“Cross-Dressing” in Re-enactment

Recently a friend of mine produced a report for their MA about “cross-dressing” in re-enactment. It looked at the question as to whether individuals should be allowed to “cross-dress” in re-enactment or in living history, and it showed some cross-re-enactment issues that I think have to be addressed.

The first is the term “cross-dressing”. It’s used a lot in re-enactment to describe women dressing as men, and (less common in re-enactment) men dressing as women. Unfortunately, whilst my group is very open to gender issues, not everyone in re-enactment knows about the problem with this term. Personally, I thought it was an out-dated term, and only heard people use it when I started re-enactment. Specifically, when I heard about the English Heritage rule that there is no “cross-dressing” allowed in living history any more. The problem is that it buys into the idea that there is a gender binary, when it is in fact very fluid – like sexuality. When linked to the livinghistory.co.uk forum discussing this (and no, I will not link as it is a vile discussion), it became very clear that influential members in that community did not understand this concept.

It was interesting the number of older, male re-enactors who personally objected to women being on the battlefield. There seemed to be a consensus of “well, if she makes an effort to look male, then it’s ok – she’ll be far away from the audience anyway, so any femininity won’t be noticed”. Ok, let’s deconstruct this view.

1. “makes an effort to look male”. What does this even mean? What constitutes as “male”? This is based on a social construct of masculinity. Does this also mean that feminine men shouldn’t be on the battlefield? Then there are those who look masculine without much effort. For clarity, take Brienne of Tarth from Game of thrones.

Brienne of Tarth

I think it’s safe to say that she would “pass” as male without much effort. And to balance this, would they object to these males taking to the field? From the sounds of it, they probably wouldn’t – so why allow feminine males on the field and bar masculine women?

2. “she’ll be far away from the audience, so they won’t notice it, so it’s ok”. This seems to assume that no matter how much effort you put in to appearing masculine, the audience will always magically notice if it’s a women. So we shouldn’t even bother then? This also completely ignores the fact that the majority of re-enactment involves helmets, headgear, and quite frankly very unflattering armour for protection. Under all that, I would be amazed if any women bothered to try and be masculine. In some cases (like Anglo-Saxon or Viking re-enactment), you can only see the eyes of the re-enactor! How are you meant to discern their gender, let alone their sex, from that?!

There was even a view expressed on the forum that they liked fighting against women, because they gave light hits, and tired easily, so you wouldn’t get hurt, but would be able to easily win the fight. Please tell me what isn’t sexist about this? Yes, the comment about light hits should be a compliment, but the context of the comment makes it sound like women in re-enactment are weak – I can hit just as hard as any of the men in my group, and lots of the guys are perfectly capable of soft hits. And don’t get me started on the comment about women getting tired easily. I don’t think it needs to be said how sexist that view is.

At least there seemed to be some sort of agreement about women in combat – it’s fine, they want to have fun too, and it wouldn’t ruin the overall aesthetic. However. As soon as women portraying men in living history was discussed, the shit hits the fan. Now, the EH rules are that there shouldn’t be any “cross-dressing”. Looking at re-enactment in general, men tend to want to portray men and do fun things like being a merchant, being a guard, being a wealthy knight in shiny maille, smithing, so on and so forth. Women in re-enactment have interests that are a bit broader. There’s the typical embroidery, spinning, weaving, cooking and cleaning, but it seems a bit silly to assume that all women would like doing these activities in living history. Personally, I like it, but I would like to try smithing, and guard duty is a lot of fun. And some of the men enjoy doing these as well, but you have to be dressed appropriately to do any of these activities. Men can get away with doing more of these activities than women (especially in my period). It just seems to restrict what women can do disproportionately to what men can do. As soon as the public get close, it seems to be unacceptable to be working on maille whilst dressed as a male, because (shock, horror) you don’t have the correct genitalia. How is this fair? I want to do everything the guys do, but because some old, cis  (men whose sex – genitalia – matches up with what they identify as – men or women), white men have decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate, I’m not allowed. Imagine being told that you can’t do science or, you know, drive a car because it wouldn’t be appropriate. Oh, wait, that happens elsewhere and we’re in uproar about it. And before you say that’s a different case – no it isn’t. It’s telling a specific demographic that they can’t do something because of a small physical difference from those in power. Granted, driving a car is more of a necessity, and re-enactment doesn’t have as dire a consequence if we can’t do it, but it IS the same mindset.

