As a disclaimer, a number of years ago I joined a historical reenactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) . The medieval age as it should have been, sounded ideal as a hobby. I would spend weekends swanning around in a lovely dress, eating food and watching knights in shining armour. For many years I enjoyed playing, but I started to feel disillusioned by a brand of discrimination that made me distinctly uncomfortable, and decided that it was time to find a new hobby. I went back to gaming and doubled down on my career. At times I have a pang of regret and longing for the hobby, because while it was good it was amazing. As long as I could disconnect from the feeling that the ‘game’ was not balanced to support people from all backgrounds.
Fast forward to now, and the ugly rise of white supremacy into the public eye, reenactment of all types are finding themselves uncomfortably linked to discrimination on a grander scale then I personally saw within my little group. I have sat on the sidelines watching friends I adore grapple with what this means: what were the groups doing to attract these members to their fold? Are you a (insert descriptor here) if you liaise with a (insert descriptor here). I can see the pain that it causes the vast majority of people within the SCA, a group stemmed from a group of slight hippy uni kids with romantic Arthurian legends on their mind and a set of elf ears they were dying to try out.
Today I found myself reading a fascinating blog post by Guy Windsor, a mover and shaker in the Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA) group, condemning discrimination within their group. While I read it, I found myself again thinking about how this keeps occurring. In pondering it, I found myself drawn to his explanation of the name HEMA “It stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and a sad and disgusting number of white supremacists, nazis, and other scum have latched on to the “European” bit (at the expense of the historical, the martial, and the artistry) and are bringing the term into appalling disrepute.”.
Historical Reenactment is tricky. On one hand, it can be a fabulous method of learning and teaching history. There is nothing like actually trying to walk in someone else’s shoes to get the full effect of what it means to live in a different culture or time period. Museums often use character actors to great effect to get a message through; immersion is a wonderful tool and can create a long term love affair with history. In the wrong hands though, it is extraordinarily easy to completely miss the reality of a time period. Brain Sarnacki (way back in 2011) touches on some of the danger points with this fabulous quote: Bad reenactments can innocently allow specific details, like clothing, to overtake the importance of understanding the meanings of the event being reenacted or, more sinisterly, whitewash history with patently wrong interpretations of history.
My first thoughts around this are: maybe all historic reenactments are a bad idea. After all, no mater what era you look at, there is a history of minorities not faring well. Sometimes the minorities change a bit, but generally speaking human rights and dignities is an ever changing land scape. Ideally, each generation is trying to be better then the next. Thus, maybe the smartest thing is to just avoid trying to recreate time periods so that we can avoid glossing over the inequalities and nasties that would have made living in those times a lot less comfortable. There are certainly groups that can achieve whole truth scenarios, but I’m not certain anyone specifically does them for fun. As people living in a modern world looking for enjoyable pastimes, maybe focusing on our current or future society and not romanticising the past would be wisest. This has the benefit of just not having reenactment groups for discriminatory practices to hide in, but certainly seems heavy handed.
My second thoughts were around history reenactment groups that have not publicised problems around harbouring secret Nazis. Admittedly, just because I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean they are not struggling with it. However, I think two points might contribute towards groups avoiding discrimination: Exclusivity and Knowledge. Groups such as The Companie of St George specialise in very specific time periods and require members of the group to be experts within that. There is no space for romanticism. The requirement to apply to join means that the group can be selective and chose people who are educated within their field.
Which brings me to my next point: reenactment and lack of education is a terribly bad mix. Where groups like the SCA formed from history loving geeks inspired by Arthurian legends and university textbooks, this is particular to geek pop culture from the 70’s and 80’s. I think I would be hard pressed to find members from the era who weren’t part of the geeky minority that was reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Their inspiration came from the ideal notions of chivalry and the hero of the day. I’m sure many new reenactors may have come from this as well. However, there is a growing number of people inspired by “historical” shows such as “Vikings” or even “Game of Thrones” (don’t even get me started). These are just examples, and I’m sure there are plenty of other options available in different mediums. These individuals find themselves caught up in a history that is dubious at best and highly damaging at worst. Before I go any further, I do want to acknowledge #notallreenactors, please don’t flame me. Connection however to “Might is right” is flowing into reenactment groups through people choosing to be Vikings, or Crusaders, or whatever conquering group that appeals to them, because it dials in with the ideals of a white strong Europe. A simple google search will find an assortment of articles approaching this topic for many different history based groups, with one I have linked below written by David Perry, that I think succinctly sums up some of the problems.
