The limited (and queer?) vision of American historical reenacting

Fort Number Four, Charlestown, NH

Nick Kowalczk offers us a detailed look at historical re-enacting in “Embedded with the Reenactors,”  in which he ponders the fascination that some Americans have with reliving the bloody, imperialistic wars of the past.  I thought this article was noteworthy too because 1) they’re not Civil War reenactors, they’re  reenactors of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), and 2) the Seven Years’ War guys (and yes, they’re mostly middle-aged guys, according to Kowalczk’s reporting and my own observations of all kinds of reenactors over the years) have been enjoying their 250th anniversary moment in the spotlight for the past few years. 

I found Kowalczk’s article fascinating, although it’s written in a more “new journalism” style that includes him as both participant and observer, and I kept wishing he would go deeper into some of the questions he raises about reenactors based on his participation in a battle of the Siege of Fort Niagara:

It’s not every 4th of July you get to be around nearly 3,000 people inhabiting an amalgam of time, and especially in a place as lovely as Fort Niagara State Park. The water in Lake Ontario actually was blue. And the fortification, now known as Old Fort Niagara, has been well-preserved even though it was built by the French in 1726 and took a 19-day pummeling in July 1759, when a few thousand British and Indians out-maneuvered 600 Frenchman sitting pretty in a big castle protected by cannons and stone walls.

But being on the battlefield exactly 250 years later, I couldn’t help but imagine the 348 people who died and the many others who were injured or suffered. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?  

Why bother with reenacting a 250-year old war, when Americans in 2009 can just go to Iraq or Afghanistan to see a bloody war for the empire up close?  Kowalczk doesn’t explore these questions, although for me as a seventeenth and eighteenth-century historian, they’re paramount.  It makes me wonder about the future of reenacting North American wars, when we have so many young vets with real-life experience in a war zone, many of whom are still coping with war-related injuries, disabilities, and trauma.

As it is in Kowalczk’s narrative, the reenactors seem a little strange, even almost “queer” for their love of reliving the past and their feelings of always being out of time in the present.  Sometimes his language makes the connection of reenacting as queer explicit, like when he writes about the importance of dress in reenactor events:  “Like drag shows, re-enactments hinge on sartorial panache.”  At other times, he emphasizes the man-out-of-time aspect of a reenactor’s life.  Here, he describes his main connection to the world of reenactors, a Kansas City man he calls “Old Hickory” because of his career as an Andrey Jackson reenactor and model:

He’s never been married or had children or pets. “I don’t think I’ve ever truly been in love either,” he said on the way to Niagara. These days he’s looking for an attractive, independent, middle-aged, single woman interested in history, who reenacts the 18th century and sews. One imagines he may be looking for a while.

.       .       .       .       .

“In real life I’m just a wallflower,” he once confessed to me, before adding, on a brighter note, “but when I found reenacting everything changed.”

In 1992, at age 44, he took up black powder shooting and visited a War of 1812 site in Kansas called Fort Osage. There he met some F&I reenactors (anachronistic, yes, but who really cares), and he barraged them with questions. He bought clothes, a musket, and slept in his car at events. Some considered him “a suit” and “a mooch,” given his white-collar job and healthy diet, his constant requests for help and lack of handyman skills, but he paid those criticisms little mind. At events he was approached by the public, asked questions, even photographed. For the first time in his life he felt appreciated, like he had something to offer the world.

“Now when I’m in my street clothes I don’t feel like that’s my identity,” he said when I once asked him, Who are you outside of this?

In that conversation I drew a circle in my notebook and asked him to fill in the elements of his life — family, hobbies, friends, the job he’d quit, whatever — and to shade in the categories that involved reenacting. The exercise perplexed Old Hickory; he pushed my notebook away. “I don’t need to do that,” he said. “Reenacting is the circle. That’s it. There isn’t anything else anymore.”

