Friday, 6 March 2015

In Defense of Non-Combat Living History

Opinion: In defense of Non-Combat Living History

Please note that the commentary herein is the opinion of an individual contributor and does not necessary represent the collective opinion or position held by the Thegns of Mercia organisation. 

On a recent  weekend (February 2015) we had the pleasure of visiting the famous Jorvik Viking Festival in York; a unique annual event which brings together diverse groups of reenactors, living-historians, craftspeople, traders and members of the public from across Britain and elsewhere, all united by an interest in the early Medieval period.  Jorvik, in particular, is a very 'social' event providing an opportunity for like-minded but geographically dispersed people within what could be called the 'Dark-Age reenactment community' to meet and socialize. 
Such gatherings are usually very good natured but, inevitably, one of the common topics of discussion is the relative accuracy, legitimacy or validity of different groups' approaches. Such comparisons offer valuable opportunities for groups to learn from each other and, as long as those involved remain fair-minded and accepting of constructive criticism, are arguably good for all involved.

It was interesting this year that, in conversation with various participants, a common topic of discussion was the legitimacy/validity (or lack thereof) of  non-combat living history (as regards the Viking Age or Early Medieval period). In truth I found it somewhat bewildering to see many reenactors challenge the legitimacy of groups which don't focus on, or participate in combat, given that, for my part, I had thought the value of such groups and their contributions were self evident. I was all the more surprised to hear from a number of my colleagues, in subsequent discussion, that they had encountered fellow living historians who had expressed this view. 
The challenge can be divided into two: first, that non-combat living historians somehow lack legitimacy or validity, and second, more specifically, that 'living historians' playing the role of warriors, who do not themselves participate in combat reenactment, lack legitimacy or validity. 

Arguably, such challenges are most easily rebutted by pointing out that it is up to clients to decide what is legitimate. Non-combat groups do not struggle to find meaningful work. 
Nevertheless, as a relatively well-fed, 5ft9 pain-averse living historian with little interest in physical violence, I thought I might use this soapbox to speak up for my kind.  

(Most of the observations in the following discussion pertain to 'Dark Age' living history and reenactment, in the UK in particular. Attitudes and practices certainly vary between different living history communities representing different periods, and, of course, vary between different counries).

The terms "reenactment" and "living history", along with their personal forms "reenactor" and "living historian", are relatively modern in origin and can, conceivably, be used in conversation or in writing to mean whatever one likes.  To some, these terms are interchangeable; "non-combat reenactment" is a real thing, and it is legitimate for combat reenactors to call themselves "living historians". 
It has, for a long time, been my preference to use the term "reenactment" (which inevitably, at least in the mind of the average member of public, conjures up images of ranks of soldiers facing off against one-another) to mean specifically combat or battle reenactment, and the (at least in British circles) lesser-known term "living-history" to refer to other activities beyond fighting.  I am sure many would disagree with this framework but it is the one I follow and seems to minimise ambiguity in conversation with clients and the public.  As a non-combatant, it would be wrong, I feel, to call myself a "reenactor", while a large proportion of 'Dark Age' reenactors engage in other historic activities and can therefore, with total legitimacy under the described framework, call themselves living-historians too.      For reasons of convenience I will therefore, here, use the term "reenactor" to refer to one who engages in combat reenactment and generally recreates an event in history, and "living-historian" to refer to one who engages in other activities which bring a period of history to life.

The value of "Combat Reenactment"

It is worth beginning by recognizing the value of combat reenactment - a pursuit which demands considerable commitment and training.  Such events pull in the crowds, delight spectators and encourage interest, and though compromises much inevitably be made for sensible safety reasons, the best reenactors readily acknowledge these and note that the ongoing challenge is to provide a convincing and suitably well-evidenced spectacle within such limitations.   
Critics might argue that little can be learned by troops of men hacking and prodding each-other with blunted weapons, but the valuable insights into historical combat techniques and battle strategies eloquently highlighted in works by veteran reenactors such as Kim Siddorn or Dan Shadrake (pioneers in 'Viking Age' and Late Roman / 'Migration Age' reenactment combat respectively) prove that the reconstruction of historic combat techniques is an academically useful pursuit. Their writings, and those of equivalent commentators on other historic periods are well worth a read, even for non-combat living historians.

Thus, at least for my part, when I speak up for non-combat living history and it's place alongside, or even without combat reenactment, I do so with no intention to disparage combat reenactment or denigrate those who choose to participate in it. 

