There is Value in the ‘Typical’
If you do living history with a focus on public education (emphasis on public education), there is great value in portraying yourself as a typical representation of whatever it is you choose to be rather than seeking the outlier.
**edit for clarification** – My posts tend to get shared without context to an audience greater than the intended audience and as a result, things can easily get misconstrued. The thoughts expressed here are directed toward public facing educational living history groups; groups where the primary focus is small-scale direct interaction with the public for educational presentation at the unit or individual level. Think ‘timeline’ events where the public goes from one group to the next to see different individual living history groups and spend some time with each. **
Outliers can be very attractive to the individual living historian planning out their kit because they represent a way to stand out or make one’s impression unique. Outliers must be handled with great care within the arena of living history though. When we look at a lot of different aspects of material culture with any detail, it usually reveals a typical style for a given object. We start to get a feel for what a normal bascinet looks like, or the common characteristics of a average plaque belt, the archetypal sword for a given era etc. But then we see contemporary objects, sometimes extant, sometimes just in artwork or written about, that don’t fit the mold of what we’ve come to recognize as normal. It is within these objects that one should tread carefully when planning an impression for public-facing living history.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely not advocating locking outliers in a dark dungeon and throwing out the key. Outliers are essential to our understanding of the whole, and should definitely not be ignored. They give us perspective and challenge our idea of what is normal. They remind us that the typical is not the only and that is an important reminder for any student of history. There was a lot of variation in the objects we aim to faithfully reproduce and variation is an important part of any living history presentation, but there are some potential problems.
The way I most commonly observe the use of outliers in living history is as a means to add an individually unique item to an otherwise typical kit. This presents a challenge for proper interpretation because it threatens to ignore the surrounding context of that outlier. What if that one-off piece of armor was just that, a one-off representing a failed experiment, or a piece of kit that was very specifically designed to be used within the rest of the context in which it was observed. To pluck that unique singular object from everything else you observed it with can result in using that object in a way it was never intended to be used. It’s a risk we take with everything we do in our interpretation of historical objects, but at least when we observe certain things over and over again, we can feel more confident that our interpretation has a broad foundation.
Another potential trap is using an outlier to reverse-justify a piece of kit. Sometimes a person will purchase or make an object without having done due-diligence in the research department, only to be disappointed when they realize it’s not quite right (c’mon, we’ve all done it). The danger is when we go back and try to seek out a source to support the object we already made, instead of going about it the other way around. Finding one representation of an item to grant yourself carte blanche use of those items is a bit disingenuous if the goal of an impression is historical cohesion.
Going back to the idea of doing living history primarily as a means of public education, we can start to see some of the danger in over-representing the atypical aside from some of the problems I just brought up. Over-representation in various forms is already a challenge in living history. We should also consider our responsibility as educators. Informed discretion if very important when it comes to making choices on what to present and interpret. What impression are we going to leave with the lay public? If our goal is to present to the public what life was like in the Middle Ages as best we understand it, is that best served by showing what was normal, or by showing numerous outliers? It’s important that we understand that a lot of the public will draw broad conclusions based on what they see us do and wear. We may be individuals, but to the public we tend to act more as a representation of an entire group or class of individuals from the past. I portray a man-at-arms, and within my living history group we presently have two other men-at-arms, one of which is a knight. Between us, we try to show variation in our kits, weapons, clothing, social status etc, but all within the scope of what would be considered normal for the time. If a lot of the objects and clothing we use and wear are atypical, the public may draw the erroneous conclusion that those one-off or unique items were the norm. The more outliers one uses, the more one is placed in the awkward position of having to explain to the public that a given object is not normal, and they shouldn’t view it as representative. The truth is, by the nature of public interaction, we may not even have the opportunity to explain these things or provide caveats for certain pieces of our presentation before a person walks off with an impression in their head. You can quickly see that the more you do this, the more we start defeating the primary goal of giving people a glimpse into what daily life was like in the Medieval period. We end up showing exceptions instead of the rule.
All that being said, sometimes outliers are unavoidable, and sometimes they are even desirable. Maybe among the normal there simply isn’t enough variation. That outlier can serve as a conversation starter with the public as long as you are up front about it being atypical. Maybe a specific scenario being presented lends itself to the more obscure objects of the Middle Ages in which showing the exceptions is appropriate. The bottom line is really just to be mindful of how the atypical affects a presentation and how there may be unrecognized value in what might be considered more boring and mundane.