Playing in the Past

Historical fiction addicts –er, fans –like us love being swept back in time to the period of whatever story we are reading (or writing). At this blog, we focus on the English Regency primarily, but not exclusively. Sandy’s writing a series set in Roman times. Amanda’s been creating Elizabethan mysteries for a while now. Clearly, we all love history. Immersing ourselves in stories set in the past offers us a very satisfying way to “play in the past”, living it through the characters on the page. But have you ever felt that you wanted more of a direct experience than you could get by imagining yourself in a story? Have you ever tried participating in “living history” activities?Wanna Play-SCA

Confession time: I am a renegade medievalist. Yes, my historical stories are all set in the Regency, a period I love. But in my rare spare time, I sometimes play in a recreated “living history” medieval world as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I also occasionally do Regency, 18th century, or even Victorian.

The concept of “living history” as a hobby has had tremendous traction over the past forty-plus years. Back in 1966 when the SCA began as the result of a medieval-themed party in Berkeley, CA, there were nowhere near as many different groups recreating as many different time periods as there are today. If you Google “living history groups US” you get 332 million results!! (better specify time period and location!) Wikipedia offers a “historical reenactment groups” list with over 300 entries, still far from complete. Among those, the SCA, an international educational organization that covers “early medieval to early Renaissance” periods, is one of the largest, now in ten countries, but still not as widespread as Nova Roma (covering ancient Rome), found in 15 countries.

Pennsic War battlefield
SCA fighters on the battlefield at “The Pennsic War”, an annual event in held in Pennsylvania.

“Living History” has also become widely adopted as a teaching method in museums and at historical recreation sites, but that’s a little bit different. I can tell you it’s a great way to do research for stories, through the people you meet and the opportunities to learn. Do you want to know how it feels to wear a corset? Or how to load a flintlock rifle? How period food tastes? Or how heavy a “two-handed” sword might be? But be warned, doing it can be consuming and highly addictive because it’s such fun!

Coggshall Farm 1981
Gail (center) & friends in 18th century garb -in 1981!

“Living History” enthusiasts differ from re-enactors, although there is plenty of overlap. Most re-enactor groups are military, recreating specific units and/or specific events, especially battles. There’s going to be a reenactment of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the night before Waterloo, as part of the anniversary of that famous battle 10 days from now. (Wouldn’t you just LOVE to be there?) Despite differences, all these groups attempt at varying levels to capture the details of life and “portray the look and actions of” people from a particular time period –the clothes, the food, the day-to-day activities, the pastimes, the arts, crafts, science –in the effort to bring the time to life.

I can’t speak for other groups, but in the SCA the key to all of one’s participation is the creation of a persona, a character who is your medieval alter-ego, anchored in a specific time, place and culture within the range the SCA covers. Creating a persona gives you the entry point for the research and practice of whatever you are interested in doing. My persona (English, of course), Asenath Chamberly of Morrismount, slides around in time a bit, because my interests in costuming and dance expanded well beyond what would have fit her lifetime. But other SCAdians (and other groups) may follow a much stricter approach.

Pennsic War bannersThis interest in “recreating” the past as recreation isn’t just a modern idea. Queen Victoria was fond of giving costume balls themed to specific times in history, and the first Queen Elizabeth enjoyed tournaments that were intended to recreate the jousting feats of an earlier age.  Here is a link to a brief video of an “Assembly” I recently attended, held in a 1789 ballroom where George Washington may have danced. (I bet the floor was a lot more even back then!) I am standing in the back watching the dancers, as we were very hot and tired by then!

If you are interested in groups concentrating on the Regency, there are many to choose from, depending on where you are located. Some western U.S. ones include: Bay Area English Regency Society, the Oregon Regency Society, the Arizona Regency Society, and PEERS (the Period Events and Entertainments Re-Creation Society –not limited to Regency). There’s also the Regency Society of America, FOER (Friends of the English Regency), the Elegant Arts Society, and many more.

Do you “play in the past” beyond the pleasures of reading? If you were going to, what time periods would you most be interested in recreating?


