Introducing the Historical Reenactment...
“...thought provoking, educational, multisensory, emotion invoking,
appealing, entertaining, useful to academic inquiry and fun...”
Stacy F. Roth, American interpreter, museum educator and historian
The terms Historical Reenactment and Living History are often used as synonyms to indicate any practices through which the participants try to simulate life in a given historical period, portraying people and episodes of the past and featuring original tools, activities and dresses in an interactive presentation of arts and sciences, techniques and crafts, textiles and garments, weapons and uniforms, music and dancing, food and drinks, games and other pastimes, with the aim of improving the knowledge of History and educating other people, regardless they are fellow participants, scientific researchers or the audience itself.
Both Historical Reenactment and Living History represent practices aimed to bring well researched history to life for research and study activities as well as for leisure and educational purposes of the general public. While Reenactment is mainly aimed to recreate aspects of a well-defined historical event or a specific time period, Living History generally refers to a broader period of time and involves the display and demonstration of ordinary people and their everyday life chores, such as cuisine, household, entertainment, medical care, arts and handicrafts among the others
Through this page we hope to make clearer the concept, aims and essence of the Historical Reenactment, and show as well how what at first glance may appear just a hobby, a form of individual escapism and entertainment for few only, has quickly become an efficient and successful way of teaching and as well as a quite extraordinary sensory, cultural and social experience for many.
Last updated: August 2017
Defining the Historical Reenactment and the Reenactors...
Historical Reenactment, or just Reenactment, can be defined as an educational and entertaining practice, or a type of role-play, aimed to revive a specific historic event (e.g. a battle, a siege) or character from the past, or also a more broadly defined era, culture, place etc. The Reenactors come from different cultural backgrounds and walks of life, but share the same interest and passion for history, and dedicate their spare time and resources studying the events and reconstructing the everyday life in all its facets of a given time period, usually following a sort of script.
Image: tenderness after a Napoleonic Era battle reenactment in Italy - copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web.
The term Reenactment covers a great variety of activities, including the reconstructions of historical scenarios and encampments, the restaging of historical battles and skirmishes, as well as combat and military displays, demonstrations of daily life activities, such as cuisine, pastimes, medical care, arts and crafts, like spinning, sewing, tapestry weaving, dyeing, rope making, leather, metal, stone, wood or glass working. Reenacting essentially means to perform a role in an event that may have occurred at an earlier time period.
Although the terms Reenactment and Living History share the same aims and methods, being both based on historical accuracy and authenticity, still there is a difference between them, as Living History usually portrays a broadly defined time period and involves the rediscovery of the past in all its aspects (military, civil, technological, artistic, scientific, social etc.), while Reenactment is mainly focused on the reconstruction of a specific historic event, be it military, civil or religious, which took place in a given time and place.
Historical Reenactment events are designed to entertain, as well as to educate about a given event or time in history, and are conducted by individuals and groups called Reenactors, wearing thoroughly researched reproductions of period clothing and speaking as characters from the past.
Reenactors are mainly volunteers and ordinary people from all walks of life. Gender, ethnicity, cultural background and social status don’t play any role, and there is also no discrimination based on age or physical conditions, thus making Reenactment one of the most democratic activity. Enthusiasm and love for History are the only things really counting.
Reenactors are not only male, since more and more whole families, including women and children, are involved in the activity, portraying the civilian side of a given time period. Besides, women often take part in military groups, too, and, depending on the levels of authenticity agreed, are also allowed to fight as soldiers.
Historical Reenactment in the past...
Activities related to the Living History and Historical Reenactment seem top be a quite relatively modern invention, but on the contrary they are not new at all, and boast a long and glorious history behind. Conceptually the Living History and Historical Reenactment practices are as old as civilization itself with roots going back far into the past.
Image: parade from the 911-1911 millennium celebration of the Duchy of Normandy held in Rouen, the ancient capital of the duchy. Source: http://1911-millenaire-normandie.over-blog.fr
The ancient Romans staged imposing reenactments of their famous victories within their famous arenas, which were even flooded to relive historic sea battles. Later on, Medieval jousts and tournaments often featured ancient Roman or other classical antiquity themes as background.
During the 17th century public mock skirmishes and military displays were quite popular all over England, while in the 19th and 20th centuries feasts, pageants and other events featuring parades, jousting and battle reenactments were frequently staged in villages and country houses throughout Europe.
