he was running a first person interpretation group they had to make use of members in modern clothes to act as interpreters between the costumed participants and the public. By adopting third person interpretation you can still have the right kit, employ the correct procedures, even have the right numbers, but it is far easier to explain, or interpret, all those things to the public.

My stand point is that I am wearing the uniform and equipment of a mid-18th century dragoon, I do things the way they did them, so far as we can tell and subject to the limitations of health and safety, but I am not an 18th century person. I can admit to that which we do not know, I can talk about later developments and history in order to help the public to understand what we are doing. In which case does it matter to the public whether I am a man or a woman? So far as I am aware not at all. In my experience the only reaction that women dressed as soldiers get is that they are asked if there were women in the army? Which is an interesting question with interesting answers, which you can only discuss in third person.

Curiously, whilst cross-dressing is scorned in some quarters, no one bats an eye at white men playing North American natives or Anglo Saxons playing Vikings, something that is impossible. It is possible to change your sex, but you can’t change your genes.

The pursuit of authenticity of all kinds is worthy, but absolute authenticity cannot be achieved and if it is pursued too far it can have negative consequences. It’s a matter of keeping things in balance and in proportion. After all, it’s a hobby, it’s supposed to be fun.

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8 Comments

  1. Erik Blakeley says:

    Very well put – I agree entirely. It is even more annoying when large societies have sufficient numbers to field small numbers of authentically large units and still field large numbers of wargames units because too many people want to be ‘officers’ and then still bang on about hand stitching and ultra-authentic footwear!

  2. Kollyn N. Bailey says:

    Excellent article David. A very good exposition of the problems that many of us are aware of but do not put anywhere near as eloquently.
    How well do I rember our red corduroy KG kit and nylon sashes.

  3. I wore red corduroy and a pink sash too, but only once when I joined the ‘Guard in 83. Great article David, I would also add authenticity of style. Some people can carry it off and some can’t, whether or not the kit and clothing is 100% accurate. It’s an aura that just happens when the reenactor is comfortable in his or her clothes, confident with the props (for want of a better word) and knowledgeable about the period.

  4. PatG says:

    Just started re-enacting North American 1812. Your thoughts are helpful and much appreciated

  5. LEE TIMMINS says:

    Hello David.
    Don’t suppose that you will remember me or my wife – Lee and Maureen Timmins. We were members of Fox’s way back in the dawn of time. I used to rib you that you looked like Richard Chamberlain’s D’Artagnan in Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers”.

    Like your article and agree entirely. Have been involved in re-enactment/living history for the last 45 years; various periods and groups. It has all become a bit too serious, with varied platitudes being used to justify this. Despite the courduroy uniforms of the King’s Guard, it was a cut above our one-piece nylon over the head coats (taken from a rugby shirt pattern) with integral collar and cuffs. Yet despite this, and despite having spent vast sums of money over the years in an attempt to achieve the unattainable chalice of “authenticism”, have never experienced the same enjoyment as we did all those years ago.

    • Dear Lee,
      Of course I remember you and Maureen, it’s nice to hear from old friends. Thanks for your comments. It was a lot of fun in the ‘old days’, and still can be today. I have found with the Napoleonic groups I am working with now that they are very accurate and serious, when it matters. In the evening there is still a lot of fun to be had. I have certainly been enjoying myself more than in recent years.

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