Fash­ion Back­ward

From Civil War uni­forms to Vik­ing smelts, in­side the weird world of his­tor­i­cal re-en­ac­tors

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Erin Sylvester

It’s a driz­zly day in Marathon, Greece, and a group of ci­ti­zen-sol­diers in bronze breast­plates and tu­nics are lined up one be­hind the other. Each man pushes on the back of the man in front of him; the man at the front of the col­umn pushes against a 3,000-year-old pine tree. It’s a strange sight on its own, made stranger by the pres­sure gauge at­tached to the tree — and the fact that this is hap­pen­ing in Septem­ber 2015. The sol­diers are dressed for a re- en­act­ment of the an­cient Bat­tle of Marathon, which took place about 2,500 years ago; the pres­sure gauge is for test­ing a mod­ern the­ory about mil­i­tary tac­tics. A group of liv­ing-his­tory en­thu­si­asts — peo­ple who dress up in pe­riod-cloth­ing and prac­tise his­tor­i­cal craft­ing or mar­tial arts — planned the trip and brought along a sci­en­tist with a hobby in­ter­est in the way the an­cient Greeks waged war. His­to­ri­ans have long de­bated whether ar­rang­ing sol­diers in this way would add to their col­lec­tive strength — per­haps after ten peo­ple, more wouldn’t make a dif­fer­ence? “Oops, false,” says Chris­tian Cameron, a sea­soned re-en­ac­tor and one of the event’s or­ga­niz­ers. “In fact, as far back as we could suc­cess­fully stack peo­ple, they could con­tinue to [add] mean­ing­ful amounts of force.” Some sug­ges­tion of this ap­pears in his­tor­i­cal sources, Cameron says, be­cause ev­i­dence shows that peo­ple freed their slaves be­fore a big bat­tle. “When I’m a small farmer and all I own is you, and I free you, I have made a 100 per­cent cap­i­tal in­vest­ment in this bat­tle,” he says. “So we had ev­i­dence that this mat­tered, but it was fas­ci­nat­ing to prove it right.”

Cameron and his com­pan­ions are cap­ti­vated by what’s gen­er­ally known as his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ment: roughly, dress­ing up and mess­ing around with his­tor­i­cal items. It’s hard to es­ti­mate the size of the re-en­act­ing com­mu­nity; peo­ple may join a bat­tle once, or only for spe­cial events, or they may be ded­i­cated week­end war­riors (lit­er­ally) but only within a pri­vate group. Skir­mish, a monthly liv­ing-his­tory mag­a­zine, es­ti­mates its read­er­ship at 50,000 “hard­core re-en­ac­tors, liv­ing his­to­ri­ans, and his­tory en­thu­si­asts” from around the world. And though it’s hard to pin down the pre­cise ori­gin of re-en­act­ing, we do know that re-en­act­ments of Civil War bat­tles started even be­fore the war it­self had ended. Sol­diers and vet­er­ans would par­tic­i­pate in “sham bat­tles” to demon­strate to those back home what be­ing in the war looked like, for their ed­u­ca­tion and amuse­ment. The So­ci­ety for Cre­ative Anachro­nism, ma­ligned by se­ri­ous re-en­ac­tors (who roll their eyes at the so­ci­ety’s fo­cus on fun over fact), held its first tour­na­ment in 1966. Ac­cord­ing to its web­site, the so­ci­ety now hosts more than 1,000 events world­wide ev­ery year.

Play­ing with swords and sat­is­fy­ing his­tor­i­cal cu­rios­ity are cer­tainly big draws. But reen­ac­tors also keep com­ing back, de­spite the wet wool and lack of pants, be­cause of the com­mu­ni­ties they form, of­ten with peo­ple they wouldn’t other­wise meet. It’s a way to share a camp­fire meal with friends and try out mar­tial arts, yes, but these re-en­ac­tors are also chas­ing an elu­sive feel­ing — that mo­ment of for­get­ting where and when they are, of step­ping out­side of them­selves.

It isn’t only recre­ational. Crafts­peo­ple spe­cial­ize in cre­at­ing his­tor­i­cal repli­cas, like the ar­mour that was used in the Marathon re-en­act­ment. Ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­o­gists test spe­cific hy­pothe­ses about as­pects of his­tory as a form of aca­demic in­quiry. Inevitably, some guess­work is in­volved; recre­at­ing the past means you have to fill in a lot of lit­tle gaps in the his­tor­i­cal record. Re-en­ac­tors rely on writ­ten sources and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search, and they some­times un­cover new de­tails as they try things out. Some dis­cov­er­ies are ac­ci­den­tal, like re­al­iz­ing that if a shield is im­pos­si­ble to carry around all day, it is prob­a­bly too heavy, so the doc­u­ments its de­sign is based on were likely mis­in­ter­preted. Other dis­cov­er­ies are the re­sult of care­ful test­ing, such as a re­cent study pub­lished in En­vi­ron­men­tal Health

that had re­searchers recre­ate tra­di­tional bi­tu­men-coated water bot­tles used by the Indige­nous peo­ples of Cal­i­for­nia’s Chan­nel Is­lands to mea­sure ex­po­sure to cer­tain toxic com­pounds.

