Historical Re-enactment – Project Proposal

Project Rationale
Patrick Sunderland
SID: 450239519
My project is a feature article about the world of historical re-enactment in Sydney, based on my experiences with the Australasian Living History Federation and my meetings with their various member groups. Throughout the article I have attempted to meld my own observations as an outsider to historical re-enactment, and the opinions and views of members of the ALHF groups. I have also included descriptions of the public events and pictures alongside to create a more cohesive image of what historical re-enactment is like.
My interest in this project was on the idea of alternate ways in which we might gain an understanding of history. Rather than, as some other students did, focus on history that has not been widely documented (e.g. local/indigenous history), I focused on history that IS well-documented in academia (i.e. European/British history) but that is being explored in a different way. I believe that there are many who are passionate or interested in history but do not pursue it because they aren’t interested in academia and find reading and writing essays tedious. For these people, historical re-enactment seems like a fantastic alternative – a way to understand history in practical terms, using a totally different skill-set and with much more personal freedom. However, historical re-enactment is quite a niche, unpopular hobby due to people feeling embarrassed to try it, or unable to afford it, or simply not aware of how to begin doing it. Furthermore, when I was talking to these groups I asked them about anything I could help with, but the only thing they seemed to be interested in was public exposure for their group so as to bring in new members. With all this in mind, I decided to aim my article at people who do not much, if anything, about historical re-enactment. In more specific terms, my aim is to educate people about medieval re-enactment, show them how entertaining it can be, and introduce some of the more charismatic and helpful members of the groups. This is why a large part of the article is focused on my experience participating in the St Ives Medieval Faire – as an outsider trying re-enactment for the first time, I act as an audience surrogate and encourage people to try it as I have. In other words, my positive experience becomes their potential positive experience.
In terms of evidence, I have no real secondary sources. This is a sort of ‘Gonzo’ journalistic piece, based entirely on subjective experience instead of objective or empirical evidence – the entire content of the article is my experience and the interviews that I personally conducted. The reason for this, again, was to make the piece as accessible as possible. Earlier in the semester I had planned to make my article more about the veracity of re-enactment, and the process by which historical accuracy is assured among the groups, but I came to realise that it wouldn’t be particularly effective as a project. I was interested in the historiography personally, but I decided that if I really believed that re-enactment provides an avenue to understand history for people less academically-minded, then it would be counterproductive to write a piece that concerned itself with the minutia of peer review.
There is also the question of how best to gain exposure for my project so that the people I am trying to reach can actually read it. The first avenue I aim to try is submission to various local newspapers. Once this project has received feedback, I will incorporate that feedback and then send it in to my local newspapers, the Village Observer and the North Shore Times. The North Shore Times would be particularly good as it also has newspapers in St Ives, where the largest Medieval Faire in Sydney is held, thus hopefully appealing to those who have heard of the Faire and wish to participate. I may also send it to Southern Highland News, a newspaper in Berrima which is not only a historical town itself but is also where I attended the Inter-Group Training Session. I feel like newspapers are a good approach because if the article is put online I share links to it, and if it is only printed then it will be a good way to have my article reach older generations, which anecdotally seem to make up a great deal of re-enacting group membership. I will also send the article to the member groups that I interacted with as well as the ALHF leadership themselves, in case any of them wish to post it or excerpts from it on their websites/facebook groups. Since the article is rather long (~3,000 words), I can imagine it would need to be condensed for a local newspaper article, but that can be easily done if I simply limit the scope to one of the events I attended, instead of three. If no newspaper is interested, then I can always post it on our ‘historymatters’ blog to keep an online electronic copy of it.
Finally, I’m quite happy with the originality of this piece. While investigating different groups to interview, a few groups sent me news articles that had already been written about them or similar re-enactment groups, but these articles were often quite critical of the hobby or treated it as a bizarre oddity. On the other hand, some of the re-enactors worked in academia and had published their own defences of re-enactment and living history, but this was an academic defence, using quite technical historiographical arguments that, as after mentioned, I did not want to immerse myself in. Ultimately this article provides a layman’s introduction to historical re-enactment that, ideally, will encourage people to give it a try. In doing so, I aim to demonstrate re-enactment’s value – to convey that one can find both entertaining and informative ways to pursue history outside the classroom.

