On Recovering the Lost Past
Updated: Jan 29, 2019
A half century after the event there are plans abroad to have what is being promoted as a "reincarnation" of the four-day 1969 festival that brought rock and folk performers before crowds of more than 400,000 people, and crowned a period of great musical creation, the anti-Vietnam War movement and hippy culture. But is it possible to recreate something so alien to the age of hip-hop, Facebook and mobile phones. It seems to me unlikely that a revived Woodstock festival would have anything very much in common with its predecessor. More likely the only way it would differ from other present day music concerts would be in that it would go by a weighty name that would emphasise just how much western culture has changed in the past fifty years.
For those who participate in them, historical reenactments are certainly an entertainment, but they have a value that goes beyond nostalgia and the desire to experience a past event without having to face its less than pleasant realities, such as major discomfort, genuine fear, injury and death. Reenactment is sometimes done for illustrative purposes. Some well-known scenes of "going over the top" - climbing out of the trenches in First World War battle scenes, were filmed after the fighting was over, and they are still frequently used in documentaries to illustrate the dramatic and often fatal moment that is so archetypal of that war. That is useful for enhancing the public's understanding of an act that was not sufficiently recorded when it occurred, but the contribution of reenactment can be much more than merely illustrative. Whether reenacting the battle at Gettysburg or Waterloo, building from scratch an invented medieval castle near Treigny in France, constructing a counterweight trebuchet (rock-hurling siege machine) or attempting to recover the forgotten recipe for the highly effective combustible Greek Fire, the reenactor* can make an important contribution to understanding the past that cannot be made solely by the examination of written and/or archaeological sources, however conscientiously undertaken. By recreating conditions in the field (even if not precisely as they would have been) a better understanding of the factors that influenced an event and its outcome can be achieved.
When he was examining the Battle of Hattin, archaeologist Dr. Rafi Lewis made very clever use of the presence in the field of a group of reenactors who were retracing the July march of the Frankish army from the Springs of Saforie to the Horns of Hattin. Other than some unavoidable disparities, the conditions in the field; the climate, the difficult terrain and the reasonably authentic reproduction of the costumes, were similar to the original conditions. A physical examination of the "knights", including, for example, taking their blood pressure during the march, supplied some valuable insights into what people under such conditions would have undergone (physically, not mentally - all the participants in this reenactment fully expected to be back home and in bed the night after, which was certainly not the case in 1187). No study of the contemporary sources, textual or material, could have supplied us with information about a knight`s blood pressure.
*"Reenactor" is a somewhat clumsy term, and it is occasionally replaced by "living historian", but I imagine that some conventional historians might be opposed to this as it seems to suggest that they exist in some other state.