The Non-Expert

Historical Re-Enactors

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we show how to live in the past, bedecked in ancient garb, profound in dead languages. Yes, how to become a historical re-enactor.

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Question: How can I become a historical re-enactor?

Answer: Becoming a historical re-enactor requires knowledge, skill in arms, an unquenchable thirst for history, and an abiding love of ridiculous outfits. Becoming one of the greats, however, requires so much more, so here’s a few pointers to help you along.

1. Achieve Total Veracity

Re-enactors despise anything that isn’t historically spot-on. For this reason, novels drive them wild with rage. When a novelist mentions a furred coyote-butt hat that wasn’t in vogue in Oklahoma until three months after the novel was set, this should send you into shudders of fanatical angst. Hurl such offensive lies aside in lieu of real historical proof, such as a self-penned pamphlet you found buried in the college stacks that you believe could change the global curriculum if only the world were made aware of it: Eliza-Jane Tuttlebee: Devoted Mother, Christian Homesteader, Prairie Whore.

2. Live for Yesterday

Re-enactors do not simply don the tricorn, Confederate forage cap, or Viking helmet on weekends to fit the re-enactment schedule (‘Kids half-price on Sunday!’). Rather, they live every day as if it were about 400 years ago. This means a commitment on your part, and not like last year in grad school when you blew off your girlfriend to play Asteroid for five hours straight in the mall video cave. You shall bedeck yourself in breeches and silk stockings, and parade with a Mohegan war club in your belt. You won’t stop there, either, as you brew your own beer, bottle your own wine, and let hogs root around in the back yard. So what if the beer tastes like bilge with dead rat stewed in it? That’s the way it tasted on the HMS Assbackwards! And those sharp glances from your boss regarding the war club or the way you call her, ‘Goody Bosswife’? Well, just distract that boss with 40-minute monologues on Melville’s true intentions for The Whale—which you refuse to call by its common name, Moby Dick. Then offer her a prime cut of home-smoked bacon when, ‘the killin’ time comes ‘round in November.’ Guaranteed to make her feel ‘Goody’ all over.

3. Choose a Delusion and Stick to It

Again, this comes down to commitment. Being a re-enactor is tough enough without having to remember if Tuesday afternoon is Gettysburg, Bastille Day, or the big witch burning (‘Kids full-price on Tuesday!’) So you need to find a period, get obsessed, and stay obsessed. If Custer is your bag, spit-shine those boots and prep some bloody arrow holes in your forehead. If the Salem trials are more your cup of tea, practice saying ‘Tituba’ three times fast before condemning your neighbor as ‘Beelzebub’s evil apprentice!’ If you just want to bash in strangers’ faces and steal their sheep, then find a local chapter of the Berserker Raiding Society and sign right up. But don’t bite off more than you can chew in your mutton-chopped cheeks. There’s nothing as embarrassing as arriving with a swan-crested jousting helmet for the Omaha Beach Extravaganza. Don’t let this happen to you!

4. Become One with the Abyss

Once you’ve picked your period and fallen completely into an obsessive abyss, now it’s time to look back at everyone around you and drag ‘em down with you. There is no dinner-party conversation anywhere that doesn’t relate to your chosen lunacy. Should someone mention a movie they saw—say Cliffhanger or The Phantom Menace—nod sagely and remark that both films are eerily similar to Federalist Paper 57, ‘The Alleged Tendency of the Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many Considered in Connection with Representation.’ Offer a vague warning that architectural plans for the host’s new patio indicate a disastrous adherence to Jacksonian democracy. If a friend laments an uncle who recently passed away, console them with the knowledge that Dolly Madison also had an uncle that died. During the cheese course, it’s always a good idea to have a few Benjamin Franklin quotes in mind, especially when you’re discovered in the kitchen groping the host’s niece. ‘The absent are never without fault. Nor the present without excuse’ should work nicely in such a predicament. Also appropriate: ‘Beware the hobby that eats.’

5. Scorn Becomes You

Now that you’re an expert of your chosen era, it’s time to ridicule anyone who doesn’t know as much as you do. Which is everyone in the world. If a stranger on the bus confuses your Renaissance outfit with the San Diego Chicken costume, feel free to rip into them loudly for being a ‘dolt.’ Let the whole bus notice as you fluff your chartreuse doublet and shout, ‘You, sirrah, are a conspicuous idiot!’ Even better, if a fellow re-enactor at the Waterloo Water Slide Park has even the smallest epaulet out of place, tell everyone all about it, including the 16-year old parking attendant with five girlfriends, a thriving weed business, and a pre-owned BMW that he refuses to give you a lift home in. Always stand upon your dignity, even when you’re at the bus-station bodega dressed like Louis the Sun King buying a pack of Juicy Fruit.

6. Remain True to the Idylls

The truly great re-enactors never ever give up. It’s a hard row to hoe but you must stick to it. Homeless shelters and back-alley gin mills are filled with old, failed re-enactors wearing bedraggled Napoleon hats, insisting they coulda been a contender. Don’t travel that boulevard of broken dreams, no matter how desperate the situation becomes. When your mother asks you to pay back the money you still owe her for your dialect lessons, leap atop the living room hassock and proclaim, ‘We shall be crucified ‘pon a cross of gold!’ Then ask when dad will be home, since you need ten bucks to get your wig re-powered. If you’ve been fired from the Renaissance Festival for being late—yet again—at the Ye Olde Veggie Patty stand, shake a chain-mailed fist at Lou the manager and tell him, ‘And you, knave Lou, are late for a smiting!’ After all, your student-loan check will be arriving any day now, and with it, Excalibur out of a catalog from the Dark Knight Smithy in Pueblo, Colorado. Have no doubts: You are the once and future king, even if that future happened a very, very long time ago.

for Kevin M., with great fondness and affection


Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon