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The Study of History and “Reenacting”

The Study of History and “Reenacting”

Over the past couple months, I have witnessed a number of arguments over various material culture topics within the reenacting community.  These arguments are common and continual.  Whether it is about 18th century Eastern Woodland women wearing sashes, Euro-American men with beards, loading blocks, plug bayonets,  hunting shirts, etc., it is basically nothing new.  The thing that strikes me as difficult in many of these discussions is the poor understanding of how history is researched.

I have not posted a blog in quite awhile as life has been busy, but I think I will do a quick rant on the study of history and reenacting/living history/re-creation of history.  Being a rant (or perhaps mental vomiting of thoughts), I will try to create some sense of structure for the reader and will therefore try to break my thoughts as logically as my racing brain and typing fingers will allow.

First, history is not TRUTH.   History is not what happened in the past.  History is what we BELIEVE happened in the past based on our best interpretation of fragmented evidence.  History is our interpretation based on a best guess.  Different people, different times, and different places will all affect the interpretation.  Everyone has biases and there is no avoiding this, even if you try (read Novick’s  That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession if you want to know more about this).

Next, the study of history IS NOT like the study of science.  It seems a lot of reenactors believe that evidence to the contrary of the norm therefore means the norm/common is not true (or at least that the contrary evidence is equally true).  In science, facts are often looked at as immutable, hard truths.  Theories are based in fact, but if you can prove the theory is wrong… it is wrong.  All you need is a contradictory fact to prove it wrong.  Okay, I am not a scientist and maybe this is not correct (feel free to correct me), but this IS how many people within the reenacting community deal with history.  This IS NOT how history works.

Facts in history are not hard truth.  They are only as good as the source(s) they came from and could be true or false to varying degrees.  Also, when we put together these facts, our story is only as good as the facts we use and how we put them together.  It is like having a 1,000 piece puzzle, being given 50 of the pieces and trying to put it together to explain what the entire puzzle picture is (and maybe 5 of those 50 pieces are actually from another puzzle).  In many ways, figuring out what happened in the past is also like a court case.

In a court case, evidence is gathered from numerous people, cameras/videos/recordings, “artifacts,” etc.  It is the job of the jury to listen to all these “pieces of the puzzle” to figure out what really happened.  If 10 witnesses and a variety of other pieces of evidence all agree with one another, and another single witness’s testimony does not agree with the rest; that witness’s testimony will be questioned or at least will not overthrow the other evidence and testimonies that appear to be true.  One piece of evidence to the contrary does not disprove the main body of evidence.  The same applies to history.

When looking at the trivialities of material culture, often that one piece (or few pieces) of contrary evidence MAY  be correct and true (it also may be false, a down right lie, or poor interpretation of something else).  This proves an item existed and maybe even was used.  This said, if it is one in one hundred (or more) it certainly is not common. Context and the source itself needs to be evaluated in these circumstances.  I will not step too far into whether one can/should portray that which is uncommon, but I will state that if we misrepresent the reality of history (at least the history from how we best understand it), we are certainly not reenacting/re-creating it.

5 Responses to “The Study of History and “Reenacting””

  1. Chris depot says:

    Isaac, I agree with your statements but many reenactors have never studied the ways history is in fact studied or they refuse to learn. This is why many academic historians laugh at reenactors. I have had this conversation with other professors, they see the bad and misrepresentation and lump those who do real research and interpretation togther. I m not saying you need a grad degree to research and do living history, I m saying you need to be willing to learn how history can be studied and how historical debates -which are a good thing -develop. Not proving the uncommon, common or the negative postive, but based on documentaion, what was or more clearly what was…

  2. Swanny says:

    Hence, my love of the phrase “best currently available evidence.”

  3. Brandon White says:

    Bonjour Isaac!

    I admire reenacting the past. More plays out on location, in classrooms and museums are needed. Its my hope that one day I will complete my journey, something that I have been researching for the past twenty plus years relating to New France and Native Americans. One day I must come to Wisconsin and see this visual representation of history. Writing a screenplay or novel is such a challenge. Something agrees with me when I meet a history teacher such as yourself. Myself, I’m like a dog that searches for lost stories. Bringing to the world a new prospective is a challenge but its pure passion that drives the soul, right? Anyways, my day I work on climbing cell towers and when I have time off I create art, write and research. Not the best writer but I try. Wish you could hear my story about Jean Nicolet. Rewriting the history books would be interesting. So much was going on besides fur trading.

  4. Amy C. Henry says:

    As an 18th century Native American interpretor I am increasingly concerned with the total reliance on primary documentation. As historians we must accept that much of the documentations reality contains a euro-centric bias and includes racism and sexism; and yet we continue to perpetuate what white, European, men saw as the only valid reality.
    Earlier statements, those on frontier folk, state we have no cold, hard facts.. ad yet we do, the trade lists. We know some of what Natives had, now we need to understand how they used it. Experiential archaeology gets a bad rap in the living history world, but academics use it as a valid tool in recreating information. We know what they had; use it, wear it eat it and begin to experience the reality.
    We also tend to forget that most of the Natives during the contact period, and most likely before, lived at a very subsistence level, so assigning roles by gender and age is not valid either. “The thing to remember about Pequot division of labor is that there was a lot of fluidity… There’s no reason to think that women couldn’t do a lot of the things we normally associate with men.. I’m sure women did some hunting and trapping…” Director of Research Kevin McBride Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. One of the finest museums I have seen.
    So maybe there are other methods of creating informaton to teach with besides primary documentation.

  5. Isaac says:

    Good Points Amy. I think that we need to use all the tools at our disposal to make educated interpretations. I also agree that we need to be careful with any or all primary sources (although they are the bread and butter of the historian). All have biases that we need to sift through. Prejudices, racism, sexism, etc. can be seen all over within the writer’s own culture, when written about others (especially those that are “enemies”), when about women, etc. There is no shortage on bias and judgement. This is clearly seen in the case of American Indians but also (since it is the topic of my site) in the case of the French in North America and Wisconsin. Early Americans recollecting their time in Wisconsin (many are collected in the Wisconsin Historical Collections) are ripe with anti-Gallic “racism.” Any true student of this history should know and understand the attitudes of the American writers of this period and the spin this gives to their subject.

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