Why Authenticity Matters: A Letter to Reenactors & Event Organizers

Why Authenticity Matters: A Letter to Reenactors & Event Organizers

Various ‘historical festivals’ are spreading across Europe like wildfire. They seem to be spreading from the north to the south with the medieval festival/market/experience being the most common culprit in Central Europe. While some of these events have standing traditions, a lot of them sprung up in the last few years.

I have attended one of these events last summer, just before I left Slovenia behind. Until that point, I have largely abstained from partaking in reenactment in that part of the continent, because I was aware that the standards were certainly underdeveloped, but this time I somehow got talked into it. The event was promoted as a most ‘authentic medieval camp’, filled with knights, representing Slovenia in the mid-15th century. The organizers were also proudly promoting their ‘authentic medieval market’, where one could observe historical craft in action. Generally, the word ‘authentic’ was thrown around a lot. But how did it look in practice?

It was a sunny Saturday morning and I found myself standing in a section of freshly cut cornfield, with the still standing corn stalks still visible on the edges of the perimeter, forming a fence around the camp area. I walked through something meant to resemble a palisade gate, quickly banged together from some planks. I already heard the blaring sound system of an open-air stage set up one the other side of the camp. On one side of the camp by the cornstalks, there was a clearly visible line of portable toilets. The reenactors gathered around the various tents represented grades form people wearing flip-flops, to some actually trying to look medieval. Where allegiance to some time period could be determined, this spanned at least 500 years of Medieval history, with people dressed up as Vikings and early crusaders on one end and veering into the renaissance on the other. The so called historical market was, with the exception of an armourer, mostly occupied by sellers of tourist souvenirs, local arts & crafts, and just plain garbage. On the other end of the camp was a fenced-off area, prepared for a mock battle and riding games, a prominent feature of which was some kind of agricultural vehicle, disguised as some kind cart, which at best evoked an aesthetic half-way between the Wild West and Mad Max. As part of the entertainment, the organizers had a bunch of guys parading around dressed up as Franciscan monks while playing saxophones. To top it of, there was a guy ambulating around the premises – presumably a visitor – disguised as a the Witch-King of Angmar. A bad medieval event joining forces with a 3rd rate LARP. An entity far worse than the mere sum of its parts – a sight as painfully captivating as a train crash played in slow motion.

Level of Historic Authenticity: Abysmal

Level of Immersion into a Historic Setting: ZERO.

My Reaction as a Reenactor & Archaeologist: Daydreaming about carpet bombing the place with napalm.

The Visitors’ Experience: They seemed to be at least somewhat enjoying themselves. They were here to eat and drink while looking in marvel at a bunch of adults who like to play dress-up. It seemed that for them this was just another carnival.

Witch-King of Angmar
NOT a medieval knight. (Still image from the LOTR Trilogy)

In my introduction to living history, I have already urged my readership to pursue the highest level of quality and authenticity. But why do I so sternly insist on establishing and maintaining standards, when the visitors do not seem to care? Why should living history enthusiasts are about authenticity? Why should we bother?

Because we have the power to change the public opinion.

The public finds living history extremely fascinating, after all, this is why all of these events get organized. This makes living history a very powerful tool for the promotion of cultural heritage, and with great power there also comes responsibility. This power power turns actors in living history into something akin to museum workers.

Living Shame
Being a reenactor does carry with it some responsibilities.

Even if we care enough, why don’t our visitors share this fervour? The people do not actually know what is authentic, the average visitor has an interest in history, but does not devote time to the meticulous study of details such as clothing. Thus the visitor tends to believe everything that he sees to be authentic. In his mind, if you see something at a Roman/Viking/Medieval event, then it evidently must be Roman/Viking/Medieval. After all, these people were selected by an organizer, who promised the visitors an ‘authentic experience’. Therefore, the average visitor sees little reason to question what they see and does not differentiate between fact, fiction, or even blatant sloth and stupidity on the performer’s part.

So, if this lack of public criticism is caused by a lack of knowledge, why would anyone with at least a general interest in the past and heritage be uninformed in this age of public education, libraries and the internet?

