Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living History


Summer is now upon us and that means a plethora of outdoor events at historical sites around Europe and North America. The Ermine Street Guard and Antonine Guard in the UK as well as other Roman re-enactment groups will be out in force to dazzle spectators with precise military formations, cavalry tactics, firing of ballista bolts and replicas of everyday items Romans would have used. Members of The Society for Creative Anachronism will be touring the Renaissance Fair circuit entertaining fair goers, trading goods and washing down greasy turkey legs with pints of frothy ale. English and American civil groups will be re-enacting famous battles etc. etc. Every period of history has its own fans and enthusiasts who go that extra league to immerse themselves in an era for which they likely feel they are better suited than our current one.

These events and displays are usually a great time and in some cases highly educational. Re-enactments can stimulate interest in a particular period, further research and even help academics figure out the use of a newly-discovered artefact. Other times, its all about folks dressing up and having a great time.

For writers like myself, living history re-enactors and re-creations are an invaluable source because of the thorough research that has been done before hand and on an ongoing basis. In the case of Roman re-enactment groups, some authors have trained with them to get a better understanding of the feel, the mechanics of a certain weapon, pieces of armour and even a Roman cavalry saddle which, of course, did not have stirrups but rather four horns for bracing the thighs against. The latter is actually much more comfortable and utilitarian than one would expect.

A good friend of mine has been a member of the Antonine Guard in Scotland for several years (www.theantonineguard.org.uk - the group does regular talks at schools, documentaries and also trained the actors and extras for the new film CENTURION). When writing Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, I was able to read over a copy of the group’s field manual which details troop drills and all the Latin commands that were used in the Imperial Roman Army. What a great source to add detail and accuracy to a historical tale. Teachers, if you are listening, rather than having your students slug their way through the usual, dry history book, invite a period re-enactment group to your school and see what a difference it makes to knowledge retention and learning enjoyment. And while you are at it, assign your students a good historical novel!

So, next time you are out touring and you see a sign for a historical demonstration, don’t be so quick to dismiss it as a gathering of oddball history freaks. Drop in and see what it is all about. Yes, you may be confronted by a band of greasy, chicken&chips-eating yobs sporting a mish-mash of period costumes and bad accents but, on the other hand, you may also be in for a real treat, a chance to learn some fascinating facts about life in a by-gone era from people who truly value the past and accuracy in their portrayal of it.
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