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Opinions on the Definition of Reenactment
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Jim Jacobs
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 15, 2009 8:39 pm    Post subject: Opinions on the Definition of Reenactment Reply with quote

Stemming from an amicable debate I had last Spring with someone about using the dictionary definition of reenactment to describe non-costumed and/or short-term attempts at replicating period processes and activities.

The definition, from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition....

re·en·act also re-en·act (rē'ěn-ākt', -ə-nākt')
tr.v. re·en·act·ed also re-en·act·ed, re·en·act·ing also re-en·act·ing, re·en·acts also re-en·acts

1. To enact again: reenact a law.
2. To perform again: reenact the first two scenes.
3. To go through a second time: reenacted the events leading up to the accident.

re'en·act'ment n.



Do you think it's valid to describe undertaking a historical activity, short-term, apart from a complete 1st person presentation, and for the express purpose of learning a specific historical process or activity, as historical reenactment?

My own thoughts on this is that often we get so wrapped up in semantics that we lose site of our ultimate purposes and goals, isn't it more accurate to break the term "reenactment" down by different approaches, and that if we had to limit our reenactment activities to only those times when we were able to do so as part of a complete persona wouldn't we be requiring that everyone began reenacting fully formed? Isn't what we do at social events (Fairs, scouts, school presentations etc.) a "test" and what we do apart from that homework, but all falling under the umbrella term of reenactment?
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Rod L
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Location: the Forks of the Yellowstone and Missouri
Real Name: Rod Lassey

PostPosted: Mon Nov 16, 2009 12:52 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think it's a valid point. While it would be nice to be totally outfitted in correct clothing, gear, etc., while learning a particular skill, often it isn't possible---for instance, many times I will just grab my rifle and truck and head for the hills. While taking the time to be completely oufitted would greatly enhance the experience, often I don't have the time to do so.

Being able to practice a historical skill, be it cooking in the wilderness or one's backyard, pitching up a shelter outside the house and sleeping out with the kids or pitching the same shelter miles from anyone---you'll still learn something. As long as you approach what you are doing with a historical mindset, appropriate materials, and use historical techniques,--all based on plenty of research, of course-- you will come away from that knowing something of the time period and skill that you are engaged in.

Being able to put those techniques and skills to use in a historically correct enviroment, with clothing and gear as correct as you can make it at the time, is the icing on the cake.

Rod

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Pit
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2009 2:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Most of the time we dont reenact anything.two men are learning to skin a beaver.Man 1 is dressed in period proper fashion and using only well researched and created tools.Man 2 is using the exact same tools as Man 1 but Man 2 is wearing the same cloths he wears everyday in the 21st century.Who in your opinion reenacted the process of skinning a beaver?In my opinion they both did.Both have the same data just one has patina on his period clothes.

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Jim Jacobs
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2009 8:38 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you gentlemen. I appreciate your input, and your willingness to discuss this issue directly instead of taking it elsewhere.

This is something that I've always taken for granted, starting with my earliest attempts at making fire with flint and steel, but I never thought much about it until I began the 18th century gardening in earnest. In every way possible I've worked to replicate the processes of period gardening, from planting period heirlooms with period tools, to foregoing the use of modern pesticides, herbicides and irrigation techniques, and right down to harvesting and processing my garden produce in a period proper way. At times I do work in the garden in my period clothes, but most of the time I'm in blue jeans or overalls and such. I've found though that the times I do work in period clothes I'm focused less on the garden, what I'm doing with it and how it's doing, and more on the way the clothing behaves or looks and the patina it's taking on. In other words the focus shifts away from the 18th century garden to the veneer of 18th century fashion. Now there's nothing wrong with that, IF the information you're after is all about 18th century clothes, but the point is, the way I dress has no effect whatsoever on what I learn about 18th century crops , garden tools and the nature of 18th century gardening. I couldn't possibly be reenacting that aspect of the 18th century more if I was in complete persona every time I stepped into the garden, and if I've only got 2 or 3 hours every evening to devote to my study of the garden it's actually an unnecessary waste of valuable time to dress out beforehand. So, am I reenacting any less when I don't?