1. Their preconceptions are already twisted by popular media. Just because there is a lot of easily available information out there, it does not mean that most of it is correct. The Horned Vikings of classic Hollywood, Vikings in Leather Biker gear, 16th century armour in a 9th century setting, invented clothing patterns which rely on modern elements, people in all kinds periods wearing huge leather bracers which do not seem to serve any function, etc., etc. We have decades of really misguided representations of the past to fight against, and big ‘historical productions’ are popular again, with a range of series and films coming out each year. The entertainment industry is in the business of selling entertainment, not providing education.

2. Even a lot of museum displays often offer questionable reconstructions, which show a very outdated state of knowledge about how the past looked like. Often these were put up with a very limited budget, by somebody who just barely knew what they were doing and wanted to simply slap something on a mannequin, in order to make the exhibition ‘more engaging’. Do not completely trust archaeologists in these fields, unless they have specialised in reconstructing costume. Just because they can go on for hours about jewellery typologies, that does not mean that they actually know how their object of study fits into the outfit as whole, or what is the whole meant to be. There is a certain correlation between a region or country having a well developed reenactment scene, and the amount of research being done on things such as ancient costume.

3. The public might not be primarily interested historical accuracy. Being entertained and being able to relate to what is presented is given priority. This a lesson which museology had to accept in trying to open up to a wider audience, and it applies to living history as well.

This presents some challenge to the participants, and especially to the organizers who should be enforcing these ideals. First, we have to do our homework to create an image of the past which is as accurate as possible. Secondly, we have to make this image entertaining by making it engaging and relatable. There might be various ways of achieving this, and we will have to keep innovating and refining our method. A bit less sitting around drinking, and more displaying craft in a didactic manner, and even offering engaging hands-on experiences to the participants might be a good start for many.

Historic Pottery Production
Less sitting around and more authentic (dirty) hands-on experiences leads to better engagement of visitors and participants. (Photo: Heidi Blix Madsen)

Also keep in mind that, if we as living history enthusiasts do not adhere to a strict ethos of authenticity, then we are actively lying to the audience, therefore making things even tougher for those who are actually trying to inform and educate the public.

If all the participants and visitors were well informed on historical fact, then authenticity would be less important – at least as far as the message is concerned. Since everybody would know what is what, history and fantasy could coexist in the same space in the name of good fun and creativity. Instead, we are give the task of educating the visitors at our evens. Therefore we should at least make the effort to educate them right.

But striving to creating an authentic, captivating, environment also has beneficial experiential aspect both for the visitor and the performer. It increases the level of immersion, the magic quality of theatre, present at the event. One should not underestimate the theatrical qualities of a historical market. An immersive environment allows the participants fall into character, thus increasing their enjoyment. Since the participant is immersed in the role, they do not need to ‘put up an act’ for the visitor, therefore presenting to the outsider a more gripping experience. Not only is the whole experience all of a sudden more believable it is also a lot more enjoyable to both parties involved. Are we not in this because we are deeply interested in the past and want to have fun with it?

In Summary – If you wish to engage in reenactment, uphold the highest standards of historical accuracy. Otherwise you are actively deceiving those who visiting these events, you ruining the fun for the other participants, and even potentially sabotaging your enjoyment. Striving towards authenticity might be more challenging if you are just starting, but it will pay off in large dividends further down the line. It will make you more knowledgeable, deepen your enjoyment of living history and open the gates to some amazing events in future.

Have some examples of best practice or some horror stories from events, which you have visited? Do write in the comments bellow.

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48 thoughts on “Why Authenticity Matters: A Letter to Reenactors & Event Organizers

  1. Try a UK one, the ines i have attended not incl some if the stalls selling tat are very good not perfect but good, i know we try our very best with whats available, however a lot if effort and pride go’s into the ‘living history’ and the battle scenes.

    Im with BloodAxe Vikingr part of the alliance of the Free Warbands of England and i know we are proud and endeavour to set a std of authenticity.

      1. The Ancient Technology centre in Cranborne, Dorset has great open days. I have spun twine from bramble stems, used a rope making machine and manned a waterwheel amongst other things.

      2. The Military Odyssey at the Kent Showground held at the of August each year has some excellent living history groups attending. Groups from a wide variety of eras attend.

