Von Ranke redux

James Wolfe's all-in-one field dinner table, or canteen: an evocative relic, but how was it actually used? ©NTPL/John Hammond

One of the perennial aims of historical research is to find out what actually happened at some point in the past – or, in Leopold von Ranke’s famous phrase, ‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen.’

This is, of course, an incredibly difficult undertaking: even if we know many facts about a particular moment in the past, and even if the contemporary artefacts are still available, it still requires a huge effort of the intellect and the imagination to recreate what it actually felt like to be there.

Eighteenth-century soap bubbles at Quebec House. ©National Trust

Historic houses like Quebec House exemplify this problem: they can be beautiful, seductive and inspiring places, but was that what they were actually like, back then? In most cases we are dealing with multi-layered places, made up of elements from a number of different periods.

Re-enactments by costumed interpreters can seem more like theatre than historical reality. However, if done sensitively and using the available research, they can bring visitors into direct contact with aspects of the past.

Eighteenth-century surgery explained. ©National Trust

At Quebec House Jane and Geoff King from living history group The Mannered Mob were recently asked to demonstrate elements of mid-eighteenth-century life. The custodian of Quebec House, John Rawlinson, has kindly sent me these images.

The accoutrements of silhouette-making. ©National Trust

Geoff King, in the guise of an eighteenth-century surgeon, talked about the wounds sustained by General James Wolfe at Quebec. There was very little that any doctor could have done for Wolfe on the battlefield, as he had been shot in the arm, the shoulder and the chest. 

A genteel girl engaged in a genteel pastime. ©National Trust

Jane King showed visitors something about the genteel accomplishments of the time, such as music and making silhouette portraits. GDK Historic Consultancy supplied hand-made hats, dresses, coats and boots. More events like this are planned at Quebec House for the near future.

The house in Trim Street, Bath, where James Wolfe lived before departing for America. ©austenonly

In response to the earlier posts about James Wolfe, Julie Wakefield of the austenonly blog generously sent me this picture of the house in Trim Street, Bath, where Wolfe lived before he left for America.

It looks a picture of genteel tranquility, but, as Julie found when she recently stayed at another house in the street, the nights are disturbed by stag and hen parties and by the raucous gulls feeding on discarded fast food.

The ballroom at the Assembly Rooms, Bath: the scene of refinement, or of tawdriness? ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

And that makes one wonder what life in eighteenth-century Bath was like: full of elegant people taking the waters and dancing in the Assembly Rooms, or also with some of the tawdry and transient elements that seem to be common to resort places? As von Ranke might have said: Wie war es eigentlich gewesen?

9 Responses to “Von Ranke redux”

  1. Barbara Says:

    It must be difficult for historians to cross the line between fact and the fiction one must create to do living history. But most living history portrayers are extremely diligent in researching a wide variety of primary sources, while many historians “specialize” in one particular area. As a boring historian, I have great respect for re-enactors.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, living history is a subtle art balancing between research and theatre.

    But I wouldn’t call historians boring :)

  3. columnist Says:

    How extrodinary that you should publish a post that shows a piece of cabinetry not unlike one I have just posted, albeit (the pieces) for different purposes. There are dark forces at work here!

    Bath is a very pretty city, and this picture of the house in Trim Street easily demonstrates that. Sadly the noisy behaviour of drunken revellers is quite a common occurrence in that other pretty Georgian city – Edinburgh. Perhaps things haven’t actually changed so much in the last 250 years. This would be re-enactment by an Un-mannered mob!

  4. style court Says:

    Emile,

    The details of the field dinner table are so handsome. Do you know if the patterned exterior of the interior box is applied paper or fabric?

    You raise such a great point at the end of the post. I think period films have sometimes created the illusion that all was quiet and pure in centuries past. We rarely get a sense of the mud, dirt and sounds that must have been part of daily life.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Columnist, yes that is the dressing table to end all dressing tables. Presumably when you say that it would be ideal for the man with taste who has everything, you are hinting that someone should give it to you? :)

    Courtney, the covering of the compartment is marbled paper. A propos historical dirt and squalor, the Dennis Severs house in London does quite a convincing (and also strangely poetic) recreation of that.

  6. columnist Says:

    Well Emile, it’s sweet of you to offer. But now you’ve spoiled the surprise. I’ll know exactly who it came from when it turns up at my door.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Julie Wakefield has just told me that Jane Austen describes somewhere how she spent an evening at the Bath Assembly Rooms watching a man being chased around the ballroom by his very drunken wife.

  8. Janet Says:

    When done well, costumed interpretation can be invaluable in teaching HOW things functioned. I have seen examples of good and bad, but have to admit I have learned a thing or two along the way. . .

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ can be explained with static displays, but the ‘how’ needs a live demonstration.

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