(I will add though, that once I'm satisfied that I've "plateaued" in my understanding of the period garden itself, I will begin tieing that in with further study on period farming/gardening clothing, by way of taking the generalist approach and fleshing out my understanding and look of the persona. All things in their due time.)

Again, thank you gentlemen, and I'd really like to hear from others too on this and other topics that I post. I'm not a troll, I don't bite, and I'd like to cultivate some friendships here, and learn a few things while I'm at it.
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Jim Jacobs
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 17, 2009 9:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Actually, on the semantics end of things, I think this issue goes to the core difference between "Reenactment" and "Living History". Reenactment is a tool used in Living History. You can't be a Living Historian without Reenacting, but you can Reenact without being a Living Historian.
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Rod L
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Real Name: Rod Lassey

PostPosted: Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Very true---I think the depth of understanding gained by doing a particular occupation in a historically correct manner adds tremendously to the overall impression, or persona. Even if you are doing something completely different in a reenactment, that depth of understanding--or background information- will greatly enhance the reenactment. In other words, you will begin to think in a way that reflects your persona's chosen occupation.

You mentioned the historical garden. Do it enough, get totally familiar with the methods of a subsistence farmer of the period----and when you go to a reenactment you will have the attitudes and demeanor of a farmer. Which will be different from the guy who's a soldier or a clerk, etc.

I mention farming because it's what I'm familiar with, and what I do for a living. I compare my modern-day farmer's mindset with my friends who live in town--and note the differences. I don't understand their complusion to mow their lawns in town (why bother? I seldom do), while they don't understand why I can't take a day off from harvest (surely it'll wait? No, it won't). The same differences in mindset existed back then, too. The degree may be different--people were more involved in agriculture at the time than now--but those differences were still there.

It would be interesting to see--for me, anyway--a reenactment of a civilian militia muster where most of the civilians didn't show up, because they were back on the farm harvesting. Or an army depleted by desertion for the same reason. Probably wouldn't go over too well today--and it didn't back then, either, but would be appropriate. And the military commander wouldn't necessarily understand why they left---he'd know the reason, but "Couldn't they wait just a couple of more weeks?" --no, they can't.

Thus, while at a reeactment of a militia muster, the mindset of the person portraying a farmer would probably be more on planting or harvesting than on learning the proper drill--his mind would be elsewhere. While it may make for sloppy drill, it would, however, be correct. And, in the end, contribute to the overall believabilty of the persona.

Hope all this rambling makes sense--it's a quarter after midnight as I'm typing this--if it doesn't, I'll blame it on lack of sleep caused by those good questions and comments of Mr. Jacobs. You've made me think, Sir!

Rod

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Pit
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 18, 2009 2:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

All of what we do is symantics.Call it reenacting or living history interpretation.The bar is set by the individual or group.It also comes down to your specific interest.Im just the wierd nieghbor that does some odd but neat stuff.Do I need to go in further than that?No,I choose to.Reenacting is a place in time.Living History is a life in time.

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Jim Jacobs
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 19, 2009 10:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Rod L wrote:
Very true---I think the depth of understanding gained by doing a particular occupation in a historically correct manner adds tremendously to the overall impression, or persona. Even if you are doing something completely different in a reenactment, that depth of understanding--or background information- will greatly enhance the reenactment. In other words, you will begin to think in a way that reflects your persona's chosen occupation.

You mentioned the historical garden. Do it enough, get totally familiar with the methods of a subsistence farmer of the period----and when you go to a reenactment you will have the attitudes and demeanor of a farmer. Which will be different from the guy who's a soldier or a clerk, etc.

I mention farming because it's what I'm familiar with, and what I do for a living. I compare my modern-day farmer's mindset with my friends who live in town--and note the differences. I don't understand their complusion to mow their lawns in town (why bother? I seldom do), while they don't understand why I can't take a day off from harvest (surely it'll wait? No, it won't). The same differences in mindset existed back then, too. The degree may be different--people were more involved in agriculture at the time than now--but those differences were still there.

