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What they had: some reflections

What they had: some reflections

While taking a “break from reenacting” yet still engaging myself fully in the history I love, I have been thinking about a lot of things. ¬†Many of these deal with reenactments, ¬†reenactors, reenacting, and life in general. ¬†After much thought and reflection, I feel that there is something worthy of sharing and perhaps further discussing with those who care to take up this discussion.

In the “reenacting world” today as well as in living history, there are numerous terms used to describe what it is that we do. ¬†A lot of this also is based on what is driving what we do and why we do it. ¬†Some “reenactors” simply are interested in doing things in an old timey way, others wish to experience what those that went before us experienced to better understand history, some wish to replicate history to educate others, and the list of reasons goes on. ¬† My personal reasons for doing what I do are also numerous. ¬† The two biggest reasons I have are probably the following:

  1. I LOVE history, and simply reading about it leaves many of my senses neglected.  Re-living elements of history allows me to experience, taste, feel, smell, etc. the history that I love
  2. There is a sense of tradition, maintaining/carrying on tradition, and continuing the old that I love (and embrace in various aspects beyond just reenacting).

Considering the above, I often think about terms thrown around by reenactors. ¬†Some refer to what they do using terms like “experimental archaeology” or “experiential anthropology.” ¬†The idea is that by using the clothing, tools, etc. of the past and by experiencing what those in history experienced; we gain a better understanding of history. ¬†This certainly is great within certain limitations, but it often confuses me that many reenactors frequently deviate ¬†from what is truly historic in order to meet their modern desires and needs, in spite of their stated goals.

Those that hunt with historic firearms, generally are well aware that historic firearms have limitations and can not simply be used like one would use a modern rifle.  These people learn to use these firearms within these limitations and often are quite successful in learning more about how things would have been done historically.  Beyond firearms, the other material goods of history seem to not get as true of use and understanding by many.  

Frequently, I see reenactors trying to improve upon what was used historically in order to create items that work more like what they are used to in the modern day. ¬†This ranges from footwear to more resemble what we wear today, creating of “rain gear,” unusual backpacks, bladed tools that do not resemble historic ones, clothing that is “camouflaged,” etc. ¬† These items they then use instead of using what we know (via proper historical research) was actually used. ¬†It is specifically by using these proper historical items that we learn their limitations and perhaps even relearn how to use them in order to make them work. ¬†THIS is¬†“experimental archaeology” /”experiential anthropology.”

In a conversation on another website, Chuck Burrows (reenactor and artist) captured this wonderfully when we wrote about the use of proper historic axes and hatchets,

Something I’ve found over the years is constant everyday carry/usage can make us much more comfortable with our gear even if it’s not the perfect item/tool for the job – adapt and conquer…Yes the eye got a bit distorted over the years from pounding wooden stakes, but never enough to make the head useless and I’ve seen a number of old round polled hawks/axes with such damage, so I know even back when others used their tools in the same way despite their limitations

It is precisely by using these historic items to do their historic functions that we learn more about history and even carrying on older ways of doing things.  Instead of changing a historic garment to make it fit more like a modern garment; wear it like it should be worn and get used to it.  Use a proper historic knife, even if it seems an awkward style, size, shape.  Learn to walk in historic footwear, even if it means walking differently than you do today.  It is by doing these things frequently, that we master traditional skills and better understand history.

My strong attitudes about this are shaped greatly by my educational background in history as well as the fact that I educate for a living. ¬†Striving for the better knowledge and understanding, for myself and others, is what I value. ¬†Additionally, I incorporate history and my fascination with it into most aspects of my life, regardless of the history and of reenacting. ¬†A friend recently referred to this using the term “revival.” ¬†I like that term as it goes beyond reenacting and well describes what I do in my life. ¬†A lot of my attitudes (now more than even a year or two ago) are to really revive ways of doing things; honoring and remembering the past and those that came before us, as well as enriching the way I live in a more deep, cultural, and full way. ¬†I like to think I am living a better life because of this and that my family is living and learning in a great way as well.

Perhaps this is best left by giving the following Gilbert K. Chesterton quote that I recently came across:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.




16 Responses to “What they had: some reflections”

  1. Chris says:

    Well said !

  2. Jeff Hartley says:

    Well said isaac! I am blessed to be surrounded by like minded folks who cherish the re-enacter “Culture”. It makes the experience a whole lot more enjoyable…

  3. Paul C. Daiute says:

    How I wish we lived closer to each other. There is little distance between our way of thinking. We are close in that way at least and perhaps to our ancestors.
    Regards and Respect, Paul

  4. Tom Conde says:

    Well said.

  5. Bill Farmer says:

    Well said, indeed.
    Leave it to a man who has given us all so many definitions to give us the following….

    “We live in the past by a knowledge of it’s history, and in the future by hope and anticipation. By ascending to an association with our ancestors; by contemplating their example and studying their character; by partaking their sentiments and imbibing their spirit; by accompanying them in their toils; by sympathizing in their sufferings and rejoicing in their successes and triumphs, we mingle our existence with theirs and seem to belong to their age.”
    Daniel Webster

  6. Snapper says:

    Isaac – Thank you for putting into words what many of us think and feel about this unique hobby. I appreciate the time and effort you put into this and your willingness to share it with everyone. Have a blessed holiday season and until our paths should cross…Be well.


  7. Jason says:

    As I was reading, I had planned to comment on how much I enjoyed your post. Then I got to the end and found a quote by Chesterton as well! Great article Isaac!

  8. John CR Duff says:

    Very well said, indeed, Isaac. “Revival”, that word has been applied to my taste in Highland Dress. I don’t mind. In fact, I rather like the concept.

  9. Ray says:

    I liked everything that you said here Isaac! And you are so right, in so many ways. It is to a certain extant about traditions. We stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before us. I like to cook, and so did the people who came before me, so I feel a special thrill every time I recreate a recipe in the kitchen that was hand written and passed from one generation to the next. Whether it is a rum soaked plum pudding, made and aged to be lit on fire at Christmas(from England, 18th century no less) or persimmon cookies developed by my mother’s side of the family when Indiana was the frontier. Using my great grandmother’s butcher knife to cut up a chicken for preparation. It is all history. Very cool, and it runs through your daily routines. We have a lot of “them” in us, and sometimes the most mundane ways of doing things, for the most mundane of tasks, I would like to hope that in a word or a gesture, or in the doing of a task a certain way, that if they could see us today, even in our modern world, that they would recognize us as their own. We are the end result of their “history.” Have a great holiday season!

    • Bob Miller says:

      Thank you for a most excellent post, Isaac. As I stated before, we are like minded.
      I wish you and your family a very joyous 18th C Christmas season. My friends and I have given some thought to reviving ” The Beaver Club” and hosting an 18th C celebration of Christmas. If all those who posted here were closer, you would be most welcome members !

  10. David says:

    As allways: hats of for you Isaac!!

  11. Peter says:

    Your thoughts are an inspiration to us all!

  12. Shane Watson says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I don’t reenact but I do make things for my own personal use and experience. I was making moccasins this week and using artificial sinew. Then I thought to myself, “Self, there’s no such thing as artificial sinew. Its either sinew or it aint!” I’ve spent the last few evenings separating sinew and trying to learn how to sew with it. No other reason than my own personal satisfaction.

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