De­bates about his­tory—about whose his­tory gets recorded and who feels they can play with his­tory—are be­com­ing increasingly con­tentious. Some Amer­i­can cities are now re­view­ing the role of their Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments, for in­stance, and in the process have spurred a pub­lic re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the Civil War. Reen­act­ments are an­other arena in which canon­i­cal his­tory is now be­ing chal­lenged.

Chris­tian cameron, now a fifty-fiveyear-old his­tor­i­cal fic­tion au­thor and US Navy veteran, first be­came in­ter­ested in liv­ing his­tory when he was thir­teen and tak­ing part in a bat­tle re-en­act­ment for the 200th an­niver­sary of Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence with his Boy Scout troop in western New York. His fa­ther, a pro­fes­sor of theatre his­tory, started push­ing him to think more deeply about what he was do­ing. “Dad asked these re­ally hard ques­tions, like ‘Do we want it to look like or be like?’ And it turns out that’s a very fun­da­men­tal ques­tion to the world of ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­ogy,” Cameron says. “I’d be hav­ing a great time in a fake bat­tle and my dad would say, ‘What are we do­ing right now? Why? Is this how bat­tlesre­ally were?’”

This ten­sion be­tween “look­ing like” and “be­ing like” ex­ists through­out the world of re-en­act­ment. Is it about dress­ing up for fun? Is it about try­ing to learn how peo­ple from the past would have lived and felt? If ev­ery­thing isn’t ex­actly right, is there a point to do­ing it at all?

Even within spe­cific groups of re-en­ac­tors, peo­ple hold a range of views about how closely cloth­ing, items, and ac­tiv­i­ties should mimic the orig­i­nals. “Some peo­ple are but­ton and stitch coun­ters, and they’re not much fun,” says one re-en­ac­tor, dressed in wool clothes and stand­ing in a field out­side Hamilton, On­tario. (He was tak­ing part in an an­nual liv­ing-his­tory recre­ation of late me­dieval Italy, in the spring of 2016.) “They’re so his­tor­i­cally cor­rect it be­comes ridicu­lous.”

Cameron wears his hair in a short pony­tail (long hair is con­ve­niently adapt­able for a num­ber of his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods), talks in com­plete para­graphs, and seems just as com­fort­able in a hip, down­town cof­fee shop as he does wield­ing a sword. He says he won­ders some­times if many reen­ac­tors’ ob­ses­sion with ob­jects and out­fits is just “crass, mod­ern ma­te­ri­al­ism” im­posed on his­tory. “There seems to be an aw­ful lot of ‘I’ve got a nicer one than yours,’” he says — es­pe­cially with elab­o­rately wrought cos­tumes. But dis­cov­er­ies have also been made pre­cisely be­cause re-en­ac­tors were liv­ing his­tory as ac­cu­rately as they could.

Cameron re­calls one night when he and his friends, in­clud­ing a pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­ized in eigh­teenth- cen­tury Amer­i­can ar­chae­ol­ogy, were in the Adiron­dack Moun­tains, dressed as Loy­al­ists and Bri­tish Army troops. The clay pipes they’d been smok­ing were filthy with days’ worth of tobacco buildup, so they put the pipes in the fire to burn clean, as was done in the 1700s. One camper got up in the night and tossed a log on the fire, ac­ci­den­tally break­ing all the pipes. The next morn­ing, Cameron says, “Doug, our ar­chae­ol­o­gist, leaped with joy be­cause all over North Amer­ica he had found fire pits full of bro­ken clay pipes.” Ap­par­ently, the go­ing the­ory had been that as the sol­diers packed up camp, they would put all the pieces of the pipes that had bro­ken into the fire pit. “Doug, who had been a US sol­dier, said, ‘That made no sense to me. Sol­diers are sloppy. They don’t pick up any­thing.’” Cameron con­tin­ues: “It wasn’t an im­por­tant ques­tion — it’s not go­ing to change any­one’s view of early Amer­i­can ar­chae­ol­ogy or early Amer­i­can econ­omy. But it was a ques­tion and it was ab­so­lutely an­swered, and the va­lid­ity took about a mil­lion lev­els of au­then­tic­ity.”

It can be hard to con­vince aca­demic his­to­ri­ans that you have learned some­thing they didn’t know just by try­ing it out in the real world. The prac­tice of ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­ogy is more ac­cepted in Eu­rope, where some uni­ver­si­ties grant de­grees in the dis­ci­pline. But even in North Amer­ica, aca­demics and re-en­ac­tors have col­lab­o­rated in a few cases.