It would be interesting to see--for me, anyway--a reenactment of a civilian militia muster where most of the civilians didn't show up, because they were back on the farm harvesting. Or an army depleted by desertion for the same reason. Probably wouldn't go over too well today--and it didn't back then, either, but would be appropriate. And the military commander wouldn't necessarily understand why they left---he'd know the reason, but "Couldn't they wait just a couple of more weeks?" --no, they can't.

Thus, while at a reeactment of a militia muster, the mindset of the person portraying a farmer would probably be more on planting or harvesting than on learning the proper drill--his mind would be elsewhere. While it may make for sloppy drill, it would, however, be correct. And, in the end, contribute to the overall believabilty of the persona.

Hope all this rambling makes sense--it's a quarter after midnight as I'm typing this--if it doesn't, I'll blame it on lack of sleep caused by those good questions and comments of Mr. Jacobs. You've made me think, Sir!

Rod

Funny, Rod. You portray a merchant and come from a farming background. I'm currently interested in portraying a farmer and come from a merchant background. There's something to be said for novelty too I guess. I think though that you illustrate very well the best reasons for getting/having some good, hard practical experience in the many facets of your persona's world. Reenact from the inside out.

Pit....could be. I do see reenactment as a Living History tool, but you can call a Living Historian a Reenactor the same way you can call a Farmer a Plowman. I'm not one to get too hung up on semantics myself though, I know what I mean, but then misunderstandings continually call for hashing out the language.
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Jim Jacobs
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 19, 2009 10:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Funny, Rod. You portray a merchant and come from a farming background. I'm currently interested in portraying a farmer and come from a merchant background. There's something to be said for novelty too I guess. I think though that you illustrate very well the best reasons for getting/having some good, hard practical experience in the many facets of your persona's world. Reenact from the inside out.

Pit....could be. I do see reenactment as a Living History tool, but you can call a Living Historian a Reenactor the same way you can call a Farmer a Plowman. I'm not one to get too hung up on semantics myself though, I know what I mean, but then misunderstandings continually call for hashing out the language. ; )
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red squirrel
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PostPosted: Wed Dec 09, 2009 12:58 pm    Post subject: opinions on the definition of reenactment Reply with quote

Interesting topic. I remember as a young lad after studying a buckskinning book, starting a fire with flint and steel, and a little gun powder on the back porch of my parents house. Couldnt have been more than about 13 years old. It worked but my eyebrows were not the same for a few weeks. I was not in period cloths, but using period tools and products, and information from a historical resource. I my mind I was reenacting a historical event. Although I havnt run across any documentation of this happening to anyone in history books or journals, I feel like it very much could have. I remember thinking I could relate to some young lad like me, or some oldtimer who couldnt quite see how much powder he had applied, and was too embarassed to write it in his journal.
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Jim Jacobs
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PostPosted: Sun Dec 13, 2009 9:07 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

That's funny Simeon. I did the same thing one winter right after I'd learned flint and steel. Blew my tinder and kindling to the four winds and I lost some of my eye brows lashes.

Things like this go to the question of whether we can apply our own common sense in understanding the past. I think to a certain extent you can, but you have to research to learn where those limits are, and I've come to believe by listening to the school that says it can't be done that it's best to use common sense and personal experience only as only a lead that points up a possibility that the your own experience or common sense can be verified by documentation. In other words, when it seems likely by our own logic that something may have occurred in the past it serves to alert us to be on the lookout for the documentation to prove or disprove it.

One experience I had might be another good example. One night years ago when I was first getting started I camping alone, late at night sitting next to a good fire, when my dog's ears perked up and he peered into the woods, bared his teeth and began the low growl he reserved for intruders. Then I heard the bolt to an automatic rifle go home out in the woods, and my dog went into full attack mode. I then went with my first gut reaction, which was to kick the fire out, grab my gun and back off into the dark woods and tree up and watch and listen, and that's where I stayed through the rest of the night. At length my dog returned and I allowed myself to doze, and at daybreak I investigated the area but found nothing but a few possible foot prints, then stoked the fire and sat there pondering the incident. Anyway, I came out of the woods feeling like I'd had a real historical experience, and common sense told me so, but in truth at that time I had no hard documentation to back it up. As I got more serious about reenacting though the documentation became more important, and while I didn't actually set out to document my experience I did keep my eyes peeled, and lo and behold I finally stumbled across the documentation.

