Note: I re-wrote this article on 24/02/2021 to include a more complete summary of my dissertation research, since I want to do more with this blog!
Last year, I invited some friends in the reenactment community to help me with my dissertation and, with their invaluable help, I’ve graduated from Oxford Brookes with First Class Honours in BSc Anthropology. It’s made all the difficulties that I’ve faced worthwhile, and doing independent research for my dissertation has confirmed that academia is the right path for me.
From the start, my dissertation research had a practical purpose. I noticed that reenactment can provide a valuable place to socialise for people who feel unwelcome in mainstream hobbyist groups, and that the reenactment groups my friends and I had participated in sometimes had trouble attracting new members and keeping existing members coming back. I wanted to work out what it was that makes the reenactment community uniquely welcoming, and how to use that to keep our groups going.
The History of Reenactment
Western European societies have done things that look like historical reenactment since ancient Rome, when past battles were recreated in gladiatorial games. Medieval tournaments were based on real or imagined historical events, and in the early modern period and later, events like wars and disasters were recreated as entertainment. One example was the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, when a reenacted tournament with at least 60,000 spectators was a complete disaster because of heavy rain. Reenactments held by the state or elite society often seem to be trying to use the past to legitimise their present status, or bring back past values they felt were missing. The Eglinton Tournament, for example, was held by an Earl who felt that Queen Victoria’s coronation wasn’t sufficiently ritualistic and patriotic.
But then, in the 1950s and 60s, a new wave of “people’s reenactment” began. Grassroots organisations of historians and hobbyists started to design their own events, created by and for reenactors. These groups, particularly the medieval reenactment groups, have often been linked to fandom communities which form around shared interest in a particular book, film, video game, etc. There’s still overlap between sci-fi and fantasy fandom and reenactment. A big and well-known group with a lot of fandom links is the Society for Creative Anachronism, which began in the US in 1966 with a “protest” against the twentieth century. Joining the SCA is how I first got into reenactment.
Many reenactment societies are living history groups, that try to recreate the past as accurately as they can during events like history-focused festivals and private weekend camps. Others, like the SCA, focus on recreating aspects of the past, such as medieval court life, tournaments, or feasts, with less focus on one time period. A friend in the SCA likens it to the Eglinton Tournament, saying that we are a contemporary reenactment of a Victorian medieval tournament society.
The first thing that stood out to me was that historical reenactment provides a space that can be uniquely welcoming for folk who feel alienated from contemporary society. My personal experience of reenactment was that it was a safe way to start socialising when my disabilities and mental health had made it really hard to make friends. Hearing loads of people tell similar stories is what made me want to study reenactment for my dissertation. However, reenactors generally don’t want to live in the past, and appreciate modernity. Many work in the sciences, technology, and academia, and many are also part of sci-fi fandom.
One draw of the reenactment community is that, like fandom, gaming and roleplaying communities, it can be a space of acceptance. Lots of reenactors experience marginalisation in some way; some are queer or gender-nonconforming, some are disabled, most self-identify as socially awkward geeks and nerds. When a reenactment community involves elements of roleplay, people can construct an alternative identity. Before I came out as transmasculine, I experimented with gender by portraying gender-nonconforming and masculine personas in reenactment.
Medieval reenactment combat is a really great example of the power of the community to enable people to explore new identities and learn new skills. Some of my friends describe reenactment combat as “sport for nerds”, as it can be accessible to people who haven’t been able to participate in mainstream sports. Many successful reenactment fighters have bodies that aren’t conventionally viewed as sporty, and improving physical fitness is a side benefit rather than a goal.
Theories: Rituals, Serious Leisure, and Communities of Practice
It wouldn’t feel like proper social anthropology to me if I didn’t talk about ritual at some point, and the medieval reenactment community has plenty of it. Groups follow a yearly cycle of events such as fairs and battle reenactments, and share special occasions such as feasts and parties. Other groups, like the SCA, make full use of elaborate invented traditions like gift-giving rituals and award ceremonies to create social bonds and recognise achievements.
Victor Turner, an anthropologist who did a lot of work on ritual and symbolism, identified two aspects of ritual that could apply to the reenactment experience. Liminality is the condition of being separate from everyday life, usually as part of a transitional ritual. In a liminal state, people might experience communitas, a spontaneous feeling of unity and equality. Although a reenactment event isn’t a traditional transitional ritual, it is liminoid like carnivals and celebrations, involving temporary freedom from mundane life.
Medieval reenactors can definitely enjoy rituals in the community, with some saying that it can provide meaningfulness that they feel is lacking in modern life. However, others, particularly living history reenactors, don’t use intentional ritual at all. And rather than communitas, the structure of reenactment communities is based around consensual hierarchy and competition.
Something that everyone in the community agrees on is that reenactment is a really fun way to meet people, learn things, and experience the history that they love. However, it’s fun that’s also hard work. Sociologist Robert Stebbins categorises this kind of thing as serious leisure, challenging activities that people choose to engage in because they’re fulfilling, not because they’re necessary for livelihood or survival. Serious leisure can seem frivolous, but it’s actually a valuable opportunity for personal and community growth.
I think the key thing that really draws people to reenactment is that it’s a community of practice, a community united by shared activities and a culture built around those activities. I think this is why me and many friends found it easier to join the reenactment community than other social groups. Communities of practice were originally associated with work environments, but they also exist in a leisure context, and can allow people to bypass the more awkward aspects of socialising. Reenactors who struggle with negotiating small talk and other “getting to know you” niceties can almost immediately find shared interests
Why not reenact?
My friends discussed things that can sometimes hinder the success of reenactment groups. In reenactment, authenticity is making sure that everything members are wearing and displaying is appropriate for a particular time period. It’s understandably essential, particularly for living history, but it can be a difficult process for newcomers to learn to be authentic. Newcomers can feel that older group members are too strict or insensitive about maintaining authenticity standards, and some standards, such as not allowing members to wear glasses, can exclude people altogether.
One person I interviewed pointed out that although the community is a subculture, it is still part of larger UK culture, and cannot escape all structural issues. Barriers that people experience in everyday life can still apply. The cost of equipment and travel is a significant barrier to many, and although groups are generally very tolerant, marginalised people, such as trans and nonbinary folk, can still face prejudice. Nationalists and racists can misuse history, including reenactment, for their own purposes, which is becoming such a huge and complex topic that it could be a dissertation in itself. An example that we discussed was the SCA swastika incident that has caused a lot of debate over how reenactors can address racism in the community and in history.
Something that everyone agreed was an issue in community creation and maintenance was organisation. Cats are a popular animal motif in the reenactment community, and I could understand why when a friend described managing groups as “herding cats”. Reenactors are often self-identified outsiders, and organising a medieval reenactment group often relies on the ability of certain members to take a leadership role and motivate others. This is made more awkward when groups use multiple communications methods (social media, email, websites, etc.) that may not be accessed by everyone.
These issues can be quite serious, and have caused people to leave groups. Organisational issues in particular can limit the success of groups in attracting new members. However, most people who are part of the medieval reenactment community in the UK find it a welcoming space to practice a shared hobby and make friends. Many also find that reenactment groups impact their lives in meaningful ways, such as providing purpose and structure and allowing them to experiment with new identities that might not be accessible to them in the mundane world.