Stepping Off the Page: Ron Chernow’s Biography of Alexander Hamilton

I have been working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton over the course of the last few months. It is a truly excellent work of popular history. As a Canadian historian, I’d never really been exposed to much of the detailed history of the American revolutionary era and early decades of the United States, and the early financial and political history of the independent country is surprisingly fascinating. I think a lot of my newfound fascination is a testament to Chernow’s ability to both humanize historical figures but also parse out their politics in an engaging, clear, and detailed way. The country could have gone in so many other directions. Chernow does an amazing job of laying out just how fragile the early republic was. Too often the success of the revolution and the formation of the American state as we know it today is treated almost like political certainty, or some sort of destiny, but reading this book you get a real sense of how figures like Washington and Hamilton could have lost, not just the revolution but in other great projects of theirs that they’re known for. I now understand much better why there were amendments to the American constitution. I understand early banking a lot better, and how sketchy people thought it was then … and I can see parallels to today with people who are not financially literate having very firm ideas about the politics determining the finances of a nation. I have a better sense of just how vicious the early politics could be, with politicians publishing anonymous diatribes about each other either using proxy authors or thinly-veiled pseudonyms themselves. Some of it was incredibly petty, and a lot of it was character assassination and treating rumours as fact. (So… the more things change, the more things stay the same?) Nevertheless, the sheer amount of detail that Chernow draws together in this work boggles my mind.

I really like Chernow’s authorial voice. He sets the tone early, in his very first author’s note before the title page:

In order to make the text as fluent as possible and the founders less remote, I have taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and punctuation of eighteenth-century prose, which can seem antiquated and jarring to modern eyes. I have also cured many contemporary newspaper editors of their addiction to italics and capitalized words. Occasionally, I have retained the original spelling to emphasize the distinctive voice, strong emotion, patent eccentricity, or curious education of the person quoted. I trust that these exceptional cases, and my reasons for wanting to reproduce them precisely, will be evident to the alert reader.

Chernow has an evocative way of gathering together content from what must be thousands of pages of primary research into an incredible cohesive narrative. It almost reads like a novel. The historical figures nearly step off of the page, and not just in their grander moments. Take, for instance, this bit about Hamilton’s immediately post-war job as an up-and-coming New York lawyer:

The departure of many Tory lawyers had cleared the path for capable, ambitious men in their late twenties and early thirties, including Burr, Brockholst Livingston, Robert Troup, John Laurance, and Morgan Lewis. They were constantly thrown together in and out of court. Much of the time they rode the circuit together, often accompanied by the judge, enduring long journeys in crude stagecoaches that jolted along jumpy upstate roads. They stayed in crowded, smoky inns and often had to share beds with one another, creating a camaraderie that survived many political battles. (pg. 188)

These are the kinds of details I find fascinating. (I am a social historian, not normally a political one.) How did these people know each other? What had they been through together? It’s often in little details like these that we get really good contextual information to the relationships of historical figures. It’s interesting how the everyday details of people’s lives influenced their politics.

I also loved the moment where Chernow describes the secular leanings of Hamilton at Constitutional Convention:

When [Benjamin] Franklin suggested on June 28 that each session start with a prayer for heavenly help, Hamilton countered that this might foster a public impression that ’embarrassments and dissensions within the convention had suggested this measure.’ According to legend, Hamilton also rebutted Franklin with the jest that the convention didn’t need ‘foreign aid.’ The Lord did not seem much in evidence at this point in the convention. One story, perhaps apocryphal, claims that when Hamilton was asked why the framers omitted the word God from the Constitution, he replied, ‘We forgot.’ One is tempted to reply that Alexander Hamilton never forgot anything important. (pg. 235)

I now have a much better understanding of how the story of Alexander Hamilton inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write his amazing musical, famously based on this book. The life of Alexander Hamilton is almost too dramatic to be true. I wanted to highlight the following story in particular, as it really stuck in my mind. I believe it would make an amazing television episode by itself. During the revolutionary war, Hamilton was acting as aide-de-camp to General George Washington…

Washington dispatched Hamilton, Captain Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee), and eight cavalrymen to burn flour mills on the Schuylkill River before they fell into enemy hands. While Hamilton and others were destroying flour at Daviser’s … Ferry, their sentinels fired a warning shot indicating the approach of British dragoons. To guarantee an escape route, Hamilton had moored a flat-bottomed boat at the river’s edge. He and three comrades now leaped into the craft and pushed off from shore, while Lee and others took off on horseback. Lee recalled the British raking Hamilton’s boat with repeated volleys from their carbines, killing one of Hamilton’s men and wounding another. All the while, the intrepid Hamilton was ‘struggling against a violent current, increased by the recent rains.’ Hamilton and his men finally drove from the boat into the swirling waters and swam to safety. Scarcely stopping for breath, Hamilton dashed off a message to John Hancock that urged the immediately evacuation of the Continental Congress from Philadelphia. Just before Hamilton returned to headquarters, Washington received a letter from Captain Lee announcing Hamilton’s death in the Schuylkill. There were tears of jubilation, as well as considerable laughter, when the sodden corpse himself sauntered through the door. (pg. 98-99)

