Knights in armor and men with gonnes

Every year in the spring, my friends who are historical reenactors go to two events: Military Through the Ages, at Jamestown (MTA), and Marching Through Time, at MariettaHouse Museum in Maryland (MTT). Although the two events are quite different in scale and outward tone, the basic concept is the same. Groups that interpret military companies or troops from various periods come and are arranged in chronological order, and visitors can walk in whatever sequence they want, asking questions and seeing the progress (or regress, depending on your path) of military technology and tactics.

Shortly after Military Through the Ages took place, I received the latest issue of The Public Historian, one of my favorite regular publications. The issue has a wonderful interview with Ivor Noel Hume, and the following quote stuck with me:

And I have found that, with the seventeenth century, groups like the Sealed Knott Society in England, the reenactment group, they do some very good work. Someone takes an interest in shoemaking or building construction and they write little papers about what they have learned. They are just not about shooting but are deeply interested in the history and make contributions.[1]

Among other things (which I hope to come back to in future posts) I was struck by the phrase “seventeenth century.” Other than some early colonial sites on the east coast, and Spanish sites out west, there isn’t much seventeenth century history being told in the US. Moreover, pre-seventeenth century history is most often seen statically, in museum displays, or in two dimensions on film and in print.

At this point, I think I should clarify something about my reenactor friends. One or two go to events like Military Through the Ages with 20th c. groups. A few are part of a Jacobite regiment, from the 1745 Stewart uprising. But most of the people I know are part of two groups: La Belle Compagnie, which interprets the 1380s, and Lord Grey’s Retinue, which focuses on the 1470s.

Arming demonstration for a knight ca. 1513. Linlithgow Palace, 14 July 2007

For the first time, after reading the article and my friends’ posts about their weekend of interpretation, I was struck by what a unique opportunity they offer in the US.  When I was in Scotland, you could go to any number of castles or other historic sites and find people, professionals or amateurs or both, interpreting everything from the Roman era to post-World War II rationing. The picture at left is from a tournament weekend at Linlithgow Palace, a huge draw for people of all backgrounds; throughout the day this man demonstrated the process of putting on armor at the time of the Battle of Flodden (1513), and pointed out the differences between his armor, as a noble, and that of his vassal.

In the United States, I am not aware of places that offer regular access to pre-1600 interpretation for any culture (Asian, African, or European, although I sincerely hope there are some Native American/First Nations). Looking back to when I was a kid, I know that as much as I loved reading, seeing people demonstrate martial and material culture would have had a much greater impact. In fact, I know it did, because I vividly remember what living history interpretation I did see.

What it means to me is that my friends, who are by day programmers and military personnel, stay-at-home parents and bankers, are also some person’s first experience of tangible wonderful history. It might be the man demonstrating cooking, or the woman with the spindle, or just seeing the parent and children running around playing with toys appropriate to the period of interpretation. They are bringing to life a period and area of history which does not, in this country, have a physical presence, and in a way which is purposefully accessible to the public. I think that’s wonderful.

1 Ivor Noël Hume and Henry M. Miller, “Ivor Noël Hume: Historical Archaeologist,” The Public Historian, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter 2011): 25.