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Teaching History

I believe that re-enactment is a very powerful way to teach history. I heard about the reaction of the primary school children to the Hull 1642 Living History. The childrens’ hour-long visit stimulated weeks of enthusiastic study. Hull 1642 was presented as a trip in a time machine to a street in Hull just before the start of the war. The sight, smell and sound of that street were designed to give a huge impact, and they did. It gave life to dry and boring history books, and motivated even the most difficult children to pay attention.
I think that educating ourselves, and our audience, should be our sole aim. To achieve that aim we should work to three principles:

1) Legality and Safety;

2) Historical Accuracy;

3) Interesting Presentation.

I think each is as important as the other, in fact they can be seen as the three legs of a tripod. If one is missing the tripod (well bipod actually) will be very likely to fall over!

Legality and Safety
Will anyone who does not think that we must work within the law please find another hobby now! It should also be self evident that we should take all sensible precautions to minimise risk to life and limb to ourselves and our audience.

We place a great deal of emphases on recreating battles. Obviously, battles in the 17th century were very dangerous places. Therefore we must preserve the illusion of danger, whilst minimising the fact. We must behave as actors, actresses, stunt-men and stund-women. Battles are open air plays with a cast of thousands. We should act out brutal battles, not try to re-fight the Civil War!

Historical Accuracy
If you accept that our sole aim is to teach history, then it follows that we should be accurate. It is no use teaching fantasy!

Flippantly, we should aim to be accurate enough to be able to take a fortnight’s trip with Dr Who’s Tardis Tours to the 1640s and not get spotted as tourists.More practicaly, our way of teaching history should introduce no more misconceptions than any other method. By that, I mean every way of seeing the past carries the danger of misrepresentation, ranging from minor misunderstanding to complete fallacy, and that we should aim to minimise the misconceptions that could be given by our re-enactments.

For example, take a c1640s pistol in a museum case. Even with a precise and well illustrated explanation there is still the danger that most children (and a few adults) will assume it was worn strapped to the hip as in westerns. That is because the film image of a man wearing and using a pistol (any pistol) is stronger than the static image in the museum. I suggest that the most powerful way to restore the balance of truth is to see a 1640s cavalry trooper firing a pistol drawn from his saddle holster, and re-enactment is a good way of doing that. However the re-enactor has to use a near perfect copy of a 1640s pistol, because, using a pistol with a 18th century lock, for example, just basterdises the whole history of the flintlock. That may lead to so many misconceptions that the static museum display would still, on balance, be a better ambassador of historical truth than the re-enactor.

It follows that all our reproductions should be able to stand next to originals in a museum case, and even the museums’ curators should think they are good copies.

Of course accurate reproductions are not enough. The re-enactors equipmed with them should be able to act out scenes from the 17th century with a skill that would stand up to criticism from university history lecturers.

Interesting Presentation
In order to be effective in teaching, we must make our presentation interesting. The Civil War is an inherently interesting topic, and re-enactment is a inherantly powerful way of presenting it. We need to learn the lessons of professional theatrical performance to do it justice.

I reject the concept of ‘entertainment’ in the dictionary sense. In my dictionary ‘entertainment’ means ‘to amuse, a public performance’. After I looked that up, re-enactors aiming to ‘entertain’ will forever symbolise a pantomime of clowns, presenting historical fantasy and farce. The kind if show that many may find amusing, but I find idiotic.

If you take ‘entertainment’ to mean ‘fascinating’, and/or ‘interesting’, then, in this sense alone, I agree we should be entertaining.

Conflicts
You may argue that my three criteria are inconsistent. That you cannot be safe and accurate, interesting and accurate, or safe and interesting. My bottom line is safety first, followed by accuracy, followed by presentation. However, such conflicts can often be reseoved by imaginative and clever solutions. Before deciding there is an irreconcilable conflict and choosing an option, we should be prepared to do some hard lateral thinking to find a solution that satisfies all three criteria.

Sometimes I wounder if safety is just an excuse not to be accurate. If we really wanted an all round increase to our margin of safety on the battle field, we would just ban alcoholic drink for 10 hours before a battle.

Why accurate?
You may ask why should we should be accurate, why we should attempt to be educational. Why shouldn’t we just put on historical pantomimes to raise money for charity. I suppose, in the end, it just comes down to your beliefs, but let me give you some practical reasons.

Consistency
The English Civil War really happened, and there are masses of evidence left as to exactly what happened. That evidence is both a definition and an impartial judge of what we do. All members of our society have, with a bit of effort, access to that body of knowledge. Everyone can read about it, see the paintings, and visit the museums. Most people who have taken the trouble to do so find thay are in broad agreement with others about what they have seen or read. The ‘experts’ tend to argue about their differences, rather than the large body of agreed common knowledge, so this may exaggerate the apparent uncertainty to the ‘novice’, but in general we have an agreed definition of what we do. When we try to recreate aspects of the 17th century we can also judge our efforts against the evidence. The evidence is a neutral judge of our efforts if we care to pay close attention.

At Arrowe Park, I looked across the drill field to see for real what I had previously only seen described in Barriffe. The Fairfax brigade were practising ‘firing to a flank’, and it was instantly recognisable. I have seen people in the beer tent, in what others assume are strange clothes, and recognise the clothes I have only seen described in books or academic archaeological papers. We have independently seen the same definition of what we should be doing.

