Historical reenactment is a type of role play in which participants attempt to recreate some aspects of a historical event or period. This may be as narrow as a specific moment from a battle or as general as interacting with others at a certain time period.
Types of Events
Many castles, museums, and other historical tourist attractions employ actors or professional reenactors as part of the experience. These usually address the recreation of a specific town, village, or activity within a certain time frame. Commercial reenactment shows are usually choreographed and follow a script. Some locations have set up permanent authentic displays. By their nature, these are usually living history presentations, rather than tactical or battle reenactment, although some host larger temporary events.
The Old South in the U.S. provides excellent scenarios for reenactments of true battles on their own turf. Reenacting the American Civil War began even before the real fighting had ended. Civil War veterans recreated battles as a way to remember their fallen comrades and to teach others what the war was all about. The Great Reunion of 1913, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, was attended by more than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans and included reenactments of elements of the battle, including Pickett`s Charge. Modern reenacting is thought to have begun during the 1961–1965 Civil War centennial commemorations. Reenacting grew in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, due in large part to the success of the 125th Anniversary reenactment near the original Manassas battlefield, which was attended by more than 6,000 reenactors. That year, Time magazine estimated that there were more than 50,000 reenactors in the U.S. In 1998, the 135th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg took place near the original battlefield. There have been several estimates on the number of participants, but it is widely agreed that it was the largest re-enactment ever held anywhere in the world, with between 30,000 and 41,000 re-enactors participating. This event was watched by about 50,000 spectators.
A highly popular type of reenactment is that of the Renaissance period. Though festivals are generally highly commercialized, there are hard core devotees who let down (or braid) their hair for the events, which are held usually on weekends across the country. Staged jousting events attended by exquisitely dressed royalty and court members are considered the highlights of the day, and actors representing the gamut of the social classes are continually in character while on site. Camelot and Robin Hood are very popular themes at these festivals, though pirates have worked their way into the mix since the advent of Pirates of the Caribbean. While it is usually very easy to tell the actors from many of the patrons at Renaissance festivals (ticket-paying guests, even in costume, will usually insist on sporting their shades, tennis shoes, watches, baseball caps, and cell phones), there are the devout few who have done their research so well that they might as well be at cast call. Street musicians often play period instruments, such as lutes and harp. But again, you will be much more likely to see more “modern” instruments, such as guitars.
Another popular activity for enthusiasts throughout the U.S. is something called a “Rendezvous.” It is generally geared to reenact the days of the mountain man and fur trading.
The best place to start (as with most hobbies) is to gather information. Read books and use the internet to get detailed information on the experiences the people of “your” period lived out on a day-to-day basis. Learn what was important to them. Watch movies and plays to get a good feel for speech patterns and inflections, and study what they are wearing to see what sort of clothing would suit you. There are patterns and websites all over where you can get ideas and put together plans for your first costume. Depending on how period-proper you want to be, you may find yourself stitching by hand!
Practice your skill at doing various period-specific activities. For example, if you choose a culture that hunted with bows, find a place to practice archery (preferably with a long bow). If black powder was the method in use at the time, find a place to purchase a replica and a location for shooting (not all ranges allow black powder shooting). If you want to learn to spin, start by learning to card wool and make it into yarn. Don’t let your location stop you--most of these things are easy to find on the internet. If you want to learn to fence or fight with swords, take a class or get connected with your local Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) (more on them later).
Costuming will all depend on your character, of course. A simple peasant’s shirt and a doublet are going to cost you far less time and money than the rich brocades of royalty and generals. Also, whether or not you’re able to sew your own might make a difference. Often, though, it’s not so much the materials as it is the complexity that will matter. Leather and thick clothing will require special needles. Items that require a lot of gathering (as opposed to the straighter lines of Medieval clothing) will need more attention. It is sometimes just best to leave it to the pros and order, either from a catalogue or online. Various stores brag of their ability to produce period-perfect clothing for LARP (for live Action Role Play).
