Looking Forward to the Past

By Mike Sutton

image003Nostalgia for an idealized vision of the past has been a potent cultural force for centuries. It drives many communities to   celebrate their history (or an imaginative reconstruction of it) by re-enacting past events or ancient rituals. These performances often arouse intense passions locally – as happens with the Palio in Siena, or Bonfire Night in Lewes. Early settlers in the New World also felt this impulse. In Massachusetts, on May Day 1627, Thomas Morton organised “revels and merriment after the old English custom” to encourage solidarity among the colonists and promote better relations with local natives.

Having brewed “a barrel of excellent beer” and provided “a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day” the revellers erected their May Pole – “a goodly pine tree of 80 foot long … with a pair of buck’s horns nailed on somewhat near unto the top of it.” According to Morton’s account of the event in his New English Canaan (1637) a good time was had by all – except the local Puritans.

The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise Separatists that lived at New Plimouth. They termed it an Idol; yea, they called it the Calf of Horeb and stood in defiance at the place, naming it Mount Dagon…

Morton later claimed that the colony’s ruling elite had used this incident as a pretext to shut down his business, and gain a monopoly of the lucrative beaver pelt trade. Till then, Morton had been prospering as an independent trader, possibly due to his amicable relations with the Native Americans. Whatever their real motives were, by September 1628 the Puritans had expelled him from the colony and destroyed his maypole.

Despite this inauspicious precedent, historical pageants, re-enactments and festivities have long remained popular recreational activities in the USA. Mediaeval tournaments, Renaissance fairs, May Day revels, Dickensian Christmas feasts and Jane Austen-themed formal balls are now a significant sector of the leisure industry. Meanwhile, persons of a belligerent disposition re-enact battles from a wide variety of historical periods – including conflicts from America’s own Revolutionary and Civil Wars, sometimes on their original sites.

Voluntary associations promote and co-ordinate historical re-enactment events all over the USA. One of the largest is the Society for Creative Anachronism, founded in Berkeley, California in 1966, which now has active groups in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in most regions of the US and Canada. The SCA boasts around 30,000 full members, and a similar number of non-members also participate in its activities. Their main focus is the celebration of Medieval and Renaissance European culture, though many individual members also venture into other periods.

While visiting Californian friends in April 2013, I met some SCA members who share a particular interest in historic dances – amongst numerous other enthusiasms. The introduction came through Karen, a long-time SCA member who specialises in traditional calligraphy. Her husband Chaz (a professional author, and a frequent guest speaker at science fiction and fantasy conventions) is also deeply interested in things historical. This is not an unusual combination – many American historical re-enactors are also SF and fantasy fans, with Doctor Who and Harry Potter pimage005articular favourites.

Early one Wednesday evening, we drove from Chaz and Karen’s home in Sunnyvale to the dance group’s weekly practice in San José. In a spacious suburban lounge they were put through their paces by Matt, their instructor, assisted by Elizabeth on the violin. The dances – mostly taken from John Playford’s English Dancing Master (1651) or the Orchésographie of Thonoit Arbeau (1589) – were performed energetically, but very tidily.

Cyn, our hostess for the evening, offered beverages and banter during breaks in the action, but although the atmosphere was light-hearted, the dances were clearly being taken seriously by all participants. They encouraged me to join in some of them, and as a thank-you I taught them a Northumbrian-style step-hop dance, which they picked rapidly. When the practice ended, everyone migrated to a nearby pizzeria and bar.

Some wanted a full meal, having come directly to the meeting from work, but the evening’s exertions had left the rest of us eager for drinks, snacks and gossip. Everyone around the table was keen to volunteer information about their engagement with the SCA. Several of them also had experience of re-enactments from outside the SCA’s chronological remit – including World War Two and American Civil War battles, and Dickens and Austen themed events.

They agreed that a minority treated these events simply as opportunities to dress up, fire off blank cartridges, and then socialise over a few drinks. But they also stressed that for most participants (and spectators) re-enactments are a valuable aid to understanding their own history – and other people’s too. I was assured that while many Asian-Americans attend Regency costume balls, quite a few Anglo-Americans enjoy dressing up as Samurai or Geishas, and a number of African-Americans participate enthusiastically in Viking battles.

There was a strong consensus that whatever else you hope to achieve in this activity, it ought to be fun – and general agreement that while striving for authenticity is a good thing, it can sometimes be overdone. On the one hand, they said, you shouldn’t turn up to a Regency assembly in tennis shoes. But on the other hand, infecting yourself with dysentery before re-enacting a Civil War battle takes ‘sharing the experience’ a little too far!

Nevertheless, when re-enactments are run as commercial enterprises, there is considerable pressure to maintain the illusion of a fully revived past. One female SCA member who had worked at the Williamsburg heritage site recalled that there “you don’t step out of period unless your hair is on fire”. But although they mocked fanatics who pursue authenticity to absurd extremes, all of them were committed to reproducing the relevant details of dress, deportment, music and dance as accurately as possible – within reason.

Most voices around the table were optimistic about the current state of the historical re-enactment movement. However, there were a few complaints about the excessive commercialisation of some events. Massive ‘craft fairs’ are often attached to them, and there is sometimes a rather heavy-handed emphasis on boosting local tourism. But throughout the evening the mood of the discussion seemed very positive, and the enthusiasm (and expertise) of the participants was obvious.

When Karen, Chaz and I had to leave for home, the party was still going on, and the reckoning as yet unpaid. As we exchaimage001nged farewells, I offered a contribution towards the bill, but was told “don’t worry about that – Karen will explain”. In the car, she told me: “They all have pretty good jobs, so every week one them just picks up the check – for them, it’s no big deal.” The cost of beer, wine, pizzas and snacks for the table (plus tax and tips) must have come to around 200 dollars. If that was no big deal for them, Silicon Valley’s re-enactors are clearly doing well.

Karen drove us back to Sunnyvale along El Camino Real, which follows the route of the Royal Highway established when California still belonged to Spain. Its significance as a transport artery has declined recently, as a nearby modern freeway now takes most of the through traffic. Instead, El Camino has become a monster strip-mall, with mile after mile of neon-lit bars, restaurants and stores – everything from massive car dealerships and furniture emporia to tiny fast-food outlets.

Several ethnic communities cluster along it, and Karen warned me to look out for ‘Little Korea’, and ‘Little India’. Spotting them was not difficult. Most of their shop and restaurant signs were bi-lingual – chunky Korean ideograms in one case, and curly Indian scripts in the other. I wondered idly if any of their staff (or customers) were interested in historical re-enactments, and if so, what kind they preferred.

At home, Karen used a tablet computer to show me a sample of her own craft work. It was a beautiful piece of calligraphy, done as a wedding gift for a couple of friends. She had prepared the ink and the parchment using traditional methods, and cut a suitable feather to make a quill pen for the job. After gazing admiringly but uncomprehendingly at the beautiful lettering, I confessed that the language and the script were unfamiliar to me. Karen replied: “It’s the Lord’s Prayer – in Klingon.”

California, I love you!

 

Further Information

Murphy, Edith, entry ‘Morton, Thomas’ in New Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, ongoing

Rubin, Rachel Lee, Well Met: Renaissance faires and the American counter-culture, New York University Press, 2013

Web Site: Society for Creative Anachronism