Fort Number Four, Charlestown, NH

In Kowalczk’s telling, reenactors really are different from you and me, but does that explain the popularity of reenacting?  Some enthusiasts might make it their whole lives, but it strikes me that the desire to live in the past (if only on weekends and special occasions) is a wish more widespread among white men in particular than among others.  Something that I and others have observed before is that only some Americans romanticize the past, because the rest of us recognize how much more awful our lives would have been (holding race and gender constant).  For example:  Chauncy DeVega  at We Are Respectable Negroes wrote recently about a story in which a white woman expressed a wish to live in the time period in which Gone with the Wind was set, saying to her African American friend, “Wouldn’t you have loved to be there?”  Only after a few startled moments did the African American woman point out the obvious:  “Cindy, I would have been a slave.”  Romaticizing the past, like reenacting, is a White thing. 

Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable about reenactors–their interest in reenacting violent events (warfare, principally) which from the first Anglo-Indian wars of the seventeenth century through our modern wars, were either explicitly racialized wars (most Anglo-Indian wars, the Mexican War, and the wars waged by the Frontier Army against Native Americans) or wars that mobilized ethnic difference and white racism in the war effort (as in World War II and the war with Japan, the Vietnam War, and Iraq and Afghanistan). 

It’s not that reenactors have an uncomplicated view of the past–I’ve gone to several historical reenactments over the past 15 years, in every place I’ve lived, and for the most part I’ve been impressed with their research and knowledge about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  I’ve been to a reenactment of the Boston Massacre at the old Customs House in Boston; a reenactor camp in Eaton (near Greenville) Ohio, with a focus on the frontier wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (including reenactors for both the U.S. troops and Shawnee families); King George’s imperial troops and their Indian allies and enemies at a reenactor camp in Brooklyn, Michigan; black powder gun enthusiast-reenactors of the fur trade days here in Colorado; and I photographed some Seven Years’ War reenactors at Fort Number Four in New Hampshire when I was there to take some pictures for my book.  But while complex, their vision of history remains blinkered and segregated, not because they exclude reenactors of color now (they don’t) or because they themselves have explicitly racist motivations, but because of the stories they choose to tell, and the stories they’re leaving out.

Re-enactments of slavery times and of slave auctions have come in for both criticism and praise from all quarters–praise for their attempts to depict the history of slavery honestly, and criticism for being extremely (and some would say gratuitously) explicit.  But there are plenty of heroic moments in women’s history, African American history, Latin@/Chican@ history, and Native American history that aren’t being reenacted.  Might we see a future in which African Americans re-enact the major struggles and violent confrontations of the Civil Rights era?  Are there women’s groups who regularly dress up in hundred-year old clothing styles and re-enact the violent climax of the suffrage movement?  Personally, I would turn out as a spectator for these events–and I might even be persuaded to get into costume and participate myself–but who will play the thugs with the torches, guns, clubs,  firehoses, chains, and gavage equipment?  Will middle-aged white men be persuaded to cede the heroic roles to other reenactors?

If you have any interest in historical reenactors, go read Kowalczk’s article.  For all of my quibbles, it’s a really thorough overview of historical reenacting, and a rare view of reenactors doing something other than the U.S. Civil War.  He captures in many respects the regional flavors of reenacting that go beyond the Civl War-era.  Furthermore, his interest in masculinity and gender evident in this article aren’t accidental–Kowalczk has written elsewhere on these themes as in this essay, “Manhood, Lorain-style,”  about growing up in the Rust Belt and picking a fistfight to prove he wasn’t “gay.”  This essay might also be of interest to readers of this blog, so print up a copy or zap it onto your e-reader. 

Kowalczk concludes “Embedded with the Reenactors” with an explicit point about the gendered and even childish nature of the fantasies at work in reenacting.  He writes:

Among them was an attractive young mother with two little boys. One of them sat in a stroller and the other ran around pretending to be a soldier. Despite being in uniform, so to speak, I explained to her what I was doing and asked why she brought her family to a battle reenactment given the kind of message it imparts. She answered, “It’s just something to do. And this is what boys do anyway. They’re conquerors — they think they’re born to be conquerors. I used to get tired of them playing war games, but then I got tired of trying to redirect their imagination.” And together we watched her son pretend to kill an imaginary enemy as we walked off the battlefield.