This is what public history is supposed to do. It is a good story, and an evocative and accessible one. This one scene, in and among all of the others that Chernow writes about, highlights elements of Hamilton’s character, the part he played in the revolution, and the relationships he has with other historical figures such as Washington. Drawing these types of vignettes together to tell the story of a person’s life: that’s a historian’s job.

The role of a historian is in part to gather together evidence of past historical events, critically analyze them, and assemble them into coherent narratives. As Chernow himself has said: “History is long, messy, and complicated.” However, Chernow does an excellent job at portraying that messiness in a way that doesn’t put people on a pedestal, and makes sense of the many factions of that period in American history. The men and women that Chernow writes about don’t feel as remote to me anymore. I particularly like how Chernow sometimes highlights their handwriting. The materiality of a document can tell a historian a lot about the person writing it and the circumstances under which they wrote it. For instance, lot of the surviving dispatches in Washington’s name from the revolutionary war are in Hamilton’s handwriting (being an aide-de-camp involved effectively being a secretary among other duties), testifying to just how involved Hamilton was with Washington’s inner circle at critical moments during the war. There’s also this charming aside about Hamilton and his wife Eliza:

On April 30, 1781, Hamilton sent a marathon letter to Morris – it runs to thirty-one printed pages – that set forth a fully-fledged system for shoring up American credit and creating a national bank. Portions of this interminable letter exist in Eliza’s handwriting (complete with her faulty spelling), as if Hamilton’s hand ached and he had to pass the pen to his bride at intervals. (pg. 156)

I’m not only picturing them as static paintings and statues, as formal words spoken in florid or stoic language, but as real human beings with all their foibles and physical weaknesses and petty words, with their passions and dedication to duty.  The figures in Chernow’s biography get tired, they get sick, and they get frustrated with one another. They defend their ideals against all comers. They have great passions and they have tender moments with their loved ones. They’re people. Fascinating ones.

And oh man I’m only about 400 pages into an 800 page tome, and I’m so excited to read more.


  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. (Of course.)
  • Ron Chernow Interview: Hamilton on Broadway: Chernow talks about how he came to be involved in Lin Manuel Miranda’s project, and the process of adapting an 800 page book into a two hour musical. Adaptation necessitates a straightforward narrative, so how does a historical consultant grapple with ideas of “historical accuracy” in a new medium?
  • Speaking of writing: if you’re interested in learning more about the clever writing of Lin Manuel Miranda in his musical based off of this book, I highly recommend this video: “Hamilton and Motifs: Creating Emotional Paradoxes.” (Bonus, it has clips of the musical that I can’t find elsewhere!)

The Museum of Vancouver’s City Before The City Exhibit is Blunt but Refreshing

The West Coast “winter” has really hit, meaning that more often than not my weekend days involve chilly, torrential rain. As a result, I have almost no excuses to go visit museums in the Vancouver area. This past week, I visited the Museum of Vancouver, and I wanted to highlight a few powerful panels in their new permanent exhibition that I really appreciated. The curators of c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the City willingly acknowledged the damaging colonial past (and present): not just the role of the city in dispossessing Indigenous people of their land but the role that the people employed by the museum have played in furthering damaging narratives.

The panels were refreshingly blunt. Museums have a moral responsibility to combat damaging misinformation and should be able to acknowledge difficult stories of the past and how they continue to impact people in the present. I loved this panel at the doorway to the exhibit, asking visitors to mentally hang their existing misconceptions on this nail to leave them at the door, entering with an open mind.

When you first enter the exhibit, you see arrays of beautiful but practical historical artifacts and videos of modern Indigenous people sharing stories of the objects and their cultural significance. The exhibit did a good job making what could have been relatively sterile artifacts interesting and meaningful. (I have indeed seen many a museum display arrowheads and other archaeological finds in a way that only seems interesting to archaeologists and makes my eyes glaze – and I’m actually interested in the subject.)

Around the back of one of the big signs, not immediately visible upon entry, is this bit, which really struck me as a historian used to casting a critical eye on museum exhibits:

In a fascinating bit of design, this section uses historical artifacts created by anthropologists in a more racist time and displays them in a way that they are obscured by text condemning them. It doesn’t sweep that past under the rug. Instead, it forces the visitor to confront that chapter of 20th century colonialism, in which museums used their academic authority to actively promote the theft of cultural artifacts and ancestral remains, and used them to tell racist narratives and viewpoints (which weren’t even always accepted by professional scientists of the time).

