Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Partial Defense of Historical Reenactment Pt 2 - the Value of Minutia

In my previous post I looked at the general role of reenactors as accessible history educators for the public.  In this post I'm going to focus on a particular aspect of history that reenactors excel at -- the details.  Reenactors are second to none at amassing the details of material culture, and though this may seem petty and silly this can actually add quite a bit to historical knowledge, both for the public that reenactors interact with.

To provide background to those of you that do not reenact and do not know reenactors, a well-informed reenactor is an encyclopedia of minutia about the everyday objects of history, or 'material culture'.  How many buttons different Union uniforms had throughout the Civil War.  The construction of medieval shoes and belts.  The armour of late medieval europe, how it was made and sold  (an interest of mine).

These details can be valuable in a number of ways.  Firstly and most abstractly, I find that understanding the esthetics of a historical are an important way that I relate to it (maybe I'm just a visual person, as we used to say in school).  Seeing a person in accurate garb for that period lets me visualize it better, which makes it seem more, I dunno, real to me.  It comes back to the old 'bringing the bast to life' slogan.  Granted, all of this is vague and subjective.

More concretely, everything in history is related, and a good presenter can bring that out when talking to the public.  Medieval people did not wear much black because cloth is very hard to dye black without logwood, which comes from the New World.  Medieval Englishman didn't wear cotton because it had to be imported from the mediterranean and then combed out by hand (since the cotton gin had not been invented).  Union soldiers wore machine-stitched uniforms because the North had an extensive clothing industry that could use the sewing machine effectively, Confederates wore handsewn uniforms because the southern economy wasn't industrialized.  Everything a medieval person owned or wore reflected their social station.  Et cetera.  All these details come back to the bigger questions of society and economics, and telling the public about your funny clothes is a perfect time to explain some of the underlying reasons for fashions and the construction of personal items (if said members of the public have the patience, of course).

Moreover, reenactors are a great motivator for research into material culture, and sometimes a source of new research.  Many books that once would have never received publication outside of an academic setting (books about medieval shoes, for instance) are fairly widely published because of the reenactor market.

Moving away from the specifics of material culture, in certain neglected periods of history, reenactors can do some really great original research and blaze new paths.  To use an example I know of, one English reenactor (David Key) looked at the original household account books and muster rolls of the Wars of the Roses era and found out that a certain type of troops (billmen) were an interpolation by later historians and were not present in any period accounts, which changed a lot of our understanding of the military history of that era.

To conclude this section, then, a lot of the seemingly inconsequential trivia that reenactors obsess over can actually tell us quite a bit about the past, and reenactors themselves are important in discovering, disseminating and consuming this information.

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