The Aftermath

Later, and mildly depressed, I went to an ice cream shop inside the fort. As luck would have it, I sat beside two other mothers and their four little boys who were arguing. Naturally I eavesdropped.

They were civilians, and I assumed the mothers also had brought their children to foster an all-American, male fascination with fighting and war. But these boys didn’t care at all about the battles, the reenactors or the fort. Like the reenactors, but also unlike them, these children were somewhere outside of real life and real time.

“I’m Mario,” one of the boys yelled.

“No, I’m Mario,” another said.

“OK, can I be Luigi,” the third asked.

The whole thing went on for five minutes, until one of the exasperated mothers put down her fudge sundae and snapped. “Half a day! Just half a day,” she pleaded. “Can you guys please go one day without arguing who’s who in the video game world.”

28 thoughts on “The limited (and queer?) vision of American historical reenacting

  1. Reenacting in the penumbra of actual imperial wars can indeed come with real costs, especially when unscripted (guerilla) reenactors intersect with the self-proclaimed official ones. On Christmas Day in 1967, near where I grew up–and before the concept of “re-enacting” had gotten much purchase in the popular vocabulary–a group of middle Americans, led by a real-life if roguish Broadway “impressario,” were rowing across the Delaware River in an ancient boat on their way to rousting some Hessian hirelings in nearby Trenton. This had been going on since the McCarthy era in the previous decade, but now the Tet Offensive in Vietnam was a month away and another guy named McCarthy was running for President to end the war. Everything was political, and nothing was “funny” (in an innocent, pre-1960s sort of way) in America. Some high school kids from a nearby school district hadn’t gotten the memo, either about the political part or about the funny part. They dressed up as “Hessians,” commandeered a couple of small, engine-driven boats, and suddenly emerged from a cove behind a small island and closed on the patriot vessel firing blank rounds from cap guns. I guess some things *were* funny in some parts of America, because the Philadelphia newspaper the next day reported that the crowd of thousands hugging the riverbank laughed heartily and even a local cop was purportedly in the know ahead of time. But *nothing* was funny the next day (or week) in the superintendent’s office. The Philadelphia paper that carried the story surrounded it with accounts of a token Christmas cease-fire in Vietnam, casualty counts, diplomatic wrangles, and the like. On the same page with a photo of the Hessian “attack” was a picture of Gov. George Romney, of Michigan (father of Mitt) in Vietnam and about to blow up his 1968 presidential candidacy by claiming to have been “brainwashed” by Pentagon flacks and generals. As Neil Young and Graham Nash would report a couple of years later, tin soldiers and Nixon were “coming,” just around the corner.

    On a whim a couple of years ago I e-mailed the current superintendent of the school district to find out what had actually happened to the clueless kids so I could tell how the story ended to my American Revolution class. He e-mailed back a few minuted later to say “oh, my god, nobody talks about that anymore, I think my brother-in-law was one of the ‘Hessians’…” Within a day I was in contact with a whole brigade of aging boomers, renarrating their invasion of the occupied reenactment, debating over fine details, and thinking about organizing a reunion. My offer to help them link it to an academic conference was conspicuously not embraced. To bring the story around to the perennial one of patriarchal equilibria, the brother-in-law claimed to have cooked up the deal because his girl friend had been dissed at the ticket window by the Broadway impressario who founded the role of playing George Washington; another guy said it had all been his mother’s idea; and if there was any consensus at all among the re-memberers, it was that those fancy “Hessian” costumes had been entirely dependent on uncompensated girlfriend needlework. I still have the e-mails.


  2. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?

    Reenacting, for all the detailed knowledge of the participants and “authenticity” of the staged events is inauthentic in this important detail. They are telling–in 3D–disembodied stories, an exercise that is, as I think Kowalczk is suggesting at the end, very ornate video games for luddites. That said, at least they are outside running around.

    This is super:
    These days he’s looking for an attractive, independent, middle-aged, single woman …who…sews.