It would be too easy for a museum about the history of a city to call pre-Vancouver history out of scope, but these hard-hitting histories are essential to understanding how the city of Vancouver came to be shaped over time – how it came to be the way it is today. Kudos to the curators and the work that went into consulting with Indigenous peoples and taking steps to do things right, or at least better than before.

If you are in the Vancouver area, particularly if you are a resident, I highly encourage you to visit the museum’s c̓əsnaʔəm: City Before the City exhibit and its temporary exhibit Haida Now and admire all of the beautiful objects and stories I didn’t have time to write about in this post. Most of these are best experienced in person!

What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?

Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.



Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.

Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:

Continue reading “What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?”

Sitting Bull Wasn’t American: Interpreting the Messy History of the Border at Fort Walsh

I recently visited the Cypress Hills: a gorgeous landscape full of history. It’s also the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. This event and the early history of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) are commemorated at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.

Overall I was very impressed with my visit. In the dynamic, newly redesigned displays of the interpretive centre, they clearly made an effort to add nuance and empathy to the story of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which over 70 Nakoda people, mainly women and children, were killed by Americans who falsely blamed them for horse thefts. This horrific event was one of the catalysts for the formation of the now famous Mounties. This police force was sent West to impose Canadian law for the first time in the territory. The new exhibits made a point of using Indigenous languages throughout. I was particularly impressed by a display which had audio recordings of accounts of the massacre from the Nakoda perspective (from both oral histories and contemporary depositions). They were available in three languages: English and French (as required by the official languages act) and Nakoda. I thought this was proper and respectful.

The site has a reproduction of the Fort itself as well as a Métis camp and trading post which interprets late fur trade history. As someone who is more used to fur trade history from a generation before (1820s – 1850s), I found the little differences from the 1870s fascinating. They had early canned goods! They also had three costumed staff there, on a weekday, interpreting Métis history, and the interpreter that showed us around was very engaging and knowledgeable. I think it would be too easy to present the Métis and First Nations history as peripheral at this site, but they did a decent job at interpreting the stories not just on the Mounties but the other folks who were living out there already. I recognize this effort particularly because I believe that it represents a shift in trying to tell a broader narrative than a narrow focus on just the Mounties.


My partner and I went on a tour of the fort itself right after we arrived. We had to skip the exhibit until afterwards, doing it out of the intended order. Luckily, we already knew some of the context of this site’s history! The tour guide was an excellent speaker and was very dynamic in their presentation style. I walked away with a clear sense of the day to day life of these men in the fort. Our favourite part of the tour was a mock trial of several troublemakers pulled from the audience. Aside from being an interesting snapshot into the kinds of crimes that were common during that period, the interpreter’s comedic timing was on point! I’m also particularly fascinated by material culture so I really appreciated, for instance, explanations about what kinds of saddles were used when and why by the Mounties. Practicality is paramount! As a whole, I was pleased with the tour and what I learned.

However, there were a few offhand remarks made by the guide that really got me thinking about the narratives Canadians tell about their history, and whose perspectives are highlighted and whose brushed aside. This isn’t a critique of our guide in particular, but of the common narratives around the history of the Mounties in Canada. Namely, one often hears about the early history of the Mounties without contextualizing a very messy history of a decade of abrupt transition from a buffalo economy to control by the British/Canadian colonial state. The guide did talk a bit about Indigenous relations throughout the tour, particularly in the introduction, but several comments really brought home to me how glossed over some of the more problematic aspects of the relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people has been, not only at this site but whenever a triumphalist Canadian history narrative is told.

One of the key messages the interpreter had was that the relationship between the first Mounties and local Indigenous people at that time was based off of mutual respect but also intimidation. That seems contradictory to me: it can’t have been a relationship on equal footing when the Mounties were continuously doing manoeuvres with their field guns as a show of force. Mounties were also imposing a very specific worldview on the West and punished those who did not fit into that mold, criminalizing some acts that hadn’t been crimes before. I’m thinking particularly of the restriction of free movement in ancestral territories and the imposition of American and Canadian nationalities upon local people who didn’t define themselves by an invisible line (the border at the 49th parallel). Individual Mounties may have had decent and relatively respectful working relationships with some First Nations leaders, but the tour glossed over several points for me. Namely, we were laughing about arresting horse thieves at the mock trial, but who were these horse thieves? I would be shocked if they were all Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians. Differing cultural views of what horse stealing was all about clashed in this time period and a lot of First Nations were viewed as inherent criminals because of their traditions of horse theft.


