Monday, May 29, 2017

Living History and One-sided Perceptions of the Past, Pt. 1

Well hey there.

A lot has been on my mind in the last few weeks, and I vented some of it out in two videos. If you haven't seen them yet, here they are.

As someone within the Living History realm, I can say that it has been a truly great time and I have met/am meeting a lot of awesome people from whom I continue to learn much from. Though in addition to that, I view it as a sort of responsibility, one that involves giving the public an accurate (or as accurate as possible) and well-rounded account of historical events. Much of this is heavily weighed upon portrayals of the different types of individuals that lived throughout the ages. When a visitor comes to a historical site it is up to those working it to try and convey this and encourage said visitor to adopt an appreciation for those that came before them.
Historical reenactment extends far beyond dressing up in a 'pretty costume' (sometimes they're not so pretty, depending on who you are portraying), and it certainly isn't talking in the old stereotypical 'Shakespearean accent'. Nor is it shrieking "witchcraft!!!" when a visitor takes out his/her cell phone (sadly, that is something I have witnessed...I died a little inside that day...). In other words, turning your persona into a caricature (please, just don't).
Now I know some might be thinking 'but isn't that how someone from 200+ years ago would have reacted to modern technology?' My answer is that some might have, yes. But there are others that would have regarded it with more intrigue than fright and condemnation. In one of the debunked myths in Mary Miley Theobald's book, Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, just how superstitious those in early America might have been varied. Not everyone was dead against new science and inventions (look at Ben Franklin and the American Enlightenment, for one) and not everyone was highly superstitious. On a side note, the Medievalist also has an article theorizing five things medieval people would hate about the modern world. It's a pretty good article, so check it out. :)

Five Things Medieval People would Hate About the Modern World

Like with most things, how new inventions were perceived varied depending on ethnic group, religious affiliation, geographic region, etc. Therefore, if you are going to portray someone who would jump around screaming every time a cell phone or other technological device was taken out, really think about why your person would do that. Is it their religious background (very likely)? Or the overall customs of his or her ethnic group (perhaps)? Perhaps your person is from a remote area and hasn't been exposed to much beyond the ways of his or her family. REALLY think about these things, along with how they might react to someone from their era who is of a more scientific mind and might not freak out so much upon seeing a modern cell phone (or any new invention from their respected time period, for that matter). With these in mind, your portrayal will come across as more honest as opposed to a comical caricature that will leave your visitors with little to no respect or understanding of our predecessors.
In addition, if your persona is one who would be more intrigued than frightened by a technological device, give the visitor you are communicating with a little of your background that might indicate why you are not reacting as your modern guest might expect. Most reenactors I've come in contact with just ignore tech devices altogether, but if you are going to react, whether with fright or intrigue, research why your persona might react as he or she may. Really research the religious beliefs, or even non-religious beliefs (because there were non-religious people in early America) of your area and what they were. If it were me, I would also refrain from speaking of supposedly held superstitions until you find evidence that the groups of your chosen persona actually did believe in such things (through research, you'd be surprised at what was actually believed and not believed...and sometimes it isn't what you might think).
This is not to say that someone who knows little to nothing about history but is still interested in getting involved with Living History can't get involved. By all means, join us. The more the merrier. When I got involved with living history, I was already into history, though there is much I learned since doing this. What's important is that you at least come in with a willingness to learn and maybe get with a more experienced reenactor. Let them do most of the talking to visitors, at least at first. Take in what they are saying and research those things on your own time. Think about what you might want to portray and also research that. Ideally, first and secondary sources are most ideal. Firsthand sources are the documents, journals, books, and things that were written within the respected time period. Secondary sources might be a textbook that cites original documents, journals, etc. There are also third sources that cite secondary sources that can be pretty good. Many also turn to the internet.
Now I do know a few reenactors that completely dismiss the internet as far as research goes. I don't completely agree with this. I think there are good blogs and websites that can point one in the right direction, though being aware of the bogus information out there is also of importance. It can seem like a lot of pressure, but doing the research and allowing yourself down that rabbit hole can be a lot of fun. The more you learn, the more you really want to learn.
With that said, I see a rather troubling trend of falling into the one-sided historical view trap. I don't think this is anything new but as I delve deeper, I am able to see all that was taking place and stories that can be lost if they are not told. I have seen many going the 'easy route' and us female interpreters tend to be great culprits of this.
In the two above vlogs, I discuss a video put out by the Jas, Townsend & Son YouTube Channel. The video in question is called A 19th Century Housewife. It features a woman by the name of Kim McCann portraying a woman called Lucinda Barker.
Lucinda is a housewife on a 19th century prairie who is not only dedicated to being a homemaker, but she is also decidedly illiterate. The way Lucinda is portrayed, I would also say that she is very much set in her ways, not to mention very unapologetic. From a modern perspective, and likely from the perspective of a more educated woman of her era, Lucinda is one to be pitied for being 'denied the opportunity for education'. However, someone like Lucinda might not see it that way and also might even be insulted upon such an insinuation.
Now compare a Lucinda to someone like my 18th century/Rev War era persona, Sadie Miller. Sadie was born and raised in Philadelphia. She is educated, higher class, and went to be a schoolmarm in the small frontier town of Talley Cavey. Meanwhile, her fiance Joshua is stationed near the Talley Cavey area in the militia. After they get married, Sadie will be helping his family run their printing press (many women of the 18th century were prominent members of the press...this is explained in an article from the Colonial Williamsburg site titled "Gentlewomen of the Press"):

