Monday, October 11, 2010

Historical Recreation: U.K. vs U.S.

I have been involved in historical recreation with the Society for Creative Anachronism for a very long time and have just had a very interesting online exchange with someone doing historical recreation in England, largely on the differences between how they do it and how we do it.

The central difference, so far as I can see, is that almost all U.K. recreation consists of performances for an audience, usually a paying audience. Almost all SCA recreation, and I think (although I might be mistaken) most U.S. recreation in other periods, most notably the U.S. Civil War, is done by and for the participants. An SCA tournament has an audience, but it is a medieval audience—an audience of participants dressed in some attempt at period clothing. The spectator at the tournament may also be one of the people cooking the evening's feast or, later, teaching renaissance dances.

One result that I found particularly striking, given my interests, was a very different attitude to medieval cooking. My correspondent assured me that medieval feasts were very expensive. A little online browsing, searching for "medieval feast" in .uk domains, confirmed that. So far as I could tell, the nearest thing to an authentic medieval feast available in the U.K., put on by a catering firm, costs 34 pounds/head in the least expensive version and a whopping 270 pounds per head in the fancy, seven course, version. A large part of that cost, of course, is for the labor of cooks and servers.

In contrast, I would expect an SCA feast, at least equally authentic, to be no more than ten dollars for the meal, plus perhaps another five or ten as a site fee to pay for the rental of the hall. The labor cost is zero, since the cooks and servers are themselves participants, doing it for fun—at most they might (or might not) get a free meal. My correspondent found that idea, along with the idea of musicians performing at the feast for free, almost unbelievable—in his view, anyone worth listening to would expect to be paid.

Another consequence of the difference is that, as best I can tell, English historical recreation is tied much more closely to the official educational system than similar activities in the U.S., with performances to some degree designed to fit into the standard curriculum. The recreation is subsidized by the state—on how large a scale I do not know. And at least some of the customers for the performances are state schools. Indeed at one point in the conversation, it seemed to me that my opposite number took "fitting into the official curriculum" as part of the definition of eduational, although when pressed on the point he denied it. What was clear was that he thought of "educational" as meaning "educating the audience," while I thought of the activity's primary educational role as educating the participants. Or perhaps, more precisely, encouraging them to educate themselves.

I am curious as to the consequences of these very different approaches. One striking contrast with the SCA is that the U.K. groups have quite a high level of required physical authenticity. The SCA, in contrast, has a minimal level of required authenticity—some attempt at pre-17th century garb. But while physical authenticity is not required, it is admired, and there is a lot of it at a high standard. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that our best armorers or costumers are at least as good as theirs. And it is worth noting that Civil War recreation in the U.S., at least by reputation, maintains a level of required authenticity comparable to the corresponding activities in the U.K.

I am also curious as to the reasons for the difference. Is it merely a matter of historical accident? Or is there some difference between cultures that makes Americans (and Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, ...) more willing to put time and effort into something they are doing for the fun of it?

With luck, some readers of this blog will have experience with historical recreation and be able to provide additional information.

17 Comments:

At 2:07 AM, October 12, 2010, Blogger Steve said...

It depends on the group: as well as the large special interest groups like the Sealed Knot, there are many local ones such as Edinburgh's "Perfidious Albion": http://www.lothene.org/feudalist/

 
At 2:52 AM, October 12, 2010, Blogger Nicky said...

Hello, hope you don't mind me joining the discussion - Steve pointed me at the post.

I've been doing re-enactment in the UK for twenty years and I have to say that my experience is very different to that of whoever you were discussing it with.

For example, you talk about UK re-enactments having a paying audience. This is often true, but the individual re-enactors are not normally paid to take part. A historic site has a lot of overheads in just maintaining itself and the individual re-enactors are unpaid volunteers who are effectively doing a fund raiser for that site. The site managers may have paid somebody to coordinate the re-enactors, but the individual re-enactors are not paid as such. The most we usually get out of it is food while we're on site (and we cook that ourselves, including feasts).
My group do visits to local schools - sometimes unpaid and sometimes paid. Even when we are paid it's something around $100 for six or eight people, which isn't exactly a wage... It usually covers our travel costs and a couple of beers after the event.
At best the level of payment an individual participant can expect from re-enactment is such that it subsidises the cost of your travel to events and a bit towards kit.
There are people who make money out of re-enactment in the UK, but it isn't the re-enactors.