Reproduction Treaty medal at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.

Maybe this was a slip of the tongue on the part of the guide (though part of the history section of the website uses similar wording), but I think the following example really brings home the need to think critically about the narratives we’ve all been told and have told about Mounties during this time period. Namely, the guide was describing the Lakota Refugee Crisis; Chief Sitting Bull and others were fleeing conflict in what is now the US after the Battle of Little Big Horn but were refused entry into “Canadian” territory by the NWMP because, quote, “they were American.”

No, they weren’t. Sitting Bull  and his people were at war with the Americans. The Americans were an invading force who had drawn an invisible line on a map from thousands of kilometres away and sought to claim Sitting Bull’s territory for the United States. Sitting Bull was not an American. He was not a Native American. He was a Lakota man at war with Americans. It is true to say that the British/Canadians at the time considered Sitting Bull to be American, or at least an American problem, and that is why they took the actions they did. But perceptions are not reality. Explaining historical perspectives is fine, but if you are speaking as an interpreter out of character, in third person, you are able to make these distinctions in a way that a person interpreting in character (in first person) cannot. I would argue that interpreters have a duty to do so, to give nuance to a story that we may understand better in hindsight with greater context than in the limited views at the time.

The decades of the 1870s and 1880s are a fascinating time of transition and conflict in the West. The near-annihilation of the buffalo changed everything on the prairies. The arrival of the Mounties and the delineation and enforcement of the border at the 49th parallel wasn’t inevitable as it is often portrayed to be. It would have been hard at that place and at that time to see the larger picture that was taking shape and just how much and how rapidly things were changing. This time of uncertain politics and culture clash is incredibly fascinating to me because it isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed in textbooks, high school classrooms, or museum exhibits. I’ve written before about NWMP encounters with people accused of being wendigos or wendigo killers. Too often we’re told the history of this messy period from the perspective of those writing the documents: the lawmen, who were too often new to to the region and had little understanding of the cultural context in which these “crimes” (according to the state) were committed. If you killed a suspected wendigo, were you a person doing what was necessary to save your community from a monster who might kill and eat people, or were you a murderer who killed a mentally ill person, sometimes at their own request? I find those messy narratives even more interesting than the misleadingly straightforward, triumphant one we often hear about: the simple narrative of the men in red uniforms coming in and imposing “peace, order, and good government” upon a lawless West.

I find it useful sometimes to think of this time period as a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Mounties arrived at a time of great disruption, after waves of disease, warfare, and the displacement of people. The near-destruction of the great bison herds wasn’t just the loss of an essential food source, but something much more profound. LeRoy Little Bear, an elder of the Kainai First Nation, has described it this way: “If you’re a Christian, imagine what would happen if all the crosses and corner churches disappeared … you still have your beliefs and ideas, but there’s no external connection to it anymore.” Imagine that every cultural institution (churches, museums), plus every shopping mall, grocery store, hardware store, and even Tim Hortons, all closed down within a single lifetime. Imagine the disruption to your life. That is the situation the Mounties were walking into.

So in summary, delve deeper into the history of the 1870s and 1880s in the West. Challenge the dominant narratives and think of how things could have been different. Seek out perspectives told by Indigenous people (yes, contemporary accounts also exist). Be fascinated, as I am, with the messy complexities and contradictions of this time period. The Mounties came in to combat the destructive whiskey trade and to stop some of the violence being committed against Indigenous people by settlers. Yes, celebrate the stories of the good things the police did, and tell the stories of early respect between NWMP and Indigenous leaders, but don’t lose sight of the wider colonial role and context of the Mounties.

It’s a part of our history.

Further References

  • Visit Fort Walsh National Historic Site and take in their interpretive displays in their visitor centre. Take one of their tours.
  • Hogue, Michel. Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Wilkins, Charles. The Wild Ride: A History of the North West Mounted Police 1873–1904. Stanton Atkins & Dosil, 2010.
  • Wilson, Garrett.  Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014.

200 Years of Time Travel: the Beamish Open-Air Museum

Beamish is an immense open-air living history museum in the North of England. I had the great pleasure to be driven there by a friend of mine from York and spent a gleeful day exploring the many buildings of the site. I visited in mid-January 2018, on a Saturday, and was shocked and pleased at both the number of visitors and costumed staff in what I would traditionally consider the off-season for such sites. Beamish makes a strong case for the potential to have these sites open year round, if the demand is there! Beamish portrays several different time periods, all separated by some distance along a road. Each is its own self-contained little village or manor house. They are: a house, church, and grounds from the 1820s; a village of coal miners in the early 1900s; a prosperous town in the 1910s; and a farm community in the 1940s – the home front of the Second World War. The site is very good at providing an immersive experience and evoking the feeling of Northern England during the time periods they portray.