Cameron “is the only stu­dent I’ve ever taught that owns a full suit of Mi­lanese plate ar­mour made to fit him,” says Richard Kae­u­per with a laugh. A me­dieval his­to­rian at the Uni­ver­sity of Rochester, and a for­mer pro­fes­sor, now friend, of Cameron, Kae­u­per has found his own work helped along by in­sights gleaned from re-en­act­ment. Kae­u­per, in one of his books, had ex­plored the the­ory that knights may have worn plate ar­mour as part of their penance; Cameron, who had been wear­ing this kind of ar­mour for pro­gres­sively longer pe­ri­ods and find­ing it un­com­fort­able, was able to ver­ify that this was in­deed plau­si­ble.

Most his­tor­i­cal in­quiry is not formed so much by ex­pe­ri­ence, but Kae­u­per says he has even learned how knights may have felt while joust­ing from a man do­ing a demon­stra­tion at a Re­nais­sance fair. They chat­ted about how much it hurt to fall off a horse and about how, like the fa­mous knight Wil­liam the Mar­shal, you do some­times have to get a black­smith to care­fully pound your hel­met back into shape while it’s still on your head so you can then take it off.

Dar­rell Marke­witz, a pro­fes­sional black­smith who works north of Toronto, has been try­ing for more than a decade to smelt iron the way Vik­ings did. The his­tor­i­cal record shows that the Vik­ings had iron — swords and other ar­ti­facts around the world prove it — but we don’t know pre­cisely how they made it. One hot Sun­day nearly two years ago, about ten peo­ple gath­ered at Marke­witz’s prop­erty in Ware­ham, On­tario. Helpers smashed charcoal blocks into small pieces to feed the fire, which had to burn con­sis­tently—a del­i­cate bal­ance that Marke­witz had at­tempted, he es­ti­mates, more than eighty times. The burn­ing car­bon in the smelt pulls the oxy­gen out of the iron ore, pu­ri­fy­ing the metal. Of course, this is what we now un­der­stand to be hap­pen­ing. In the early Mid­dle Ages, no­body would have

“It looks colour­ful and harm­less, and peo­ple may fall down clutch­ing their breast, but they’re not go­ing to bleed. We can’t for­get to shud­der— bat­tles are not play.”

un­der­stood this chem­istry, and black­smiths re­lied on teach­ings passed down through gen­er­a­tions. Marke­witz — who has pre­sented aca­demic pa­pers on his re­search to con­fer­ences at the Royal On­tario Mu­seum and at Wil­frid Lau­rier Uni­ver­sity —rounded out our the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge with these prac­ti­cal de­tails, learn­ing how much coal and iron are needed, how long they need to burn (the smelt that day took about six hours), and even how to tell whether the process is go­ing well based on the sounds the fire makes.

These may seem like small de­tails, but for par­tic­i­pants, re-en­act­ment pro­vides an im­por­tant win­dow—an op­por­tu­niy to un­der­stand the past as it may have been ex­pe­ri­enced by the peo­ple who lived it.

Kae­u­per, the aca­demic his­to­rian, has reser­va­tions about the broader ac­cu­racy and ethics of re-en­act­ment and says he’s “wor­ried about the dan­gers of pow­der­puff­ing the past and mak­ing it look less dan­ger­ous than it was,” es­pe­cially be­cause it of­ten cel­e­brates and en­cour­ages par­tic­i­pa­tion in bat­tles. “It looks colour­ful and sort of harm­less, and peo­ple may shout, ‘Ah!’ and fall down clutch­ing their breast, but they’re not go­ing to bleed,” Kae­u­per says. “There’s al­ways that dan­ger of ro­man­ti­ciz­ing the past that I am sen­si­tive to.” He notes that “we don’t see re-en­ac­tors burn­ing or rap­ing — thank good­ness they aren’t.” But, he con­tin­ues, “there’s an es­sen­tial false­ness” to the idea that his­tory was all fun and that war used to be ro­man­tic, cool, cel­e­brated. “We can’t for­get to shud­der — bat­tles are not play.”

If one ma­jor risk of re-en­act­ment is that it ro­man­ti­cizes the past, an­other is that it is wildly se­lec­tive: not ev­ery­one has a his­tory that would be fun to re­live, and few peo­ple are in­ter­ested in play­ing a slave on the week­end. Inevitably, most his­tory does not get re-en­acted. Though most re-en­ac­tors are not ex­plic­itly mo­ti­vated by the se­lec­tiv­ity, some do en­joy it for na­tion­al­is­tic rea­sons. It lets them play in an imag­ined past, free from their pet com­plaints about the mod­ern world.

