Living History Through Reenacting, Part One

Is historic reenacting about “living history” or living “history”?

Before diving headfirst into this post, I would like for you to consider the title: “Living History Through Reenacting”. There are two ways to analyze this title. One, it could mean experiencing history by attending or participating in reenacting (“living history”). Or two, it could also connote the actual act of, or even art of, reenacting from the standpoint of someone who actually reenacts (living “history”). This post and the next deal with both interpretations of the term “‘living’ history”.

I’ve been reenacting for the long time period of about three months. I’ve participated in the entirety of three events and have had no previous experience in living, breathing historical interpretation beyond giving occasional tours of a historic farm near Milwaukee. So what qualifies me then to blog about reenacting at all given so little “experience”?

The length of time I’ve been reenacting matters little to me. What does matter is the fact I’ve taken to it like a duck to water; I take what I do very seriously, and, even more importantly, I love history. Not just a passing fancy or fad or something superficial like that. I genuinely love history and possess a deep passion for material historical interpretation.

But I blather on. I started reenacting when a friend of mine offered to take me to an event as a guest since the whole idea of reenacting sounded “cool”. Now for those who aren’t familiar with it, the easiest explanation I can give for what reenacting is simply camping outside, rain or shine, dressed in funny clothes (interestingly, that is a pretty standard definition for reenacting). But in actuality, reenacting goes beyond that.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of Wikipedia, but there is a decent article that delves into more depth than what I could describe. But in short, reenactors focus on a time period or event such as World War II, the Vietnam War, the eighteenth century, and so forth. And not all reenactors are militaristic in nature. For example:

Nell Gwyn, a truely lovely strumpet

The above is Nell Gwyn, the mistress of the English king Charles II, who lived during the mid-seventeenth century. Nell was a low-ranking “woman of ill repute” who rose to become a favorite of Charles II. She is also the woman who I very loosely based my historical persona on. Reenacting involves the creation of a persona. I have yet to fully develop my character, but the basics (as of now) are that I am an indentured servant to a tavern keeper (or, put simply, a tavern wench) who came over to America just prior to the American Revolution (seeing as the organization I joined, the North West Territory Alliance, focuses on eighteenth-century America). But I’ve based a lot of my mannerisms and way of speaking on Nell Gwyn because I find her such a fascinating character. Funnily enough, I’ve gained something of a reputation as a harlot, strumpet, wanton woman, tart, call me as you will, but I chalk it up to more my own personality than my Nell’s. I fully admit a lot more research on my own part is needed to fully ensure the accuracy and credibility of my persona. At the same time, however, it is fun to don my petticoats and hat and catch the eye of a passerby, no historical accuracy intended.

And that is just one example of a historical persona. At a given NWTA event (which is  an umbrella group in the Midwest), you can meet soldiers, artisans, civilians like myself, doctors/doctresses, soldiers’ wives, wenches, and other colorful characters. From a reenactor perspective, however, the people one reenacts with just aren’t members of your unit(s), they’re your friends and can quite easily become as close as family. That love of history or of historical interpretation easily cements bonds between people from all backgrounds. You are all stuck within close quarters for a weekend, and you might as well enjoy the company you keep rather than saunter off on your own. And one more admittance: the real fun of reenactments begin at night with singing good ol’ British songs, drinking grog and mead, and having a right jolly old time around the campfire. One has to wonder if such jovial gatherings occurred back in the eighteenth century, but I seriously have little doubt that they did not.

So in short, the living “history” part of reenacting comes from dressing up, creating a character, doing your darndest to ensure historical validity of one’s persona, clothing, and personality, and creating an environment in which modern-day spectators can learn about your time period or event. The next segment of this blog will focus on the entire “living history” aspect of reenacting, that is, the importance, necessity, and value of living historic interpretation during a time where technological processes battle constantly with nostalgia-seekers and those who yearn for the “olden days”.


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