About Gail Eastwood

Gail Eastwood is the author of seven Regencies that were originally published by Signet/Penguin. After taking ten years off for family matters, she has wobbled between contemporary romantic suspense and more Regency stories, wondering what century she's really in and trying to work the rust off her writing skills. Her backlist is gradually coming out in ebook format, and some are now available in new print editions as well. She is working on the start of a Regency-set series and other new projects. Stay tuned!
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14 Responses to Playing in the Past

  1. Elinor Aspen says:

    Yes, I have played at living history, both in the SCA and at steampunk events. I am tempted to try the Jane Austen society, but I’m not sure my schedule and budget can accommodate another re-enactment hobby. Hmm, maybe I could re-make some of my Italian Renaissance gowns into Regency…

    • Isobel Carr says:

      Let’s not talk about the garage FULL of 16thC stuff I own (tents, beds, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, dishes, clothes, bedding, rugs, games, and myriad accessories).

      A friend is trying to get me to join her WWII Land Girl unit. I love her, but no.

      • LOL, Isobel! I didn’t want the post to wax too long, so I settled for “it can be consuming and highly addictive”, but there’s the evidence, right in your garage. (and my basement, office, and spare closet…)

    • Elinor, I sooo hear you! The JAS is tempting to me, too, and I have friends who’ve dabbled in steampunk and that looks like fun! But there’s never enough time….. I think you definitely could adapt Italian Ren into Regency. The high waist, and that the Regency co-opted some types of Ren-inspired sleeve treatments both help with that. I’ve considered it myself, each time a gown no longer fits me! (Sigh.)

  2. Nancy Mayer says:

    Once when I was a teenager, I dressed in a pioneer costume( more Little House on the Prairie than Puritan) complete with sunbonnet to ride in a Conestoga wagon for the sesquicentennial of a place.
    Other than that, I only wear half of a regency costume to Jane Austen chapter meetings. I find those dresses difficult and never could make even the simplest shift nor any sort of stays. I haven’t been drawn to doing reenactments so far but might like to do it for a weekend.

    • Oh, but Nancy! There’s such a variety of different styles of Regency gowns. I bet you could find one that isn’t “difficult”! But now you must tell us –how does one wear “half” of a Regency costume to a JAS meeting? You leave me casting about for a mental image and I’m so not sure where to go with that!! LOL.

  3. Isobel Carr says:

    Posting from the original cradle of kingdoms, the Principality of the Mists: Yes, I love a good re-enactment! “Any excuse for a new costume.” seems to be the motto around here, and while nearly everyone I know has a persona, they all tend to get sucked into whatever the reigning king and queen or prince and princess are doing for their court.

    • Isobel, I bet your friends have to keep you away from fabric stores, as mine do. They know that both bookstores and fabric stores set off a bright, addicted gleam in my eye, and they steer me to the other side of the street! But these days I seem to have no time for making new costumes.

  4. Amanda McCabe says:

    Love this post! I was in the SCA in college and often miss it–and I can never resist a living history museum!

  5. Elena Greene says:

    Great post, Gail. I love the pictures, especially the one of you and the others in 18th century gowns. So pretty!

    I attended a few SCA events while in college, but basically as a friend and observer. I never seemed to have the time to join although I think I would have enjoyed it.

    The closest other thing I’ve done is wearing a Regency gown to Beau Monde events and dancing–not well, but with great enjoyment. 🙂

    • Elena, one trouble with the costumes that are so pretty, and have so much time and work invested in making them –it’s hard to let go of them later. I still have that 18th century gown in my closet, even though it hasn’t fit me in quite a while! It was getting loaned out a lot when our local historical society had a junior docents program –although kids today seem to be much bigger, on the whole.

  6. If anyone watches the video, you may notice that many of the ladies are not wearing gloves. Trust me, we started out with them, but it was unseasonably warm, and the windows couldn’t be opened, and by the end of the evening, when this waltz happened, most of us had peeled them off soaking wet. TMI? It made me wonder what a proper Regency heroine would have done in such an instance. What do you think? The soggy gloves seemed to us more offensive than the shocking bare skin!

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