      3. There are two societies that “do” the period in the UK “The Vikings” and Regia Anglorum. Shows by either of these will be pretty good, not perfect but pretty good. There’s always a bit of variability within the groups that make up the societies.

        There’s inevitably a pretty Rus Viking or two invading early medieval England though 🙂

  2. Still back scabbards guys with viking bows at medieval events, larp people with too much furs and leather bracers fortuneatlty they don’t get onto our battle fields at main battle weekends
    But occasionally we do get the odd Reenactor not trying hard enough and letting others down
    If its a time lined even ie war of the roses 1450-80s make sure its not antique 300 year old armour
    From Norman or crusader sources
    If its a multi period battle which two of my battles are then different armour periods is OK to aa degree but still standard should be kept, ie no modern trousers or foot ware
    Only exception for footware is very wet and slippy
    So no jogging bottoms or combat boots

  3. did a fare amount of living history in past years, if you explain to your audience our canvas tents are not authentic, but you cannot transport hovels very easily and we need shelter because we have to go to work on Monday. Having established what is “authentic” and then showing how rushlights were made, how the Apothecary gathered herbs, how coins were struck, how rope was made etc. etc. both adults and children are entertained and go home thinking. Ask the children what their life would be like with out electricity.

  4. I completely agree with your post. It is our responsibility to show as accurate a picture as we possible can (knowing that it will never be a 100 % correct).
    I’m the curator of The Medieval Centre in Denmark. We have a reconstructed medieval town and we do not allow anything out of our timeframe (1395-1415).
    (the english site is not as informative as the danish, so if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me).

  5. I hear you, man!
    Same here in Austria, 99% of all events are like the one you describe.
    Are you still in Slovenia? We are having an event near Graz mid May (https://www.facebook.com/events/242445732778365/) trying to gather most of the “authenticity-forces” of Austria in a multiperiod event. I can not promise that you will see a shining example of pure high quality reenactment since the event is only supposed to turn into it over the next 2 years, but we have some pretty ambitious people there and you can certainly meet us (hi, IG 14. Jahrhundert from Vienna here, http://www.ig14.at) and say hello 🙂

    1. Thank you for the invite. I moved to Ireland in September, so there will be no events around the Alps for me for a while now.

  6. It’s difficult, large scale re-enactment events are a bit thin on the ground in the UK at the moment. I wouldn’t recommend Tewkesbury as there is a lot of rubbish there (although it’s a good fun event) and that tends to drag down the good stuff. The fashion in the UK seems to be away from Medie Val at the moment and more for later periods, especially WW2 and there are some good events ( Wimpole at war, Yorkshire war experience) but as with any big event don’t expect it all to be bang on. If you want really good LH then look at specific groups. I like recommend the likes of Regia Anglorum, The Clarance Household, Paladins of chivalry to name but a few. On the continent one of the best is the Companie of The George. If you have a look at Event plan, they are one of the top event companies and their stuff is always good, although again it tends to be later periods. Hope this is of interest.

    1. Thank you for the advice and recommendations. I also agree that smaller events tend to have a higher chance at presenting quality content, since the standards often have to drop a bit, if you want to have a large event with lots of participants.

  7. tried to access your site earlier, you might want to check logs and security at the same time:


    The http://www.haraldthesmith.com page isn’t working

    http://www.haraldthesmith.com redirected you too many times.

    Went to root and have a wordpress install option


    Welcome to the famous five-minute WordPress installation process! Just fill in the information below and you’ll be on your way to using the most extendable and powerful personal publishing platform in the world.

    Information needed

    Please provide the following information. Don’t worry, you can always change these settings later.

    Anyone know the owners ? seems they are hiding behind Domain Privacy Service FBO Registrant

    This was posted to a fb group 🙂

  8. The Netherlands also have some good events, although the level of some groups that attend is deplorable. Regarding Medieval groups: some are good, most are OK, some have no idea what the f*ck they are doing. One thing that always annoys me is the authenticity of the camp followers and/or women at events: there are few that get it right, most play dress up and go along with the hobby of their husband or boyfriend.
    Also tiresome: when giving historical advise or pointing out where to get information and proper kit, you’re labelled a “stitch counting authenticity Nazi” and they hate you, whilst continuing to wear crap kit. And in that crap kit tell the visitors shitty stories of “how it was back then”.

