Cold Steel, a California-based company specialising in blades of all kinds, produced this re-imagining of the Scottish dirk. As a modern implement, this certainly fits the original conception of what the dirk was: a truly all-purpose tool that could whittle wood or flesh with ease. There is, however, nothing else to attach it to the Jacobite period. Amazon sells this item for some $113 (available here), while the Cold Steel site lists it for $189 (available here). The Cold Steel website also offers some truly inspirational (or disconcerting depending on your predilections) displays of the blade’s capabilities, but is it authentic? Do we value a direct recreation of items from the past, or do we translate their usefulness into our modern context? These are the questions that Living History addresses but only haphazardly.
Living history is a surprisingly large field both in breadth and depth. It covers reenactments of historical events, revitalisation and re-implementation of social elements like clothing or crafts, and even the creative re-imagining of those same elements of past cultures. Authenticity is naturally a problematic subject for living history as it must be necessarily an endlessly regressing point of reference. As a result each organised group must determine their own standard and understanding of what constitutes an authenticating system of reference. ‘The Vikings’ and ‘Regia Anglorum’ for example require that every every material item have a documentable precedent in the material record and any kind of logical extrapolation is frowned upon while the Society for Creative Anachronism has their ‘ten foot rule’. This is, of course, an oversimplification as within the SCA there are different standards, but I will treat the complexities more in a bit.
I was speaking with a craftsman in ‘The Vikings’ at one event who was producing bone sewing needles (modern steel needles being prohibited), and noticed that his files had no handles. I asked him why and he said that the archaeological finds to date had not shown evidence of handles, so they were not used by the re-enactors. Now, I’ve seen some of the archaeological remains, and the rasps show a clear tang structure (that is, the metal tapers where it would enter the handle). Sure, we don’t know if the handles were of bone, wood or some other perishable material, but certainly it is within reason to put a handle on an object that possesses the same distinctive morphology as its modern equivalent. Not so for the die hard re-enactors of ‘The Vikings’.
By contrast the Society for Creative Anachronism has no expressly stated policy, and it is largely up to those who partake in the events to devise their own standards of authenticity. The most widely held standard with which I have come in contact is the ‘ten-foot rule’. This requires that anything that looks historically accurate from ten feet away is acceptable. Even this generous rule is suspended when safety is an issue, so that SCAdian armour often looks a little like American Football padding. Indeed, sports’ pads often play a role in SCAdian armour alongside used road-signs for shields (so far as I know, this practice has been greatly declining in recent years), but then the SCA is not necessarily about being historically accurate. The wider concern is developing an extended social network with societal rules inspired by medieval systems. Much of the clothing and many of the personae are also similarly inspired, with a great many belly-dancers and pirates roaming around alongside twelfth century knights and sixth century Huns.
Both of these groups are filled by hobbyists for whom camping à les Moyen Ages is a good time in and of itself, but there are those who make it their job to reformulate the past. At Colonial Williamsburg it is big business. I really can’t speak specifically to the relationship between the business of Colonial Williamsburg and historical accuracy, but on the grounds themselves anyone occupying one of their period houses cannot have anything modern visible from the street. While traditional crafts and sciences such as apprenticeships in saddlery and blacksmithing are cultivated there, much of their money comes from selling goods either produced in keeping with colonial technology or reminiscent of the period.
My point is that there is an ill-defined relationship between historical authenticity and historically inspired creativity. Historical music groups bear the brunt of this problematic relationship as they too often depend on incomes derived from audiences whose preferences are both diverse and perhaps ill-considered. For myself, each perspective has its benefits in formulating a life creatively informed by historical authenticity. Each must be concerned with the real: historical authenticity looks toward the reality of what was, while its opposing complement looks toward what is at once historically informed and yet useful in the present. I would define this latter perspective as ‘creative anachronism’, but of course the SCA does not actually take this to its natural extreme. Living History ultimately should thus be a process whereby history, with all its complexities of perception and invention, finds a voice in our very lives. Why else should we study it and how else should we honour all those processes whereby we ourselves have been formed?