More: Reenacting History

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 reenacting is authenticity so strictly adhered to as it is with food. "The biggest misconception," says Australian Viking reenactor 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 Fare. And gladiatorial encounters held monthly in Europe can bring in crowds numbering in the thousands.

No matter where reenactors 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, reenactors 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 Stephen Wyley's "Dictionary of Military Architecture" as a reference on fortifications used between the Iron Age and the 18th century.

Reenactor 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 reenactment combat, and the sound of an arrow striking the target," says Aussie 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 reenactors take their hobby seriously.

But not totally.

"I suppose," says Ashford, "that reenactors 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."

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