Interpreting History and the Obligations of Living History Hobbyists: What do we really know?

One of the first things that you learn in graduate history programs is that everything you have learned thus far as fact is potentially wrong and that we don’t know anything for sure.  It is not that we don’t know that a certain battle happened in a certain place at a certain date (especially for recent history).  It’s that the perceptions of history, the element of memory, is suspect and subject to the reflections of the individuals involved, as well as the historians who interpret that information.  This is part of the study of historiography which is the study of history itself (and its biases).  The farther you go back in time the more problematic this gets.  It’s not as if we can interview Froissart and ask the medieval chronicler, if he was actually there and saw the events for himself.  We cannot ask him if his employers (Philippa of Hainault wife to Edward III of England for one) was concerned about his interpretation of events.  There was no journalistic integrity then.  More importantly we cannot ask him what he left out.  We, living today, can only guess, sometimes with reasonable certainty, at what is missing (usually by tapping other resources such as court roles, tax records, archeology, ect).  As it turns out the chronicler is the least of our sources.  The other records have just as many problems, though they are different ones.

So why go on about this?  Because history is often presented as fact to the public at large and those of us who do living history often interact with the public.  We (and I’ve caught myself doing this and 15 years ago I was guilty as hell of this) present things as factual when we only know with reasonable certainty that a thing is true.  Those of us who do living history need to remember that we interpret history.  Now, I admit, that the public at large, who has no more history then high school or undergraduate college, would prefer certainty in history.  They are more fascinated by the “fighting” and crafts presented at demos.  They prefer to think the noble knights they see are from fairy tales rather than understand that what happened on the tournament field was not what happened on the battlefield.  They are more interested in the crafts because hand work is so far removed from their own daily lives (for most).  So why should any living history hobbyist care what the public takes away with them?  Why go to the extra effort to explain that what they see is only our best guess?  Why bother to put anything in context for them?  Because it is in our own best interest to do so.

1)      It makes us better historians (more later on the term historian because who gets to call themselves a historian is a debated topic).  By holding ourselves to a higher standard and using the public as a place to hold ourselves personally accountable we push ourselves to improve our historical accuracy.

2)      It improves the relationship between living history hobbyist and professional historians.  No bones about it, living history outside of a museum setting has a bad rap, and well deserved one at that, from professional historians.  Just because we have tried it does not mean that we know more than they do.  Just because a professional historian has never tried the crafts they write about does not mean they know more than those who do weave, spin make armor ect.  We need a healthy and respectful relationship in order to help one another.  Living history got its bad reputation at demos, and it is the place to change it.  You never know if that person who is grilling you about the armor on display is actually an armor historian.  (Like we never dress in normal clothes and go the Renaissance Fairs?)

3)      For the sake of that one individual who sees a demo and mentally rewrites what they know, even it is to simply say we don’t know as much as we think.  For that one individual who says that they would like to know more.  For that one who goes into a museum and does not see artifacts anymore but items that people interacted with.  What we do is often the personalizing of history.

4)      To remind ourselves that we stand on the shoulders of giants.  What we show the public is often, but not always, built on the foundations of the work of professional historians (research, books, and museums).  It is a matter of respect to those who help us be better at our hobby to represent their theories as accurately as we can.  The corollary is of course, know your sources.

5)      Because living history hobbyists have something to contribute to the discussion of history.  Trying it, especially the crafts, has merit.  I can say with certainly that being a weaver, dyer and sewer that it has improved my class lectures.  Trying to crawl inside the head of someone who lived hundreds of years ago has merit, even if it is only for ourselves.  I understand what if feels like to wear a corset and I can tell my students about it.  They may oohh and ahh over a beautiful gown on a medieval or renaissance queen but do they know what it feels like to wear one?  How many layers, how much does it weigh, can you really walk in those pointy shoes?  Now I will say that whenever I present this sort of information to my class I make sure to say that it is an interpretation of history, not a certainty.  It is a best guess.  My aim is to provide context and appreciation of hand work in a world that does understand where their clothes are made, who makes them, what animals or plants they come from and so on.  It is not my aim to present living history as fact.

6)      Because we love what we do.  I had no plans when I was 19 to be a historian.  I knew that I loved history but by doing living history, however badly back in the day, history became dynamic for me.  I fell in love.  The challenge over the years became to be more accurate and to find the balance between accuracy and pragmatism (still a struggle and one that I will write more about later).  When I realized that history, and in my case, fashion history, was what I lived and breathed for, I knew a career shift was in order (I was already a costume seamstress so it was not much of a shift).  So don’t curb your enthusiasm for our crazy hobby but rather give it direction.  Don’t underestimate enthusiasm as a way to get other to see how much fun history can be.  And if we love it this much, then we should get it right (as right as we can, given that we work in the world of reasonable certainty.)

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