So yeah, I think you can and should use common sense in historical research, but generally only as a prompt or lead toward finding the hard data to back it up. You gotta know what questions to ask.
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Loyalist Dave
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 17, 2009 11:33 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Um actually out here on the East Coast from what I've experienced in the past 20 years, if you say to a person who does living history, or to a person who does not, that you are going to a reenactment they generally understand you to be going to a "battle reenactment" for public viewing, and if not, a representation of some significant historic event, i.e. the surrender at Appomatox, or the landing on Plymouth Rock for public viewing. If you say you do living history it is understood that you dress appropriately (or try) to a specific era, and either speak about that era or demonstrate a skill or craft from that era for the general public. You will find places where the skill or craft is demonstrated for the public and the folks that do the demo are in modern clothes, and that is sometimes considered "living history", but is usually called a historic demonstration. Sometimes with modern clothes it is called historic archaeology especially if the folks are trying to decipher how some old technique or method produced a result, and the sources for the procedure are a bit cryptic.

So if you are the blacksmith at a site, then you'd be a Living Historian, or Living History Demonstrator. If you tell folks about the site, you're a Living History Interpreter. If you're appearing in a presentation of a past battle and they are firing blanks..., you are a reenactor.

It's not so much symantics as just the customary understanding of the terms out here.

LD

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Quartermaster James
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 17, 2009 12:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was just now reading through this thread and getting ready to post something when I got to LD's post and read that he had written pretty much what I was going to say.

Maybe it's just semantics, but IMHO to reenact requires a previous act. How general or specific that is seems to be the turning point of this discussion. Is starting a fire by flint and steel truly or hunting with 18th century kit reenacting or is it acting? For me, they're just actions I do. I may do them as they were done by many before me, but unless I am portraying a specific person that existed in a specific time and place (not something I do, BTW), I am acting, not reenacting.

I think what confuses the discussion sometimes is the sense of timelessness that can accompany ritual and tradition. It is easy to lose contemporary context, well at least until a plane flies overhead, and it is easy to romanticize about doing things they way they were done by so many before us in days gone by. Neither, however, makes us those people: we are our own performing our own acts.

As to LD's definitions: I'll say they run the same here on the west coast. Battles are reenactments, &c.
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Jim Jacobs
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 18, 2009 5:33 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I've only got a few minutes to comment right now, but I'll try and add more later.

I do think having common definitions is important, particularly if you're an event organizer, but it's been my observation in my part of the country that the words "reenactment" and "reenactor" are used more loosely than they apparently are on the East and West coasts, judging from your comments. They're most often used, in casual conversation anyway, as blanket terms that can mean any or all of the activities you've mentioned, depending on who you talk to, as I found out from the conversation I had with my friend last Spring. Her definition seemed to rest on whether or not period clothing was worn while discussing or demonstrating a period skill. Mine, as noted, has for awhile rested on more of a dictionary meaning, and both are completely different than the definitions you gentlemen have given.

Also, by the definitions you've given here, I would say that most battle reenactments I've seen would actually be more accurately termed battle demonstrations. As often as not they merely present period tactics in a fictional and generic battle scenario, at least in this part of the country.

Thank you for your input gentlemen. This is the whole reason I brought the subject up. It's useful to have a common understanding.
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Loyalist Dave
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:47 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

That's interesting, for if you do a battle demonstration or a tactical demonstration, where I am located, you are most likely at an NPS site, and you are forbidden from have forces oppose each other. So you simply show the crowd what they did when fighting. When we do a reenactment we actually try to do the tactics and positions of an actual battle, even if the battle ground itself is not the original location.

BTW a reenactor is wide range of folks, some who are very knowledgeable about the time period and the tech, and some who like to simply play the part of the soldier or militia person, and then go to the hotel for a hot meal, shower, and TV (aka Ramada Rangers). Where I am if you are doing living history, you get much more in depth (all else being equal) and you are much better skilled and much more well versed in the tech and the time period. It's one thing to have the correct uniform, follow the commands, and operate the musket, and it's much more to be able to argue the politics of the time period, while lighting a fire and making a pair of mocs as they would have.

LD

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