By Brenda Black
Several times a year I camp out at medieval festivals, trying to live the way people did a millennium ago. It’s a far cry from authentic in many ways, particularly in respect to hygiene: we have our treated water and container toilets and our food, although cooked over a fire, mostly comes from the grocery store. (None of us particularly wish to contract cholera, and, unfortunately, few festivals include an on-site farm from which to harvest our own food.)
Yet, authentic or not, there is a lesson here that I think is valuable. It’s not just the opportunity to slow down and live for a few days according to a different rhythm, one in which the unyielding measure of minutes and hours is missing. It’s not just an escape from the stress of modern life (yet another essay to be corrected, another deadline to be met). It’s the door it opens for reflection upon life in the past: it is a lesson about how we interact with the world we live in.
Ehrenberg Medieval Camp.
I came to reenactment through my interest in textile arts. I confess that when I first started researching and making medieval clothing, I approached it in a very modern manner: as a craftsmanship challenge. Does it fit? Does it look good? Is it supported by the archaeological evidence? How close can I get to medieval clothing using modern, factory-produced fabric?
The first event I participated in—it rained for three days—pointed out that I had forgotten something: it’s not enough to sew a garment that merely looks right. Clothing was something people lived and worked in, and it had to keep them warm and protect them from the weather. And weather wasn’t something you could just go inside and escape from, you couldn’t just throw your tunic in the washing machine and put on something else when it was wet and muddy.
Rain at Hedeby Viking Camp, Schleswig, Germany. © kai-erik via Flickr.
This isn’t an earthshaking insight, but it revealed something important: the tremendous gap between our lives today and the world of the early Middle Ages. One thing that has dramatically changed is our relationship with nature—not just our ideas about it, but our very experience of it at the most visceral level. For the modern city-dweller, contact with nature tends to be highly mediated: we put on a jacket when it’s cold and wet outside, wade through fallen leaves in the autumn, get excited about strawberries and asparagus in the spring, and go wandering through the Englischer Garten after work. All the same, we are able to largely seal ourselves off from wind and weather, heating and electric lighting blurs the passage of the seasons, and global transport means that most foods are available in the grocery store year round, whenever we want. “Nature” is, on the whole, something we go to visit, whether this is a city park or a carefully planned vacation in the wilderness of the Alps.
Hedeby Viking Camp, Schleswig, Germany. © kai-erik via Flickr.
For me, medieval reenactment is less a return to some mythical simpler life “close to nature” (life in the early Middle Ages was incredibly hard work) and more a reminder that nature has never gone anywhere; our interaction with it has merely become less direct. In a tent in a field on the grounds of a medieval castle, nature is suddenly no longer optional: it is trying to figure out how to stay dry and warm when you’re ankle-deep in mud and rubber hasn’t been invented yet. It is spiders and slugs in your bedding, mice in your food stores, and wasps at the dinner table. It is the countless challenges of everyday life, which suddenly have to be solved using nothing but limited resources and your own ingenuity: heat, shelter, clothing, food. None of these basic needs have changed. What has changed is the way we relate to them. Today, the material world is something we largely take for granted, and we don’t have to think about how the objects that make up our lives came to be there.
Reenactment is also a constant reminder of how much knowledge has been lost, and how much our understanding of the past requires grappling with the reality of everyday life in a world built according to very different principles than it is today. To give a concrete example, consider a recent project by a Danish museum to create a linen tunic entirely using techniques and technology of the early Middle Ages. They calculated that it required over 300 hours of labor to make the tunic, including planting, harvesting, and preparing the flax, spinning the thread, and weaving and sewing the garment. Compare this with the skills of the average middle-class central European or North American citizen. How many of us even know how to sew? How many of us have ever used a loom, or understand how a spinning wheel works? How many of us would recognize a flax plant if we saw one?
Or consider something apparently as simple as trying to cook a meal using medieval ingredients. Although the most of the staples that existed back then are basically still the same today, cooking is nevertheless a lesson in how much has changed. We start by eliminating two New World imports, potatoes and tomatoes. But this is just the beginning: Some foods that did exist have changed substantially (medieval carrots, for example, were purple or white, but not orange); many others are entirely absent from the average grocery store shelf: chickweed, angelica, endives, goosefoot; buckthorn berries, bilberries, hawthorn berries. Once resources, today they have become little more than plants in a landscape.
The attempt to be authentic is at once a demonstration that authenticity is not really possible, for our reconstruction of the past is necessarily partial and incomplete, shaped by the conditions today that are so vastly different than those of the past.
But there is value in experience: it takes something most of us know in the abstract and makes it tangible, undeniable (“hautnah”—we feel it on our skin—as the Germans would say). Instead of looking at history from above, at the broad sweep of change and market forces and politics and innovation, reenactment puts us back on the ground, it asks us to reconsider the connections between our lives and the choices we make.