Image from Jorvik Viking Festival, York, February 2015. (cc. Allan Harris)

The Value of non-combat "Living History"

The first challenge as described in the preamble, that non-combat reenactment or living history is somehow less legitimate or valuable, is, I would argue, so absurd as to seem a "straw man". 
It is perhaps "inexpensive" to point out that, in the 6th-11th centuries, as in any historic period, there was more to life than fighting. Even during the most warlike of times, when the fates of entire peoples hung in the balance, the majority of folk were not soldiers and had lives to lead beyond the battlefield.  It can be argued that, even if the objective is to portray the way of life of a professional warrior class, a battle-reenactment is not representative, being as battles were relatively rare events (see below). To quote a valuable observation made in a popular medieval fantasy series; "even in war's darkest days, in most places in the world, absolutely nothing is happening."
Thus while combat reenactment recreates pivotal moments in history, where the main players are fighters, non-combat living history is well placed to recreate the "everyday"; the crafts, culture and way-of-life of a wider cross-section of society than is represented on the battlefield.   With respect to the so-called "Dark Ages" an excessive focus on combat risks reinforcing the commonly held misconception of the period as brutish, uncivilized and warlike. 
The exploration of crafts, culture and way of life of historic peoples is no less legitimate or valuable than the way they fought, and these activities have, if not a broader, certainly a complimentary appeal. While certain visitors to a living history event may enjoy seeing combat, others will prefer to see crafts, listen to music, or learn about archaeology.
There are a large number of groups which specialize in this sort of approach. One prime example, outside of my own specialist period, that springs to mind; "The Tudor Group", truly exemplifies this approach, and has received some considerable recognition in recent years for it.
 The appeal of this type of living history is increasingly being recognized, as more and more museums set aside dedicated living history areas in their exhibitions, and history programmes become increasingly dominated not by dry documentaries about the deeds of the elites, but by 'living history' shows from "Wartime Farm" to "Victorian Pharmacy" which explore the way of life of ordinary folk. 

The broadness of appeal of non-combat reenactment matters not just to visitors and spectators, but to participants. It is fair to say that some combat-focused groups are not necessarily particularly diverse, and that reenactment can suffer from a problem of appeal. A great many people who would like to be involved in living history in general are not enthused by the macho notion of combat reenactment and would prefer to explore other aspects. Many men, and, it is fair to say, large numbers of women in particular, may be put off altogether by attitudes which place combat at the centre and treat other aspects as secondary at best, and at worst invalid or of little value.  
Likewise, while the preoccupation with combat, of some groups, may put off the fairer sex, it can also alienate those who, for whatever reason, cannot participate in such activities but wish to be involved. Young people, folk with disabilities, and older people (including many 'veteran' living historians with decades of experience and a wealth of skills and knowledge) can make fantastic contributions if not alienated by an attitude which places combat above all else and leaves them feeling undervalued. 

It is also worth noting that the fruits of the labours of 'non-combat living historians' frequently underpin the entire endeavor. The elaborate clothing, finely made jewelry and even weapons and armour which combat reenactors are so fond of are usually the work of skilled craftspeople who explore history in their own, no less valid way.

Non-Combat "Warriors"

The second criticism leveled at non-combat living history concerns the role of non-combat "warriors". What business do folk who do not fight have marching about the place wearing arms and armour, and what value do they add?
The matter of "status" is one that cannot really be tackled. If a person believes one only has the right to march about in warrior regalia if one has fought reenactment battles, that person is welcome to that view, though few are in a position that gives them the right to enforce that taboo on others. It is worth noting, though, to those who hold this view, that many "non-combat warriors" have in fact accumulated years of experience in practical combat reenactment and have simply chosen to move away from it; indeed, some continue to get stuck in "when wearing different hats".

The value of "non-combat warriors", however, is relatively easy to demonstrate, although unfortunately necessitates dwelling on various drawbacks of combat reenactment.  Where simulated combat is concerned, equipment must be adapted to reduce the risk of injury to participants, and in practice this means that all participants are required to have at least a minimal level of protective equipment. In practice, with respect to the period I know best - the Migration Age and 'Viking Age', this typically means that all involved must wear helmets (despite the lack of archaeological evidence for widespread helmet use), all of which must be of a particular gauge of steel far in excess of what is evidenced by archaeological finds. Meanwhile, shields - quite readily damaged in a real pitched battle, are, understandably, made cheaply and more robust than is evidenced, in order to survive more seasons and be more easily replaced. 
Weapons are blunted, but also distorted. While having a blunt edge is, in itself, a distortion of a sword's intended shape, swords for use in Migration-Age and 'Viking-Age' reenactment differ from their historic counterparts in having deeper fullers and increased taper to reduce the momentum of sword-strikes and thereby reduce harm caused by blunt-force to the opponent. Smaller edged-weapons are, proportionally, distorted even more, such that seaxes and spearheads, with their broadly rounded tips bear little resemblance to their historic counterparts. Across a troop, swords tend to be over-represented, as these are marginally easier to wield in a 'safe' manner than reenactment spears, which, no matter how blunt, can still feasibly impale fellow participants. These observations alone are to say nothing of the metallurgy of such items.
Risking costly-to-repair damage if taken out on the battlefield and hit with blunt weapons, some well-evidenced items such as elaborately decorated helmets or shields typically don't feature, or, when they do, their decorative elements are "made chunky" or omitted. The general effect is of a more uniform, "plainer" looking, but also more heavily armoured troop than is evidenced - certainly with respect to the early Anglo-Saxon age. 