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


  3. I admire the heck out of many reenactors. I roll my eyes at others. I grew up doing French colonial re-enactment: cute little late 60s urchin me in fairly respectable early modern coif et al. helping out at the early days of what turned into a monster festival: the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon. My mother literally wrote the book that was used for years to help guide others in gearing up for such events.

    I’ve been in many re-enactment groups since then, most notably the SCA (of course!), and English Civil War reenactment in the UK. During grad school, I tried to get into a War of 1812 group years ago but because I was neither married to nor dating the young fellow I accompanied, I was cold-shouldered by the women who were in the group (all spouses of other men in the group). The gender politics were interesting!

    Many of the people that I met in these groups were keen artisanal recreators. A few leveraged that interest and experience into regular, even full-time work in museums and for recreation sites. Of course, beyond the weekend warriors, we have a host of semi-permanent employees at sites such as Sturbridge Village or my hometown Fort Ouiatenon.

    I think the attraction is wildly variable. There are some people who get into re-enacting because they love the history of the period while many others simply love one aspect that can get emphasized (weapons and fighting, crafting, cooking, performing). There are others for whom it’s simply an excuse to go wild with weapons or warfare-themed fun. There’s yet another distinct subgroup who loves to master the rules and chide others for having the wrong type of linsey-woolsey or wearing cloth that’s been dyed with modern treatments instead of period-authentic methods.

    For those who come to watch, I can’t be sure of the appeal but there’s a vague sense of how educational these events can be and they’re often very cheap entertainment that can get you and your kids out in the fresh(ish) air. I would put re-enactment into a similar mold with those pageants and presentations on the anniversaries of significant events and these go back well into the 19th century when you look at American, Canadian and British sources. (To that end, I highly recommend “The art of nation-building:
    pageantry and spectacle at Quebec’s tercentenary” by H. V. Nelles.)


  4. There was a fabulous panel at the MLA just yesterday on “Queer anachronism”, including a paper on steampunk, which is a techno-anachronism (but which also, like reenactment, has blind spots around gender and race). Queer temporalities are hot!


  5. Thanks, everyone–great stories, Indyanna and Janice. And thanks for the report on the MLA, LouMac.

    Truffula, I wonder if Old Hickory is looking for a woman who can sew because it might be a shared interest, not because he wants a seamstress on call. My sense is that male reenactors are usually at least competent sempsters. Most of the reenactors I have talked to take great care and pride in their period clothing, and frequently they’ve designed and fashioned the garments themselves (and often by hand, too, not on a sewing machine.)

    There’s an interesting connection between men in the military and needlework, one that may not be operational any longer but which I think was pretty strong in times past. My husband’s grandfather served in the Royal Navy and then the Royal Canadian Navy, ca. 1920-1965 or so, and he was an accomplished knitter, embroiderer, and worked in crewel. He taught at least one grandson all of these skills, too. Maybe it’s a Navy thing, but 1) military men were responsible for carrying out a lot of uniform maintenance themselves, and so had to learn some basic sewing skills, and 2) needlecrafts are compact hobbies one can do aboard ship.

    But, this is just an observation based on a limited data point. I’d be grateful if a military historian might help me out here.


  6. The 8th grade here often re-enacts a suffrage march while the 10th grade takes the part of anti-suffragists jeering and heckling when the 8th grade hits the Upper School hallway. (Both of these are all-girl classes studying US History). I like this for a couple of reasons. It forces the kids to realize that not everybody supported everything that we now identify as obvious or good. And having the 10th graders heckle the 8th graders made the 8th graders realize the social costs of marching. In the self-evaluations afterwards, many noted how much harder it was to do it the Upper School hallways where they were socially marginal than in the lower and middle school hallways where they were a) cheered and b) top dogs. A small but real moment of feeling history for them. The 10th graders, OTOH didn’t like their role in the re-enactment at all. They didn’t really get the anti-suffragette point of view and they didn’t like being on the “wrong” side. (They have no trouble being on the “wrong” side in the Civil War simulation, even the African-American students. Although no re-enacting there per se, just troop movements and dice rolls and diplomatic messages so more gamey and less real than somebody telling you “get a man!” or similar.)


