Re-enacting History for Love, Not Money

Some people like to spend their weekends gardening, barbecuing, or playing golf. But others prefer sword fighting, playing medieval games, or aiming a six-shooter.

These people are obsessed with the correct configuration of the sleeve of an 18th-century shirt. They eat rabbit stew for dinner because it is historically accurate.

Welcome to the world of "re-enactors."

For years, re-enactors have flooded Gettysburg, Pa. — and other famous battlefields — re-creating epic Civil War clashes. They've become so well known that summer tourists flock to see them, cameras at the ready.

But the Blue and the Gray aren't the only soldiers who have groupies. In Massachusetts, the Minute Men have been re-enacting the events of April 19, 1775, for more than 70 years. DeSoto's Conquistadors claim Florida's shores for Spain each summer, and gladiators "fight for their lives" several times a year in European forums.

More Than Dates and Facts

The quest for knowledge about the past is often what draws these men — and a smaller number of women — to re-enacting. Through their activities they come to see the past as much more than dates and facts. It becomes wonderfully alive and compelling.

"The importance of the events has always presented a point of interest for me," says Wayne McCarthy, who signs his e-mail "Captain Commanding, Lexington Minute Men."

"The significance of men willing to stand in defense of their property, against overwhelming odds, has held my awe."

But the Waltham, Mass., resident adds that his proximity to Lexington has probably influenced his choice of hobby, too.

Timothy Burke, a Sarasota, Fla., resident and weekend conquistador, agrees that geography can make a difference. "I was born in Syracuse," he says. "If I were still there, I'd probably be doing 17th-century French [re-enactments] instead of 16th-century Spanish."

Come Up and See My Armor, She Said

For Stephen Wyley, an Australian who travels throughout his country depicting the Byzantine lifestyle, a casual date led to his new hobby.

In 1984 he joined the Swinburne University Fencing Club. There, a "beautiful young lady" invited him back to her place to see her armor.

Who could resist an invitation like that? Not Wyley. With an interest in longbows and competitive wrestling in his background, historical re-enactment fascinated him.

Toronto resident Nesrin Meral became romantically involved with a Viking re-enactor named Wolf and ended up adopting the lifestyle herself. Now — as Nerthus of Vinland — she spends her time "raising the standards of authentic Viking living-history re-enactments on this continent." She also maintains a Web site ( that covers several historic eras.

Not Just Eccentric

The image of the re-enactor as a casual, fun-loving individual involved in an eccentric hobby is somewhat inaccurate. Almost all participants are dedicated to correctly representing their character. Richard "Bear" Sobek has been researching and portraying the Old West's cowboys and cavalrymen for 35 years.

"The only skill I have," he says, "is being able to read more and more in order to find a proper character for my next performance."

Graham Ashford, a weekend gladiator in Britain, has done more than just read. "We were lucky enough to run into a theater manager who had years of theatrical fighting skills under his belt," he says. "He taught us how to stage the dangerous moves and techniques used by original gladiators."

On the other hand, Ashford's armor making has been achieved only through trial and error. "It was the hardest thing for us to learn," he says, "but we are now able to create armor close to the original. [The Web sites], sword, and have been very helpful."

Costs Plenty

Re-enacting isn't an inexpensive hobby. A single musket costs around $650. A Byzantine uniform can add up to $3,400 including mail shirt, shield, mailed gloves, and gambeson (padded coat). The 16th-century linen shirt, wool doublet, breeches, leather buskins (light boots), flat cap, and armor of a conquistador rings up at a hefty $1,000.

Because of the costs, many participants choose to make their own outfits. While museum exhibits greatly aid a re-enactor's authenticity, so can Simplicity Patterns. Their costume category is the fastest-growing segment of their business. Should someone wish to make a Renaissance vest, Robert E. Lee's uniform, or Benjamin Franklin's frock coat, Simplicity can provide instructions and pattern pieces that are both authentic and easy to read.

