Unique Portrayals (I.E. Why I Don’t Want to Be A Specific Person)

When putting together a living history impression one must consider multiple elements, to include material culture as well as knowledge and skills. Each element must be judged on its own for accuracy and authenticity (a conversation for another article) and has to be relevant and coherent to the other elements worn, demonstrated, presented, or carried with the rest. The amount of effort the living history community will invest to reproduce the minutiae on historical elements is dizzying. From the choice of materials to the method of construction incalculable amounts of time and resources are spent on ensuring everything is correct for its place in time and purpose. Though the conversations continue about various shades of the authenticity versus accuracy subject, the subtext of what the community strives for is to have a reasonable aesthetic passable for normal in the time and place we portray. Our material culture should support this underlying goal. In everything I portray, my goal is: if I, in my living history kit, were to be flung back in time to the 1400s, I could walk down the streets of Nantwich or across the battlefield at Shrewsbury and (as long as I did not say anything, I do not speak Middle English) not raise a single eyebrow or garner a curious glance by looking out of place.

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Incognito.

Pulling back from the material culture and evaluating my impression with a larger scope I apply the same sense of “Blending Into The Crowd” to the backstory and characterization of my impression. An impression needs a character story to ground the facts the living historian is attempting to share with the public to the point in history they are working with. My impression should be specific and have the required details to support the historical narrative I portray while leaving room for individualism. I am uncomfortable ratcheting down the specificity so much it constrains my actions and thought processes to one person, a person not me. This is not a role-play for me and I am not an actor, I try to avoid performing instead of informing when doing a living history presentation (shout out to third-person presentation.) I cannot pretend to say, with any authority, I know the mannerisms of a person I have not met. I could not hope to do an accurate impersonation of people I know well, much less a historical figure. Likewise in the material culture of a historical figure, the margin of error is thinner. For royalty and the high nobility, the documentation of what they wore (including surviving pieces of their possessions) requires a finer degree of conformity than my comfort level allows. I call it the “Could It” factor, which I summed up earlier with the incognito thought process. Could my impression have been present at the time I presented, even though an individual with my appearance, and color choice, and iconography did not exist at the time?

It is a high standard, but it does not quite require the stringency of the “Did It” factor. If I were representing a specific historical figure I would constantly be considering: did the figure I represent have the item I am holding now, move the way I move now, fight in the manner I do now, respond in conversation to a comment the way I have chosen to (the list goes on.) The idea of such a burden hanging over my head is exhausting, and I do not want to do it. A final, somewhat tangential hang up for me is the sense of identity appropriation. While I know the argument on this subject is fiercely contested (perhaps more so in the Cosplay world than the living history one, but I digress…) I am uncomfortable portraying something I do not resemble. I would not want to portray a woman or a samurai, as I am not female or Japanese, and it crosses a personal comfort line. Some forgiveness exists on this subject, as while I am not pureblood English I am Caucasian and can portray a medieval British, French, or German man.

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For some, I am drawing a line they disagree with and I emphasize how this sentiment is not projected onto others; this is not a condemnation of those who do portray something not in direct accordance with their ethnicity, gender, or any other biographical identifiers. The lines are gray and subjective, I have heard and respect various discussion points favoring and supporting the decision to cross cultural lines with historical impressions. However, a specific historical figure does not compliment my efforts to blend into the culture I portray. This is also not a critique of those who portray specific people. Especially in the context of recreating specific battles or events, individual historical figures are required as an accurate and authentic representation of a battle they were present for requires their presence during the recreation. I am grateful for those comfortable and willing to do the extra work it takes to recreate historical figures. They do it, so I am absolved of such a responsibility. Having people who have different interests and pursuits than you do in a collaborative hobby such as this is part of what makes a community out of individuals.

It is also important not to confuse cultural and historical ambiguity with no backstory at all or lacking any sense of place in history. It is important to have some sense of location in history, geography, and culture. In the context of late middle age England, feudalism (in its various iterations) was the social fabric. While it was so normalized I suspect few people thought about it regularly and with such specificity, I am certain everyone and anyone you spoke to in the 14th and 15th century knew exactly who they belonged to, and who belonged to them. Just as today people are intimately aware of and could immediately identify who their landlord or mortgage company is, who their direct supervisor at work is, or who owes them favors in their social circles etc. Who you were in service to, and in service to you, was of the utmost importance to your social status and progress through life, even in the waning twilight of feudalism which the pre-renaissance late medieval period was. It influenced who you spoke to, how you dressed, if you could travel and with who’s permission, when and if you went to war, where and the amount you earned or worked, among other examples. A historical impression of a warrior, be it man-at-arm or esquire or knight, is lacking in authenticity if it does not also come with a definite answer of who they are in service to and who may be in service to them (be it fictional or historical figures and meeting the “could it” standard.)

As we make and develop living history impressions for presentation, reenactment, or other activities be mindful of the goal and how to achieve those objectives. One of the many decisions, apart from social status and geography and time-period, is the specificity of the impression and in this particular example, I am referring to the specific person scale. The more you focus on a specific person, the higher the standard becomes, which comes along with it an increased level of responsibility and effort for the reenactor to be faithful and accurate to the portrayal. An impression of a “Crusader in the 1140s” requires less specificity than a “Templar in the 1140s” though they are both focused and specific impressions. Neither of these impressions compares in regards to the level of precision with portraying Grand Master Bernard de Tremelay himself. The sweet spot you choose will be based on your level of comfort with specificity, tolerance for demonstrating personal mannerisms of strangers, knowledge base, the ability to afford the material culture, etc. However, with a bit of forethought and an understanding of the necessities of portraying a specific person and the intrinsic high bar set by those necessities will allow the individual living history presenter to make an informed decision on the level of portrayal they can, or are willing to, pursue.

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