A 2000-Year Tour through the Filth and Fury of Living History
When Tim Moore and his family move into an unmodernised semi in Chiswick in 1988, he has a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in the past: no hot water; no bathroom; and an outdoor privy in the back garden. Marvelling at the developments in home comforts over the last hundred years – and struck by how much we’ve come to rely on them – he decides to investigate why thousands of people feel drawn to give up such luxuries as central heating, soap and a proper roof over their heads, and take up living history instead.
Now, you know how much I enjoy a good bit of historical reenactment and I’ve often wondered what it would be like to give it a go. Moore, hampered by a very modern fear of spiders, ants and all manner of crawling things, has nobly saved me the effort by taking on each of the key periods covered by reenactment groups. He has no background in reenactment, but he has a real desire to understand and perhaps even to experience that moment when the pretended past begins to feel more authentic than the present: a ‘period rush’. This is a story bubbling with self-deprecating warmth and genuine admiration – and he meets some remarkable people along the way, from those living history groups so hardcore that they don’t reenact for the public, but simply for their own satisfaction, to a troop of Vikings so violent that they’ve actually been blackballed from English Heritage’s History Live.
Moore kicks off with a brief history of reenactment, which (despite the pseudo-historical jousts, masques and tournaments of an earlier age) began in earnest with the Eglinton Tournament in 1839, a full-on medieval extravaganza organised by the 13th Earl, who completely failed to take two things into account: first, the allure of historical reenactment to the general public; and secondly, the British weather. His stupendous tournament, with titled competitors from across Europe, was planned for 1,500 spectators but drew crowds of 100,000, many in ‘medieval’ costume. To make matters worse, there was absolutely torrential rain, to the point that the nearby rivers were flooded, stranding people at the tournament. As Moore notes, Eglinton’s ‘ultimate reward for organising the world’s first proper historical re-enactment was a bill for £40,000, lingering national ridicule and a very poor haul of Christmas cards‘. Moore girds his loins, prays for good weather, and sets off on his odyssey.
He methodically works his way through history, beginning with an Iron Age village in Wales (which is perhaps the least successful of his experiences, in which he finds himself sleeping alone in a roundhouse, threatened by vengeful sheep), and then moving on to the Roman period, courtesy of a French legion stationed in Denmark, whose multinational membership is – he’s reminded by the soldiers – historically accurate. Impressed by the Romans, but ultimately exhausted and slightly wounded by their thrice-daily battles against the Gauls (‘Of all the historical enthusiasts I would contact, only the Vikings proved more singularly bent on violence‘), he moves on to the early medieval period.
The Vikings come courtesy of the Leicestershire group Tÿrslið, whose approach to historical reenactment is aimed at offering as much gory make-up and fake blood as possible, with scant regard for historical accuracy and a penchant for simply battering their opponents into submission (‘Had Tÿrslið been asked to perform a Canute re-enactment, it might have ended with the North Sea in full retreat‘). I get the feeling that Moore is helplessly fascinated by Tÿrslið whose members are equally gung-ho both in their reenactment and their ordinary lives:
When the men of Tÿrslið weren’t hanging each other off cliffs by their fingertips, they were confronting intruders with shotguns, setting light to restraining orders or reversing fork-lift trucks into their former places of employment. Their many tales of derring-do – both as Vikings and as civilians – would later oblige me to take a long hard look at my suburban lifestyle and see it for what it really was: happy, secure and generally rather wonderful.
Next up is the 15th century, courtesy of the meticulously authentic Swiss Company of St George (‘When it comes to re-enactment, we are the real super-nerds‘). They have taken over the Alsace castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg to recreate life in 1474, and here Moore finally discovers his historical metier: artillery, which gives him the childish thrill of causing explosions. He also finds that the Company offers him the closest thing to a period rush: ‘If I was shivering, it was largely down to a sense of apprehension move powerful than I had experienced at any previous re-enactment. Because already, this didn’t feel like one‘. After this, he tries out the Tudor period at Kentwell Hall (‘generally acknowledged as Britain’s most venerable large scale, long-term historical reenactment‘), where he finds the 16th-century language a challenge; and then he heads out to the US to experience the pioneer lifestyle circa 1775, in the company of Gerry Barker, the reenactor’s reenactor. Moore’s final period is the American Civil War, in which he experiences reenactment on its grandest and most sprawling scale: a complete reenactment of Banks’s Grand Retreat, the closing episode of the disastrous Red River Campaign in 1864.
Moore’s spirit never falters and he sets each new experience in its historical context. Far from seeing the past as a simpler, quieter place, he comes to understand that it was violent and frequently very brief: ‘Since 3600 BC, the world has known fewer than 300 years of peace; the 14,000-odd wars packed into the rest have accounted for more than three billion human lives‘. As he wanders the byways of history, he tries to pinpoint the appeal of spending weekends in a damp tent fighting the Gauls / Britons / Confederates. For many of those he meets, it isn’t just a desire to live a simpler, more ‘authentic’ lifestyle, but a way to return to an age in which a man had the right to defend his own territory and to tackle those who threatened it: an age of individual, rather than national, agency.
Particularly in the case of medieval reenactors, he comes to the conclusion that many people are drawn to the hobby as a development of a teenage interest in Dungeons & Dragons or LARPing (live action role-play, which appears to be like historical reenactment, but fantasy, as far as I understand it. Sounds fun). For me, that conclusion feels slightly reductionist, as it explains more of the battle side of things than the social, living-history side; but certainly many of the people whom Moore meets have a background of that sort.
Ultimately, Moore develops an immense respect for the men and women who spend their lives developing skills and crafts that are entirely lost to most of us today. Although his book is primarily intended to be light and funny (which is it), that humour tends to come at his own expense as he blunders haplessly through history. No doubt, if a reenactor were to read it, they would find comments to disagree with, but for those of us outside the charmed circle, it’s a great way in. Treading the perfect line between affection and incredulity, this is definitely something to look out for if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to spend your leisure time in another age.