In conversations about living history, especially when it comes to developing an impression, there are lots of opinions regarding (both) the ways to and not to incorporate elements into an ensemble. This is confounded by a living history community constituted of individual reenactors and individual groups with different comfort levels and standards when it comes to what they are willing to allow for themselves and their peers. Navigating such an environment can be daunting. With no single, unified governing body for all medieval reenactment (shudder the thought) there is no “on high” from which to issue such edicts. Even if there was (there should never be) if a rule is set there is likely an exception to the rule which needs to be addressed either with a blind eye or with more rules, or more complicated and nuanced rules.
The arms race of exceptions and fixes carries on, the ruleset grows cumbersome and collapses under the weight of its ineffectual bureaucracy. Instead of imposed rules, I propose adopting some flexible and adaptable guiding principles which can be applied in a multitude of situations which will serve to help the reenactor to make more sound and authoritative decisions when creating living history impressions.
Let us take, for a hypothetical, it is 2990 and a burgeoning reenactor is a major Business Corporation history aficionado. He knows his impression has to be narrow in focus on time, place, and status. He wants to put together a corporate office impression from the 1990s during the roaring dot com boom, so has a narrow time (1990 +/- about ten years, nothing after the burst). For place, he has a hard time choosing between the M4 Corridor and Silicon Valley, but did some genealogy and knows of an ancestor who lived somewhere on the US West coast in the late 20th century so goes ahead and picks San Francisco for his location. Finally, he know he’s always wanted to portray something in the gentry class, something along the lines of a high-powered executive, but not the true nobility of the time like a VP or CEO. His local group has encouraged him, as a newcomer, to start with a more manageable portrayal of an entry-level position in accounts payable. He know he is never limited to one impression and can do the executive later, so concedes to their wisdom and chooses to portray a seasoned data entry specialist on the cusp of being ready for middle management. There are no rules imposed on what can be chosen and no supervising authority to approve or deny decisions made. He instead applied some good guiding principles towards developing an impression.
Now, there is a great event coming up! A local reenactor converted his garage into a board room and is hosting a planning and synergy conference event. It is open invitation and no one is approving or denying attendees. In the future, he intends to go to a deep immersion event, but does not have a desk with an accurate corded phone and Compaq computer with all the peripherals needed to set up an accurate and authentic cubicle. For this event, he can come as he is. He has heard stories in the past about how one of the guys has an actual reproduction projector and salivates at the rumors of an authentic catered style luncheon. He doesn’t have enough money to buy a full kit, and has planned to assemble it over time as he can afford to. At this event he is going to attend in what he has now, a pair of slacks, belt, loafers purchased online, and an authentic undershirt made by hand based on a tutorial… That’s good enough, right? He even concocts a good story of how his persona lost big investing in a Ponzi scheme and, as the old 20th century saying goes, they got the very shirt off his back! He is just an office drone after all… At this point in our example, he has strayed away from guiding principles. In the first half of this example a solid theoretical plan for an impression was established. In the second half though, he did not implement sound, practical strategies for building the impression. However ridiculous this intentionally satirical example is, the community sees similar examples to this at events in medieval reenacting over and over again.
Time – Location – Status
When forming a living history impression, the single most important decision is deciding on time, place, and social status. This is the chassis, the skeleton upon which everything else in a living history impression hinges. It is the lighthouse on the shores of indecision. It is north on the compass. Answering these three questions answers a thousand future ones. Strive to keep the time-period narrow, without becoming too difficult to manage. Some impressions, such as a WWII impression, can choose a specific year, even a specific month, or even a single day or battle; medieval and earlier is usually better served by choosing a specific generation, such as a 10 – 20 year time frame. Understanding what location an impression comes from will inform what cultural traits and norms influences the impression, especially in regards to clothing styles and equipment choices. Finally, social status will provide further guidance on what elements are appropriate to incorporate into an impression based on wealth, and likewise informs what skills or knowledge a person being portrayed would know (which can provide an incentive for further exploration, research, and practice.) When wondering what books to study, judge whether they address the time, place, and status of an impression. When incorporating new material culture, comparing it to the measuring stick of time, place, and status will decide whether it is appropriate to wear or wield. Trying to decide whether to join a specific group, fight in a specific tournament, learn a specific skill, etc… everything in living history is easier if with a keen, intimate, and instinctive awareness of the time, location, and culture of the impression in question.
Research is Key
There are many ways to spend recreational time wearing medieval-inspired clothes and armor which do not require rigorous study. Medieval themed activities abound, and they are a legitimate way to spend free time. But, once one crosses over into reenactment territory where the purpose is to work towards creating authentic and accurate recreations of the past: research is the cornerstone on which build authority and credibility is built with the public and other reenactors. This does not mean being a trained, decorated academic historian is required to do good living history, but knowledge of the history portrayed is essential. The single best way to internalize historical information is through independent research. There is a noticeable difference between someone who is regurgitating other people’s information and someone confident in the topic themselves. Don’t rely on one reenactor’s word, or one book, or a movie, or a documentary. One can be brilliant at public speaking, or fantastic at a craft, or in peak physical condition, but without a grounding in history those skills and abilities cannot be applied to the historical time represented.