In the second video, I make suggestions on how a Lucinda Barker and Sadie Miller can work well together on a living history site.
What gets me, though, is how people happily and indignantly comment on videos like the 19th Century Housewife with their one-sided views of not only history, but also those that lived back then, including someone like Lucinda. And anytime someone posts a link offering a differing viewpoint, the other commenters either don't reply or get really defensive, dismiss it as false without even looking into it and refuse to debate it on an intellectual level. Personally, I like how Kim portrays Lucinda as unapologetic, someone who might look at someone like Sadie Miller and think that not only is she out of her mind, but that her fiance is out of his mind for allowing her to do such things. She might not see any need for a schoolmarm and she also might wonder what Joshua's family is thinking in allowing her to work with them at their press. She might look at all women doing what Sadie is doing and think that they are ruining their lives. Meanwhile, someone like Sadie might look at Lucinda and think her a simpleton, though Lucinda, in some ways, might be more intelligent than a Sadie Miller (and vice versa), despite the lack of formal education. And there is something to be said about that.
No, I am not saying don't get an education, but I will also suggest looking into ancient civilizations like the Mayans, the Aztecs and all they were able to do without a formal education as we know it today. Should those ancient indigenous tribes be 'pitied' because they didn't have access to formal education? Or were they educated in a way that was valuable to their particular culture and area in which they lived? The same question can be asked about a Lucinda Barker as well as a Sadie Miller. I was talking to a friend the other day about the ancient world and how many tend to view the ancient world in a rather homogenous way despite that fact that each ancient civilization had their own culture and way of life, whether we speak of the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Norse, Balkans, and others. I plan to delve further into this in a future blogpost.
As far as women and living history go, I would suggest, along with looking into a Lucinda Barker, looking at the female blacksmiths or women like Penelope Barker, Flora MacDonald, Charlotte Corday, Clementina Rind, Christiana Campbell, Nancy Morgan Hart, Elizabeth Glover, Elizabeth Timothy, Cornelia Bradford, and many more. Look at all of them and think about how you can offer a well-rounded view of history to potential visitors to your historic site. If there are already plenty of Lucinda Barkers at your living history site, maybe look into being a Nancy Morgan Hart. Of course, you would have to think about how she might fit in (or not) into the given area and any traditions of those of the town your site portrays and research that, but the end result of having a well-rounded and well-developed persona is extremely rewarding, particularly when your persona starts relating with others in the village. And when you speak with visitors and see the impact it has on them, it is just that amazing.

I will be continuing with this in my future blogposts. I will be doing another women in history blogpost, then delving more into the ancient world, their cultures and contributions, the roles of men and women, and such traditions of Ostara, Mabon, and Imbolc, along with raising your vibrations and how it ties into all this. There is much more to come. :)

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