Philosophy may seem a strange approach to the exploration of the past, and yet the need for some is revealed by the first question most people ask when they see us in the field - whether at Marathon in Greece, or in the deep Adirondacks, or in Verona, Italy, or Schoharie, New York, or even Trinity Bellwoods park in Toronto.
'Why do you do this?'
It is really an excellent question, and answering it honestly takes time and effort and may even be a little complicated. Stick around. It's worth examining.
First, I think every one of us would say that historical re-creation is fun. If it was dull or silly, we probably wouldn't do it.
Second, it presents opportunities for adventure that is missing from our modern lives. Navigating the woods, for example, four miles from a trail and six miles from a road, with forty pounds of 18th century equipment and two hours until dark ... is not pretend. It is very real, and it is very exciting. It challenges us in a way that riding a bicycle to work cannot easily do. I think we all love the challenge.
Third, it is important. History deserves to be taught, described, perhaps even celebrated. We live in a world where schools and politicians increasingly de-emphasize history. And yet - history is the story of the whole human race, and without it, we do not know where we have been, who we are, or even, in some cases, why we are. As a group, we are people who are not satisfied with a comfortable or mythologized version of history. We want to touch it and feel it, understand its bones, learn the details of why and how. We prize skills over things, and we prize the ability to use those skills under pressure - at least in part because many of the skills our group prizes so highly are slipping away.
Edmund Husserl, an early 20th century philosopher, believed that experience was the source of all knowledge, and suggested in his writings on science that the only true way to understand anything - and especially history - was to develop some experience of it. At Hoplologia, we seek to develop a deeper understanding of how people lived, worked, fought, and traveled in the past, as one experiential branch of a movement to 'know' more.
At another level, philosophy can be about ethics. At Hoplologia, when we engage in martial arts and form vaguely 'military' companies, we're also interested in ethical systems of the past - like chivalry, an ethical system related to violence. We try to practice what we study, and we prize 'gentle' behavior - the discipline and restraint, dignity and calm that makes a warrior someone who a society can trust, rather than fear. This sort of ethical behavior is as valid today as it was in the past - on the floor of a salle or dojo, or in Iraq, or on the streets of Toronto or LA or Ferguson, Missouri.
But ... it's not all martial arts and military history. Close study of the language and philosophy of the past - from Plato to Kant (and that's just in the West) - is a good way of understanding how people thought, of 'experiencing' a different approach to the world. Discussing and even practicing the philosophies of the past - like listening to the music of the past - can be a form of intellectual 'historical re-creation' that requires no costume and no equipment, but can still give a valid experience of 'history.' Or - so we believe.
We also believe in research. Blindly copying other people who play dress up is tempting, especially when their efforts are brilliant, but real progress in understanding history comes from learning. Research can start with reading a simple guide like the 'Medieval Tailor's Assistant' or a brilliant secondary source like Eamon Duffy's 'Stripping of the Altars' or William Caffero's book 'John Hawkwood; An English Knight in Italy.' But reading secondary sources, while informative, is not really research. Research comes from approaching original sources, whether those are museums with period artifacts or contemporary documents. We use original sources for our martial arts; especially the Getty and Lucandi MSS. of Fiore's work, and for our Enlightenment period classes, the works of Angelo, among others.
A final note. One thing we do not believe is that the use of historical re-creation is to celebrate our own ancestors and thus, we ourselves. We have observed - on three continents - a use of historical re-creation as a vehicle of fascism and nationalism, and that's not why we're here. Our organization is open to anyone, regardless of race, faith, gender, orientation, or outlook, so long as you are willing to work (hard) and are interested in the projects. Our outlook on participation is that of our current, modern Canadian, American, Italian, and Greek societies - we encourage anyone to take any role they fancy, as long as they are willing to do the work, acquire the skills, and take the responsibility. We are proud to have women who are knights, and African American hoplites. We wouldn't have it any other way, because we know, deeply, how our society got where it is.