Modern Living History and Reenactment, as a scientific and educational tool in pursuit of a practical historical interest, was born during the 20th century. Precisely, the starting point is generally set in the early 1960s, when the centennial commemorations of the American Civil War took place in the United States of America. Those early reconstructions of famous battles started a trend that quickly spread at first to England and later throughout Europe, developing from the early poor authenticity standards and the simple aim to refight privately famous battles like a hobby for participants, to the today Living History and Reenactment events, which are characterized by accuracy at highest levels and the growing involvement of audience and sponsors.
The Reenactment today: the historical periods portrayed...
Over years the historical eras and themes portrayed have grown larger, so that today practically almost all periods of Prehistory and History, from the Stone Age to 21st century, can be effectively reenacted, thus providing the visitors with the extraordinary chance to enjoy a first-hand and full of atmosphere time-travelling experience, which allows them to put historical dates in context, and see how things have changed over centuries, while rediscovering the daily lives of their ancestors through food, pastimes, clothes, arts, crafts, warfare, social and political events, etc.
Image: 17th century Piedmontese dragoons on the march at the reenactment of the Battle of Assietta Pass (2566 m.a.s.l.), AD 1747 - copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web.
Let's have a quick overview of the main historical eras portrayed.
Ancient and Classical (Greco-Roman) Reenactment
The Ancient Reenactment refers to the historical recreations of the Ancient Civilizations, like Romans, Greeks, Etruscans, Celts, Carthaginians, Egyptians, and includes also the rise of the Barbarian tribes (such as Goths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Longobards, Huns, Franks, and Slavs among the others), that led to the fall of the Roman Empire and marked the beginning of the Middle Ages. Among the most portrayed events are the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, the Persian Wars (the series of conflicts between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire, 499-479 BC), the Age of Alexander the Great (356-323 AD), the famous king of Macedon who conquered a vast empire stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas, and the various campaigns of expansion of the Ancient Rome that led the Eternal City to deal with a wide variety of scenarios and folks, and made it the largest, most powerful and long lasting empire the world has ever known.
A growing subset is represented by the Gladiatorial Games Reenactment thanks to the growing presence of highly specialized groups.
The Medieval Reenactment is focused on the European history in the vast period from the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD) to the end of the 15th Century. The very first part (around the 5-6th centuries), is sometimes called the "Migration Period" referring to the intensified migration of people in Europe from about 400 to 800 AD, which marked a sort of transition from the Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. The second part of this time period is called precisely the Middle Ages, and is commonly split in Early Medieval (7-11th centuries), High Medieval (12-14th centuries), and Late Medieval (15th century) period. The Middle Ages is quite rich in inspiration for historical reconstructions, from the birth of the Christian Feudalism to the spread of Monasticism, from the Crusades in the Holy Land (11th to 13th century) to the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453 AD), from the Spanish "Reconquista" (the long process of liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim invaders culminating in 1492 AD) to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 AD, just to mention a few of the many events of the time.
Also Viking Reenactment belongs to Medieval Reenactment, although it has gained a well-defined space and appeal due to the growing interest among the Reenactors and the audience, favoured also by plenty of writings and sources that give a vivid insight into this period.
Early Modern History Reenactment
According to the common periodization criteria, the Early Modern History Reenactment refers to the historic events ranging from the 16th to the late 18th century, so from the Renaissance Age to the dawn of the so-called “Age of Revolutions”, that began in North America and France.
The Early Modern History Reenactment includes the following sub-categories among the others:
- the Renaissance Age (from the 15th to the 16-17th centuries, depending on regional and national movements);
- the Eighty Years' War (or Dutch War of Independence against the Spanish rule, 1568-1648 AD);
- the English Civil War between royalists and parliamentarians (1642-1651 AD);
- the Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795 AD);
- the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648 AD, originally a religious war between Protestants and Catholics soon turning into a conflict for the political and territorial pre-eminence in Europe);
- the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean Sea (1650s-1730s AD);
- the Seven Years' War (1756-1763 AD, a conflict arisen from trade and hegemonial rivalry and involving most of the European great powers of the time);
- the French and Indian War (1754-1763 AD), i.e. the North-American theatre of the above mentioned Seven Years' War, with England facing France and its Native American allies;
- the American Revolutionary War (or American War of Independence against England, 1775-1783 AD).
Late Modern History Reenactment
The Late Modern History Reenactment refers to the events ranging from the early 17th century to the late 19th century.