  7. As someone who became an academic because the research part of reenacting was so fun, I usually avoid these kind of pieces because they’re like stumbling on your students doing an unkind but semi accurate caricature of you–some sounds right, some just sounds flat misunderstood. I’ve done a lot of F&I, both before and after going to grad school, and I was even one of those women dressed as a man at Niagara.

    In my experience, women tend to be less visible because at the big public military events like Niagara, men are the public face of what for most reenactors is a narrow part of what they do. Women dressing as men try pretty hard to blend in, and women dressing as women tend to be more involved in the back-stage reproductive work of running camp and feeding people, which isn’t as much fun for spectators. There are problems with that, of course, but I mention it by way of pointing out that a lot of the men involved are actually attached to families and that they hobby is more family-oriented than it might appear.

    Maybe it’s just been the groups I run with, but most people tend to spend much more time at private (not open to the public) events or engaged in their own research or reenacting-related work making things. I think the value of spectator battle reenactments as a public education tool is sometimes questionable, but a lot of reenactors are up to date in the scholarly literature of their period. Not all of them think deeply enough about what they’re reading, and the hobby has a long way to go in talking about race, but they’re certainly more engaged with scholarly history than your average reader.

    Like Janice, a lot of the people I know (and this is true for me too) got interested in reenacting because they were interested in a historic craft. A lot of the men I know in reenacting are pretty open about, like Historiann mentioned, that reenacting is a way to get involved with something like sewing that they otherwise wouldn’t do. There’s all kinds of negative gender politics like Janice mentioned (I’ve experienced the cold shoulder too), but it’s also a space where people are comfortable with women passing as men and men talking openly about how much they love clothes, makeup and jewelry and their affection for other men. I guess my point is that the hobby looks a little different from the inside.


  8. Speaking of New Journalism inquiries into reenactment, Tony Horwitz has a pretty interesting (albeit somewhat dated) book called Confederates in the Attic, parts of which deal with reenactors who take the minutiae of the role-play very seriously. They come off as quirky and eccentric conversation fodder, but at the same time they often sound more thoughtful – and, worth noting, less socially marginal – than the one quoted in the blog post. Once Horwitz gets them to think about it, they have some unexpectedly nuanced things to say about how their reenactment persona relates to their regular life, and what it says about them that this has become their hobby. The book predates the long-term occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, but Horwitz actually covered Bush I’s war in Iraq for a time, and IIRC, he occasionally ponders what it means to go from covering real war to covering romanticized let’s-pretend war.

    You’re right that it would be great to hear more about how these reenactors of earlier wars think about the historical implications: the tragic romance of the Civil War’s brother-against-brother is much different, I would guess, from the Seven Years’ War’s let’s-kill-everyone-else parameters. Kinda like Rambo with frock coats and tricorn hats.


  9. I also went to grad school in part because of an interest that was fostered in re-enacting. I participated in reacting a late 20th century period (that I will not name because there are probably 20 people in the country that do the period I did). I was playing a communist, in a military service, but not from a war zone. One of the valuable things I thought came out of public interactions with kids was having someone explain to them that yes, people really did believe the things that seem so strange now.

    That is not to say there isn’t always a bit of weirdness in it. I knew a group of people who were Bosnian refugees, who went to events depicting how they lived in refugee camps in the 1990s. These were people who had lived the events, trying to educate the public about what they had lived through. I know of at least one event where a WWII re-enactor went up to the person running the event to complain that they looked shabby and had to be inaccurate.

    I would caution people against assuming that all re-enactors have spent a lot of time on their clothing. For the most popular periods, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and WWII, very accurate reproductions can be purchased from online venders. Give me about $1200 and I can set you up with all the kit for a D-Day American paratrooper, none of it original. It was one of the things that used to annoy me when i participated because everything I was wearing was original, I could even tell you what years each item was manufactured.