Australian Living History Federation – Berrima Training

On the 1st of September, I attended the ‘Berrima Inter-Group Re-Enactment Training’, an event in which several historical re-enactment groups from around the Blue Mountains come together for a number of reasons: to discuss upcoming historical fairs, to argue about historical inaccuracies, to compare equipment and clothing, and to collaborate with cooking recipes and blacksmithing techniques. Most importantly of all, however, the groups come together to fight.
The Berrima Training been held twice a year for almost a full decade, and that much is obvious by the professionalism of its organisers. The day begins with a group huddle organised by Alex Barnes, part of the Revolting Peasants re-enactment society, and clearly one of the most experienced combatants of the crowd. He goes over the ground rules for the day, identifying which parts of the body can or cannot be struck, the regulations applied to those with weapons, and points out the locations of injury registers and first aid kits. Re-enactment combat is a dangerous thing – blunted swords are still full-weight bars of metal after all – and these re-enactors rely on insurance that demands strict regulations. Steve, a member of the Medieval Archery Society, asks if striking with the butt of a hammer is allowed – his group have been training with them, but he wants to make sure that everyone is on the same page. After some brief discussion, the move is allowed, and the re-enactors begin the arduous process of donning their armour.
Combat at Berrima Training takes place in three main ways. The first is simple one-on-one combat, in which two combatants fight until a ‘kill’ is scored, usually through a clear strike to the torso, legs, or head (provided the combatants are wearing helmets). Secondly, there is the melee, in which a group of combatants encircle a single fighter. One by one, combatants will enter the circle and fight the centre fighter, with the victor of the dual remaining in the middle to take on the next challenger. Finally, and in my opinion most excitingly, there is the ‘shield wall’. In this exercise, the combatants split into two teams, and each team nominates a ‘king’. The king gets two bodyguards, and the rest of their team forms a shield wall to protect their leader. Then the two shield walls charge at each other, with a team winning once they have ‘killed’ the opposing king. The fighting is fascinating to watch, a hotchpotch of plate armour and soccer shin pads. Certain elements of historical accuracy are sacrificed in the name of personal safety, but it remains an enlightening display of the practicalities of medieval fighting. The classic myth of plate armour restricting movement, for example, is completely blown away the first time you see a fully adorned combatant roll out of the way of a rogue javelin.
Of course, it’s not all about the combat. During the lunch break I had a chat with Sigorlean, a member of the Europa re-enactment group. Sigorlean, who had been involved in re-enactment for almost twenty years, had given up on combat training years prior, instead focusing on the other elements of lived history. Indeed, even his name reflected this – he was Steven on any other day, but during re-enactment he chose the name Sigorlean as a more era-appropriate name. Sigorlean invests himself in several different fields of historical life – he stiches his own clothes, drinks from earthenware cups, and even his lunch for that day was accurate to his era: prunes and flatbread. Most impressively, however, was his musical performance. Sigorlean could play both flute and Swedish bagpipes, and did so while the others fought. He also was a scholar of Old English and took the opportunity as I interviewed him to recite several examples of alliterative verse, including the classic Beowulf.
The Berrima Training was a thoroughly entertaining and informative experience – and it wasn’t even one of their public events. It is more than a simple indulgence in Game-Of-Thrones style combat, it allows people who are really passionate about their history to engage, and hopefully encourage others to become involved. For every kid that gets into history through reading old myths and legends, there are kids who miss out because they do not have that opportunity or passion for reading. Historical re-enactment, to these people, is a unique avenue to get involved. Plus, the sword fighting just plain looks cool.