Overall, I was very impressed by the depth of knowledge their costumed interpreters had, and they inhabited their spaces as historical figures would, going about their daily tasks, including unpleasant ones like scrubbing tables. It didn’t feel like they were lying in wait for visitors to show up. They were almost always embroiled in a particular task when I encountered them, really providing an immersive experience for me as a visitor. I heard costumed staff interpret in many different character styles.  Some were entirely first person, fully in-character, such as a dentist in the 1910s who explained the latest in anesthetic breakthroughs to me. Others were in third person (“this is where coal workers would live in 1900…”), providing clear but interesting information about the site. I was very interested to hear where buildings had originally come from, for example, and how many were deconstructed and rebuilt stone by stone in their new location. Other interpreters used a mix of the two styles, breaking character if necessary, or employing hypotheticals such as “I would have used a machine like this to…” There was an excellent mix and I was always learning something new! Interpreters really do bring sites like Beamish alive.

There were quite a few small restaurants throughout the site, so we had no difficulty satisfying our Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and finding a place to eat. My friend and I ate lunch at the British Kitchen (in the 1940s), which I am given to understand would have been a typical type of establishment during that decade. They really worked the wartime rationing theme, something I find a fascinating part of British history at that time that didn’t have as strong an impact on Canadian history during the same decade. Plus, their food was absolutely delicious and not too pricey! (Also, I as a Canadian didn’t know that Bovril wasn’t just a base for a broth or sauce but can actually be drunk as a hot beef flavoured drink?) We also had a pint of locally brewed beer at a pub called the Sun Inn, which is a fully functioning bar in their 1910s street. I love that their eating establishments also provided an immersive visitor experience, serving food and drink roughly equivalent to that served in the time periods they represented. Why go for generic hot dogs and hamburgers when you can use restaurants to reinforce the themes and aesthetic of your historic site?

Beamish is a large site. There is a ring road that goes around to the different time periods, but it can take 10 or 15 minutes to walk from place to place. In the summertime, I am told there is a steam train, which wasn’t running when I was there in January. However, even in winter there were historical double-decker busses and streetcars running very frequently for visitors to use. There was no additional cost on top of admission to use historical public transit on site. Also, there are great views of the different historical buildings from the top of these amazing vehicles.

One of the things I was super impressed by at Beamish was that they have their artifact storage space open to the public. Highlights for me include an iron lung, used by polio patients! They’re also currently gathering artifacts from the 1950s for an additional area of the site currently being developed and not yet open to the public. I suppose I’ll have to return in a few years to learn more about the 1950s!

In many respects, there were elements of Beamish that reminded me strongly of the narratives we tell in historic sites in North America, such as the hardships of the past (though minus the typical new world pioneer narratives), feelings of community, and changing technologies and social mores through time. A lot of the daily activities portrayed on site were not unexpected, though they were handled expertly by the costumed staff: handicrafts like rug making and quilting, cooking in wood burning stoves, and caring for livestock. Many artifacts, too, were familiar to me from my time as a historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park. But one of the things I’d never seen before at any other historic site are gigantic cheese presses. I found several of them at Beamish and I’m not entirely sure what they’re for. Something to do with the cheese making process? I imagine that they’re the kind of artifacts that do survive the centuries relatively intact, being large in size and solid in construction.

A man stands between two irregular curved posts forming a gate over a path.
This odd-looking gate outside Eston Church in the 1820s area may be made from a whale’s jawbone. One of many fascinating things to see at Beamish!

Even though my friend and I arrived only 10 minutes after the park opened in the morning and stayed until just before closing time, I feel we only got a brief overview of the site. I think it would take several days to truly explore and get a real sense of the place. If you find yourself in Northern England, I highly recommend you step into the past and visit Beamish.

Further Reading

Return to Rouen Part One: the Ossuary of Saint Maclou

My friend and author Erin Kinsella interviewed me last year about travelling to Rouen, Normandy, in France. I gushed about the history of Joan of Arc, elaborate clocktowers, impressionist history, and an amazingly eclectic ironworks museum. In November 2016, I had the opportunity to return to Rouen. One of the odd but fascinating places I visited was the Aître Saint-Maclou.

“Aître” comes from the Latin word for “atrium” or courtyard, and was used to talk about cemeteries in medieval France. This place had been used as a cemetery dating back to the Great Plague of 1348, though most of the buildings date from the early 16th century, when the plague returned to the city and it began to be used as an ossuary to make room for the more recent dead. Most of the skeletons were moved to the Mont Gargan cemetery in 1780, but recently more skeletons were discovered in the courtyard by archaeologists. The style of buildings, with the white walls and wooden crossbeams, is seen all over Rouen, but this is the only place that I could ever find that had such carvings. They’re all decorated with danse macabre skeletons, skulls and crossbones, and the tools of the trade of gravediggers. There is even a mummified cat on display!

