Why I Reenact: It’s about Remembering

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History is seen my many as little more than a boring list of names and dates.  Given the way history is taught these days, I can’t really blame them.

But here’s the thing.  History IS made up of names and dates.  We just often forget that not every name was famous, and not every date was important.  Do you think that the man who collects your garbage will ever make it to the pages of a history book?  Probably not.  Does that mean that he didn’t exist, or that his life wasn’t important, that he doesn’t have a story to tell?

No.  And history is made of those people.  I feel like the mortar between the important bricks of history, the stuff that holds the world together, is all of those untold stories.

History isn’t abstract.  History is made of real people with fully fleshed out lives. They had childhoods and children, friends and lovers, likes and dislikes. They felt love and they felt sadness. They had stories just as much as you or I. I reenact to remember that history isn’t just what came before, but that at one point, history was today, yesterday, and tomorrow.  It was last week, and it was next month.  History is a real thing, with real people, who had real lives and real stories.  When we reenact, we celebrate those who came before us.

When I look at the photos that I take at events, I often stop and think about the people who wore those same uniforms long before we did.  What were they like?  Where did they grow up?  What led them to become the person that is being recreated in spirit?  Did they find this wool as itchy as I do?  Who were they thinking about when the bullets started to fly?

Some day, a century or two from now, people will be reenacting things that you and I experienced.  When you reenact, you’re remembering people just like you and I, and you’re that hypothetical reenactor a few centuries into the future, remembering someone whose name history has forgotten.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this blog post which has finally unlocked the reasons behind my long standing discomfort with reenacting as “history.”

    You define the purpose of reenactment as an attempt to understand a previous time through an exploration of its material culture. From my observation, this is precisely what most reenactors do so I think your definition is a sound one.. The problem is that this is not history, it is anthropology. While reenactment might provide insights into the challenges of living in an earlier culture, it provides no insight whatsoever into history which, in fact, is subserved by the reenactment effort.

    As you correctly note, history is not “a list of names and dates.” History is classically defined as the study of primary written sources in order to understand patterns and causes of human events, or so we were taught as part of my college history major. And importantly, modern historians attempt to apply an objective methodology in order to minimize the distortion of historical record by cultural filters of the present.

    When reenactors reenact, they are not attempting to understand anything other than what the material culture of an earlier era felt like. Reenactment involves no historical discipline or method and no intellectual effort to understand patterns and causes of events. The process is similar to trying to understand what makes an airplane fly by studying its paint job.

    Recall that most anthropology exists because there is no written record of the people being studied or because there is a gap in the written record. Under those circumstances, examining the material culture might provide theories about the civilization, but no certainty or depth of understanding about historical events. So reenactment is not history at all. It is material culture anthropology without the benefit of historical method.

    Please do not read this comment as antagonistic or sarcastic. I am very grateful for your post that has really helped me reconcile my historian’s misgivings about your hobby with a genuine respect for what serious minded reenactors are trying to accomplish. Before now I have really struggled to understand your hobby while at the same time remaining true to the tenets and discipline of the historical method, which I have always found tougher than climbing on a raft with Thor Heyerdahl and trying to reason to historical conclusions based upon the rate of the Pacific currents.

    Reenactment is not history. It’s Kon Tiki. Whew! I feel so much better.

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