Swords and Firearms
Much care must be taken in what is used (or more importantly not used) in historical reenactments. While realistic is very good, real can result in some very harmful mishaps. Canon fire has been known to set dry fields ablaze during civil war demonstration, and real weapons should never be using more than blanks. Western action shooting can have its drawbacks, as well; a horse is likely to shy from gunfire of any sort. An organized group of reenactors must be in touch with land owners and fire marshals to get permission to perform. All sword play and fencing should be done will dull weapons for obvious reasons.
“Combat reenactment has an emphasis on maintaining the balance between accuracy and safety. For example, the recreation of the American Civil War battles are very strongly regulated and may involve safety wear and of blanks, despite their historical inaccuracy. Combat reenactment seeks not only to recreate the martial history of them but to also educate people about the respect and proper handling of dangerous weapons.” (From “The Reenactor” website.)
Resources and Networking
As mentioned earlier, the Society for Creative Anachronism is pretty much the “industry standard” for reenactments. The SCA has a highly structured system for incorporating members from all over the world, especially those interested in Medieval and Renaissance reenactments. There are recognized “kingdoms” of members from all over the world, and the SCA program provides opportunities for tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dances, and workshops. It is here you can learn to prepare traditional foods, learn how to handle heavy weaponry, write sonnets, make candles, and pretty much anything else that would be of value to someone living during Medieval or Renaissance times.
Men and women can join various Civil War reenactment units and companies through the Civil War Reenactment Headquarters online (probably the only place where you can enlist with a Civil War commander with an e-mail address!). There are groups all along the east coast, in the deep south, and even as far west as Missouri and Colorado.
Other groups available as resources specialize in the following areas, and they can be found on the internet: World War I, World War II, Wars of the Roses, Napoleonic Wars, Colonial New Zealand Wars, 1814 from the UK perspective, 1186 to 1188 dedicated to Middle Eastern, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Tudor and Medieval, Dark Ages, English Civil War, Ancient Greece, British Regency, period living and primitive wilderness survival skills for the years 1680-1760 in the New World, southern Germany from late antiquity to Charlemagne, and Vikings and Normans circa 400 to 1200.
A Day in the Life
There really is nothing quite like spending a day in costume, away from the trappings of city life. For that one day, you can be literally anyone else you like, and no one will question you about it. Spending a day outside heightens your senses to the elements past cultures may have experienced-- everything from the dampness of the morning all the way through a dusty afternoon or late afternoon rainstorm. Necessity forces you to find shelter or provisions on your own or accept being soaked to the bone in full costume. You will meet others who are dressed as you are and who may have valuable advice that they’re willing to share about setting up camp, working a particular demonstration, or even working with an ever-changing crowd of spectators. In the case of a Renaissance fair, this might be perfecting a subtle magic trick or a ballad to sing. In the case of a Civil War living history demonstration, it might be about adding some quick historical blurbs during the loading of a canon. If you are one of the women working with others to prepare a venison feast with quail egg appetizers and turnip soup, the knowledge passed from one to another is truly how it was done in early times, when the only translation between generations was word of mouth. Being in costume gives you the appreciation of how it really felt to have to move about in the heat and discomfort of a heavy uniform. Interactions with other characters train you to focus on the matters at hand—discussion of “mundane” (or contemporary) topics is not allowed. This can be incredibly freeing for anyone who wants to forget work for a while! Instead of watching television at night or listening to i-Pods, there is the opportunity to listen to night sounds and talk of the coming day. Musicians are afforded the opportunity to play into the night. With Renaissance fairs, music is often combined with belly dancing or set dances. In the case of the rendezvous, it will be fiddle or guitar, and perhaps even cowboy poetry.
As for the children who grow up in families who do reenactments together? They benefit in ways that many children only dream of. Families tend to be more closely knit, and the children learn dozens of life skills some adults don’t even know.