Last weekend was the AGM of the MSS (Medieval Siege Society) and I ran a session about Reenactorisms. This was not a lecture more an open discussion. The following is kind of what we talked about, however I didn't have any notes, just a powerpoint presentation I made which had nothing much to read, so I will fill in the gaps. The talk was not intended to point fingers at anyone in particular it was really to promote discussion and thinking about what we do, say and wear.
It is hard to define exactly what a reenactorism is as there are many different types which I will identify in a moment. Basically a reenactorism is an inaccuracy, an unfact that has been introduced into the common understanding of a period through Historical Reenactment. How they come about varies, some are unavoidable, many we could really do with losing.
Why is this important? Well, as reenactors we are in a position of power. Members of the Public (MOPS) will often believe what ever they are told by the person in funny clothes as being completely true. These inaccuracies that are shared over and over at some point become accepted as being true.
This doesn't only happen in Reenactment of course, my favourite example of this is actually from TV land. The TV series Not The Nine O'Clock News is guilty of this. One well known sketch featured Gerald the Gorilla.
In this sketch, Mel Smith's character (The Professor) described a family group as Flange. Gerald corrects him as says that it is a Whoop of Gorillas it is Flange of Baboons. Both words were just picked as the sounded funny. Thirty years later, in the world of zoology, the accepted collective noun for a family group of baboons is now, a Flange.
Next came the PIKEY EXPERIMENT. This started as a humourous conversation between two reenactor friends of mine at Kentwell Hall. It was 1535 and we had a number of Landsknechts on the manor. Whilst talking to some MOPs they explained that the term Pikey was first used to describe Landsknechts who arrived in a town, camped where they wanted, stole what ever they needed, behaved in an unpleasant manner, then leaving the area in a state of ruin when they go. The Pikey part coming from the fact that they were famous for using pikes in combat and when folk saw the pikes approaching they just referred to the soldiers as 'pikeys'. Now whilst it was quite amusing at the time what surprised us was that in less than 10 months another reenactor friend of ours was at a presentation about medieval warfare where this description of a pikey was given as 'fact' almost word for word. What surprised us was how fast something can get into the real world and how powerful the costumed reenactor can be.
Some reenactorisms are unavoidable, necessary evils. These are things that have occurred for a variety of reasons but they are deemed crucial and will never change. I believe then when we are in 3rd person events it is our duty to inform MOPs that this is the case so they do not get the wrong idea. Here are a few examples (I am sure you might come up with more)
Fire Baskets: It is highly unusual for us to be able to have fires properly. Our fire baskets and other devices to support a fire 18" off the floor are not, on the whole, authentic. They are protecting the ground and what is below.
Bevoirs and Gauntlets: The proportion of plate armour worn on most medieval battlefields is totally wrong. Far too many combatants wear far too much. There are very few images of ordinary fighting men wearing bevoirs or gaunlets. However as soemone pointed out to me very early on. A bevoir costs a fraction of reconstructive jaw surgery. And MSS H&S rules insist that stout gloves are worn by all combatants.
Being under canvas: I pretty much get asked at every LH event whether everybody in the middle ages lived in tents? Getting across to people, that the tent is just the vehicle that enables us to take our hobby on the road, is really important.
Some Medieval reenactorisms have occurred as some form of compromise on the battlefield.
Women on the battlefield This topic has had much debate recently about this very subject in the MSS. Not whether women fought in open battle, there is some (not much) evidence of women fighting on the field in the middle ages, very little evidence of women fighting in English battles and even less of them fighting in our part of the middle ages. However we have yet to find any credible evidence that they wore anything else than men's attire to do so. In the 21st century in our inclusive world it is only right and proper that women fight on our battlefields (in several cases they are some of the meanest opponents you will find) afterall we have women in combat roles on the real front lines around the world. These women also wear male attire on the battlefield. I think discussions about how women should be dressed may run and run. It all boils down to practicality and how much you want to get things right.