So, how do we fix this giant problem? Honestly, today I started to wonder something that would have made my mentors within the SCA go grey over night. I’m going to say something that people are going to think is me either trolling or throwing a grenade into the room and running away. But hear me out.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to be ‘realistic’. Maybe those elf ears should come back out from the cupboard. Maybe it’s time to stop being serious unless you have very specific and restrictive recruiting processes.
Live action role play (LARP), has had a chequered past. LARP is where you will find people however remaking history in a fantasy style setting. In the SCA over the last year I have listened into the fairly serious conversations of whether a swastika should be allowed to be worn in public because some research proves that it has been worn by non-nazis 1500 odd years ago. That’s correct, but hiding behind historical ‘research’ completely ignores the fact the the world has marched on. It ignores that history happens in context, and sometimes things are inextricably tangled up in different events (particularly when those events happen in living memory). LARP has the benefit being able to say “Not in our make believe system” and bypassing those problematic conversations altogether.
In discussing the Richard Iott controversy in 2011, Robert Slayton explores some of the dangers in War Reenactment, and I think makes an excellent point in saying that “reenactments on American soil fail to reflect the historic record. They work against the noblest aspirations of the historian. By cleansing war of ideas and policy, they purge history of human meaning and of its moral dimension”. Most reenactments are going to be toeing this uncomfortable line. People will hide behind what they argue is a legitimate historical position with out understanding the full context of the history they are interested in. Or they will twist historical ‘facts’ and research by latching onto the small points that can back their opinions. The more we fall down the hole of defining history through the small details, we lose track of the big picture of why it’s good that we don’t live in the past. It’s not educational, it isn’t good representation, it the corruption of truth through good intentions and the search for connection.
I used to wonder why historians and museum professionals were so rare in the reenactment community. I think I understand now, and suddenly my occasional pangs for community based games with fun costumes makes me wonder if it’s time to check out a different course of action.
I also stumbled on an amazing article about LARP and consent culture that further sent my mind reeling while connecting up some ideas. When we enter into a historical reenactment event, we are in a sense placing ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We dress up and hope that we fit into the group. In Sarah Bowmans article, she touches on the problem of the ‘Cult of Hardcore’ within LARPing communities, and I have certainly seen these problems regularly in a number of historical groups. The answer that the Hardcore will give to a perceived slight is, in a nut shell, eat a spoon of cement and harden up. In a community where we ask people to trust that they will not be abused or hurt while being vulnerable, this style of interaction further damages the whole. It creates an atmosphere of distrust and agitation. To foster creativity and empathy, we need an understanding of group consent and personal consent within what is effectively a giant community led game. Learning how to accept that we will, inadvertently and sometimes deliberately, hurt others is paramount to developing the skills to appropriately address some of these extremely delicate conversations. Instead of bullheadedly sticking to “This totally isn’t a swastika and people are stupid”, opening ourselves to vulnerability and empathy by saying “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable and I want you to be having as good a time here as I am”. It’s hard to face our own failures, but owning them outright means we have any chance of learning from them and building the bridges we (generally) accidentally burn.
I have waxed lyrical now for almost 2000 words, and only touched on the tiniest part of this iceberg. I have linked below to some of the articles that I thought of while typing this up. I’ve made an additional list of extra things that I have gathered up while thinking this over as well. Please keep in mind, that I am not an expert on this topic, just a curious bystander hoping for the best and enjoying a good thought exercise.
Articles actually used:
Sarah Bowman: A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture
David Perry: White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong.
Brian Sarnacki: My View on Historical Reenactments
Robert Slayton: Reenacting Evil
Guy Windsor: Fascists are poisoning HEMA. Here’s one small thing I’m doing about it.
Articles I found interesting along the way:
If you have the time, the Public Medievalist has some really interesting articles that delve into some of these topics: https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/
Jameson Adame: Why living history matters in teaching
Maury Brown: The Consent and Community Safety Manifesto
Joshua Green: What’s Wrong with Nazi Reenacting
Jamie MacDonald: Larp and the joy of collective bullshit
Kate Townshend: Role play, chivalry and a world without sexism: Welcome to the ultimate female fantasy
Clayton Willets: Reenacting in a Modern World
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.