    1. Yes, one thing you often get with medieval groups which focus on the ‘knights in armour’ concept is that anybody who is not a fighter happens to be there just as a backdrop. At the same time what you often get with combatants is that they might invest in their fighting gear, but won’t really care about their soft kit.

    2. As a woman in the hobby, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see another woman attend an event not knowing what she is doing.

      What I find even more frustrating than that, is the mentality that others have towards helping them in their role. Yes- some women have been brought by their significant other. Because he wants to involve his wife or his girlfriend in his hobby. Chances are, he doesn’t know what she should be wearing anymore than she does. But she is relying on his knowledge. She will have one of two responses if questioned. Either the defensive “my boyfriend/ husband/etc told me this is what I’m supposed to wear” or “oh, i wish i knew that before i came out”

      Why would she invest tons of $ on something she doesn’t know if she’ll enjoy? But does she get help? Generally no- because she “should have done her research”. Men don’t know enough about what she should wear because that’s not where their main research lies. And the other women attending will try to help, but chances are, she already has been told she’s incorrectly dressed and it’s shot through her self esteem, preventing her from caring and wishing she’d never come out in the first place.

      Reenacting has historically been seen as a men’s hobby-and that is where the primary source information comes from- a men’s perspective. I understand why. Battles, until recent times, have mostly excluded women. So we take a background role. As a few of us come out now too, guidance is needed. Like you said- there are a handful who do it right. But if you want women to be correct when they first get there, or even after, you need to help them too. Get an appropriate kit together for women for your unit. I bet you have enough spare kit to go round if you want to recruit a new male. Do you have one for a female? Do your research on women’s clothes. I can tell you what infantry wore, what officers wore, what uniforms the men each wore in different theaters of combat, I can tell the difference between early war and late war patterned battledress. I can point out their pajamas, pt gear and hospital dress. Can you say the same thing about women’s kit? Most men can’t. Be the change you want to see in others.

      1. What a great response! Nice suggestion to have spare costume parts for visitors. When I parade as a guest with a group like Dance Macabre, I have brought a bolt of black textured fabric which I have ripped & sewn into very basic sheaths, scarves, “Zorro” masks, etc.. This is cheap and easy for me and I can invite others to come along for the fun and feel that all our costuming will suit the theme of the parade. This also helps provide their guild with just the sort of costume pieces you suggest having on hand. For our Fool’s Guild Coronation parade, I have done the same with motley. BTW, Phyllis Patterson began the modern American Renaissance Festival movement in ’63, and women have always had honor and voice at the original Pleasure Faire. This seems to hold true for most of the American circuit. We also seem less bellicose, correlation perhaps? Her original concept was a ephemeral market faire, like Barthelemy’s , where permanent buildings were as foreign as were battles. I had the distinction of being her first Design Director and before that, I was the first prop master at the first faire in America. I can say we always endeavored to teach history with a smile, since that was one of Phyllis’ favorite imperatives. Having been from a family of educators and being one herself, She sought out and maintained Non-Profit Educational Foundation status as long as She was in charge. Admittedly, authenticity is entrenched but sparse on this side of the pond these days!

  9. We’re across the pond in middle America. We really try and have built a beautiful viking era hilltop ringfort. Between trying to get members to keep improving their portrayals and getting the public to stop thinking everything historically leaning must be a Renn Fair it can get frustrating. We do our best. 🙂

  10. I reenact the fur trade, this article is relevant to my group as well. It is so easy to make those compromises for comfort or convenience. The visitors to our camp may not know but ever so slowly you lose authenticity and become an entertainment group. Thank you for reminding us why it’s worth the time and effort to do it right.

  11. At an event in Virginia, a couple of years ago, three friends and I got into a spontaneous debate about the British Parlianent’s authority to levy taxes on us. We all knew the subject, so we were actually able to present solid arguments. It wasn’t planned or arranged, but we drew a crowd, that listened for 15 minutes, to a debate on 245-year-old politics!

  12. I have been involved in a large international reenactment group for over 20 years. Many people gradually get better, the longer they are at it, but some never do. It has been said that “[a]uthenticity is like a two-lane road – anyone going slower than you is a slug, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.”