Civil War events are among the most pop­u­lar to re-en­act, at­tract­ing all sorts of peo­ple. And some of those peo­ple re­ally want to be Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers. Many be­come in­ter­ested in par­tic­i­pat­ing through a per­sonal or fam­ily con­nec­tion — so if you live in the South, you may have had an an­ces­tor who fought on the Con­fed­er­ate side of the war. And some are then in­spired to fol­low in their an­ces­tor’s foot­steps, per­haps too closely. For these re-en­ac­tors, it’s not just a fun hobby, it’s tied to some­thing much deeper to their iden­tity — and, in par­tic­u­lar, to im­prov­ing the im­age of their an­ces­tors by por­tray­ing them as hon­ourable and brave.

Kim­berly Miller-spill­man is a tex­tiles pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky who stud­ies re-en­act­ment cos­tume. In her re­search, she has come across a num­ber of Civil War re-en­ac­tors who are un­will­ing or un­able to switch sides at a re- en­act­ment. Re- en­ac­tors will of­ten have both Union and Con­fed­er­ate uni­forms, al­though nei­ther is cheap to as­sem­ble, and will go on which­ever side needs men. But some, typ­i­cally men who have a strong po­lit­i­cal or fam­ily con­nec­tion to one side, sim­ply won’t. At Civil War events, the scale is usu­ally tipped to­ward the Con­fed­er­ate side, al­though dur­ing the ac­tual war, the Union Army out­num­bered the Con­fed­er­ates.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, there aren’t many black Civil War re-en­ac­tors, and they are al­most al­ways on the Union side. Pa­tri­cia Davis is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ge­or­gia State Uni­ver­sity who has writ­ten about these re-en­ac­tors, and she says that many black peo­ple aren’t in­ter­ested in re-en­act­ing be­cause they see the Civil War as a his­tory that be­longs to white south­ern­ers, or they might be dis­cour­aged be­cause they as­sume that many white par­tic­i­pants want to be in an en­vi­ron­ment where they can be freely racist. The ones who do par­tic­i­pate, she has found, of­ten do so be­cause they are try­ing to ed­u­cate peo­ple. (Sim­i­larly, in Canada, most Indige­nous re-en­act­ment takes place in an ed­u­ca­tional con­text.) “Fo­rafrican Amer­i­can re-en­ac­tors in par­tic­u­lar, the causes and the con­se­quences of the war are im­por­tant for them to get across to the visi­tors at re-en­act­ments, and what they of­ten do in these in­ter­ac­tions is they talk about how the his­tory of slav­ery [and] the his­tory of re­con­struc­tion have ev­ery­thing to do with racial in­equities in the present,” Davis says. “And then a lot of them em­pha­size to me as well, vis­ually see­ing black men and women work­ing in var­i­ous ways to se­cure their own free­doms—they’re let­ting peo­ple know, ‘Look, we didn’t just sit around and wait for Abra­ham Lin­coln and white Union sol­diers to free us, we were ac­tively en­gaged in se­cur­ing our own eman­ci­pa­tion.’ That has a huge im­pact on black chil­dren in terms of their abil­ity to see them­selves as im­por­tant and valu­able peo­ple.”

As his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ment con­tin­ues to evolve, these ques­tions about what ex­actly it is — and who it is for — are also in­ten­si­fy­ing. Some Civil War groups are so wed­ded to a cer­tain kind of pre­ci­sion that they are con­cerned about ac­cept­ing par­tic­i­pants over a spe­cific weight, ar­gu­ing that sol­diers were thin­ner back then; oth­ers are com­mit­ted to ma­te­rial ac­cu­racy but ac­cept some anachro­nisms to ac­com­mo­date di­verse en­thu­si­asts.

Back in Hamilton, at the re-en­act­ment of me­dieval Italy, the night gets chilly and ev­ery­one moves closer to the fire. The wo­man who usu­ally cooks for these events — renowned for both the pre­ci­sion of her culi­nary re­search and the tasti­ness of her meals — pulls out a Zi­ploc bag of stew. She pours it into the pe­riod-ac­cu­rate metal caul­dron over the flame and then pulls out a smaller bag: one of the re-en­ac­tors is on a nut-free diet, so she’s made a spe­cial meal for them. An­other wo­man heads to her tent to change after sword fight­ing all af­ter­noon. She was wear­ing plate ar­mour, but it had to be tied quite loosely in the back be­cause it wasn’t de­signed to fit a wo­man’s body. The fire crack­led, the stew warmed, and hun­gry re-en­ac­tors spread but­ter from a ce­ramic pot on fresh bread. And in the fire’s glow, they flicked through pho­tos they’d taken from the day.

Re-en­act­ment is wildly se­lec­tive: not ev­ery­one has a his­tory that would be fun to re­live, and few peo­ple are in­ter­ested in play­ing a slave on the week­end.

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