So, what do we get out of it? The enjoyment of history for its own sake; the opportunity to rediscover lost skills and crafts; a chance to educate people (sometimes); oh and the biggest draw of all to the events at historic sites is the chance to be there after 5 o'clock when the public have gone away so we can live the life in a real place for a while.

I'd say the fundamental difference between re-enactment in Europe and re-enactment in places like the US and Australia is that in Europe events tend to tie in to local history and local events. This inherently means local people are likely to be interested in being an audience even if they're not interested in participating.

 
At 4:18 AM, October 12, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm involved in living history in the U.S.; in my experience, most U.S. living history groups do public shows (some, but not all, also do private shows, but there is a strong emphasis on educating the public).

It seems to me as if you're comparing apples to oranges here. It might be more valid to compare U.S. living history to European living history, or U.S. SCA to European SCA.

RC/DP

 
At 4:50 AM, October 12, 2010, Blogger Steve said...

Anonymous@4: I think you've got a point there - re-creation v. re-enactment....

 
At 6:02 AM, October 12, 2010, Blogger knirirr said...

Anonymous 4:18 AM, October 12, 2010 makes a good point; we do have the SCA over here in the UK as well. I've not seen very much in the way of SCA events but from what I have seen they seem to be as you describe for the US.

Nicky's comments about how historic sites operate and events are organised match my experience. I.e., an event organiser might get paid to put on a show to which the re-enactors are invited. One such organiser is Eventplan (but there are others), and their site has an interesting article about re-enactment history in the UK. I, and most re-enactors I know, don't have much to do with schools.

There is also the field of HEMA - Historical European Martial Arts - which is a third activity distinct from re-enactment and SCA. HEMA practitioners' shows tend to be private affairs with little or no emphasis on anything else historical other than fighting, and that using modern safety equipment. here are a couple of examples.

 
At 6:51 AM, October 12, 2010, Blogger dWj said...

I'm heavily involved in Sacred Harp singing, which we take pains to insist is not re-enactment; it's just an old tradition that persists. It involves gathering together and singing -- this coming weekend I'm going to a convention where we'll be singing for about 9 hours, if you subtract out the breaks. Where it's relevant to your post is that it's, similarly, entirely for the participants, a point I have trouble making clear to friends and family who don't do it; grandma will ask about our next "performance", for example. Sometimes people will stop in to listen -- on warm days when we have the doors or windows open, people will often hear us on the street and come in for a look -- and they're always offered a songbook and encouraged to join in (though certainly we allow them just to listen if that's what they prefer).

 
At 8:10 AM, October 12, 2010, Blogger Neolibertarian said...

The organization most similar to the SCA that I know of is the NMLRA, which is an organization devoted to muzzleloading. There are many period gatherings known as rendez-vous which are reenactments of the North American fur trade.

This is US based, and not UK based.

 
At 9:34 AM, October 12, 2010, Blogger Chris Hibbert said...

(US) I recently ran into some folks who do chuck wagon recreation. They're recreating western cattle trail cooking from the 19th century. They certainly do performances for the public (I saw them at a birthday party), but in conversation with the participants, I learned that they do many events on their own, and go to several judged competitions a year. In competitions and festivals, the emphasis is on historical veracity, with points off for parts of the cooking gear, costumes, and wagons that aren't historically accurate, which can mean not hand-made, with the wrong pattern, or in bad repair.

 
At 10:42 AM, October 12, 2010, Anonymous Alfhild said...

My experiences largely match Nicky's. I do have a few comments to add about feasts, though.

It sounds as though the feasting events you've found on websites are designed for the tourist market, and priced accordingly. The average feast by reenactors for reenactors tends to be £10 or so per head, with cooking, entertainment, etc. provided by volunteers from the group in question. It is quite possible to do a 12 course feast for 60 people on £12 a head. I've been to several feasts run by groups other than my own which run to this format, and my own group does several events a year to the same format.

 
At 11:33 AM, October 12, 2010, OpenID hudebnik said...

I don't think this distinction is so much between UK and US, but rather among three very different things: SCA (and relatives), living history, and primarily-commercial establishments like "Medieval Times", which I suspect is where those 270-GBP feasts are coming from.

I've been at dozens of living-history shows in the U.S., and the interpreters are very definitely performing for an audience. A group we know failed to interact adequately with the public: first the other LH groups started grumbling, and then the hosts stopped inviting the group in question to future shows.

Sometimes our LH group gets paid, but the individuals in it don't (except reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses, mostly food). Since the labor is volunteer, our meals cost about as much as an equally-good, equally-authentic SCA feast. I suspect that that's true wherever the food isn't being served to a paying "public", including ACW re-enactors.