    I agree with you, though, about there being some responsibilty involved in doing events open to the public. Another saying I have heard is, “You may be the only history book someone reads.” People who don’t know yet can be taught, but I’m not sure what to do about someone who just doesn’t care, but insists on spreading their errors as facts.

    1. You may be the only history book someone reads. I really like that one. Sometimes this ‘hobby’ can be more powerful than school history classes and museums.

  13. Ha, ever been to a Renn Faire in the US? It’s way worse.

    Some of the best living history presentations are put on by amazing reenactment groups, like Wulfheodenas, Eran Ud Turan, Vicus Ultimus, Koryvantes, or the Ermine Street Guard just to name a few spanning several cultures and timeframes. There’s a lot of variance in quality, some groups hold much higher standards than others (mine does) and that’s really daunting and costly.

    I agree that getting the public hands-on in a living history setting is the absolute biggest thing you can do to educate and get people interested. Civil War and Revolutionary War in the US is larger than every other era of history combined, and they put on some pretty fantastic displays, and most of the groups have at the very least a good standard of accuracy. Things like allowing people to use ancient machines like Roman cranes, or grinding flour, or many other things to get them involved in the display make a world of difference.

    I’m one of the only Late Roman Reenactors in the US (there’s… 6 of us now, across the entire continent) and let me tell you I would kill just to see something like the movie Agora done with correct clothing (I mean seriously, how hard is it to put some freaking stripes on some sleeved tunics?! I don’t even care if it’s cotton, at least make it look right.)

    As others have said, you should check out some of the British reenactments.

    Evan S
    Placidi Valentiniani Felices, Charlotte, NC
    Legio VI Ferrata, Charleston, SC

  14. I resigned my position as the President of the Board of Trustees at a local historic site because, I was told by several of the members that authenticity doesn’t matter because, the public won’t know the difference. I was the only re-enactor, historian in the group and could no longer take the sham being presented to the public. I ask the VP of the group to replace the plastic, neon colored pony beads in his kit and he said, all that matters is that he likes them! I was constantly removing antique car parts, Aztec and African artifacts that board members put on display in our Revolutionary war period fort.

  15. As a LARP Photographer I’d appreciate it if there would be a reliable list of EU reenactment events with high authenticity standards. Anybody knowledgeble and willing to compose one?

  16. While I fully and heartily agree with keeping to the highest authenticity standards when doing a public demonstration or event there is also a “balance point” that must be kept in mind…

    Location; while it would be nice to have a castle or period specific village to have your event, it is extremely unlikely to have that opportunity unless a group has the finances, ability and time to do so… and then what happens during the “off” times?

    Resources; Most people have regular jobs that they must maintain and cannot afford to put in the type of time and dedication and costs for 100% accuracy, not to mention all of the “soft kit” required in the backdrop and places to store it when not in active use… We are essentially talking maintaining a second “house” to do it 100% accurate, not to mention not being able to get or use some materials and methods due to modern safety and health regulations…. which brings us to…

    Safety; While we would strive to present everything with full accuracy, modern laws *will* interfere with that ability in the name of safety, both for the re-enactors as well as that “uneducated” general public who will not know any better nor recognize a danger without some “out of period” notices… then there are health standards… Cooking, cleanliness, etc… are you advocating authentic chamberpots and scrapers here? While portable toilets *could* often be better hidden or unobtrusive, that also means harder to find, and go ahead and let *one* person get sick or injured on a site and see just how much you can lose if not being sent to jail… even if it was entirely their fault… seen that happen several times already.

    Time period; to be properly “authentic” one cannot have widely disparate time periods thrown in together… you would have to narrow down on no more than a hundred year span and realistically should be more like 50 years for many things. Looking at this from an “event organizer” standpoint, just how many people are there willing to stay strictly within and authentic to a 100 year period of time? How many (not already involved AND working) are going to attend this event? Events cost money… site fees, rentals, sanitation, insurance… even more if the general public is allowed due to additional regulations as well as amenities… you will need to charge enough to cover all these costs, or else absorb them within the group… which has already paid for all their “authenticity”, their time, and their efforts and now will be fronting more. How much can you realistically charge a general public when the focus becomes that narrow… Remember that the general public is only looking to be entertained…

    Finally, where do you draw that line for Authenticity; If you have been a re-enactor for any time, you start to realize just how many steps it takes to create just a baseline item like weaving cloth… fully authentic means you *CANNOT* use anything purchased at a modern store… *everything* must be hand created from raw materials and that requires a rather large community of specialized crafters to trade with… or else taking on the Herculean task of learning how to perform every single one of them yourself. All in all, one would very nearly have to dedicate most, if not all, of their available time to the creation of the “perfect, authentic kit” (and accompanying presentation gear).

