Re-enactment Fair or Foul?

Prithee, Mistress, what art thou about, fixed to that glowing square as though ’twas a broadsheet? Art though mazed by its unearthly glow? Nay, surely it will bewitch thee, and thou shouldst smash it. Smash it now afore thy soul be sucked from thy very bones!

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Gytha and Wulfwaru at Kim’s feast, informally dressed – it was very hot!

Funny, right? Me talking in bad mimicry of the little I remember of Shakespeare, and pretending not to know what a computer screen is. It’s funny because we both know it’s a game, and in fact I am well aware of the internet and I’m also well aware that you know about computers too. If we stopped pretending, then we could have a conversation about what a Tudor person might make of the internet in the relaxed and informal atmosphere of knowing that we are two people of equal standing, with a similar grounding in the concepts that we’re using.

If one of us knew of research or evidence that proved the Tudors would have thought the computer wasn’t a danger to your soul, they could share it, easy as saying “There’s an article in History Today that suggests the Tudors were already blase about the printing press – I think they’d have seen this as a parallel technology rather than a spiritual threat. I’ll send you a link.”

But imagine trying to have that conversation while the first person is determined not to break character – not to say anything that could not have been said or thought by a Tudor person. Suddenly you have a communication gap. Suddenly you have to explain the internet to someone who already knows what it is, because they refuse to stop pretending that they don’t. If you want to talk about research, you must invent some period-appropriate method of getting it into the conversation. Woe betide you if it’s archaeology, and you then have to explain why 21st Century archaeologists think it’s okay to dig up graves.

If you’re anything like me you’ll give up in frustration within the first few sentences.

I imagine there is a way to interact with re-enactors who are determined to pretend they’re actual inhabitants of a different time period. Perhaps I should have come up with a backstory for myself involving time travel, allowing me to also pretend I was in the past.

The trouble is that if I was in the past, I wouldn’t have walked round in a modern sundress and shorts taking photos. I’d have known that was inappropriate. I’d have found a way to get some Tudor clothes and prepared a story about being a Finnish princess whose strange behaviour could have been treated as foreign eccentricity.

In other words, to enjoy the pretence, I would also have had to pretend. I would have had to pretend in some way that put me on a footing where I could converse with the reenactors as an equal, rather than allowing myself to be a prop to whom they could impart their wisdom.

I didn’t like being cast as the clueless modern who knows absolutely nothing about the past. I am a re-enactor myself and I know how to churn butter. I know perfectly well what you’re doing with that spinning wheel, mistress, I don’t need you to explain it to me. I know, Mr. “Coppice Worker,” that this clearing you’re sitting in with your pole-lathes hasn’t been coppiced since it was planted. How about you stop trying to tell me things I already know and allow us to have a conversation where you treat me like a person instead of your stereotype of a clueless member of the public?

Perhaps I should explain. It was our family summer holiday recently, and naturally we used the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the things we like. Which turns out to be history and eating large meals. We managed to encounter two different species of re-enactment in the same week. One day we went out to Kentwell Hall, for one of their Tudor days, and the next we went to Wychurst, the feast hall of Regia Anglorum, to celebrate the life of Kim Siddorn, its founder, and erect a cross in his memory.

Gytha adds a handful of soil to the base of Kim's cross. Everyone present added theirs before it was filled in.

Gytha adds a handful of soil to the base of Kim’s cross. Everyone present added theirs before it was filled in.

I should declare a bias – I am a member of Regia Anglorum, and although I don’t take part in many of their events any more, I am still proud of Regia’s simultaneous commitment to authenticity and cheerful willingness to discuss anything with anyone.

Regia takes the view that if we were to pretend to be Anglo-Saxons or Vikings, we would be speaking a different language to the public. We would be mutually incomprehensible – and what would be the point of that?

So if you come onto a Regia site, you will see nothing that you would not have seen in the 9th Century. You will see people carving wood and stone, cooking on a fire-pit, making cheese, spinning, weaving, telling stories, playing music etc as closely as we can get it to how they would have done it in the 9th Century.

But if you come up to someone and say “I thought the draw-knife didn’t come in till the Normans? I thought everything was done with an axe before then?” A Regia re-enactor will look up and smile, recognising a fellow enthusiast, and either say “Oh blimey, I don’t know. Let me get Ketil, he’s the woodworking expert,” or “Well, there’s a marginal drawing in the Gesta Anglorum that shows something that looks like a draw-knife, and the cut pattern of the timbers on the Oseberg ship suggests something more controllable than an axe, so we’ve ruled it as a possible. You’re into woodwork yourself, or…?”

And then you can have a conversation in which you both learn from each other. This is not to say that Regia doesn’t also meet clueless members of the public(tm). I remember one who asked me “Did they have wood in those days?” and about my daughter – sleeping in a rush basket by my feet – said “Is that a real baby?” But (a) we don’t go into any conversation assuming the person knows nothing, and (b) we had a good chat about both of those things anyway, because we could do it without making them feel stupid or talked down to.

Everyone has moments of saying awkward things when they’re doing something stressful, like talking to weirdos in strange costumes. It still doesn’t mean you’re always going to be teaching them. Quite possibly, if you chatted like equals, you would find out that they were experts at knitting and they could help you work out that naalbinding stitch you can’t figure out for the life of you.

Is there a point to this rant?

Mostly, I admit, it is to help me to figure out why the experience of being talked to by the Kentwell Hall re-enactors freaks me out so much. What are the underlying principles behind my feeling that it’s such a horrible experience I don’t want to go again?

I think it is this – history is more fun if you don’t forget that your audience are modern people just like you. History is more fun if you assume your viewers/your readers know as much as you do, and talk to them with the mindset that you are talking to an equal. They might well know more than you about certain things, but even if they don’t, they are still someone who has valuable insights of their own. History is hard enough to get to grips with if you don’t introduce a deliberate culture chasm by interposing several new layers of pretending and falsehood.

We can’t talk to the Tudors, and there’s something very fake about pretending that we can.

To be frank the whole experience drove me up the wall, like that ‘game’ cruel children used to play at school where instead of responding to what you said they’d just repeat it until you had to accept that language was broken, the social order was destroyed, and you could only protect yourself by running away and refusing to speak around them ever again. It was, for me, an experience of an utter failure to communicate, and you can call me a killjoy all you like, but I found it almost scary.

This is without the whole sexual harassment thing, of course. That’s another story.

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