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.