“So, you dress on the weekends?”…how many times have I heard that? It’s usually at that point in the party, road trip, after work drink or whatever, when the group has split into pairs or threes. And the quick answer is….well…yes.
About a decade ago, I found out that a friend of mine was into mediaeval reenactment. I have always liked history, and the martial arts side appealed to me, so I was curious. Therefore one damp morning in April I loaded my girlfriend and young daughter into the car and rocked up to Hedingham Castle in Essex, England. I parked, climbed the hill and walked over the bridge.
Re-enactors on the steps of Hedingham Castle, Essex.
There I was greeted with one of the oddest, intriguing and downright fascinating sights I had experienced in my life.
The Keep was surrounded by a spread of white canvas tents. Grey wisps of smoke curled up from a dozen fledgling cooking fires. As a trio of women sang Arias in the morning air the sound of an axe chopping wood provided a staccato backbeat. The sunlight burned off the mist, and the camp came to life in front of me. Giggling children, clad in linen and wool, gamboled across the dewy grass as burly men pulled chests and sacks from their tents. These, I would later discover, contained fighting armour. Men and women struck sparks and nurtured fires for bacon or eggs. Lines, pegged out from awnings and tents, were hammered in, tightening the nights’ slackening. Teenagers, never usually seen before noon, stepped lively from their tents as the day began. Girls sat combing out long locks with small combs. Here, a loom being set. There, cord being wound around an arrow. All of this by people that seemed to not have a care in the world, smiling and chatting to friend and stranger alike.
Wouldn’t you love to sit around this table?
I was bewitched. When the day began in earnest it included demonstrations on any number of skills and crafts, from cooking through to painting tiles. There were a couple of skirmishes – small mock ‘battles’ where lines of armoured men beat each other up for my enjoyment, and the squealing satisfaction of my daughter. After 6 hours, we left yearning for more. I joined that particular group by the end of the week, and my life changed.
Now, on any given weekend of the spring and summer you will generally find me at an ‘event’. It could be hosted at a heritage site in the UK, France, Belgium or Germany. I mostly do 15th Century stuff, 1470 – 1485. But also Tudor, WW2 and Early mediaeval.
Tudor re-enactment. Living workshops.
I wear the clothes, eat the food, sleep in the tents and enjoy the lifestyle (minus the negatives of disease and hard labour, you understand!). I have led blocks of men, 200 strong, into battle on the fields of the Wars of the Roses. I study Western Martial arts – I now teach the use of German medieval weapons from the manuscripts of the period – as a certified coach in my own school. I am an accomplished seamstress – I have made period clothing for myself and my daughter.
Unlike you may think, I don’t pretend to be someone from history. I don’t pretend not to know what an aeroplane is, and I don’t say forsooth. That’s the role-playing guys, not me. I simply explain to visitors what I’m doing, wearing, eating…and why. As it happens, I have been knighted – for actions on the field, a very proud moment. This does give me an element of respect with the groups, but not servants, bowing or curtseys. To be honest, I’m a little rough around the edges so I prefer it that way!
Jousting at a medieval re-enactment.
All of these things give me a chance to understand a small part of my forebear’s lives.
I know what armour feels like – I’ve worn it and used it a hundred times. I know what the food was like – I have cooked from their recipes. I know what the clothes felt like – I wear them without batting an eye. The clothes are comfortable, the food glorious and the nights by the fireside memorable.
But it’s more than that.
For a few wonderful hours there is peace. There is no radio, no TV. No Facebook. No gas bill to pay, no sink to fix. I can enjoy just…being. The ‘here and now’. It’s ironic that the time when I am most in the moment is when I am living in a version of the 15th Century!
In short, I spend my weekends educating complete strangers, fighting with friends and laughing and joking with some of the finest people I have ever met. In another life they are engineers, accountants, road-sweepers or receptionists – but at that moment they are just people. People that dress up funny at weekends. Like me.