Bodies, Beards and Hairstyles in Reenactment

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

Monies have been spent on proper clothes: a comfortable doublet, good shoes, well-fitting hose. Purses, belts, hats have been taken care of. And yet, in the midst of every discussion regarding the historical accuracy of footwear, clothing and field kit, we often leave out a fundamental component in reenactment: a (in this case male) reenactor’s physical aspect .

I should begin by saying that this post is nothing but a personal reflection on reenactment and reenactors. It is not meant to insult or offend anyone, although it does criticise certain personal choices in the wider context of quality reenactment.

The Body

The ideal male body in the 15th century. Detail of the Roman de la Rose, fol. 59v (ca. 1490-1500), Harley 4425.

It is well known that being thin was considered ideal in the Middle Ages , for both men and women. The notion of a lean physique was closely linked to a Christian idea of personal restraint – fatness was a sign of Glutony, of someone given to the pleasures of food and drink. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the 15th century was thin. Compared to our modern, sedentary habits, the majority of the population was certainly thin, what with a greater need for daily physical activity, for example, and eating patterns less conducive to the accumulation of fat (amongst other things). Rounder folk, however, have always existed, and the Middle Ages are no exception to this rule.
Part of the harness of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga I (ca. 1490-1495), Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, WS A111. Proof if proof were needed that even knights got fat.

The problem is the proportional representaiton of these body types in reenactment. At the time, a heavy-set fellow would be unusual, and a frankly fat person would be a rarity; conversely, finding someone without a plump belly nowadays is almost rare – and we all know more than a few  overweight people (I myself was obese in my adolescence). Though one or two chubby reenactors aren’t an issue, entire groups made up of overweight reenactors are.

How to solve this? I don’t really know. Who am I to be telling anyone else to lose weight in order to reenact? To each their own. My personal perspective, however, is this: if we expect someone to lose weight for other hobbies – full-contact sports, for example -, I think it only fair to expect a reenactor to make the same effort in order to achieve a historically correct portrayal.It isn’t just your health that can benefit from exercise and diet – reenactment can benefit too.

Beards and Hairstyles

The same principle applies to a reenactor’s haircut and (for men) facial hair. A person’s fitness is something delicate, which cannot be changed overnight. A person’s body type and physical condition is the result of several factors (many of which considerably, or prioritary, more important than the requirements of reenactment) and, at the end of the day, fatness isn’t all that much at odds with the historical record.

One of the most fashionable cuts amongst ‘reenactors’. Photograph from the Espada Lusitana group (all rights reserved to the original author).

The same cannot be said of beards and hair, since a visit to the barber immediately solves that particular problem. There are two problematic categories in this regard. Modern hair and beard styles, on the one hand – hair painted in unnatural colours, haircuts which didn’t exist in the Middle Ages – and pseudo-historical cuts, or hairstyles from the wrong era or region – Slav undercuts, ponytails, massive beards instead of shaven faces, or ‘Viking’-style long hair (a particular and very frequent scourge in reenactment). Now, what’s the use of spending thousands on clothes and other accessories if we’re going to throw everything down the drain with an electric-blue man-bun? Obviously, it is difficult to justify certain cuts nowadays, outside of reenactment – Henry V’s bowl cut has become fashionable again (sort of), but I don’t think that certain other hairstyles (late 15th century shoulder-length cuts, for example) will be so lucky. Fortunately, History is a rich tapestry, with a wide range of options to choose from – with the advantage that reenactment events are are few and far between in a year, and hair grows back in an instant. There are no excuses.

Bonus: Piercings and Tattoos

Honourable mention for piercings and tattoos. For the less informed: the art of tattooing wasn’t practiced in medieval Europe. Full stop. Tattoos were seen as signs of barbarism. Piercings, or earrings on men, were also non-existant. Gentlemen, cover them both.


Visual Sources

Roman de la Rose (ca. 1490-1500). London: British Library, Harley 4425.


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