The Aître Saint-Maclou is one of the few surviving examples of medieval charnel houses that still exist in Europe.

Aitre Saint Maclou, 1908
The Aitre Saint Maclou in 1908. Photo courtesy of the Institut national d’histoire de l’art.

Further Reading

#SelfiesWithShakespeare: Visitor Engagement in the Bard’s Birthplace

My father and I visited Stratford Upon Avon only days before the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The sun was shining, the swans were swimming, and the visitors were out in force.

Continue reading “#SelfiesWithShakespeare: Visitor Engagement in the Bard’s Birthplace”

Twitter Play-by-Play of the Champlain on the Anishinabe-Aki Colloquium: Day Two

(See here for the Twitter roundup of the action-packed first day of the Champlain on the Anishinabe-Aki Colloquium.)

Twitter Play-by-Play of the Champlain on the Anishinabe-Aki Colloquium: Day One

At the Champlain on the Anishinabe-Aki Colloquium at Carleton University this week, there were quite a few of us glued to our various electronic devices. No, we weren’t rudely texting while the panelists were speaking (well, at least I wasn’t); we were projecting their words to the Twitterverse. We were retweeted and queried by other Twitterhistorians and museums alike, adding another layer of conversation to the conference.

This also may amount to more of a Twitter play-by-play of the colloquium’s proceedings, not only the most popular and witty of the tweets. While most but not all of the tweeting is in English, many of the presenters and audience questions were using French. I can just more easily wrestle my thoughts and summaries of events into 140 characters in English.

(Fair warning: I may be biased in favour of my own tweets, but there were so many other witty people tweeting I am sure that there will be plenty of variety! Most of these come from the official conference hashtag at #cuchamplain.)

Continue reading “Twitter Play-by-Play of the Champlain on the Anishinabe-Aki Colloquium: Day One”

What is “Historical Accuracy”?

Abstract (or TL;DR): An academic with living history experience muses on ideas of “historical accuracy”. True historical accuracy is impossible to achieve, but is an ideal to which one should aspire in living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. “Accuracy” is not simply a matter of paying close attention details of costume or setting, and reconciling them with modern health & safety regulations, but also involves attempting to portray the more intangible aspects of the past.

Come on, guys, don’t you know that watermelon-headed fur traders didn’t start wearing Glengarry hats with beadwork like that until the late 1850s, not the mid-1840s? Do your research! (“M. Melondeau” in the Fort Edmonton Employee Break Room, summer 2011)

This will not be the last you hear from me on the subject of historical accuracy. The nebulous ideas of “historical accuracy” or “historical authenticity” are things that are often bandied about a lot in discussions of living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. But what does it actually mean?

It’s not just as simple as avoiding the tell-tale square bulge of an iPhone in one’s apron pocket when portraying an Edwardian maid, not having late Victorian gentlemen sporting aviator sunglasses, or eschewing the use of late twentieth century slang in a nineteenth-century fur trading fort. Let’s get this out of the way straight off: it is impossible to be entirely historically accurate. Full stop. It is an ideal to strive towards, but is never entirely attainable. We do not live in the past. We have (unfortunately) not yet acquired the ability to travel in time. Much ink has been spilled by historians in past decades, and they have generally come to the consensus that we cannot know everything about the past, let alone translate that to writing and then costumed interpretation or re-enactment. (“History is all a construct!” is one of the catchphrases among the Public History MAs at Carleton University, an exclamation which is often accompanied by us throwing our hands up in the air in despair.) However, simply because the “perfection” of complete historical accuracy is physically unattainable doesn’t mean we should just pack in our bonnets and petticoats and give up. What an interpreter can do is provide the veneer of “historical accuracy”: something that doesn’t break one’s “historic bubble” unnecessarily. That means, on a most basic level, avoiding jarring anachronisms in dress, speech, and behaviour, and doing one’s best based on the information available. (Be prepared to do a lot of reading, and get a lot of practical experience in historical skills.)