English Heritage’s excuse for this is that it “confuses the audience”. Now, I find that this just insults the audience. I’m pretty sure the audience are clever enough to realise that whilst I myself am not male, this is something men would have done. They understand that we are PORTRAYING something from history. We are, essentially, actors. Yet this same problem isn’t raised when it happens in films (like Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There), even when it’s whitewashing the race of the main characters (see The Impossible for the most recent example of this). Because of risk assessments (where you have to assume the public are stupid), re-enactors seem to give the audience a lot less credit than they should be given. The people who attend the shows I go to are either kids who don’t care if I’m a woman – in their eyes, I’m dressed as a knight, so I’m a knight – or academics or amateur historians who understand that this is a portrayal, and we will never get to “true” historical attitudes or accuracy.

All of these reasons pale in comparison to what the trans re-enactment community must feel about this (yes, they exist). Because of this outdated view from the cis white men in charge of shows that gender is fixed, not fluid, it leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about the plight of the trans community. I don’t have the figures for the UK to hand, but in the United States, 41% of transgendered people said they had attempted suicide. The average for the United States is about (unless my maths is wrong) 0.1%. Think of that for a second. More than HALF of the tras community has not only thought of suicide, but tried to carry it out. Do you see the discrepancy?

So why is this? Well, it’s partially due to unhelpful views like “gender is fixed”. No, gender is fluid. You can have more than one, and you can flick between them in the blink of an eye. Even genitalia isn’t fixed – many children are born with ambiguous genitalia. Some girls are born with large clitorises, and some boys are born with very small penises. Just to point out: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS (a rant may come soon regarding surgically changing children’s genitalia, but it’s for a different post). Despite this, there are surgeries out there who will perform “correctional” surgery on these children, and can cause untold harm. But I digress.

I like to think that transgendered individuals have this figured out, but they live in a world where many people haven’t. This means they are misunderstood, and may develop psychological problems because of societal pressures. For example, with living history, do they follow their true gender (and therefore their true personality), or do what they are told and follow the role their genitalia dictate? If anything, I would say it is immoral to make transgendered people do the role as dictated by their sex. Those who are uncomfortable with their bodies would already find it hard – imagine having a shower and having to wash those areas of your body that you don’t even feel are your own – without being reminded during their hobby about the discrepancy between their sex and gender. A hobby (especially re-enactment) is supposed to allow you to escape from your normal life and do something different from the norm, not remind you of the outside world in the harshest way possible. Yes, they could surgically transition, but some don’t want to have surgery (let alone those who are discriminated against by the medical community, so don’t feel like they can approach their doctor about it. There is enough on that for another post, so I’ll leave it at that). Some are happy having a different gender to their sex. They have to deal instead with people expecting them to be feminine or masculine as defined by their genitalia, and not themselves.

Unfortunately for now, the view about this seems to be “if you don’t like it, do a different hobby”. This attitude needs to change. Re-enactment is where I found the most lovely, understanding people, and my entire friendship circle focusses on re-enactment. The group I am with is one of the most open, welcoming groups ever, and it seems a shame that other groups aren’t as welcoming. I even came across a group (who I shan’t name for fairness) who categorically say no women at all. It seems to me that attitudes within re-enactment need to change and drastically need an update. Hopefully my group will lead in example, and make re-enactment the realm not just for old, cis, white, wealthy men, but for everyone else who wants to have some fun, or are interested in history.


Normally, I use a Dane Axe for training. I’m not amazing with it, but I’ve passed the safety test for it and I’m not awful at it. I just need to be faster.

I decided I really ought to try something new. Considering how I am naturally slow, the choice was not one you’d expect. Yes, I chose florentine.

I decided to use both a hand axe and a mace. It was….. interesting….

I actually had to run a lot more, just so that I could get in range of people to do some damage. It was also a bit of a mindfuck (excuse the language). I could actually use my shield arm for attacking! A lot of this “attacking” was just pushing weapons aside with the heavy mace and hit someone with my axe.