    I haven’t done it for years not because I’m not interested but because I don’t have the time to keep up with it. I will say I am a historian and I didn’t end up specializing in the period or even country I did. And I never never never mention having been involved in the hobby with other historians.

    Which is a shame, because it is one of the ways a lot of public history is done these days.


  10. connection between men in the military and needlework

    From what I know of the history of scientific expeditions, which often had a military aspect, the connection is strong. What else are you going to do in the middle of the nowhere, on board a ship?

    The comments from Janice and the two Anons are really helpful but I admit that I have a hard time thinking about the interface between reenactment–particularly staged battles–and modernity. I just can’t get past the idea that the real suffering of other human beings is being in some way used as an entertainment for modern folk. I know this view misses all the other things that are also going on with reenacting but I don’t all of those things, crafting, sewing using period tools, and so on, stand on their own as interesting pursuits?


  11. It’s all about the clothes: check out this commercial for eBay using historical re-enactors:

    I attended my first Civil War re-enactment while teaching Tony Horwitz’s book in an American Studies course. (Interesting to note that the hardcore re-enactor Horwitz focuses on is, like Kowalczk, from Rust Belt Ohio.) That re-enactment took place in Mesopotamia, Ohio, in the midst of an Amish community. Nothing like watching modern American consumers interpreting nineteenth-century life surrounded by the pacifist Amish, many of them in homemade clothing, and their horses.

    The visitors were more interested in what many living history museums and historical societies provide: the history of everyday life and especially daily work. Americans during their vacations and on their weekends will pay to see individuals undertake physical labor to do the work in another time. So I wasn’t surprised that more visitors interested in camp life–making playing cards and dice, cooking over an open fire, repairing clothing, and presenting the icky possibilities of the surgeon’s tent.

    I did meet one young, hoop-skirt-wearing woman who, during the “battle,” pointed out five men (several of them who had been “shot” and lay “dead”) she had dated. Where else do history nerds find dates?


  12. truffula,

    I don’t actually think I was ever at a battle re-enactment. Most of the private events I went to were essentially glorified camping expeditions, with the period tools. In the public ones I attended the appeal was certainly in having a persona and talking to people in that persona.

    But I know that experiance is different based on the time period. It’s much more common in the less popular time periods where it’s not possible to get your 2000 close buddies togeather to do a battle.

    And yes, there is a lot of dating that goes on in the subculture, as with most. In fact it reminded me very strongly of the dating science among science fiction customing nerds.


  13. It’s so interesting that some commenters feel the need to comment anonymously on this post, although as far as I can tell, their previous blog names didn’t give much away about their RL identities! But I think that their fears about their reenacting not being respected by other historians is probably correct.

    I used to work with a woman who regularly appeared in the Renaissance Faire in the state in which we worked (not Colorado–this was one of my many previous jobs.) Her reenacting was regarded by her senior colleagues as faintly laughable, but then, she wasn’t much of a scholar, and she was a pretty crummy colleague, and I think those two things had more to do with her profile in the department. So, I wonder: if historians who reenact publish their work and are respected by their colleagues, they may have the power to raise the esteem in which reenacting is held by their professional peers.

    I don’t think there’s anything disreputable about reenacting, but it is more a world of buffs and enthusiasts rather than something undertaken by professionals. To continue the queer theory of reenacting that I used in this post, maybe the professionals who reenact need to “come out of the closet” in their costumes and be who they are!


  14. And p.s. thanks for all of the very thoughtful responses in this thread.

    Dr. Koshary, I liked Tony Horowitz’s book when it first came out, and colleagues of mine assign it in their public history courses. I thought it was a thoughtful investigation of CW reenactors and the meaning of the “lost cause” at the end of the twentieth century. But as you note, it’s over a decade old now, and while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t feel like I learned anything truly new or surprising about the white Southerners and other white people who engage in CW reenacting. (That is, they’re shocking lack of thoughtfulness or awareness about racial politics, and why some people are really pissed off to hear “states’ rights” evoked and the confederate flag brandished.)