Some exceptions are made, of course, as I would always tell visitors who enjoyed pointing out, say, the fire extinguisher hidden behind the door next to the wood burning stove. (“Hey, is that supposed to be there? I’m not sure that they had these in 1920!” they would say with a wink as they waited for me to finish baking a saskatoonberry pie.) I will always flat-out tell them that safety of course trumps historical accuracy at all times. I also portrayed a nurse, a veteran of the Great War: would you rather I used my twenty-first century First Aid training, certified by the Red Cross, in a medical emergency in the park, or the historical skills I’ve learned about in the course of my research, in the name of historical accuracy? Can you actually require interpreters at your museum to wear corsetry, or to abandon their inaccurate glasses? In the example of the fire extinguisher, I like to use the (often mocking) comment made by visitors as an entry point into discussions of fire safety in the early twentieth century, and I often surprise my audience by then talking about the surprisingly long (though not so surprising, if you think about it deeply) history of fire extinguishers. As an interpreter, I always liked to make everything into some kind of learning experience for the visitor. I don’t respond to sarcasm with snark, but with interesting historical facts! So yes, while we wouldn’t have had an extinguisher like this modern one in this particular farm in the 1920s, it isn’t difficult to imagine a surprisingly similar one in its place. Though its primary function isn’t an interpretive tool, but an adhesion to modern fire safety laws, the idea of having a fire extinguisher there is “accurate” (or at least not inconceivable). However, its modern appearance means that most people would view it as “historically inaccurate”.

Often, I feel “inaccuracies” are most often jarring,and easy for a critic to identify, when they are physical, tangible objects, like those fire extinguishers. Historians and history enthusiasts revel in pointing out little inaccurate details, such as the use of what look to be late Victorian boots in the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, or any number of aspects of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: most notably, cursed zombie pirates. Costume details are very visible and fascinating to analyze and debate. Is it “typical” of the time period, or even possible for them to have? Is the silk print of that dress, or the cut of that coat, “accurate” to the time period, based on the sources we have? How dirty were people, really, in the past, and so how much dirt should be on my skin to “accurately” portray a medieval peasant? And, most importantly for re-enactors and costumed interpreters: what about the smell?

It’s the less tangible things, like beliefs and inner motivations, that are more difficult to portray on screen or in person. How to you act out the deference of a servant to their employer? How do you explain the goals of early twentieth century women’s suffrage activists without colouring your interpretation with knowledge of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s? Yes, some (but not all!) corsets may have been uncomfortable, but would they have gone on about it as much as they like to do in movies? (Having worn a corset for extended periods of time while in costume, and knowing what I do about etiquette and the strict avoidance of drawing attention to bodily functions, I’m going to hazard a guess and say that no, they didn’t whine nearly as much.)  “Inaccuracies” in the discourse of a time period are really what I now notice in films.

Take, for example, the character of the obligatory-sassy-heterosexual-love-interest in A Knight’s Tale. (Caveat: this film uses anachronisms in a very self-conscious and often effective way. Click here for a defense of the anachronisms in the film.) This character grated on me for several reasons. Many of this character’s scenes involved mocking 1970s-style critiques of women’s gender roles in medieval French society. Would an historical figure even conceive of mocking them in this way? We don’t know! But it “sounds” very wrong to me, and overall rings “untrue” in a way that many other anachronisms in the film didn’t. This was also coupled with the really, really odd modernist costume choices for that particular character. This type of costuming makes me shake my fist at the sky, considering how many other gorgeous and more “accurate” choices they could have made for the time period! (See: so many good examples from art history.) Though I am admittedly no expert in medieval French fashion, in none but the broadest strokes do they even vaguely resemble the fabric, cut or style as laid out in books like Le Costume français. These aspects of the film do double-duty to annoy my historian’s sensibilities. Anyway, in summary: good film in terms of plot and most of the characters, though full of deliberate inaccuracies (many of which are successful in achieving a specific cinematic purpose, and that I found quite entertaining). However, I couldn’t get over that one character, her attitude, and her costume, which rang so “false” to me. Much of my vehemently negative response to that one character was an emotional one which came out of my reaction to the perceived historical “inaccuracies” of her character. She was embodying a modernist mocking tone I hear too often – everything about the character was designed in my eyes to show how “backward” and “stupid” they were in the past, which is a dangerous path to take. I am fully aware that many may disagree with me on this point. The film may have been satirizing historical dramas, but I seriously couldn’t get over this character.

(Edit, because I feel it needs clarification: in particular, what bothers me about characters like this one in other “historical” films is that many audience members would consider female characters whining about corsetry and other restrictions on women in general as “historically accurate.” I do use the word “whining” very consciously to describe how these characters are written. Post-1970s-style critical impressions of how women should dress and act are often applied to earlier time periods in these historical dramas but are not considered jarringly anachronistic, though they are. Women had other forms of resistance and critiques of their places in the world in earlier time periods; they had different priorities than the feminist goals of the 1970s, and the former should not be forgotten. So many historical dramas seem to just pay lip service to restrictions women lived under, summarizing them with characters expressing brief annoyance at not being able to do something “because you’re a girl” or complaining about how tight corsets are or how annoying their petticoats can get if they’re trying to do their “action girl” thing. There are far more interesting historical gender issues that could be employed by writers and limiting their “feminist critique” of the time period in these characters to shallow pronouncements about how uncomfortable historical clothing styles are is shallow and, I believe, lazy writing. So unless your character is forced for some reason to tight lace (and most women didn’t), please stop complaining about corsets – these women had bigger fish to fry!)

