Period Dramas and Living History: A Love-Hate Relationship That Doesn't Have to Be.
Let me begin by admitting that I have been, and still am at times, the guy in the picture above. I try to not do this, and, for the most part, I am successful but from time to time the urge to point out everything that is wrong with a historical drama and talk it down in front of other folks just slips out and I find myself doing it. I guess it comes from the natural, and almost universal urge that people have, to show off knowledge that they have worked hard to acquire.
Almost everyone who practices living history has something of a love/hate relationship with period dramas, whether movies or on television. On the one hand, we love history and especially the historical eras in which we do our living history activities. On the other hand, we get tired of seeing the past improperly portrayed, knowing that significant portions of the public will take what they see as “gospel” and we will be constantly trying to convince them that what they saw didn’t happen, or wasn’t done that way.
The works of William Shakespeare are well known to almost all of us. Shakespeare composed a substantial collection of plays ranging from the tragic to the comedic to the historical. In writing his “histories,” Shakespeare knowingly conflated historical characters, deliberately misnamed others, sometimes gave them attributes that were the very opposite of reality. As a result, no one is likely to ever accuse Shakespeare of historical accuracy, yet he was and is widely renowned as one of the all-time greatest writers of historical fiction.
In today’s world, the flat-screen television and the cinema has replaced the Elizabethan stage. However, the historical fiction genre is still very much alive; in fact, reality-based stories are some of the most popular drama genres on U.S. and British television today. The standards by which a culture’s historical fiction is based, however, have changed drastically since Shakespeare’s days, during which altering historical fact to produce meaningful drama was a practice readily accepted by audiences. Put bluntly, Shakespeare wasn’t writing in the age of the Internet.
Today, we live in a world in which every dramatized historical fact – no matter how detailed and obscure – can, and will, be scrutinized for correctness on any number of portable digital devices, and no “Gotcha!” remains unposted for long.” The twenty-first century’s digitalized way of life, in which more and more online commentary and viewer critiques claim they seek “historical accuracy”, has resulted in what we might characterize as a cultural “obsession” with historical accuracy among reenactors and living history practitioners.
While, from a strict “tunnel-vision like” perspective, this may be technically correct, there is the distinct possibility that we have failed to fully grasp the complexities and nuances that serve to embody this unique genre of drama and its usefulness to our hobby. Perhaps we need to think of it from the perspective that historical fiction cannot be neatly broken down and prioritized according to the relative importance of historical fact and fictional storyline – to do such a thing is to miss the whole point of historical films. Instead, we need to view history and fiction as two intrinsically linked parts of a greater whole. Ultimately, historical movies and television series are works of fiction existing within a historical framework and not historical documentaries.
Love them or hate them, there is no denying the powerful influence that screen adaptations of historical novels have to inspire new generations of viewers to become interested in the period and become new recruits to the living history community. Whether it’s seeing a six-hour miniseries that faithfully recreates a book or series of books, or a two-hour movie whose plot is loosely set in a particular era of history, seeing a historical drama on screen can turn a viewer into a lifelong history “nerd” and pique their interest in “living the story.”
When I think back on my own route into this hobby it began with developing an interest in history at an early age. This interest came from watching shows that were not historically accurate – Disney’s Davy Crockett, Disney’s Swamp Fox, the NBC TV series Daniel Boone and movies such as Northwest Passage and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Then, around the time of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution there was the TV mini-series “The Rebels” adapted from the books by John Jakes. By that time, I was consuming almost anything in the way of history books that I could get my hands on, Greek, Roman, Medieval, Civil War, WWII, etc. Through reading those history books, I learned that not everything I had seen in the movies/TV actually happened the way I saw it on the screen, but it did not lessen my interest in history.
In 1992, “The Last of the Mohicans” hit the theaters and I was enthralled. This movie brought me into doing living history, first portraying a Native American, then later as a RevWar era Loyalist, and today as a civilian in the early 19th century United States. In fact, this movie, even with its flaws, got a whole lot of people interested in the French & Indian War and living history of that period. Everyone wanted to be Hawkeye and those who had been doing living history of that period all along, suddenly had multiple people showing up at events trying to emulate him with various levels of accuracy. I recently found a picture of me at the first event I ever attended as a native and it absolutely makes me cringe.
