Nina Brands tells of her passion for dressing up as a Napoleonic soldier amidst men who would rather she didn’t.
Voluntarily spending several weekends a year sleeping on sheepskins and hay in a canvas tent, cooking your meals on a campfire in between fighting battles on a muddy field might not sound like your ideal way to pass the time. However, historical re-enactments are becoming increasingly popular and more people, including myself, do choose to spend their free time recreating life as it may have been in the past. A large part of this is focused on life in the military, ranging from a Roman legion to a U.S. platoon in Vietnam. While some people are quick to dismiss this as simply a bunch of grown-ups playing soldiers, there is much more to it.
Historical re-enactment can perhaps best be described as an attempt to recreate a certain historical period as accurately as possible. While re-enacting, it is strictly forbidden to use any objects or materials that would not have been available in the period you are trying to recreate. You will not find a medieval trader dealing in coffee and tea or a Napoleonic soldier brandishing an AK-47. This is why re-enacting entails more than just the weekends spent on the battlefield. Most re-enactors spend a lot of time researching the time period they aim to recreate. As many items and pieces of clothing needed for an accurate portrayal of, for instance, a 17th century Dutch pikeman are far from readily available, most of the clothing and uniforms worn by re-enactors are homemade.
This is not as easy as it sounds. For instance, try finding buttons that belonged on the uniform of a specific Confederate regiment from the American Civil War era. These kinds of items are therefore often homemade as well. Not only do re-enactors gain a lot of theoretical knowledge, they often gain practical knowledge in the form of practicing a certain skill. Many of these abilities, like spinning, smithing, or even cooking historical dishes, are partially preserved through historical re-enactment.
This is just one of the reasons historical re-enactment can be seen as more than grown-ups dressing up. As a re-enactor, you get to visit historical sites that might not normally be open to the public, you meet many people who share your interest in history, and you get to share your passion with an audience you might not otherwise reach. You get a glimpse of what life must have been like for a French soldier serving under Napoleon when you’re trudging through a muddy field wearing your heavy woollen uniform, uncomfortable spiked shoes and carrying a musket that weighs 5 kilos. Then again, you’re lucky you even have shoes, you had a proper breakfast and a reasonable night’s sleep inside a tent; luxuries the average soldier could only have dreamed of.
Of course, this is only valid for those actively participating in the re-enactments, not those viewing it. However, visitors to re-enactment events do gain insight into a certain period as well. By simply asking questions, seeing how food is prepared on a campfire or viewing the tents used to sleep in, they get an understanding of how different life was in the past. It is a truly hands-on experience, as visitors are often allowed to sample some food, touch the uniforms to feel how heavy the fabric is or get an explanation of the steps involved in readying a musket for firing. Re-enactors transfer their knowledge and insight through these interactions with the public, making history very accessible. This is what makes re-enactment a valuable contribution to the more traditional ways of teaching and studying history.
However, try as they might, re-enactors will never actually be able to fully recreate all the circumstances and hardships that came with living in the past. Like historians, re-enactors face boundaries that cannot simply be put aside. For instance, a lack of historical sources may mean a recreated regiment can never be quite sure their uniforms are exactly the same as those worn by soldiers serving the regiment in the past. Moreover, certain aspects cannot be recreated for the sake of hygiene and safety. Most re-enactment units try to compensate for these unavoidable modern influences (think: the use of modern toilets instead of digging a ditch and food brought from home rather than scavenged in some nearby village) by striving for a representation that is as accurate as possible in every other way. This is of course very commendable, though certain problems do arise; some of which I have personally encountered.
You would think that any re-enactment unit would be more than happy with a young, new recruit. Taking myself as an example, I appear to fit the description of the average soldier: I’m in my early twenties (I was 19 when I joined my group) and I’m of average build and height. There is, however, one small problem: I’m also a woman. This would not necessarily be a problem if I was willing to spend my weekends re-enacting a camp follower, doing dishes, cooking and selling small trinkets. While many women are content in this role, I am far more interested in the military side of things. I want to wear the uniform, carry arms and engage in the (simulated) battles.
This is a problem because most re-enactment units do not allow women in their ranks. Unless you’re talking about a select few groups recreating units that explicitly allowed women in the ranks, for instance Second World War-era Soviet snipers, you will have a hard time convincing a group to allow you to serve in a male role. This might seem obvious, seeing as these groups put a lot of effort into being as historically accurate as possible. Before World War II, women were generally not allowed to join the armed forces serving in the field. Women were sometimes allowed to perform auxiliary functions but were rarely allowed on the actual battlefield. So it does not seem too strange that re-enactment units would not allow this either.
And indeed, on the surface, these groups seem to have a very valid point. Why sacrifice such an integral part of your authenticity and historical accuracy for the sake of gender equality? The problem is that authenticity and historical accuracy are sacrificed to allow men in the ranks all the time. If a re-enactment group truly cared for authenticity in the form of bodily appearance, they should, for instance, not allow overweight men in the ranks. Most common soldiers would have struggled to find enough food to make it through the day, let alone finding enough to become overweight. This privilege was usually reserved for officers. Any grown men portraying a common soldier could thus be said to not be allowed to weigh over 70 kilos. The same goes for age restrictions; most foot soldiers would not live or serve as foot soldiers past the age of thirty, either because people in general, let alone soldiers, simply died younger or because those older surviving soldiers would get promoted to a higher rank. Having men over the age of thirty portray a common soldier should then also not be allowed.
If you would tell a potential male recruit he’d have to go on a diet because he doesn’t adhere to the historical standards concerning the average soldier’s body, he would probably think you’d gone insane. Yet this is the exact same argument potential female recruits get when asked why they can’t portray a male role. Moreover, if groups would only allow members to serve as soldiers until they are thirty years old, most groups would struggle to even exist. It appears that even though age, weight and build are not important standards to adhere to when it comes to historical accuracy, gender is.
And this cannot simply be excused by saying women did not serve in the ranks in a certain era, because, most likely, neither did 50-year old overweight men. Many re-enactors might still believe they’re protecting their authenticity by not allowing women in the ranks, yet it seems something else is at play, namely that historical re-enactment is a male-dominated hobby. The ratio of men to women is probably around ten to one. Most women in re-enactment are wives, daughters, friends or colleagues of a male re-enactor and it is very rare for a woman without any existing connection to a re-enactor to join a group. This is not just because it is simply less likely for women to somehow come in contact with re-enactment, but also because their participation seems to be discouraged. Women are rarely seen on websites run by re-enactment groups, unless it’s in a special female unit or category.
Perhaps the underlying principle is very simple: “girls” play house, while “boys” play soldiers and fight. Whenever a woman wants to join the ranks, the traditional gender roles are mixed up and the supposed masculinity of the hobby is undermined. No re-enactor would probably admit that this is the reason for not allowing women in male roles, though it seems likely that this is the real reason. Most re-enactors probably do not consciously exclude women, yet they do subconsciously seem to view women as a threat to their hobby.
Putting the gender trouble aside, I would heartily recommend everyone to come and have a look at a re-enactment event if you ever get a chance. And be sure to check if you can actually tell if there are women present in the ranks when you see units moving on the battlefield; my bet is you won’t even be able to tell us apart from our male counterparts.
Nina Brands (‘10) has an MA in Cultural History, works as a museum employee and volunteers at the local archives in Oss. In her free time she is a member of a historical re-enactment society aiming to recreate a French Napoleonic infantry regiment as accurately as possible.