    In closing, Yes, I have learned a great many things over the years and have consistently striven to be as “authentic” as possible and yet I also keep in mind those constraints outlined previously… I can make exceptions to the occasional ‘modern’ elements creeping in, and I can appreciate a fairly wide range of creativity in trying to achieve the proper atmosphere. I also appreciate the efforts into authenticity and wholeheartedly cringe at some of the examples given above, but I also realize that *MY* enjoyment and *MY* threshold of disruptment is going to be different than others. Best bet is to avoid those that seem to cater to things you don’t like and go to and encourage attendance by others at the events that are good…

    1. Some good points there, which I am not trying to disprove.
      There are many levels of authenticity, and if you jump into the deep end of archaeological/historical literature, one quickly sees that there are usually several ways of interpreting the record. This already means that there might not be always a single truth to base your authenticity on. Secondly. Yes, there is always going to be a compromise somewhere, but you should acknowledge that fully, knowing where and why you made the compromise, therefore trying to do the best which is possible in a certain scenario. Hiding things modern things like toilets should ideally be factored in when, as an organizer, you are choosing the area for the event. It is good to find a place with some natural obstructions (such as trees or a large boulder) to hide out of sight of the main area, but still keep them very close. Again, this is ideal. Health & Safety can be an eternal issue in the modern world (for better or for worse). Again, here some ingenuity might be required. At some of the events that I played a role in, we had a designated first-aider among the people in the camp, who had all the equipment hidden in the tent. When and if something goes wrong, then you rush the person to the first-aider’s tent and don’t care if somebody sees a flash of a modern first aid box.

      All in all. My wish is that people try the best that they can in a given moment and strive for improvement, for a lot of participants and events could do a lot better.

  17. Having been reenacting 17C England for 40 years I have to agree. The research needed to ‘get it right’ is continuous. I am involved in the Greyhill site, a Complete landscape reconstruction to 17c. Rural life we open to guided parties for 1 week a year, it is a close to emersion in the period as a visitor can get. For the real extremist we do retreat weeks, with no public, to live in period . Food, clothing and activities to see if our research really works. All the research is published through Stuart Press.

    1. Great job on that one, especially on publishing your findings which is often missing in living history. I also agree that a closed event will be the most immersive. A good solution can be to have a day or two before the event without any visitors, which allows the participants to really get in their roles before the public arrives.

  18. My frustration is, like others, with women in the reenactment/re-creation field. However my frustration is with the way that most groups seem to feel that women are there to only be camp followers or decoration. There is little or no effort to include the thousands of crafts practiced by women during any period. It tends to be all about the fighting display.
    No wonder most groups have very few women participants.
    Of the medievalists I know, the ones with the most true knowledge, expertise and accuracy are by far the women. A much smaller proportion of men really focus down to that level (those that do are awesome though!).
    It is also interesting for me as a merchant. Whilst I do sell some very accurate things in my stock, they are definitely not able to be my bread and butter. My “medjeval” things are what I can actually make profit on.
    One accurate lamp would make me maybe 5% in profit and sit in my stock for months if not years. Noone makes them in bulk so they are expensive to make and buy and I can’t mark them up much because they won’t sell.
    In contrast a metal nibbed feather pen will make me 50% profit and I will sell 20 or more in a weekend.
    Much as I would love to have purely accurate stock, it isn’t practical.
    I do document what I can of my stock and am up front with people about the accuracy of my goods, but I do and must sell non-authentic items to actually have a functioning stall.