The same thing happened in 2000 when “The Patriot” hit the theaters and suddenly there was a large upsurge of new people who were interested in Revolutionary War era living history. Once again, those who had been involved in living history of that era found themselves dealing with a lot of people who came with varying levels of historical accuracy in their portrayals and a lot of mistaken ideas about the American Revolution. They found themselves dealing with people who believed that the scene where the British locked the townspeople in the church and burned it down actually happened. Living history practitioners spent a lot of time explaining that it didn’t happen that way, that the war, particularly in the South was very much a “civil war” and that both sides were guilty of some atrocities. While that is just one example of errors in historical dramas, it does point out why many living history practitioners react negatively to these movies and TV shows.
The thing is, if we want to have new people coming into our hobby, we really shouldn’t do that, at least not publicly. The 2020’s are seeing a new round of historical dramas, mostly civilian, being made. The TV series Sanditon, which premiered in the later part of 2019, and the 2020 version of Emma, both enjoyed the viewership of a younger, streaming-driven audience and, have opened the way for a next generation of living history hobbyists. Similarly, based on the success of the Regency-era show Bridgerton, Netflix has released a new adaptation of Persuasion this summer. Hopefully the Bridgerton/Persuasion combination will also result in more interest in living history.
I am in no way suggesting that those of us doing living history should give up striving for historical accuracy in our dress and our interpretations. However, if we want to be smart and bring these newly interested folks into our hobby, we need to be much less “critical” and more “encouraging.” Rather than making fun of the new folks (even among ourselves and talking about them as “Farbs”) because their costume choices or their lack of knowledge about our period, we need instead to welcome their attempts to be a part of the living history “family” and gently guide those folks to better material culture for their portrayals and a better understanding of the reality of the period for their interpretations. If we want to keep these folks interested and taking part, we, the living history groups, need to begin to look at how we can help them to integrate into our groups and get past the initial “learning curve” for the hobby. Some ideas for this (which are in use by many groups) are:
Although it is difficult, we need to do all we can to discourage “cliques” in our groups, which often make new people feel like “outsiders” and not accepted. We all have our friends that we like to talk with and hang out with but we need to keep that to a minimum and instead, reach out and talk with the new recruits.
Pairing new recruits with existing, experienced members who understand the idea of taking a “nurturing” approach towards new people.
Understanding the budgetary constraints that new recruits have and helping them to improve their clothing and kit while still being within that budget.
Offering guidance to new recruits as to what sort of items they should be buying and helping to steer them away from vendors who sell inappropriate products.
Supplying information (either through blog posts, white papers, or other training material) on historical subjects within the era being portrayed for the new recruits to read and learn from.
Setting up periodic training sessions to focus on basic knowledge and skills for the new recruits.
Helping new recruits to understand the socio-economic structure of society in the period being portrayed and how different personas fit into it and what is expected of them at each level.
Looking at how many new living history practitioners have been created in the past just from watching historical drama films gives me hope for the future of our hobby. Hope that love for history and the presentation of it through living history will not die out but keep being reborn with each new generation, especially if those of already in the hobby reach out to bring the new people into the “family”. In a world where most teens would rather scroll through TikTok than read a book, I hope that new historical dramas continue to inspire new recruits and make history, and living history, seem “cool” and “trendy.” Perhaps I am just a “Don Quixote” jousting at windmills but as the story made clear, sometimes having the courage to go beyond the ordinary in spite of those around you thinking of you as an outlier, and imagining what others can't, can become the first step to achieving worthwhile goals.
Thank you for joining us for today’s 3rd post in our occasional Living History Series, exploring the effect of historical dramas on living history and how we can use them to build up the hobby. Hopefully, this article has given you some things to consider around the attitude we should take towards historical dramas, regardless of how historically correct they are, and how we can use them as a tool for building our living history groups. Please join us again in two weeks for our next post exploring the subject of Naval Stores (supplies) and Ropewalks.
While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.
Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.
Azmi, M. (2017). Learning History through Historical Movies: Bringing Living History into Classroom. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research (ASSEHR), 158, 473-479.
Donahue, K. A. (2014). Fact Through Fiction: A Case Study of Televised Historical Drama's Influence on Audience's Perceptions of the Past. Boston, MA: Boston College University Libraries.
Saguto, D. A. (2011, Winter). Reflections on Reenacting: Seeking an Authentic Past in a Specious Present. CW Journal, 33(01), pp. 76-81.
The Artifice. (2015, September). The Debatable Importance of Historical Accuracy in Period Films. Retrieved from The Artifice: https://the-artifice.com/debatable-importance-historical-accuracy-period-films/
Topping, A. (2022, February 1). This is why Period Dramas Don't Need to be Historically Accurate. Retrieved from Silver Petticoat Review: https://www.silverpetticoatreview.com/historical-accuracy-in-period-dramas/