Ancient, News, Pre-WW1

FARB? A Guide to (Historical) Re-Enactment Through the Ages

What’s the difference between re-enacting and living history?

Let’s ask Phil Hodges.

Well, for some there is no difference, For others it’s a different experience altogether. For me, personally,  the biggest difference has always been a few thousand pounds or dollars!

Some will argue, and many do, that the sole difference is in regards to the accuracy of the person or period they portray. Re-enactors will often argue that they not only dress in the correct period uniforms but that they also ‘live’ the period.

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Living historians will argue that they don’t fully embrace this and take certain liberties, usually at night when they retreat to a modern tent or camper van! I’m guilty of both.

 Living historians generally strive to live, cook, eat and sometimes even speak in a manner that fits the character that they are portraying. It’s a thin wedge but one that can be very costly. More time and effort seems to be spent on the latter and I’ve done both so I should know. As does my bank. That said both parties seem to have a huge hatred for the dreaded ‘Promenader’.

Don’t. Just don’t. You’ll be hated. While men stormed the beaches others lined their pockets.

This strange character seems to think that buying a cheap nylon suit from a local thrift store or second hand shop aided by a trilby hat and paint on moustache will transport them back to the 1940s. It’s a torrid site to watch ‘1940s’ promenaders dancing to rock n’ roll or line dancing in the name of remembrance. Rant over.

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Whether re-enactor or living historian, one thing they have in common is passion. Generally, both are very well educated in their chosen period or periods. Attention to detail goes without saying and the willingness to talk to the public is immense. From Romans to Vikings, medieval knights to US marines if you can think of a period, normally when there was a battle, you will find someone re-enacting it.

And do you know what? Good luck to them I say. If they can educate people and teach the masses about the sacrifices of people from a harsher time then that’s no bad thing. I’ve been lectured and been the lecturer. And I’ve enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.

So, who DID start the hobby of re-enacting?

Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

The Romans truly were the first re-enactors. They often held bloody battles in amphitheatres of famous Roman victories. There is an infamous scene in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator where Russell Crowe and co are forced to ‘re-enact’ a battle from the Punic Wars within the confined space of the Coliseum. The ‘Barbarian Horde’ are booed by the crowd. Things don’t quite go as planned however and Crowe and his fellow ‘Carthaginians’ not only win the fight but also the respect of the crowd. Although obviously a movie it is a very accurate portrayal of Roman entertainment of the day. Sadly, for these re-enactors there was no ‘ENDEX’ and the ‘dead’ did not stand up at the end of a battle to the applause of a crowd.


Roman Gladiators
Roman gladiators often fought entire battle re-enactments. The outcome for the losers was somewhat different from today however.

Sealing the Knot

Even the British Army got in on the act in its infancy. In 1645, at the height of the English Civil War a Parliamentarian officer tried to stop the locals in a Kent village from celebrating May Day. As a Puritan he saw the traditional customs of May Day as ‘ungodly’. His answer to this was to distract them by putting on a mock battle on the common land in Blackheath. Half of his men played the parts of well-disciplined, God-fearing Roundheads, and the other half played the unruly and drunk Cavaliers. One can only assume the Roundheads won. Naturally.

It wasn’t until 1968 however that the ‘Sealed Knot’ was formed. The Sealed Knot being the largest English Civil War re-enactment group in the world.

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Eglinton Tournament

Another famous British re-enactment was The Eglinton tournament of 1839. The tournament was somewhat embellished and totally romanticised, but it worked. A massive attendance of 100,000 spectators witnessed the festival of medieval jousting, sword fighting and customs of a bygone age. Sadly, and many a re-enactor of today will be able to sympathise with this, it rained. Heavily. And in some parts the ground was turned to an absolute bog. This didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the thousands of spectators, however. One eyewitness wrote:

“Whatever opinion may be formed of the success of the tournament, as an imitation of ancient manners and customs, we heard only one feeling of admiration expressed at the gorgeousness of the whole scene, considered only as a pageant. Even on Wednesday, when the procession was seen to the greatest possible disadvantage, the dullest eye glistened with delight as the lengthy and stately train swept into the marshalled lists”.

 I’m assuming this meant they were moved to tears of delight. That or the rain was mistaken for tears? Whatever happened numbers like this were never seen again.

Eglinton Tournament
A view of the ‘re-enactors’ at the Eglinton tournament in Scotland in 1839.

Stonewall Re-Enactors

Almost as soon as the American Civil War had finished veterans found they could earn a few dollars by re-enacting the battles they’d genuinely fought in for real. One account at the time said:

“On April 21, 1865, the town of Massillon, Ohio, was right back into the business of luring crowds with sham battles as part of a day-long jubilation over the recent victory of the Federal armies and the surrender of Lee.'”

 The re-enactments and staged battles offered great entertainment for the public, even though the original spectacles were so bloody and gruesome.

In fact, the paying public couldn’t get enough, and the term ‘Sham Battle’ was used to advertise such events often held in local parks or even, on the original battlefields themselves!


US Civil War
Confederate reenactors fire their rifles during a re-enactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 2008.

Then, in 1913, there was the ‘Great Reunion’ which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. This event was attended by more than 50,000 Union and Confederate soldiers…… nearly all veterans of the War itself!

Eventually, as the world moved on and other wars took their toll public interest waned. That was until around 1960, when the centenary of the American Civil War started to be mentioned. The first major re-enactment of this decade took place on July 21-22, 1961 and was a reproduction of the First Battle of Bull Run. It was a huge success. The world of the American Civil War re-enactor was here to stay.


Battle of Waterloo 1815
A Battle of Waterloo re-enactment with French cavalry, June 2011

So, The next time you’re at a re-enactment show or living history event and the ‘I’ve been doing this so long I was wearing original kit’ stories start you can stop them. Tell them to hush and regale them with tales of the re-enactments of old.

It’ll be taken in good humour as without humour we wouldn’t all be able to stand in a muddy field in the rain in March. Overall, our average re-enactor and living historian, be they man, woman, boy or girl generally fall into one category to an outsider: weird. Let’s keep it that way.

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