Among the main Reenactment sub-categories are:
- the Napoleonic Age (1796-1815 AD);
- the American-English War of 1812 (a military conflict between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland because of trade restrictions brought about by Britain's ongoing war with Napoleonic France, the impressments of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, and the British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion);
- the Regency Era (1811-1820 AD, the period after King George III had been deemed unfit to rule, and his son, the Prince of Wales, was ruling as his proxy as Prince Regent);
- the Italian Risorgimento (meaning the Resurgence, the political and social movement that managed to unify different states of the Italian peninsula into one nation, 1815-1871 AD);
- the Texas Revolution (the Texas War of Independence against Mexico, 1835-1836 AD);
- the Mexican-American War (1846-1848 AD, arising out of territorial disputes between Mexico and the United States of America);
- the American Civil War (1861-1865 AD, a war fought over the secession of the southern Confederate States against the federal government of the Union);
- the Crimean War (1853-1856 AD, between the Russian and the Ottoman Empires, the latter supported by England, France and the Kingdom of Sardinia);
- the Victorian Age (1837-1901 AD, the period of English history corresponding to the Queen Victoria's reign).
Contemporary Era Reenactment
This subset of Reenactment is focused on portraying some of the 20th and 21st centuries' main events, such as:
- World War I (1914-1918 AD, an intercontinental and global war conflict caused by the nationalist and imperialist goals cultivated by the European great powers of the time);
- World War II (1939-1945 AD, a total war fuelled by expansionism of Nazi Germany and involving almost all countries of the world);
- the Korean War (1950-1953 AD, caused by the invasion of South Korea by the communist North Korean army);
- the Vietnam War (1955-1975 AD, a war fought between the forces of insurgent communist North Vietnam and the pro-USA government of South Vietnam);
- the Falklands War (April-June 1982 AD, a war between Argentina and England resulting from the long-standing dispute over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands);
- the Gulf War I (1990-1991 AD, a war waged by a UN-authorized coalition force from 35 nations against Iraq in response to the invasion and annexation of the Kuwait Emirate).
The Reenactment today: the types of events...
Historical Reenactment has developed over years evolving itself into different categories of events and displays. We have grouped here below the main types of Reenactment currently practiced, trying to define them in an as easy and comprehensible way as possible. The classification and definitions we offer are based on the collective materials available in printed and online sources, and do not pretend to be exhaustive and/or scientifically precise. Our only wish is to ease for the general audience the understanding of the several Reenactment events and initiatives.
Image: on the battlefield, Tolentino (Le Marche region), Italy - copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web.
Public and Private Reenactment Events
Depending on whether the public is admitted or excluded, it is possible to define the two broad categories of public and private Reenactment events.
Image: "gathering for dinner", medieval camping at an historical reenactment in Italy - copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web.
Among the PUBLIC events there are:
Public Demonstrations, also called "Living Histories", represent a broad category of reenactment events and are usually meant for the education of the audience being aimed at portraying life and lifestyle of people in a given time period, both from a military and a civil perspective. These events usually take place in occasion of outdoor and indoor commemorative meetings, historic anniversaries, community festivals, museums or educational initiatives, equestrian displays, maritime and air shows, themed fairs and exhibitions, as well as any other historical, folkloric or religious celebrations. Public Demonstrations are ideal for family days out, as they provide crafts and cooking displays and workshops, period music and dance shows, lectures, exhibitions, storytelling or acting sketches, puppet shows, historical dress-up and make-up, markets and bazaars, knights' tournaments and jousting, and a wealth of other leisure and educational activities for adults and children, often including also combat demonstrations, i.e. duels or mock battles loosely based on actual battles or even without particular historical references, that are staged to illustrate warfare, tactics and manoeuvring techniques of a given period.
Many heritage venues nowadays, including castles, museums, archaeological and historic sites, tend to involve the Living History and Historical Reenactment practices to enhance their appeal and offer to the visitors, as such practices can really provide a quite unique intimate, fascinating, face-to-face visitor experience, therefore perfectly matching any need in terms of content, knowledge and the approachability. The permanent or recurring living interpretation shows, that are set up at the heritage venues, are usually choreographed and follow a defined script, and oftener consist of non-military living history displays, rather than tactical or battle reenactments. Non-military historical representations in fact perfectly suit to roofed historic houses or castles, where period activities and lifestyles can be authentically recreated within appropriate settings, providing a quite immersive and live-in learning and entertaining experience for both adults and children.