Our LH group has frequently done demos (paid or not) for schools, churches, museums, etc.

 
At 1:04 PM, October 12, 2010, Anonymous PeterT said...

While I no nothing about this scene I do have a theory. It is probably not the correct answer, but maybe it could be a contributing factor. The average wage in the US is higher than it is in the UK. Americans are richer on average. It costs money to set up these recreation events (it may well cost more in the UK given our absurd health and safety laws, and I imagine all the inputs into the process are more expensive in the UK). Americans, being richer, can bear these costs, while Britons may not be as able to. Hence the British events may have to raise funds to make ends meet.

 
At 3:52 PM, October 12, 2010, Blogger Curmudgeon said...

There's another factor that might come into play, I think. That is "Is this part of MY history?" The US Civil war is OUR history and we tend to know a lot about it and have seen lots of it in school. European history ... not so much (at least here in the US).

 
At 4:12 PM, October 12, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

"It is quite possible to do a 12 course feast for 60 people on £12 a head."

It's possible here to do it for quite a lot less than that, but my impression is that U.K. food prices are higher than U.S.

Is your 12 course feast medieval or later? So far as I know, the medieval feasts we have records of had two or three courses.

But in any case, it sounds as though something much more like what I am used to is going on in the U.K., just not showing up in my conversation with one reenactor or my web search.

 
At 1:54 PM, October 13, 2010, Blogger Jonathan said...

I haven't been involved in this kind of thing myself, but you may be mildly interested to hear that it's not just an English-speaking thing. My Spanish brother-in-law has for years been involved in the Spanish version of this activity, has laboriously made his own chain mail and participated in mock battles in Spain. As far as I know, it's unpaid and for the benefit of the participants.

 
At 8:33 AM, October 14, 2010, Blogger Genevieve la flechiere said...

I do SCA in the UK, and have toyed with reenactment groups. They are different beasts; but they have a broad overlap, and many of us talk and socialise across groups.

I explain it as distinction of audience, as you have observed: reenactors have signed a contract with English Heritage or equivalent NGO, to provide a 'show' for the public at 10am and 2pm, that will cover X and Y about social history, armoured combat, clothing and food. Payment is modest, in the 'gas money' range.
These groups find that if their focus fits with national curriculum, they are more likely to be hired; similarly, if historic sites can offer displays and materials related to the curriculum, they will get more student visitors.
SCA folk fortunate enough to arrange an event at a historic venue do not offer shows, focused periods or entertainment. We run 'standard' events, working around the public, answer questions as needed, but do not aim to entertain an audience in modern clothes; it's for our own entertainment.
We in the UK have been fortunate enough to run several events at CADW (Wales Heritage) sites. Direct approaches to individual site managers have been successful.

Yes, the best of SCA clothing, food, armour and atmosphere is comperable to the best reenactment. I think European SCA benefits from the crossfertilisation; you can definitely see it in Sweden and Finland, which is less influenced by US expat presence.
Reenactment does offer a high degree of consistency; it's a real pleasure to sit down to a Saxon feast, where *everyone* is dressed appropriately to their rank, and engage in a heated 'in-persona' discussion about religion that would cause real distress in big parts of the SCA.
£270/seat feasts are not reenactment or recreation - they are for-profit 'Ye Olde Time Experience' endeavours.

However, I have found a wide range of interest in non-combat subjects in reenactors.
Some (ex. Saxon, pre-Conquest) find resources for food and drink harder to come by than medieval/post-medieval folk.
Others just aren't interested; they focus on armour, combat, and combat-related clothing. If it's not in their remit or their contract, they may not have the broad interests that the SCA support and indulge.
One other distinction is the 'broad church' of the SCA, which accommodates a range of efforts at pre-17th c clothing, and keeps them reasonably cohesive under one roof. Reenactment groups are very prone to schism, of strong personalities over points of authenticity, and you can have groups as small as 6 people, doing exactly the same thing as the group of 20 down the road, EXCEPT for the style of their doublets... I think the SCA's flexibility and its inclusiveness is its strength in this setting.
Respectfully, E. Brown, London (shire of Thamesreach)

 
At 8:33 AM, October 14, 2010, Blogger Genevieve la flechiere said...

I do SCA in the UK, and have toyed with reenactment groups. They are different beasts; but they have a broad overlap, and many of us talk and socialise across groups.

