Reaching out to Re-enactors and Vice-Versa

By Jeff Berry

In 2010, I was at conference organised by the Columbia University Medieval Guild (now the Medieval Colloquium) when one of the invited speakers threw up a slide of the Ft. Tryon Medieval Festival, held annually in pre-covid times at the top end of Manhattan. Staring out at me from the picture was my good friend Tom McCann, a fellow re-enactor, in his finest Elizabethan outfit.

Figure 1: A re-enactor cooking over the fire at Tretower Court in Wales. Photo credit: Ellen Rawson.

This was a bit of a shock, since the academic community in the US was not renowned for its appreciation of re-enactors. In fact, some of my other re-enactor friends actively hid their participation from their colleagues in academia, for fear that they would be taken less seriously if it were known that they enjoyed dressing up in medieval clothing and taking part in activities associated with the medieval period.

There was a certain irony in this attitude, since the reason I was at the conference and preparing to present a paper was that my involvement in the re-enactment world had influenced me to enrol at Columbia and pursue a master’s degree in medieval studies. For me, and others I can only assume, an interest in re-enactment, with the attendant social aspects, led to increased interest in history itself, and in my case, to academic engagement and an MA and MPhil.

My sense is that re-enactment as public engagement has followed a different trajectory in the UK than in the US, driven in part by the resources available to re-enactors. The kitchens at Hampton Court Palace have been educating and entertaining members of the public for years, but the re-enactors there have the incredible advantage of the kitchens themselves. If you want a Tudor style kitchen in the US, you have to build one.

There are a wide variety of re-enactment activities, and the terminology itself can be slippery. There are re-enactors who, reductive as it sounds, engage in re-enactments of specific events. For example, in the US, there is a re-enactment every year of the Battle of Gettysburg, along with many other battles. Similarly, in the UK, there is a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings.

There are also those who characterise their activities as ‘living history,’ and who are not re-enacting specific events, but rather trying to capture something about a particular time. Many of the heritage railways in the UK might be thought of living history, broadly speaking, and often host even more explicitly themed events, such as World War Two Weekends.

Re-creation (as opposed to recreation) is yet another variation, in which participants are simply working to re-create some aspect of the past. Artisans working with historical crafts might fall into this category, as might the activities of groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism which allows members to pursue interests in whichever aspects of classical, medieval, or renaissance history take their fancy. This is the group in which I am an active member, and have been for over thirty years.  Groups such as this one encourage members to focus on their particular interests without enforcing a specific time frame or geographic region.  While the overall look of an event can seem chaotic and ahistorical, individual elements are often well-researched and executed.  In some ways, this approach might be considered analogous to an academic medieval history department or conference, where the unifying interest is ‘things medieval’ rather than, for example, ‘The Battle of Hastings.’

I first heard the term ‘experimental archaeology’ sometime in the 1980s, and always felt that it described what re-enactors/re-creationists can contribute to historical research. Depending on how liberally you want to define it, the practice has been going on for decades. Arguably, Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition was an attempt to prove the practical feasibility of an academic theory.

In the decade since that conference at Columbia, the utility of re-enactment, or perhaps I should say, ‘re-creation’ has been recognised more fully in the academic world. For example, at the Leeds International Medieval Congress  in 2018 there were three sessions on ‘Re-Enactment and Medieval Studies.’  It has also become a subject for research as a social phenomenon itself, as in Michael Cramer’s Medieval Fantasy as Performance: The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages, and numerous theses many of which are available online. 

There has also been an increased appreciation of the utility of hands-on work as part of the academic experience, often but not always as experimental archeology.

Just a few weeks ago, Ohio State University hosted a conference, Popular Culture and the Deep Past 2022 – The Experimental Archaeology of Medieval and Renaissance Food, and intended to include active historical cookery because as they say, ‘We stand to learn much about these cultures and the lived, embodied experiences of their members by actively preparing and consuming their own food and drink.’

The Chateau Guédelon project in Burgundy is an ongoing example of where academia and re-creation intersect, to the advantage of both.  The scientific committee at the project includes a professor and two senior lecturers, who find the project useful in their own work.

Experimental Archaeology as a discipline has a journal and in 2012 (two years after the New York conference), University College Dublin launched its Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture.

It is the second part of that centre’s name that really emphasises what re-creation can add to more traditional types of historical investigation. Doing an activity provides context that simply reading about it, or watching it, or examining the result cannot. Historical activities took place within a material environment, and utilised aspects of that environment. Just having a go at something is a learning experience, regardless of the outcome.

Figure 2. A re-enactor preparing a meal at Tretower Court. Photo credit: Ellen Rawson.

At its best, it leads to a greater appreciation and understanding of the past, and how people in the past dealt with the challenges that they faced, whether it was crossing an ocean, building a castle, or cooking a feast for a noble and the court – that’s my field: ask me about medieval cooks and cookery some time. And it all started because I saw some re-enactors and thought, ‘that looks like fun. I’d like to give that a try.’

I would like to suggest that the idea of ‘having a go’ is, in some ways, just another aspect of the interdisciplinary approach which is favoured by some scholars.  When I’m researching a medieval recipe, I can bring to bear not only the recipe itself, references to the recipe in literature, and an understanding of the tools available to a medieval cook, but also the lived experience of creating the food itself. Not to mention, the experience of eating it as well.

Further reading:

Katherine M. Johnson (2015), Rethinking (re)doing: historical re-enactment and/as  historiography Rethinking History19 (2), 193-206.

Jeff Berry has studied medieval cooks and cookery at Columbia University and the University of York, and has been an active re-enactor for over three decades.  He recently completed A Medieval Cookery Primer for the Compleat Anachronist pamphlet series. His omnibus website is An Aspiring Luddite, and he can be found on Twitter as @AspiringLuddite.

Cover Image and Figure 1. A re-enactor cooking over the fire at Tretower Court in Wales. Photo credit: Ellen Rawson, reproduced with permission.

Figure 2. A re-enactor preparing a meal at Tretower Court. Photo credit: Ellen Rawson, reproduced with permission.

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