For American history re-enactors who don't feel up to sewing, the 27th annual Kalamazoo Living History Show, held this year on March 15 and 16, may be the answer ( Here, 270 dealers and craftspeople dressed in period costume offer clothing and accessories for any era prior to 1890.

Speakers this year will include the costume consultant from the film Dances With Wolves, and a master blacksmith specializing in tools of the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the correct costumes and tools are just one step in creating the authentic experience.

Burke, the Florida conquistador, describes his camping (in period, of course) this way: "Evening — Clean musket and armor, cook dinner. Night — Sleep fitfully on the ground while fending off hordes of mosquitoes (all the while questioning myself as to why I do this). Morning — gather firewood, heat up water, take sponge bath. It is amazing how much time can be taken up with just the basics of cooking and cleaning."

Participants try hard to replicate their period accurately. Viking tents — complete with timber frames — have been erected on Australian beaches: Old West cavalry battalions bivouac on the pseudo-frontier; and Vikings erect a long house, lay out their wooden pallets, and cover themselves with wild animal skins. (Leif Ericson didn't know about PETA.)

Gladiators, it seems, choose to skip this part of the lifestyle. "The thought of staying the night in a drafty, cramped cell doesn't really appeal to any of our members," says Ashford, the British gladiator.

But nowhere in re-enacting is authenticity so strictly adhered to as it is with food. "The biggest misconception," says Australian Viking re-enactor Lothar Sempel, "is that Vikings had spit-roasted bullocks. Most meals consisted of stews, breads, cheeses, and dairy products."

Nerthus of Vinland agrees. "Our diet consists of bird's eggs, seeds, and nuts, dried fruit and fresh berries, stews, dried meat, and plenty of mead."

It Can Be Difficult

But there are difficulties in trying to be authentic.

For gladiators, "often the mainstay snack in front of the public is dates or figs. The difficulty is half of the exotic foods of the Romans are either prohibitively expensive or illegal these days," Ashford comments wryly.

Minute Man Wayne McCarthy has other concerns. "The 18th-century diet looks quite good, but I tend to shy away from untested food when I might find myself standing for hours in the middle of a huge battlefield."

Standing for hours in front of thousands, he might have added. Each April the Battle of Lexington is fought before an estimated 10,000 people. Byzantine meets in central Australia draw huge crowds as part of the annual Brisbane Medieval Fayre. And gladiatorial encounters held monthly in Europe can bring in crowds numbering in the thousands.

No matter where re-enactors are "on display," onlookers pepper them with questions.

Fortunately, representing the past is often what pleases participants the most. They are careful to point out that they are responsible for educating present-day generations about how life used to be — even the politically incorrect portions. Gladiators have been told they can't depict the bloody battles for fear of being too violent for little children. Old West gunfights are banned at some events for the same reason.

Still, questions such as, "How heavy is your armor?" "What do you eat for breakfast?" and "What do you do when you're not fighting?" are answered with all the knowledge that can be brought to the subject. Often participants know as much as professional historians do. Indeed, re-enactors are frequently called upon to participate in films and television features precisely because they are so well-versed in their subjects.

And their usefulness doesn't stop there. The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, an organization mandated to study national and international security, has used Wyley's Dictionary of Military Architecture as a reference on fortifications used between the Iron Age and the 18th century.

Re-enactor Lothar Sempel sells authentic bronze castings of Viking jewelry found at archeological digs. He also provides displays and lectures for primary and secondary schools. "We help students understand a small part of their heritage and generate an active interest in history," he explains.

"My favorite parts are the sharing of knowledge and skills, the companionship, the discussion on points of history, the re-enactment combat, and the sound of an arrow striking the target," says Wyley.

"Falling off a horse is my least favorite part," he adds.

When a Minute Man describes his participation in an event in such descriptive terms as "lying on the ground as if my life were draining away as nearly 800 Redcoats marched past," it's obvious that re-enactors take their hobby seriously.

But not totally.

"I suppose," says Ashford, "that re-enactors fall into one of a few categories: the certifiable, the wannabe history teacher, and the big kid. I suspect and hope that I would fall into the last two."