Establish An Authenticity Threshold
Arguments over authenticity and historicity and accuracy will never end because no correct answer exists. The situation defies an answer; what is feasible as accurate or authentic is too variable to be locked down. The farther back one goes in time, the more difficult it becomes to be definitive about any particular item or subject when trying to recreate history. Furthermore, with material culture a logical, infinite regress ends at the unhelpful conclusion “Nothing can be accurate or historical.” (The thought process being: to make an accurate garment requires accurate patterning, which we can do, but it also requires accurate material. We know how it was woven, and we can replicate the weave, but medieval sheep had a different coat than surviving sheep breeds today. This means the wool used in the yarn is not accurate to the yarn used in medieval garments. Thus, all clothes are inherently a-historical. And more so, is the garment historical if not only the sheep’s wool we use now did not exist in 1401, but the tools used to harvest the wool are not made of medieval iron handled by a medieval person speaking Middle English? Now replicate this thought process to armor, or tools, or physical mannerisms during interpretation to the public… It is pedantic, and it is ridiculous, but it illustrates how arbitrary and subjective concepts such as “authentic” and “accurate” are.) Suffice to say, at some point everyone, even the most “authentic,” is making concessions. They are using a tool or material or process unavailable to our ancestors. What is most important is a personal threshold for authenticity. Establishing a comfort level with authenticity will lead to developing a living history impression which maintains cohesion and uniformity in authenticity; which improves any impression at any authenticity point. An authentic ensemble with a stark, contrasting inauthentic element is far more jarring than one which more generally conforms to an inauthentic aesthetic. Also, accepting and embracing an established comfort level on the authenticity spectrum allows enabled healthier social interaction with like-minded reenactors, enriching the experience by avoiding an environment where members of a group are in constant philosophical conflict.
You Are Not Your Impression
Remember living history is about portraying a fictional or actual historical figure… none of us are an actual fictional or historical figure. Though not a LARP in the traditional sense, elements of role-playing exist in living history, especially in situations where first-hand interpretation is the format for an event. But no matter what role is being played, it is acting. It is playing a role. This goes both ways. Portraying a peasant does not make the reenactor inferior to those who portray something else. The social status of an impression does not reflect on someone’s worth as a human being. Likewise, portraying a noble does not invest divine privilege and superiority over other reenactors: an impression of the upper class does not make anyone more valuable or important. Someone may portray a knight, and internalize whatever virtues they believe that entails, but nothing about this hobby makes anyone a real knight, or a real noble, or a real peasant. What happens when a reenactor has two impressions, one of a commoner and one of a noble; are they worthless in the morning and worth more in the afternoon? At the base of it all, we are history nerds in adult dress-up enjoying some communal exploration of a treasured topic. Do not let an interpretation of a particular impression drive up the ego. Likewise, do not avoid an interesting impression because of perceived inferiority of the social class. Regardless of what titles or roles an individual or group gives out: you are not your impression.
Impressions are like Pokémon
There is no rule saying a reenactor can only have one impression, or every impression portrayed has to be some version of a central “persona.” Some organizations encourage the single persona concept, but living history as a concept does not require a martial impression to be the same “person” portrayed when in civilian kit, but in armor. They can be completely different people. They can be completely different time-periods! Is armor of the 16th century more appealing, but the civilian fashion of the 13th is better for soft kit? As long as each individual impression is consistent with itself, nothing is wrong with having a medieval, and a classical, and a WWII impression. Do not impose unnecessary constraints and force rationalizations and back-bending into the hobby by trying to make every impression somehow interrelate. Treat each impression on its own as an individual impression. Only wear them when in an appropriate setting for the impression. Assign however much backstory to them (or not) as wanted and make sure each one follows good principles and adheres to ones standards of authenticity. Only finances, stamina, and sanity stand between a reenactor and catching them all.
The use of the word triangulate is a shortcut, a quick way to establish the appropriate mental picture but not intend to mean three is a solid rule. The idea behind triangulating sources means: use as much content as can be acquire to develop the most accurate picture of an item or a concept before introducing it into an impression. There are a variety of good sources, but none of them are sufficient on their own. The more sources available, the more confident one can become in the authenticity of their impression. A manuscript image showing an element of clothing is good. Three of them depicting the same element being worn by different people in contemporaneous situations, especially by different artists, is great. Those images plus a contemporary inventory receipt naming the garment in question are even better. Add on museum finds or extant garments, effigies, frescos, wills, chronicles, etc. The more evidence obtained, and from a larger variety of sources, the better. Never be content with the current sources. Always be open, willing, and eager to find more. Embrace the sources which challenge preconceptions, as they likely provide superior context and understanding.
