This week it is my turn to write the blog post for Encased in Steel. When brainstorming for a suitable topic I decided it was time to define a term that I have been using in business plans, fundraising applications and personal correspondence: “historical hobbyist.” Before I begin though I think it is prudent to start by addressing what I foresee as being the most common objection to the use of this term. I am not attempting to say that all historical hobbyists are the same or that they have the same aims or purposes, I am very aware that there are huge differences between groups of historical hobbyists. However, to fail to recognise our similarities would be foolish and is putting an unnecessary barrier in the way of inter-group cooperation.
So to begin let us define the term in its loosest sense, a historical hobbyist is…, thereby setting up a framework within which to work as we dive deeper into discussion of this topic. A historical hobbyist is an individual who partakes of activities within which lies a varying degree of recreation of recognised or perceived historical events, ideas or activities. A historical hobbyist undertakes these activities either professionally or as a hobby, but in either case does so primarily because such undertakings are found by the individual to be enjoyable.
Having given a loose definition it is now possible to have a look at some key sections within the historical hobbyist market, to comment on what they do in a broad sense and how it relates to historical hobbyism as a whole. This is not an in-depth analysis as that is not the purpose of this essay, but rather this is meant to provide the reader with some further framework within which to consider historical hobbyism and hopefully to promote greater cooperation between these sections. It should also be noted that most groups and individuals belong to more than one section of historical hobbyism and that this is not an attempt to classify oneself as a particular type but rather to define the hobby.
Strictly Academic Hobbyists
This section of the hobby is primarily recognised by the fact that it does not involve personal physical immersion, so for example it lacks dressing up or “trying out” historical artefacts. The top level of the academic hobbyists are those working in universities, libraries or museums, working to discover and interpret the past through rigidly defined methods and systems. Within the historical hobbies it is the highest level of Strictly Academic Hobbyists who get to define what becomes historical fact. This is also the section with greatest access to the finds contemporary with the period under study. It is rare to non-existant for practitioners in this section to ever allow or accept non-accuracy of any sort with regards to the work relating to history and there is a large amount of peer review in place to assist in ensuring accuracy. People in this section are also the primary educators of the past and as such its practitioners are the most respected of historical hobbyists.
Life Portraying Hobbyists
This is probably the largest non-professional grade of historical hobbyist with a large majority of the historical hobbyists participating in the section to some level. For the purpose of this essay however I am using the term to refer to those portraying reality to a greater or lesser extent rather than those who attempt to portray fantasy that has realistic elements. Individuals and groups within this category tend to dress up and also gather together for the purpose of meetings, camps or banquets designed to assist with full immersion into the escapist element of the hobby. This section is made up of re-enactors and living historians (at the high end of accuracy) and renaissance fair participants (at the lower end) and subjunctive history participants (SCA, Adrian Empire and other anachronistic historical groups).
Often hobbyists within this section perform for the public, and their shows and events range from extremely high levels of accuracy to perceived accuracy to solely pseudo history. Due to many groups within this section containing participants desiring the full range of accuracy levels, a large amount of elitism (both real and perceived) has developed within and between groups of this section which has led to a great deal of segmentation of the hobby as a whole. The accuracy argument is perhaps the most common, most divisive and most threatening to the continued survival and growth of the hobby. This is the largest market for traders within the hobby and for suppliers to the historical hobbies due to the clothing, kit and sundry items required for participation even at the low end.
Historical Fantasy Hobbyists
This is the segment of this essay that I believe is going to receive the most ire from my readers, but I ask that you hear me out and set aside personal bias in order to see why I include this section as part of the historical hobbies.
Historical Fantasy Hobbyists differ primarily in that they do not seek to recreate any form of historical event but rather that history provides the engine with which to power the creatively imagined fantasy within which their hobby can be enjoyed. In order to better explain let us look at one segment of this section, LARPing (aka Live Action Role Playing). LARP in most instances is carried out with all participants accepting an alternate world/reality/universe and within this alternate space they are a persona but not necessarily human. However in order to portray aspects of this persona or character, by the very nature of reality’s laws it is often easiest for the setting to be much like a perceived past. Thus the characters make use of items such as swords or other historical accoutrements, but without the requirement of needing to show any degree of accuracy to real history, they are able to use items freely, often mixing accoutrements from multiple periods with fantastical designs in a creative manner to assist with escaping into the alternate reality in which the game takes place. Participants in this section of the hobby participate for personal pleasure and this section rarely performs for the general public. Participants favour creativity and artistic expression far more than historical accuracy which has led to an us-and-them attitude between practitioners of this area of the hobby and practitioners in the other areas. The author would suggest though that rather than adopting this attitude, participants of the historical hobbies should see this creative section as a stepping stone into the hobby as a whole, and in small doses occasionally it can be an enjoyable and relaxed entertainment activity for historical hobbyists (much like a history professor reading a fantasy novel for pleasure). For traders and suppliers to the hobby it is important to keep this large portion of the market in mind and to supply it, as many people enter the historical hobbies from participation in this section of the hobby.
Experimental History/Archaeology Hobbyists
This final section of the historical hobbies is made up of many individuals and groups worldwide who work to interpret areas of the past via rediscovery, recreation and development within those areas. This can involve cooperation between academics, craftsmen, martial artists and other specialists as well as amateur hobbyists who have an interest in this area.
One of the largest and fastest growing examples of this section is the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) community. This community attempts to recreate the martial traditions of Europe using evidence from historical texts and extant equipment examples. This section of the historical hobbies strives towards accuracy in the area they are studying but also aims to further develop that area and in many cases bring it “back to life”. To achieve this, accuracy is often mixed with modern advancements and developments forming a hybrid that allows for full rediscovery while still taking into account difficulties such as modern legal restrictions. An example of this is the use of fencing masks, modern gloves and clothing, better steel and nylon training weapons within the HEMA community that allow for full speed and full power sparring without the high risk posed by adhering solely to traditional methods. This section of the hobby works to tread the line between public and academic perception and often is accepted both within the public and academic sphere.
For the purpose of traders or suppliers this section of the market is often looking for highly accurate historical items or highly modern items. They tend to be a difficult area of the market to break into, but once one gains acceptance, they are a very loyal market base.
In conclusion I hope this has allowed you to better understand what is meant by the term historical hobbyist. I have looked briefly at and made a broad analysis of sections within the hobby as a whole, and have attempted to provide some examples as and where necessary. I believe that greater cohesion and cooperation should occur between all sections of the hobby as I believe we all share certain desires and needs, and if our differences could be put aside we could achieve far more for our hobby as a whole.
Topic Discussion Question: How can the historical hobbyist market work towards greater cohesion, and if there was a body willing to assist in this what would you look for from them?