Because of this realisation of just how heavy my mace is, I’m going to be cutting some off the end of the shaft and then re-painting it, so pictures shall follow soon!

I also looked at my hand axe afterwards, and it was more battered than normal. The wood at the top of the shaft had been hit so badly that it was more likely to cause an injury than the blade! So I also will be covering that bit of the axe with leather to try and stop it from being so damaged that it’ll shatter at the first hit. Again, photos shall follow.

What I also didn’t realise was just how tiring it was. If you are using sword and shield, you only need to use one arm strenuously, and the other can rest every now and again. Dane axe, whilst being more physically intensive, still gives your arms a rest mid-way through the swing or you can rest it on the ground whilst still looking awesome. Not so with florentine. You have to keep both arms up at all times for defense, and when you’re tired, you can only put your weapons on your shoulders if you want to still look awesome (a key factor, as you might have guessed). So your arms are never rested unless you’ve actually put your weapons down or sheathed them. So during a 3 hour training session, it took it’s toll. Of course, I couldn’t tell just how much of a toll until the next morning, but still.

I still found it a lot of fun, though. I’ll definitely be using it a lot more, and I might even get pretty good at it! I might even get some kills during competitive fights for once!

The message from this post is: fun=pain

Leeds Armoury Trip

I’m sorry I haven’t written anything in a while. I’ve had some university deadlines and I’ve been busy organising Batsoc stuff. I literally had no time to write this in one go, especially with all the photos I took and needed some explanation as well…

A couple of Saturdays ago, the re-enactment group went on a pretty epic trip to Leeds Armoury in Yorkshire, England. Since it’s an armoury, this will mainly be a weapons post (sorry to the crafters). There are also a lot of photos, and I want to apologise for the appalling quality of the photos – my camera is just plain rubbish, and I can’t afford a new one.

First, the ancient stuff (my academic specialty). There was only one room for this, largely because England is a rather long way away from Italy, Greece, Libya, Iraq and Iran – so items were mainly from Roman Britain and Viking Britain.


Above shows their small (but well-preserved) collection of gladii – the short-sword of choice for the Roman infantry mainly built for stabbing the enemy when they have crunched into their front-line at close quarters. They typically had a ton of metal going into the grip (seen on the right) and the grip was then built up over the top, and could be made out of anything from wood to ivory, and could be incredibly ornate.


As could the vagina (yes, I had to include the hilarious Latin name for the sheath). These were made of wood covered in leather, and then had metal plates to decorate it in openwork. The example here has a plate of a warrior, and is actually relatively simple in comparison with what the Romans were capable of.


Next was something I found very interesting. The Vikings and Anglo-Saxons developed a way of strengthening the steel in their blades. They would twist pieces of iron together and then hammer them into the shape of the blade. In real terms, this gave their blades a “shimmer” or a “ripple”, and helped strengthen them. Image

We spent a lot of time in the 15th and 16th century tournament section, and listened to a talk about the tournament between Henry VIII and the king of France. There were some mental items – one of which was the helmet given to Henry VIII by Maximillian, Holy Roman Emperor. Clearly not all of these were practical, as they would be for show, but for certain parts of the tournaments (like the melee combats) they could be very practical.

ImageOne of these ridiculously practical pieces was the tournament armour for Henry VIII. All of the sections of the armour fit so well together that NASA themselves looked at it when they were developing space suits to try and keep the astronauts inside them as sealed away from space as possible. Then the French changed the rules, saying that he needed to wear a skirted suit in order to compete. Personally, I like the pollaxe he’s holding *manic grin*.

ImageThe extreme end of the practical suits came with Emperor Maximillian’s armour for titled jousting – because in jousts you aim for the face, there’s only a slit so knows where to aim. His entire left side was covered in one piece of (what I think was) wood and leather. What I found interesting was that certain parts of this armour was designed to explode to allow the wearer out of the armour easier.

I then found all the sections to do with Eastern weapons in all shapes and forms. Basically – ALL OF THE PRETTIES!!!


To put it bluntly: they had some mental weapons and armour.

ImageThe Abyssinian sword in the yellow scabbard (sorry for the poor quality picture) was for hacking. Only one side of the blade was sharp, but contrasting with what we would normally think, the blade was on the inside of the curve. Like I said: mental weapons.