  19. I’ve been a vendor at American Civil War events for more than 20 years. I specialize in documented toys, games, and various sundries that are hard to find. One element that galls me is looking at oftentimes just plain junk offered by other vendors so some of the stuff that shows up is the fault of the vendors offering stuff that sells to unsuspecting reenactors who assume the vendor has done their research. I’ve now decided to stop doing events (just selling online now) and do hands on history. I’m assuming I can talk to spectators all day but if they have a chance to do certain activities, those experiences will be what they remember. And noting the comment about getting their hands dirty, I will be going the other way — letting them do laundry using period techniques.

  20. I have been a member of the The Vikings (the largest and the oldest dark age re-enactment society in the UK) since 1979 and in that time I have seen our membership grow both in numbers and in location, our living history become a large part of our Society, and the fighting skills of our warriors (male and female) develop.
    We have teams of volunteers who do their utmost to ensure that authenticity, weaponry, living history etc is of the period, and yes, we do ask that people keep to the timeline.
    If you are in Ireland, chat to Barry Gaynor of Fingal Living History.
    By the way, my husband has banned me from watching the series The Vikings as I spend all my time ripping it apart – he watches for pure entertainment, I just can’t stop criticising it .
    Excellent article you have written by the way.

    1. Glad you liked the article. I do actually watch Vikings, alone, with a weird twitch in my left eye, as I try to decipher and find some reasoning behind the choices made by the costume & props department.

      1. Harald,
        I enjoyed your article and the comments made about it.
        I have watched and event that use to be more historically correct (with some loose boundaries as they would say) go totally, off the deep end, only for the almighty dollar. Yes it was a Ren fair here in the Midwest America, but when it first started the owner and director, pushed more for historically correct. So much was the owners passion, for historically correct that he when he traveled in Europe he took photos, of simple building, and those were recreated here at his event. Even the church that is on the grounds is a replica of a small shire church he came across in Scotland, from what I am told.
        I retired a few years ago, from the event, because I was told I needed to do more entertainment then educate. I played a storyteller, a match maker, and pub wench/pub owner, and even a lady at court each roll I did as much research as possible. I even proofed that all of characters including my Pub wench/owner would have been considered low merchant class. Which I was given grief over, because it went against what they wanted. But I was able to educate the mass about each one. I even educated the mass, about the proper clothing for women, and how they could tell the class of a woman by the way her bodice was laced. Which in the end, got me into trouble also, because we had nobles, who were lacing in the front…and had brothel wenches who were lacing in the back. But I stood my ground and history behind it, somethings changed.
        But the education that I gave, is still remembered, I have people who, contact me privately on face book, asking me for my advice, on things. and I tell them the easiest way to learn is to study what they want to do.

        The almighty dollar, the media, and changing history in the history books, is causing the world to loose what history we had, and creating what we want it to be. I see it a lot here in the American History Books, which kills me every time I help my nephew with a history project. He has to proof his point harder, because sometimes it goes against what is written.
        Well I ranted enough, thanks again, for the article. I look forward to reading more.

  21. What a wonderful exchange of ideas, and thanks for Harald for getting this started. I would like to recommend visitors to the US east coast to visit Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. It is probably the most authentic first-person living history setting in the country. The actors study for months in getting their character right before going out into this Puritan village. I’d also like to recommend the Dickens Fair in San Francisco, which attempts to re-create Dickens’ London and is populated by many of his characters. Started by the Patterson family, who strove for authenticity in every detail.

  22. I am a Civil War Medical Living History Reenactor /Teacher from the USA. My time period is much later-1861 to 1865-but I must agree with you 100%! As I have often said to people, we are the ONLY HISTORY BOOK some people may ever have a chance to read/see first hand. WE ARE RESPONSIBLE to teach them as accurately as possible with the very limited time we have with them. We have the responsibility to pass this knowledge on to the next generation as history is not emphasized in our local schools. As Army Medical , we are always the last to tear down our displays and tent-age for packing to go home. People want to know about the medical field and equipment. It is getting harder to find younger people willing to take up the “hobby” and sacrifice their time to learn and wear the clothing of the period. My time is limited physically to be able to do it but I refuse to give up teaching history of my ancestors.