Reenactors Are Not Sources
Other reenactors are valuable resources when participating in the hobby. They can provide tools, inspiration, guidance, and companionship. Other reenactors are an incredibly important, but they are not sources. Using well-executed impressions by other reenactors as inspiration is a time-honored tradition, but do not confuse this with using the reenactor as a source. Emulating another reenactor’s impression, requires being independently responsible for understanding why the elements used are in an impression. It is perilous to answer a question about the provenance of a hat being worn with “Well, because The Turnip of Terror does.” That is not a source. Engaging an idol in conversation about their kit will almost always lead to a willingness to discuss the item, the sources, and their research. They put work into developing their kit and they are almost always eager for an opportunity to talk about it. Independent research about items which others wear leads to developing a personal knowledge base which will serve an impression more than just the addition of an authentic item of material culture.
The conversation on the difference between explanations and justifications is an expansive one on its own, but is addressed briefly here as it applies to this article. When one is justifying something in their impression, it comes with an implicit understanding the subject justified does not belong and has to be reasoned for through alternative means than what is otherwise considered acceptable. Generally, a justification does not explain why an impression of a specific type would have access to the item but instead strives to explain away why the person making the justification get to have access to this item. These justifications can come in several forms, generally following some elaborate narrative with a story-based reason to explain away the anachronistic or culturally inappropriate nature of the item. Not everyone who sees an impression has can hear the intricate, well-articulated story accompanying the otherwise incongruous item. In fact, most don’t have the opportunity and will draw incorrect conclusions about what is being portrayed, or about the reenactor’s command of the subject matter. Justifications also tend to cause conversations to degrade into antagonistic tones more quickly than others may.
Finish A Kit then Wear A Kit
This is incredibly difficult, and many have a hard time with this one. Like the example above, when countless hours researching and then valuable resources (in time or money) are sunk into a project… the compulsion to want to use it, wear it, or display it immediately is strong. But a complete impression is not complete until it is… complete, which means it includes all of the pieces required. This can be a sore subject, and it leads to conflict as it can be confused with gatekeeping or exclusionary practices. This is a difficult place to be as, say, an event organizer who has set an authenticity expectation and is tasked with the responsibility of holding their attendees to it. However, if the reenactor embrace this concept first as a personal standard, they no longer need to be monitored or moderated.
Know The Audience
How to manage an impression is based strongly on who the reenactor will be interacting with during the course of doing their interpretation. When doing demonstrations to the public, especially in such a way where a display may not lend itself to interacting with the public directly, puts different constraints on an impression than an immersion event with a group. In the former case, it may be more beneficial to portray the rule and avoid, even in small ways, the exception as the only way to share knowledge is through being inspected from afar. In the latter case, there may be more latitude to try niche or edge impressions, or work on experimental archeology with otherwise underdeveloped areas of knowledge because of the interaction with close members of a group who are all well versed in both what is know, and what is being experimented. With a gradient of cases in between, having a strong understanding of the audience an impression will be interacting with will give great insight into how to both develop a new impression or assemble an existing one to best fit the event.
Establish a Healthy Network
While many reenactors portray individual impressions out of necessity, living history is a collaborative enterprise. Not only are events more fun with more people, and a more accurate representation of most historical periods, as discussed above other reenactors are valuable resources. Not as sources, but as companions, discussion partners, mentors, etc. However, interacting with other reenactors is not a goal in and itself, and should not be sought out for its own sake. As with all communities, different people tend to have a variety of personalities and they get along with each other to varying levels of efficiency. If company does not enrich the reenactor, the companionship has no value. Do not suffer bad relationships for the sake of having a group. Reenactment is enough, there are reenactors out there portraying the time-period needed and have a comparable internal authenticity threshold. They may not be nearby, but they are going to events in common, they’re on accessible Facebook groups, they’re on discord servers open to new members, etc. Find them and develop those friendships.
This is a hobby comprised of people who love history, and historical correctness more than the medieval-ish aesthetic. It is a community which cherishes accuracy and authenticity. Our hearts are in the correct place. Give other reenactors the benefit of the doubt. A request for sources is not always a critique of an impression, more often it is a teachable moment. The same goes for the public. They have come by their misconceptions honestly, and we are in a position of opportunity to correct them without making them feel stupid. Have the heart of a teacher, be ready to learn and to share. Collaborate, don’t compete. Remember this is a journey and many have recently started and can use the advice and support we received to get to here. And though the trolls do exist, still treat them with kindness too, because your behavior and composure reflects your character, not your interlocutor’s.