Finally, the large-scale Multi-Period Shows, or Multi-Period Events, become more and more popular, as they offer a quite wide range of historical displays and activities that cover potentially the whole history from the Stone Age to the Contemporary Era. This kind of event is in fact aimed to portray different historical periods at the same time, providing the audience with the unique chance to enjoy a real time travelling through ages, that allows them to put historical dates in the proper context and make better sense of how the mankind have evolved over ages. And all this in just in one weekend and at the same location. Besides, such huge events usually feature also ancient war machines and modern military vehicles, such as siege machines, tanks, aircrafts, vessels etc.
Among the PRIVATE events there are:
Tactical Battles, or Tactical Events, usually are not open to the public and are fought like real battles, i.e. taking the form of a competition, where both sides try to defeat each other with their own strategies and tactics within the actions permitted by the combat rules set before. Such events do not follow a script, but just a basic set of agreed-upon rules (usually concerning physical boundaries, time limit, victory conditions, etc.), and on-site judges. Tactical Battles can be considered a form of Live action role-playing.
Further categories of private events include historical camping, learning and training meetings, documentaries production, photo sessions, and any other special research and study projects or private gatherings of the reenactors groups and associations.
Combat Reenactment events
A further classification of the Historical Reenactment events refers to the so-called "Combat Reenactment", which is intended as a side category of Reenactment, and aimed to depict historical warfare, combat techniques and battle strategies in a certain time period. The category may refer to the authentic restaging of either a single combat (a fight between two warriors), melees combat (disorganized close combat involving small groups of fighters with each participant fighting as an individual), or full-scale battles with hundreds or thousands of participants.
Image: combat show at a Landsknechts reenactment in Italy - copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web.
We define the following types of Combat Reenactments:
Battle Reenactments, or "Scripted Battles", represent the best known and most widely spread category of reenactment events as well as one of the most spectacular and appreciated by the audience and the reenactors themselves, as they provide exciting mass action being aimed to refight historical battles or to simulate combat techniques from a given historical period, often featuring hundreds of participants. Battle Reenactments are usually planned beforehand, so that all participating companies and regiments perform the same actions as in the original battles except for the most realistic actions which are excluded by obvious safety guidelines or combat rules. Battle Reenactments usually take place on or around the date of the actual battle, and on the original battlefield whenever possible, or at least nearby it, or at a place very similar to it. These events vary widely in size, from a few hundred to several thousand fighters. Due to the growing number of participants involved, most Battle Reenactments today cannot be anymore choreographed in any details. This category includes also the less spread so-called siege reenactments, which are also properly sited, planned, scripted in advance, and aimed to portray an actual siege that happened on a particular site or just a simulation of siege techniques in a given historical era, featuring the recreation of temporary fortifications for gun batteries and besieging troops.
Battle demonstrations, or "Military Displays", consist of mock battles or skirmishes, that are generally of smaller scale than the proper battle reenactments, and are only loosely based on actual battles or do not have any particular historical references at all, and may simply consist of demonstrations of basic tactics and strategies, drill and manoeuvring techniques. Battle demonstrations are usually aimed to educate the audience about what combat might have been in a given time period. Since the audience find itself much closer to the action than in the bigger battle reenactments, such events provide almost the same atmosphere and excitement of battle reenactments, granting the same high standards of authenticity, but just with smaller numbers. Battle demonstrations are often hosted in wider living history displays, and usually form an important part of the multi-period events themselves.
Proper Combat Reenactments
Combat Reenactments, in the strict sense of the term, started to develop quickly throughout Europe during the past few years. These events sometimes resemble more a martial art with entertaining purposes, rather than a faithful historical reconstruction, because many authentic time-period techniques and manoeuvres, like thrusts and head shots, are too dangerous to portray in a free combat setting. Fights are usually not pre-arranged or choreographed, but competitive and random, meaning that the combatants are free to perform whichever techniques or strategies they choose within the framework of fixed safety rules, and the winner is not pre-determined. A "hit" is scored by making light contact with a defined target area on the opponent. For safety reasons, areas such as the head, neck, spine and joints are not allowed as targets. Single choreographed techniques or sequences may be incorporated into a free combat display, wherever it would be dangerous to proceed otherwise. The techniques used require a range of special skills, training and strategies and are usually based on medieval and renaissance manuscripts, or other archaeological evidences. All weapons (like swords, spears, axes, shields) and armours are recreated as authentic as possible, except that they are blunted and generally made of superior steel for durability.