ImageThis wasn’t limited just to swords. Daggers were just as crazy. They didn’t have a “normal” handle, but one that ran transverse to the blade. I like to think that you end up stabbing people like Wolverine, but in waaaaaaay prettier clothes.ImageAgain, sorry for the poor quality, but I had to show this mace. It’s the thin one in the middle. Take another look – I promise I’m telling the truth. And it’s made of metal. Considering how maces were made not to slash, but to obliterate your insides – a metal mace like that will definitely do some damage!

ImageNow for some epic things I found. This is basically a machete from Indonesia (I think – apologies if this is wrong), but have you SEEN the blade on that thing?!? Needless to say, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of that…

ImageLast thing from the Eastern section: elephant armour!! What I find most weird about this is what the rider was wearing. I’ll let you take another look. The guy has loose maille over his face. With no holes for his face or his eyes. A couple of the other pieces of maille like this did have eye-holes, but they looked even weirder. It makes sense – no need for a heavy helmet to cover your entire face that you can’t breathe through, but still. Chainmail on face. That’s not a fun thought.

ImageNext is the shiniest thing I have ever seen. It’s genuinely from the nineteenth century – but wouldn’t look out of place with my steampunk outfit…

ImageI thought this was a brilliant way of remembering that people in wars (mainly World War 1) were just that – people. It’s actually a biscuit preserved from World War 1.


Finally, one of my favourite items from the collection. The Vampire Hunter’s kit. There was a huge surge in people buying boxes like this after Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was one of those things that reminds you that fans are not a new phenomenon, and even the Victorians had their own version of Forbidden Planet.


I’ll leave you with the image at the bottom of the Hall of Steel. This was where they displayed armour from all time periods in the most epic way possible.

Why even start re-enacting?

When I started university (because yes, I am horribly privileged), during Fresher’s Week my now-fiancée told me about a session he went to with “Batsoc”. “Huh?” was my response. He then went on to tell me that it was the university’s Battle Re-Enactment Society, and they do the Middle Ages (a phrase woefully inept as I would find out). This meant he had spent a few hours walking around a patch of grass in helmet, shield and waving a sword about whilst simultaneously trying not to have an asthma attack.

My first response to this was pretty typical of most people when they hear about it – “why on Earth would you ever want to do that?”. A year later I finally gave it a go. Well, I say I gave it a go. I went to their craft session first, and made a rather fetching red hood and started making a leather pouch (which I still haven’t finished).

Whilst doing any craft in a large group, you inevitably start talking to people – whether it’s asking how they do a certain thing (like “how do you do chain mail?”) to just chatting, you start to talk. Thankfully, these were people who were all like-minded, including someone who let me try on a lovely authentic dress they had made, and let me geek out about fabric and crafty things in all their glory.

So naturally when I next met up with them I tried to kill them.

I will stress that I mean PRETEND kill them, with blunted steel swords, but it still involved a lot of shouting and wonderfully over-the-top pretends deaths. I don’t remember much of the training session, but I do remember trying and failing to keep my shield up at a respectable height towards the end of the session, and trying very hard to yell “OOOT!” and “NORMANDYYYYYYY!” with a very hoarse throat.

Since then, I was hooked.

If truth be told, it wasn’t the prospect of being an amazing swordsman and being able to kill anyone I came across that kept me there. It was the prospect of putting on a good show. I enjoyed the dying more than winning – I still don’t quite know what to do with myself if I win a fight. It bought into my attention-seeking side, and had never quite let itself go.

And then Hastings arrived. What a culture shock. I always hated camping, but a weekend at Hastings fighting Normans, passing my Basic Training test (which meant that I was safe to go onto the field), marching through Hastings, chucking a torch onto a gigantic bonfire, and then fighting more Normans the next day whilst sleeping on the cold ground in a tent was brilliant.

I can safely say that I’m hooked.

I didn’t even LIKE the Crusade period (I study Ancient History for a reason), but being able to re-create it has FORCED me to be interested in it, so I can put on a more interesting show.

Oh, that and the shiny lamella, maille, swords, axes, helmets, and the Eastern kit.