    Great story, History Maven, about the reenactors among the Amish! Fascinating.


  15. One of the things I find so interesting about reenactors is how *personal* history feels to them. The critique about nostalgia and the distorted view of the past by the white d00dz is spot-on, but beyond that, I’m fascinated by people who feel such a strong personal connection to history, mostly because even though I am a professional historian, I absolutely do not feel such a tie. As much as I “love” the period I work on, I’m very aware that I would never, ever want to take a time machine back there – even temporarily! In a similar vein, I started to watch episodes of NBC’s “Who do you think you are” – which is a show about celebrities in search of their family histories – mostly because genealogy is a topic that I’m mildly hostile to (unlike other members of my family, who are addicted to The more I watched, the less hostile I felt to the entire project, because it some ways it demonstrates how history can be living to present-day folks. The reenactors, whether of battles or Renfest or Ye Olde Colonial Williamsburg (where visitors are invited to rent costumes for the day) and to a certain extent their audience, are in search of something – a meaningful, personal history. I’ve come around to liking what I call a 3-D history (for lack of a better phrase), only better historicized, like the Aquiliea project, where they are working on an online program where you can make up an avatar and wander around an ancient Roman city. It seems to me a great way to get students more engaged with the past – to envision it as something real and concrete as opposed to a list of dates and events in a book. They want to find something of themselves back there – so the trick is, to me, to do it in a way that doesn’t glorify or hide oppression, but rather uses to reveal something about what it means to be human.


  16. I’ll cop to wanting to go anon on this subject for two reasons. While my normal commenting name isn’t now associated with my actual name I’d like to perserve the ability to do so in the future without linking these comments.

    The second is that I’m a grad student, and have yet to prove my chops as historian to the world and would rather wait until I have to embrace my eccentricity 😉

    That said, as a LGBTQ person, I’m much more comfortable with the social acceptablity of being out in my department than I would with announcing this particular hobby at a department function.


  17. That said, as a LGBTQ person, I’m much more comfortable with the social acceptablity of being out in my department than I would with announcing this particular hobby at a department function.

    Doesn’t that say it all! So interesting.


  18. I came out as a reenactor to my committee several years into my grad program when the topic of “how did you get interested in your dissertation” came up. My advisor flat told me that if I had mentioned reenacting in my application materials, zie would not have admitted me, and that zie routinely rejects grad applicants who mention reenacting. I hope my committee has been pleasantly surprised, but I’m not interested in having my scholarship similarly dismissed in my wider field.

    I think Perpetua’s comment on reenactors wanting a personal connection hits more closely on the reasons I heard from reenactors and tourists about why they went, but I didn’t know any reenactors except for some hard right “family values” people who were interested in living in their periods (not to stereotype, but they really were the only ones).

    I’m reading War Games: Inside the World of 20th Century War Reenactors by Jenny Thompson, and she deals with the personal connection/love of period extensively. I think it’s a little different for what she’s dealing with, since the 20th century reenactors she’s looking at focus exclusively on battle, but she argues reenacting is more about memory practice than wanting to be in period.


  19. Temporarily Anon…

    I think of the books on the subject I prefer Thompson’s to Confederates in the Attic. Not just because it was closer to the periods I did, but because I felt to an extent like Horowitz’s book has the air of distain for “ignorant” southerners. When I step back to seriously discuss the educational value I see it is about memory more than anything else. I’m not sure that could be said for the people who do Roman re-enacting or SCA, but I believe that there are serious scholars that are in the closet there too.

    I know of at least one friend of mine who is an art historian who does not work on the period she re-enacts will drive a fair distance from where she lives because the local re-enacting groups will do events at places where she knows people on the staff.


  20. Historiann,

    I should probably add that my department is relatively hostile (or I should say non-receptive) to a lot of public history. Not sure it’s related though.


  21. I was ‘outed’ as a historical reenactor while a grad student by a full-colour photo of myself on the cover of the country’s largest circulation paper. Oops! It wasn’t a complete surprise as I’d made a habit of bringing needlework to seminars. Still, I know that I was low on the food chain in the eyes of some faculty. Their loss!

