Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Stages of Historical Accuracy

I’ve been having an online conversation about accurate items, that not only look right from afar, but are constructed using historical methods. Also this past weekend we learned that this fall’s Connecticut Renaissance Faire will be open into the evening: until 8 pm on certain evenings, so we’ll need to add historical lighting methods that will not burn the camp down. I had quite an involved conversation trying to convince a guild member that we could acquire period-looking implements in the next few months. Both conversations sparked a thought pattern about the “stages” of reenacting. Just like the stages of teenagers or the stages of grief when we are building our living history kit and props we tend to go through stages. Sometime we combine stages, or skip a few, but I think many of you will find these fairly familiar. In fact, even once we have established ourselves on the path to historical accuracy, sometimes adding just a little new bit (like, lighting, say) you might have to go through at least some of the steps all over again. And really, we’ll never be spot-on there will always be room for improvement.

1.    They did this so I will do this.
When first starting out we were probably all pretty sad in our attempts to mimic history. We often got only the basic gist right. We do things like, say: they wore corsets back then, so I will wear a corset. The first attempt we’ll probably end up in a corset from the wrong period, made out of the wrong materials, we’ll wear it on the outside instead of on the inside, but gosh darn it, they worse corsets so I am too. Or maybe you said: they hunted with bow and arrow, so you go to the sporting goods store and get a modern compound bow, a Native American style quiver, and a Robin Hood hat for accessory. This is a good and natural first step, and should be mocked only gently and with the passage of years.

2.    Others reenacting something similar to me did it this way.
OK, we’ve figured out the corset looks wrong, and someone hissed at us that that bow is too modern. We’re taking the next step down the path to historical accuracy. Luckily, many people have trod these paths before us, and some are willing to sell us all that we desire, or look good in their own portrayal and are willing to share what they know. Amazingly, there are quite a few conventions in the Living History world, that have little to do with historical accuracy. Viking chairs stick in my mind; one medieval reenactor thought it was a good way to make a chair, and had some info to back it up, now the darn things show up in all sorts of reenactments from a thousand years worth of European history. Eventually we all learn this lesson: even if another reenactor says it is right for your period, ask for documentation, or search for your own documentation, cause they may not be right!

3.    I saw something that looked similar in a woodcut.
Now we’re getting down to it. We are not content to read about it in books, or copy the other reenactors, we want to copy the people of the time, or at least look like they did. So let’s look at pictures! Photographs are all well and good after a certain date, but what if you are reenacting something before folks had the capability of photographing every little thing? Well there are still visual representations in the form of paintings, woodcuts, illustrations, sculpture. But just because all of Lucas Cranach’s women wear red dresses does not mean every woman in Saxony in the 16th century wore red. Still, we’re getting closer, especially if we use more than one visual source, say both a painting and a woodcut, from a relatively small timeframe and geographic area around which we our portrayal springs. Once you’ve got the look down, you’re moving along nicely, but we’re not there yet.

4.    They used these materials
That beautiful flowing dress, just like all the tapestries, and that funky shoe, just like all the woodcuts are still going to come off as not quite right if the dress is polyester and the shoe is vinyl. OK, that might be an extreme example, but we’ve all seen folks make something really pretty, but out of the completely wrong materials that make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable. This is especially true when one uses modern synthetics, but is still true even if one is just using the wrong type of wood in your woodworking projects, or a different type of clay in your ceramics. In our guild, we use a lot of redware pottery, because we’ve got a good supplier. We’ve got more evidence for whiteware pottery though, so over the next while I hope to replace a lot of the redware. Since pottery has the tendency to break with rough handling I’ll probably replace what I’ve got as it becomes necessary to do so.

5.    This was constructed using period methods, from an extant piece.
Since we’re talking about reenacting and re-creation, and not using actual historical pieces (see this post for my opinions on that) we are creating, or commissioning objects from the past. Once you’ve already gotten so your things are looking right, and feeling right, there is still another step down the road to historical accuracy, and that is making those objects using period constructions methods. It will not really be right, until it is made in the same method that it would have been made in the time and location you are portraying. We are not always able to do this, it cost more money, takes more time, and sometimes is simply unavailable, but everyone striving for accuracy will sigh and moon over this stage, even if not all of our items ever achieve it.

Different portrayals of mine have different levels of accuracy, heck, different items among my historical stuff are at differing levels, even if I use them for the same portrayal. There sometimes comes a point where I will tolerate different levels and not others, and certainly not all in the order that I have listed them here. But the stages are good for me to think about when I am thinking about picking up any new item to add to my stash.

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