If we resorted to fantasy and entertainment we would need to co-ordinate the same version of the fantasy across the whole society, or chaos would result. The Fairfax Brigade could invent some new act that they thought very flashy and entertaining, and we would have to respond to it. We would do our own thing, and probably totaly scupper their act. They would say ‘What the hell did you do that for, you were meant to …’. One thousand members living out their own historical fantasies would not produce a very coherent show for an audience. Producing a good show would require one thousand people to subjugate their fantasies to one master fantasy creator. So why not use historical fact? It is neutral, detailed, extensive, consistent, and already exists.

Generality
You may argue that most of the audience who come to our events do not have the knowledge to judge our accuracy, and do not care. They only come to see an entertaining performance. For the sake of argument, I will assume 80% of our audience fit into that category. They are only interested in the performance and, as I have said, I think we should deliver it. If they do not care or know about accuracy they will not care if we get it wrong, but neither will they care if we happen to get it right. The point is that, all other things being equal, an ignorant audience loses nothing, if we happen to be very accurate.

What about the knowledgeable 20%? They too should expect, and should get, a good show, but they will also expect historical accuracy. We should be able to deliver that too. That way 100% of our audience get to see something to remember. All of them see a good performance, and the 20% who care see a historically accurate performance.

At first glance, increasing accuracy would appear to have fast diminishing returns. It may take twice the effort every time we convince half the remaining sceptics that we are accurate. Is it worth it? I suggest it is. I suggest that the most knowledgeable 0.5% of our audience have much more influence over our future than the most ignorant 50%. That is because the top 0.5% include the sponsors like English Heritage and the critics of re-enactment events like professional historians.

The English Heritage Guidelines make it quite clear that they expect the highest standards of historical accuracy. They imply one of the driving forces for that demand was the amount of flack thay had taken from ‘historically aware’ members of the public, professional archaeologists and historians. The critics presumably resented a government heritage department supporting bad re-enactment in undermining good teaching and research.

If we can acquire a reputation amongst museum curator, historians and archaeologists for well presented and historically accurate re-enactments then we will have plenty of interesting events and a healthy cash flow. The better we get at our very powerful method of teaching history, the more it will be used by the museum world as a supplement to their own rather more static activitiesWhat about the village fete type charity events? In my opinion we should maintain the same high standards. As I have said, if the audience does not appreciate the accuracy, it will not detract from their opinion either, all other things being equal. However, there is always the outside chance that the curator of a prestigious museum will be visiting the fete. Reputation spreads slowly and unpredictably. If we are excellent all the time, we will have more chance of getting the breaks, and less chance of taking critical knocks.

How accurate do we need to be?
An archery target consists of five concentric rings. The inner are red and gold. The gold is the bull’s eye. I see the historical accuracy ‘target’ as being like an archery target 10 meters in diameter, with a tiny red only 10 cm in diameter, and a cloud of golds, each no more than a few millimeters in diameter, clustered around the centre of the red. Each ‘gold’ represents the current opinion of a particular group of professional historians or archaeologists. No two groups have exactly the same image of the 17th century, they argue about minute details. However all fall in the ‘red’, an area they can largely agree on. As long as we always hit within the red, preferably in the centre of the cluster of golds, them every expert will at least be able to acknowledge that we have a good interpretation, even if they criticise us for supporting a rival opinion! Note that my red is still a precise target, it is a dot one hundredth the diameter of the whole target. Scoring red will not please all the experts all the time, but is better than not pleasing any expert at any time.

If we really fall foul of conflicts between experts than we are not lost. Of our objective is to teach history then we can teach something about the process by which it is written. We can present our case for why we do things in a certain way, give an explanation of other opinions and explain that it is only by such discussion that we understand history.

But we can’t live in the 17th century
Someone once made the silly remark that since I did not ride to a muster in Devon from Manchester on horseback I was not a very good re-enactor. He may have been right, but not on the basis of that argument! Of course we will never reproduce a copy of 17th century England in its entirety. All we can do is produce a limited scope, like a view across one part of a battle field for a hour one afternoon, or a complete hamlet for eight hours during the day, or one company equipped for campaign standing in a field.

Each one of those scenes is so limited in area and time that it becomes achievable. Each scene is pulling together many different threads of history that would otherwise never join. It brings together reproductions of objects that would normally be scattered far and wide across museums into one context. That could be done in a static museum display or diorama, but re-enactment takes the extra step and brings it to life. It assists the imagination one step further in reaching the real 17th century. That is enough.

A ‘beautiful’ reproduction of the 17th century
Since each of these scenes are of such limited scope, we can only afford to reproduce the typical and average or we will introduce more misconceptions than we demolish.

If you see two similar objects in different museums, see the object in fifty different paintings, and know fragments of the object have been found on three archaeological sites, than it is very likely to be a common object and it is safe to use a reproduction of of.

If you have only ever seen one example of an object, or it is an unique and gross variation of a commom object than it is quite possible that it was odd in the 17th century as well and may have been the only one ever made. In general such objects are very unsafe reproductions, not because they are wrong, but because that give an obscure and warped view of the 17th century.I once heard that beauty is just average. A beautiful face is an average face, average length nose, an average lip width, an average gap between the eyes, and average in every other measurement and ratio as well. By definition, many people are average in any one of these characteristics, but the chances are very slim that any person will be average in them all and hence ‘all average’ or beauty is rare.

I therefore suggest that every scene we stage should be a ‘beautiful’ scene of the 17th century. It should be very average and very typical. To a certain extent it should be too typical and average, because then our audience will be more likely to spot the typical and average, rather than be distracted by the rare and untypical.

Conclusion
In conclusion, I suggest our sole aim should be to teach history to ourselves and others, and to teach it to a standard that introduces less misconceptions than any other method. Our by-product should be money for charity, and fun for ourselves.

Julian Tilbury

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