    I value material history as a key element in my teaching. I admit that I can get a bit over the top when I wax rhapsodic about early Bronze-Age smelting or late medieval rag-pulp paper making. I know a fair bit about some of these topics because I’ve been there on the front line with reenactors watching them at their craft or turning my hand to the technique. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time with engineers, artists, scientists and archaeologists, learning from their study and practice. I do that because I find it interesting but also because I find it valuable for my teaching and research.

    We’re not all just playing war games, dress-up or uncritical adoration. Yet that’s all that some academics and pundits see, witness today’s Toronto Star columnist video column dismissing 1812 reeanctments and beyond:–rick-salutin-but-i-digress


  22. I would add to the category of “reenactment” more experimental and analytic enterprises like the ones by agronomists and anthropologists who showed that Inca growing methods could consistently produce better yields than the best that could be offered by Cargill; or–here in Pennsylvania–summer-long exercises that demonstrated that gym-fit twentieth century specimens were unable to sustainedly complete the work regimes that colonists unremarkedly recorded having carried out year after year (until they dropped dead at a ripe-old 56!). There can be a “walk-through”/inquiry-based dimension to reenactment that doesn’t necessarily have to include tents selling funnel cakes, or feature brooding clouds of gunsmoke hanging over the fields at sunset. I don’t do any of that, I should say, but I think it belongs in the category, and that it can offer different ways of understanding the more inanimate evidence we often use.


  23. When I was doing my diss. research in the UK, I had a very good mature student who had come to history from being a (British) Civil War re-enactor. He was working as a truck driver delivering beer to pubs, went back and finished A-levels and then went to University. Probably the best student I had. And when we talked about the Civil War, he talked about how heavy the clothes were – a dimension of the period I’d never thought about. And one of my best students last semester had done lots of Renaissance Fayre stuff, and it showed. So I’ve always had a lot of respect for reenactors and their attention to the material conditions of life.

    My only concern mirrors something I’ve noticed at living history museums too: while they don’t present life as easy (really, Plimouth is pretty bleak) you also never see the vagrants, the beggars, or the infirm widow who can’t do anything. They are historically accurate about what they do include, but not what they don’t include, which is the bottom of the social scale. Similarly, the Ren Fayre costumes I’ve seen strike me as good yeoman family costumes, probably a step above what the poorest would have worn.


  24. This is a fascinating post and set of comments. In thinking about the increasing popularity of reenactment since the sixties, I wonder if there’s any connection between it and all the “American hero” type television shows that were so popular in the earliest reenactors’ childhoods: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Francis Marion, the movie Johnny Tremaine,and so on. Do all these television and Disney versions have a role to play? Did they maybe emphasize the importance of history or maybe make the reenactors want to redo those versions and make it more real?


  25. Sorry to tell you this Undine, but I’m waaaayyyy… to young for that to be the cultural influence with me. And I’d venture to say that most of the people i knew in the hobby as well.


  26. That may be true of you ATA, but according to the Kowalczk article, the vast majority of reenactors are of the demographic that Undine cites–people who were children in the 50s and early 60s, and who grew up playing cowboys & Indians, unreflexively & unironically.


  27. Thompson discusses cowboys and indians/TV as an influence on the reenactors she was working with also, although I also didn’t see much of that. I think there’s a bit of a generation divide in a lot of reenactor groups right now, where you have people in their 20s/30s who are more aware of race/gender issues and presentation issues than the folks who got the hobby going and are now in their 50s/60s. A lot of the younger folks in reenacting that I knew either grew up with a parent who was reenacting, or (this is how I got into it) saw living history museums/events as a kid and were so intrigued that they jumped in as soon as they were able to drive themselves to events.

    In my experience, kids who grow up or discover an interest in reenacting use their interest to guide what they do in school and end up with a deeper education than the more self-taught older reenactors. Since becoming an academic, I’ve had several students in my classes tell me late in the semester that they took class x because they’re reenactors and something about the class spoke to them.


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