A few months ago I attended a historical conference. One of the panels discussed popular perceptions of history. Little time passed before historical re-enactment cropped up in the course of the discussion. One of the panel leaders, a reasonably high-profile military historian, was dismissive. "Really, what's the point of it?" he asked the audience. "It can't ever be more than costumed play-acting, nor can it be historically accurate."
|I am actually in this picture... spot me...|
I have been a re-enactor, on and off (currently off), since 1996. I'm certainly not obsessive about it: I do not have a house filled with costumes, gear, and weapons. I do not spend my weekends going out to play, at least not any more. But I absolutely love re-enacting, and not just because it's a bit of fun.
The military historian I referred to above is not completely wrong. Historical re-enacting does have its limitations, and it's important to realise what those are. But it's equally important to realise what re-enacting can do, and what makes it such an amazing resource, whether for the average member of the public looking to learn something about history or for the historical fiction author wishing to add a dash of authenticity to his/her writing.
- It's not a primary source
First off, the most important thing to realise (and it's amazing how few members of the public seem to get this): re-enactors are not people from the era they represent. In any given unit, you will have a number of different people acting together. A few will be dedicated historians, but the majority will be ordinary members of the public with a vague interest in history who wanted to try out something different. Most, hopefully, will be at least slightly familiar with the period they re-enact, but this is not a given.
|Events this large are rare|
What you are seeing during a historical re-enactment is not "a battle as it happened". It's an opportunity for re-enactors to display some of the weaponry and drill from the era. Whatever the programme told you, you are not watching "the Battle of Waterloo". Some of the drill will have been misinterpreted (because sources can be), nor can you recreate a proper battle with a hundred and fifty re-enactors, none of whom are actually trying to kill each other (....... probably).
- It's not "a snapshot of the era"
Something of a trope this. Re-enactment (and its sister living history) can create the illusion that what is being represented is entirely faithful to the period. It's not. There is absolutely no way a historical re-enactor can faithfully recreate the conditions of a soldier who's been on the march for months on end. (Even the most exhausted re-enactor's uniform would not reflect the realities of that.) And yes, although we do sleep in those tents, we don't sleep six men to a wedge tent, or a dozen men to a bell tent. Nor do we rough it without tents.
Re-enacting is about entertainment as well as history. It will reflect preconceptions about the era, because that's what the public expects. I've seen re-enacted floggings, desertions, courts martial, and even wife sales and spy captures. These things did happen, but the history behind them is rarely explored. It's put on for show, to capture the public interest.
- It's not real
A lot of re-enactors are former soldiers, but not all. We put the uniform on at the beginning of the weekend and try to maintain the character while the public are about, but after hours we do not, and at the end of the event we all drive home to our 21st century homes. We eat food cooked on the open fire and we don't show our polyester sleeping bags to the public, but we are wearing a costume and acting a persona.
Battles are scripted, the winners usually pre-determined, and no live ammunition is used (......... well, I did attend one event when someone was found to be using live ammo, but the police stepped in fairly early on). Operating real weapons is dangerous and people do occasionally get hurt, but by and large they are used cautiously and only after tons of training. There shouldn't be any casualties from a re-enactment. At the end of the battle the dead rise, clap each other on the back and walk away to enjoy a beer or two by the camp fire.
But isn't this how it is with all secondary sources? They must always be approached with caution. This does not mean they cannot be enjoyed. Re-enactments can be very useful, and this is why.
What historical re-enactment can do
- It can inspire
In many ways re-enacting is very similar to historical fiction. The average member of the public, who has never been interested in history before, might attend one purely out of interest and come away with a curiosity for the era. He or she might even read a book or two about it. They are fun and accessible, and a "way in" to history for many people. It's a lot more immediate than watching a film, and certainly a lot more interesting than a school lecture or textbook.
|From Wikimedia Commons, by Laurence Ferrett|
- It can teach
I said above that very few re-enactors are dedicated historians, but that doesn't mean they know nothing. Members of the public always have questions, and re-enactors always know something about what they are doing. Not everyone at a Napoleonic re-enactment will be able to give a step-by-step breakdown of the Peninsular War, but they will be able to tell you about how the weapons are fired, what food was eaten, what kind of men joined the army, and what it might have been like to be a soldier at the time. It's a tribute to soldiery throughout history, and to the people who made our past.
|Yes, we do sleep in those tents|
Some will even be experts on an aspect of the period. These of course are the "dedicated historians", and they are well worth talking to. Women will have sewing, weaving, or cooking equipment laid out. A barber might be giving a man a shave with period equipment. A regimental surgeon might be sorting through his box of medicines or laying out his tools. They are all well worth chatting to.
- It is hands-on
This is where re-enacting is particularly good for the novelist. Short of getting your hands on a time machine, it's the best way to get an idea of how everything you have been reading about falls into the "big picture". You've read about how a 17th century person made fire? Ask a re-enactor to show you how to kindle a flame using tinder and flint. Know how to load a musket? Get a re-enactor to show you how it's done, step by step (and then watch how it's done with ammunition, and hear what it sounds like). Want to see how a particular military manoeuvre was carried out? Watch the drill. It's all there.
And no, you can't know what the battle of Waterloo would really have been like. But you can get an idea. You can smell the smoke, hear the sounds, see the chaos. Your senses are engaged in a way they cannot be by reading a book. You can see a few hundred soldiers moving about, using the weapons and acting out the moves which, several hundred years ago, won and lost battles.
|From Wikimedia Commons, by Wyrdlight|
Talk to them. Ask to handle the weapons (they'll let you). Ask questions about the tents, the food, the uniforms, anything and everything. If a re-enactor doesn't know the answer, they will direct you to someone who does. Where else do you get a chance to interact so thoroughly with a historical exhibit?
It's also mighty good fun ... but shhh, don't tell anyone.
|By Onyx85 at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4280924|
Wikipedia's list of worldwide re-enactment societies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_historical_reenactment_groups
A list of UK re-enactment groups and living history events: http://www.historic-uk.com/LivingHistory/
The National Association of Re-enactment Societies website: http://www.nares.org.uk/
Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. "The Late Lord" will be published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://alwayswantedtobeareiter.wordpress.com/, and can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/latelordchatham.