Again, these observations are made not to denigrate reenactors or the work they do, but simply to illustrate that there is a place for the display of reconstructed war-gear and warrior accouterments unrestricted by the necessary and sensible limitations associated with combat reenactment.
Again citing a famous group which exemplifies this approach, outside of my own specialist period, the "Ermine Street Guard" are famous across Europe for their convincing representations of Roman troops (principally from time of the Flavian dynasty), and, although they do demonstrate training drills and troop formations, the fact that they typically steer clear of simulated combat allows them to display kit that is arguably more convincing than would be possible otherwise. When visiting one of their events, it is very easy indeed to feel "transported" back in time.

Ermine Street Guard at Caerleon. (cc. Mike Bishop)
Putting aside matters related to kit, and the ability to devote more time at events discussing martial aspects with members of the public (occasionally, perhaps slightly sneeringly referred to as "show and tell"),  it is worth remembering that even professional "full time" warriors through history spent most of their time off the battlefield, and "non-combat warriors" are ideally placed to represent the more everyday life of such people. For the aforementioned Romans there are training drills and formations to be demonstrated, and countless other tasks associated with a campaigning legion that do not involve simulating battles.    For a famous group representing elite heroic warriors from the 6th-7th centuries, a number of members of whom we are proud to call friends, the typical activity associated with their impressions is referred to jokingly as "arrogancing"; which is to say, arrogantly marching around in glittering but intimidating war-gear, inspiring awe and perhaps a small amount of fear in members of the public. For the culture and social stratum they represent, this "arrogancing" - reinforcing their position and status above ordinary folk, and discouraging challenges from rivals, is perhaps more representative of the day-to-day life of heroic warriors than either battle or training. 

Overall, then, I hope I have made a reasonable case for the value of both non-combat living history, and non-combat warriors.  There will always be differences of opinion within the living history and reenactment communities, but hopefully most people will recognize that, though approaches may vary, most have their own particular merits. 


This conversational 'opinion piece' was written by one of our contributors, and does not necessarily represent the collective opinion or position held by the Thegns of Mercia organisation. 


Medicus Matt said...

A well written piece which, overall, mirrors my own thoughts on the subject. However, I challenge your assertation that there is any value (other than entertainment) in the sort of reenactment combat seen at early medieval events. It does nothing to educate the public as to the nature of actual combat, either in terms of the weapons used or in the way that they are wielded.
Combat in this period was, for the most part, two lines of men trying to stab each other in the face with spears. Until a way is found to represent this convincingly, I would suggest that the non-combat elements are the only parts of such events which are truly educational for the public. If anything, the combat elements present such a distorted view that they have the opposite effect.

Science Viking said...

To be honest I'm shocked that this type of discussion is going on. The whole premise that one aspect is more valuable than another is just silly. I'd actually, if I was pressed, come down on the side of non-combat reenactment being more valuable because it is more educational.

To me the whole point of taking part in reenactment is to have fun. It turns out to also be my job, which means my job is great fun. In the end, arguing over which type of reenactment is best is like arguing over whether red or grenades grapes are best.

Tanya said...

Combat reenactment bores me, always has, and I haven't watched a battle or combat display unless I was doing the commentary in nearly 30years. Military history in general makes me switch off, hell, I got bored during the last hobbit film becuase there was too much battle. I'm not the only one

As a long time reenactor it really doesn't help much that we have a lot of misogynistic combat reenactors, some of them female, who are too busy waving thier willy substitutes around to remember there's anything to history but battles.

I'm not against combat,( just so long as I don't have to watch it) I'd just prefer it to be kept in perspective.

John Byron Boyd said...

Well said, Medicus & Tanya. I have been involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism since 1998. At first, I attended as many as 20 or more events annually; now I participate in only two. The interest in the two aspects of the Middle Ages & Renaissance that most appeal to me - music & dance - have faded from their great popularity when I first came to the SCA. If it had been so in 1998, I would not be a member. Indeed, I have considered leaving the Society completely on some occasions. In my experience, more & more attention is being given to armored combat, which bores me to tears. Fortunately, a living history reenactment that was established about three years ago is only a few hours from my house.

andy said...

I`m not involved with the re-enactment scene in any way but it seems to me that unless the combat re-enactors are genuinely trying to hurt each other then how can they claim to be more authentic than those re-enactors who are demonstrating how to make bread or weave cloth or build houses or do any one of the thousand other things that ancient folk did to survive that didn't involve trying to kill someone.
People like battles because they`re exciting to watch and sometimes history changes on the outcome of a battle but I believe that its the everyday stuff that truly shows how people lived in those times.
Just my opinion of course though.

N Matheson said...

A really interesting article thank you. I worked and work as a (pre)historical educator both in schools and with the public, so I'm not really a re-eanctor and I suppose this is from a well-informed punter's view.
Personally I dislike the "combat" element of re-enacting and as has been mentioned here I find it too neutered to be especially informative. Discussions with "warriors" are very useful and I very much enjoyed chats I had with members of the Thegns at sites in the UK.
I had thought that re-enactment combat offered little but some of the insights offered in "Wodan's Warriors" had considerable merit. That said I do wonder if a bit more imagination could be utilised in offering up impressions of combat, the drilling of the Ermine st guard was a good example. I wonder about arrow storms with full strength bows, combat and cutting demonstrations and very tightly controlled shield walls.
To borrow a phrase from your post combat should be "slightly frightening"