Nine foot polearms Excessively long polearms do appear on various battlefields around the country. We have the some in the MSS but not too many. I am not talking about spears here, which by nature are pretty long, I am talking about bills and similar weapons. This has really come about because we are not able to really use a bill in the way it was intended to be used. So in many cases they just get used as pokey sticks, and the longer the pokey stick the better. MSS members who fight with bills who are reading this should consider getting their short shaft comp test done, then they could chop their bill down to an appropriate size and join the growing numbers who use them in a similar manner to a pollaxe.
Two hand weapons Sword/knife, sword/axe, axe/axe I believe Non medieval weapon combos have come about for a number of reasons. Firstly some real weapon combos are not great on the battlefield (well not as good as they would have been) Sword and bucklers aren't as effective as they should be as the buckler can not be used as it is intended. Few combatants would acknowledge a hit from a buckler, especially heavily armoured ones, so the use of parrying knives has become very popular sometimes in combination with a buckler and sometimes the buckler has been disposed of. This far more like a 16th century weapon combination. Other two hand weapon combos I am sure have come from the worlds of film and Warhammer. They look cool and are good fun, but are there many examples from the 15th century of these combinations? hmmm.
Right getting past that lot we now get onto the real crux of the conversation. In particular order then here are some of the Top Reenactorisms that made it on to my list
The Bells, The Bells I am always amazed by the number of people who insist on wearing bells on their person at all times. Why do this? Well in some cases people might wear bells when on a pilgrimage; Cool, if you are going to do this set up your camp as a pilgrims encampment, have a priest or two, do religious type things etc. Some others might wear them as they are part of their attire as they are musicians or mummers; Again Cool, Perform a mummers play within your camp, learn some period music and dances, other wise stop it:0) Attaching a bell or two to a toddler good idea, not to grown ups, they don't appear as part of every day clothing.
Glasses Right I am no expert on this subject. I put it in as I was asked to. The basic MSS Kit Standard suggests that wire rimmed glasses are ok at a push. Well they aren't! If you wish to know more about this ask GOCB If you don't know Nick The Grumpy Old Charcoal Burner go here GOCB WEBSITE Nuff said!
Magic Hose This is a simple one really
Your hose shouldn't stay up by themselves. they need to be pointed to a pourpoint or petticoat. There were no fitted waist bands in the Middle Ages, no hose held up just by a belt and no hose made of lycra. A chap in hose and shift like that above is not properly dressed for the Middle Ages, alright for a trader in the market but is it ok for us? Hmmm
Fox Tails Many folk have worn one at one time or another (me included) But why? The possible reasons that have been offered and laughed at mercilessly include: Archers use them to wipe their arrows clean. Seriously? They help to keep you clean by attracting fleas and lice, which can then be drowned or smoked out. Oh yeah? Some women might have used them for feminine hygiene, yuk!Traders sell them so they must be OK. Hmmm. The only evidence that I have heard of for this item suggests that a woman wearing one is a lady of loose morals and a man wearing one is cuckolded, neither status is desirable really is it?
The Christmas Tree Not too bad these days, but we still see some folk who seem to want to wear all of their small personal belongings hanging on their belts. Everything from pouch, knife and rosary, all fine (although most women would have worn her pouch/purse between layers f clothing) to spoons, drinking vessels, BELLS (see above) Fox tails (See above) and any other tat. Stop it you look silly!
Archers' Salute This one could be one of the most well known reenactorisms of them all (although many people do not realize) Sadly there is no evidence that English archers stuck two fingers up at the French in a defiant salute, this is almost certainly a creation of reenactors, probably in the 1970s, shame really as it is great fun.
So? So What? This is the important bit I suppose. What do we do about these things? I am sure if you are a reenactor or historian you can think of several more examples. The question that I pose is this... Should we perpetuate these Unfacts? Some are avoidable, some are not.
Personally one of the main aims of the hobby is to get it right. I feel we have a responsibility to those we encounter, both reenactor and MOP, to try and portray the period we are fascinated by as correctly as possible, this way we can really get across to others what makes it so special. There is so much out there which is interesting, intriguing and wonderful and true, why should we feel the need to keep what isn't no matter how amusing or 'cool'.
Think on it and then let us see which of these things we can remove from our made up history.
NB I stand to be corrected. Being some one who is passionate about the period we reenact, if you have real evidence to suggest that any of the reenactorisms listed are actually historical fact, please message me. I would love to see it.