In complete contrast, I am going to profess my love for Downton Abbey in at least trying to get some of the attitudes “historically accurate” to the time period… in addition to their glorious costuming achievements. Some reviewers have derided the story line in Series One in which Gwen, a housemaid, has ambitions to become a secretary. This is a very modest goal by modern standards, but to her, in that specific time and place, it was almost insurmountable. It was also entirely believable for the time period they were portraying. You can’t have everyone bucking the patriarchy in historical dramas; by dismissing the modest goals of characters like Gwen the Aspiring Secretary and insisting that they should be worrying about, say, the right of women to vote or not wear a corset, you also dismiss the experiences of all of the awesome ladies who have had to live, historically, under what we today consider oppressive conditions. Do you have to espouse post-1970s feminist rhetoric to be considered a strong woman, particularly in historical interpretation? No. (I will likely expand on this in a later blog post.)

Downton Abbey’s actors also pay close attention to etiquette, posture, and behaviour which is still relatively rare in costume dramas and even many costumed re-enactments. The series isn’t perfect, and it isn’t “history”. Of course the plot requires some stretching of historical events, and the series does like to “name drop” historical events and people quite often; I’m looking at you, Lord Grantham, with your casual mention of Ponzie schemes! Nevertheless, overall, in my opinion, the series does an excellent job at striving towards “historical authenticity”, especially in comparison with many others.

I have so many more thoughts – and feelings – on “historical accuracy.” In fact, I probably should be more careful with my terms and distinguish between “authenticity” (which is a real buzzword in the field of public history) and “accuracy”. I have a feeling that “accuracy” can be applied in a much more scientifically “objective” way, and that “authenticity” has more to do with discourse and subjective interpretation, but there must be more to it than that… Does anybody have any thoughts or reading lists on the subject? Regardless, this post is not the final word on the subject (though I would of course be flattered were it considered to be so). Consider it my first foray into musing on the subject.

(Apologies, as well, to those who would draw a sharp distinction between what people in costume do in living history museums, historical dramas, and historical re-enactments. There was some slippage in terminology. However, I defend this take because they are all concerned with notions of “historical accuracy”.)

Now I’d best get back to my knitting. By which I of course mean the research and writing of term papers.

Big Long Disclaimer: the authority I perceive myself to have on this subject comes from several different places. I write as someone who worked for the past four years at Fort Edmonton Park, a living history museum in, you guessed it, Edmonton, Alberta, which portrays four different time periods. I worked on 1920s street and in the 1846 fur trade fort. I am not currently employed there, due to internship requirements in my current course of study, but I hope to go back in the future. In addition to this practical experience in costumed historical interpretation, I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Public History at Carleton University in Ottawa, which is where I have been learning a lot of my theory. I am also a fan of historical dramas and have done extensive reading online on the subject of historical interpretation (as you are likely doing, dear reader). In short: I have worked as a paid employee of a living history museum and have done a lot of deep thinking, research, and writing on the subject in a specialized program at the Master’s level. I have not been involved historical re-enactments, though I would love to be someday, and I am not involved in any historical costumed dramas (yet). My ideas come from a very specific set of experiences and academic background. Feel free to engage in friendly debate, particularly if you have a different set of background experiences in the field! Verbal fisticuffs only, please.

Terminology used:

  • Interpreter: (often accompanied by the words “costumed historical”): my former job title at Fort Edmonton, the living history museum. We were/are people who “interpret” history to the public. We are not re-enactors, who of course have their own definitions of what they are and what they do – I do not profess to speak for them. Our main goal as costumed interpreters is to interpret/teach aspects of the past to visitors in the present. By using this term, we acknowledge that what we are saying and doing is only one possible idea of the past, and not objective historical “Truth” with a capital T (which, as many attest, is impossible to achieve or nonexistent).
  • Public History: roughly, interpreting/presenting history to the public, as seen in museums, archives, documentaries, and many other mediums. There are only a handful of Public History programs in North America and beyond (there’s a conference here in Ottawa in a few weeks which I am very excited to attend!), and everyone defines it slightly differently. The Carleton Centre For Public History will soon be coming out with a series of podcasts on the subject (I performed one of the interviews), which will likely be linked here on the blog when they do come out.

Related Posts on Costumed Historical Interpretation – Coming Soon (or soon-ish):