June 3, 2015
I am going to France in two weeks! But first I’m going to Belgium. There was a time - a relatively brief time - when Belgium was considered a part of France, and I’m going there to witness a reenactment of the final battle that decided that issue once and for all.
June 18, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a watershed event in European history that not only spawned the names of bridges, train stations, towns, and an ABBA song, but also ended the reign of Napoleon. Well, the second, 100 day reign of Napoleon. And we’re talking Napoleon I, not Napoleon III, who would reign in France (but not Belgium) forty or so years later. Also, we’re not talking about Napoleon II, who never reigned in France, held the title King of Rome although not any of the authority that title suggests.
Belgium had been under Austrian domination before the French invaded it in 1792. The newly revolutionized France declared war on Austria and had fully occupied Belgium by 1795. Two years later, Austria gave up their claim to the territory and France declared it to be within their “natural borders,” meaning everything west of the Rhine River. Under Napoleon I, it remained a part of France, with French the official language and its residents having French citizenship whether they wanted it or not. When Napoleon fell the first time, in 1814, Belgium was finally free of both France and Austria. It would be another sixteen years before it would shake off British and Dutch influence, becoming in 1830 the independent Belgium we know today.
In 1815, Brussels hosted the Duke of Wellington and the British army as they marched with the Prussian army to oust a newly restored Napoleon from his re-acquired throne. Although the British and Prussians planned to invade France (as the Austrians and Russians simultaneously invaded from the east), Napoleon moved faster than they’d imagined possible and marched on north before the allies could come south. And so, Napoleon’s last battle was fought in Belgium, around a series of small towns not far from Brussels.
There are reenactments of Napoleonic battles all the time, but the massive remembrance being prepared for the 200th anniversary aims to outshine them all. Having come to my current obsession with the French Revolution and Napoleon only recently, this is my last chance to get in on the bicentennial reenactment action that has been memorializing other Napoleonic battles for years. I decided well over a year ago that I was going to be in Waterloo for the event. At the time, it just seemed like a swell idea for a vacation: go to Belgium, then on to Paris, see the sights, do something that’s only going to happen once, enjoy the show.
Since then, circumstances have changed and plots have been laid. Now my journey to Europe is a five-week excursion aimed at exploring the pivotal twenty-six year period from the Storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The more I read about this era (and I read about it a lot), the more fascinating I find it. I’m sure that would be true of many other eras as well - learning a lot about almost anything can be fascinating. But one of the most fascinating things about this era that began 226 years ago is how much of what happened then echoes down to today.
The French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon I impacted the world on many different fronts, big and small. Most obviously it settled a lot of international borders and issues, from the Louisiana Purchase to the beginnings of a unified Germany to the aforementioned Belgium. It also helped launch the South American wars of independence revolutions that expelled Spain and the Haitian revolution that ousted France. Those are big deals, but there’s much more than just war and international relations to discuss. The creation of the restaurant as we know it, the inventions of the metric system and canned food, the codification of rights and laws, the tricolors of so many flags, the terms left and right in politics, the terrible concept of terror as a political tool, the end of kings and the inspirational model for many revolutions to come all have roots in this period of history.
I’m going to explore that history as close to firsthand as I can get. I’m going to tell that history through the lens of reenactments big and small.
I’ve worn a lot of costumes in my life. It’s fun to dress up once in a while. Back in high school I performed in our local Medieval Faire. In college I once spent a whole weekend dressed as Marc Antony in a game recreating the last days of Caesar. Even today when my friends and I play historical games I sometimes break out costumed hats for us to all wear. I have not, however, been a battle reenactor. I see the appeal of reenactment for others, much in the same way I see the appeal of camping. There are clear and unique rewards to both camping and reenacting (which often involves camping), but the effort, discomfort, commitment, and cost required to reap those rewards far exceeds my interest. That fact actually makes me a little sad, because I do find the rewards enticing.
A history teacher recently told me that many curricula and pedagogical approaches emphasize building historical empathy in students. Historical empathy is a nuanced and complicated subject, and I’m not qualified or prepared to get into any detail on it yet. In broad terms though, I take it to mean that there’s something useful and important in studying history within the context and point of view of the people who actually lived that history. Reenactors try to flood their senses with historical empathy, if only for a moment or a weekend. It’s not the same as being there, but it can help to better see what being there might have been like.
One need not don the bearskin hat of the Imperial Guard or some other costume to reenact history. There are deeply involved classroom simulations that students use to engage with the past. In my own high school, we did several of these. Games are also reenactments, putting you in the role of a general or a political leader or, more rarely, an average denizen of some past place and time. A visit to a museum is an act of historical empathy, seeing art and artifacts of an era and imagining what it might be like to live in the world they came from. Walking tours evoke that same kind of empathy. So too does reading primary material written in the moment.
My Waterloo trip combines all these elements. I’m reading books and first hand accounts of the battle in preparation. I’ll arrive in Brussels a few days early and visit museums in and around the battlefield. I’ll join a three day tour of the battlefield and witness thousands of reenactors stage echoes of that bloody, sad day. When it’s over, I hope to have a much better sense of what happened two hundred years ago. Is it like being there when it really happened? No, but that’s impossible. Is it more like being there than just reading about it? I think it is. I think all that extra experience adds empathy and sensation (in every meaning) to my thoughts about Waterloo.
My entire tour will be a reenactment in service of historical empathy. From Brussels I’m off to Paris for a month. There I will do my best to create moments of reenactment that evoke the history of those turbulent twenty-six years from July 14, 1789 to June 18, 1815. My hope is to tie the things you and I can do in the here and now to exemplary moments in history. I don’t yet plan to wear any costumes, but I am going to march from the Hotel de Ville to the palace of Versailles, just like thousands of angry women did in 1789. And if I have to eat a meal in one of the world’s oldest restaurants in the Palais Royal just as Grimod de La Reynière did, well I’ll do what I have to do. Even just viewing the Arc de Triomphe with deep knowledge of the battles it commemorates or admiring the paintings Jacques-Louis David created while knowing his political intent are moments of reenactment.
I hope to assemble and expand upon these reenactments in a book. In the meantime, I’m going to write my initial thoughts and reflections in a series of articles that I will release over the course of my five week journey. As planned right now, there will be fifteen or so chapters to this story, working back in time as they go. Each article will be accompanied by my photographs and possibly other media enhancements - sound and video perhaps. I've already planned out over seventy different locations in and around Paris, from small plaques to enormous palaces. It's going to be a lot of work, and I'm confident that if you've read this far, you'll find it fascinating to follow along.