  23. I’m not a smith, nor a re-enactor, nor a craftsman, except perhaps sometimes a craftsman with words in my own language, as I do happen to write a blog, but ah yes – I’m quite sure EVERYONE has their similar “horror stories” to tell. I’m not too fond of visiting “Viking” markets either – the reason being clearly outlined here above, but what I DO CARE very passionately about, is when people seem to appropriate and misuse MY national history, MY culture and MY religion even, since I do just so happen to be Asatru and Swedish. We could cite the obvious example of “forn sed” in Sweden, and various groups who do not even seem to know or to care what Asatro is all about, or HHH or “Huginns Heathen Hof” and various Pagan groups within the US of A who claim that “anything goes” or that you can be Asatru one day, Hindu the nexxt, Christian the third and who pass their own little inventions of as “authentic” examples of a Pagan past, but all in all, dont let me get too verbose on the subject. Enough is enough already – anyhow, keep up your writing, and the good work

  24. I am also saddened by what has changed over the years, and it still mostly boils down to money. There are three issues I keep seeing throughout my 20+ years of reenactment on the western portion of the US.

    First is the fact that what time period and function is represented is based on what the groups decide to focus on. Unlike the coordination and standards set when the Renaissance Pleasure Faire was set up, the smaller events hire various enactment guilds to provide the atmosphere. I can walk into an event to see medieval combatants in near-full plate, next to a middle-class tavern, next to a pirate group (not privateer, not class based). This sends a huge mixed message to the patrons of the event. UNfortunately, these groups are left to their own devices to clothe, train and present. A group that has been collecting/refining their materials for ten or more years will inevitably get put next to a new group that has one pop-up pavillion and whatever garb they happen to have handy.

    Which brings me to the next issue: costuming. Though some groups try to be hard-and-fast with their representation (bodice lacing!) of the class or function, others start without proper research, materials or guidance. As these groups rarely get paid for the events, they are left to their own devices and budgets, and corners get cut or forgotten consistently.

    Finally, for the sake of getting patrons to show up and pay to come in, the rule of thumb is the bigger/more participants you have, the more attractive it is. So many “historical” events have become sprinkled with fantasy elements. Faeries, cub-scout troops in tabards, Klingons, D&D Elves and the like are among the elements I’ve seen. I bear no complaints against patrons showing up as such (as their personal entertainment is part of the point), but whenever I see these groups at advertised Renaissance faires, I twitch.

    With very (very) few exceptions, events out here do not HAVE a single or focused time period. Pirate faires cover the whole 200+ year spread, though they claim to cover the golden age. Groups more interested in hitting each other with swords (‘cos it’s cool) than putting time into research and proper presentation are common, though they rarely last.

    The only way for an event to have historical consistency (much less accuracy) is to be organized that way from the top down. All guilds created/run by the event. Costume checks based on what you are supposed to be. Language lessons and workshops. Though many, if not most of your patrons won’t know the difference, the ones that DO will appreciate the effort.

  25. I feel your pain…

    I started as an American reenactor, and after a decade drifted towards teaching, managing outdoor historical museums interpretation programs, and consulting with living history museums. I wrote both an M.A. thesis (on 19th century one-room schools) and doctoral dissertation (Am. Civil War, reenactor vs. academic historiography) on living history related topics, and am dabbling in writing a practical manual of methods for living history for museums.

    In my experience, the problem with historical festival organizers is that they tend to be more concerned with *audience entertainment* than history or authenticity, while museums are more interested in *education* than audience enjoyment. The best of both worlds need to be able to plant one foot in *each* camp…which is twice as much work, but infinitely better for all. Add to that the need to attract, nurture, and improve your participating reenactors, and you’ve got quite a complex undertaking.

    Reenactors both need to set fundamental levels of authenticity….but they *also* need to adopt a progressive ethos, that says: “today we will be as good as we can be, but we will endeavor to get better with every passing event and year.” With a path for beginners to get involved and a way for the experienced to up their game. Groups that are going to work to raise the level of their game….and help others achieve the same.

    1. Great to see that more and more individuals with a background both in living history/reenactment and heritage are starting to view the topic critically. There is a slow movement to develop conceptual frameworks and push the fields a step or two forward.

      Balancing the interests of museums, reenactors and visitors is tough work, but extremely rewarding once you get it right. I would love to see your manual once you are willing to expose it to the world.

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