I explain it as distinction of audience, as you have observed: reenactors have signed a contract with English Heritage or equivalent NGO, to provide a 'show' for the public at 10am and 2pm, that will cover X and Y about social history, armoured combat, clothing and food. Payment is modest, in the 'gas money' range.
These groups find that if their focus fits with national curriculum, they are more likely to be hired; similarly, if historic sites can offer displays and materials related to the curriculum, they will get more student visitors.
SCA folk fortunate enough to arrange an event at a historic venue do not offer shows, focused periods or entertainment. We run 'standard' events, working around the public, answer questions as needed, but do not aim to entertain an audience in modern clothes; it's for our own entertainment.
We in the UK have been fortunate enough to run several events at CADW (Wales Heritage) sites. Direct approaches to individual site managers have been successful.

Yes, the best of SCA clothing, food, armour and atmosphere is comperable to the best reenactment. I think European SCA benefits from the crossfertilisation; you can definitely see it in Sweden and Finland, which is less influenced by US expat presence.
Reenactment does offer a high degree of consistency; it's a real pleasure to sit down to a Saxon feast, where *everyone* is dressed appropriately to their rank, and engage in a heated 'in-persona' discussion about religion that would cause real distress in big parts of the SCA.
£270/seat feasts are not reenactment or recreation - they are for-profit 'Ye Olde Time Experience' endeavours.

However, I have found a wide range of interest in non-combat subjects in reenactors.
Some (ex. Saxon, pre-Conquest) find resources for food and drink harder to come by than medieval/post-medieval folk.
Others just aren't interested; they focus on armour, combat, and combat-related clothing. If it's not in their remit or their contract, they may not have the broad interests that the SCA support and indulge.
One other distinction is the 'broad church' of the SCA, which accommodates a range of efforts at pre-17th c clothing, and keeps them reasonably cohesive under one roof. Reenactment groups are very prone to schism, of strong personalities over points of authenticity, and you can have groups as small as 6 people, doing exactly the same thing as the group of 20 down the road, EXCEPT for the style of their doublets... I think the SCA's flexibility and its inclusiveness is its strength in this setting.
Respectfully, E. Brown, London (shire of Thamesreach)

 
At 8:33 AM, October 14, 2010, Blogger Genevieve la flechiere said...

I do SCA in the UK, and have toyed with reenactment groups. They are different beasts; but they have a broad overlap, and many of us talk and socialise across groups.

I explain it as distinction of audience, as you have observed: reenactors have signed a contract with English Heritage or equivalent NGO, to provide a 'show' for the public at 10am and 2pm, that will cover X and Y about social history, armoured combat, clothing and food. Payment is modest, in the 'gas money' range.
These groups find that if their focus fits with national curriculum, they are more likely to be hired; similarly, if historic sites can offer displays and materials related to the curriculum, they will get more student visitors.
SCA folk fortunate enough to arrange an event at a historic venue do not offer shows, focused periods or entertainment. We run 'standard' events, working around the public, answer questions as needed, but do not aim to entertain an audience in modern clothes; it's for our own entertainment.
We in the UK have been fortunate enough to run several events at CADW (Wales Heritage) sites. Direct approaches to individual site managers have been successful.

Yes, the best of SCA clothing, food, armour and atmosphere is comperable to the best reenactment. I think European SCA benefits from the crossfertilisation; you can definitely see it in Sweden and Finland, which is less influenced by US expat presence.
Reenactment does offer a high degree of consistency; it's a real pleasure to sit down to a Saxon feast, where *everyone* is dressed appropriately to their rank, and engage in a heated 'in-persona' discussion about religion that would cause real distress in big parts of the SCA.
£270/seat feasts are not reenactment or recreation - they are for-profit 'Ye Olde Time Experience' endeavours.

However, I have found a wide range of interest in non-combat subjects in reenactors.
Some (ex. Saxon, pre-Conquest) find resources for food and drink harder to come by than medieval/post-medieval folk.
Others just aren't interested; they focus on armour, combat, and combat-related clothing. If it's not in their remit or their contract, they may not have the broad interests that the SCA support and indulge.
One other distinction is the 'broad church' of the SCA, which accommodates a range of efforts at pre-17th c clothing, and keeps them reasonably cohesive under one roof. Reenactment groups are very prone to schism, of strong personalities over points of authenticity, and you can have groups as small as 6 people, doing exactly the same thing as the group of 20 down the road, EXCEPT for the style of their doublets... I think the SCA's flexibility and its inclusiveness is its strength in this setting.
Respectfully, E. Brown, London (shire of Thamesreach)

 

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