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A Few Words About Living in the Past

ImageI received yet another email from a TV producer looking for people who live entirely in some sort of historical way. She gave me the sense that she really didn't understand us, and I fear that she was looking for subjects for a, not to put too fine a point on it, freak show like those I saw a few years back from the BBC. Here's how I responded:

I understand there are some people who try to live entirely in some sort of "retro" way, but I don't know any. Everyone I know cherry picks from the past: we draw from the past the things we find lacking in the present, but we are perfectly willing to take advantage of modern technology and live in the real world. Most of us prefer not to live in a world with the disease, violence, bigotry and gender inequality that was all too common in the past, and there's few of us would turn down a shot of antibiotic if we had a serious infection.

Different people cherry pick different things. A lot of folks love the fashions of the past and enjoy the sense of occasion that really dressing up lends to any activity - something that is sadly lacking in our hyper-casual society. Many (and these groups contain lots of the same people) love the music and perhaps dance of the past - a time when songs were finely crafted and dances gave you a real connection to your partner.

Some love the simplicity, human scale and ingenuity of old technology like cars, trains, aeroplanes, radios and even kitchen appliances. Some love the foods, drinks and dining customs of the past. Others are fascinated by the weapons, warfare and martial skills of past ages. A significant number revel in mastering the survival skills of frontiersmen, and spending time in the wilderness "living rough" - though the vast majority of them then come home to showers, families and "day jobs". A few even serve as crew on ships ranging from viking longships to sailing ships to liberty ships.

There's even a very impressive class of individual who masters the creative skills of the past, from woodworking, to tailoring, to blacksmithing to making swords and armor to name just a few.

This list of interest groups is in no way complete. There are plenty more out there I have missed.

I should point out that these interest groups are not isolated camps. Most of us in the history community have our fingers in a lot of pies, emphasizing some, dabbling in others, admiring others at a distance and looking at a few and saying "not even on a bet". Many also participate in multiple historical periods, while others focus on just one. Some are intense perfectionists regarding their particular passions while others are perfectly happy with less-than-perfect costumes, stuff or activities.

All of these people enjoy the challenge, the connection to history, and the intensity and the comradery of these selective visits to the past, but the many hundreds of people I know who do this with differing levels of intensity, incorporate their historical passions into a rich, full modern life. Most are quite well adjusted and function well in modern society, but in my opinion, live far more satisfying lives than people who limit themselves to what our present age has to offer.

I don't know if it will make good television, but there it is.