A Brief History of Historical Reenactment

Historical reenactments are educational and exciting events that keep us rooted in our history. Groups of people around the world recreate living history. Some groups recreate specific battles or events in history, while others reflect small villages and farms. Reenactments like these date back to Ancient Rome where people would gather in amphitheaters to get a glimpse of what famous battles may have been like.


The nineteenth century brought widespread interest in historical reenactments. The subject at this time was fueled by a romantic interest in medieval culture. The reenactments took many forms. Hosts would throw lavish recreations of naval battles, medieval tournaments, theatrical plays, and more. In 1839 the 13th Earl of Eglinton gathered 100,000 spectators don medieval formal attire at a jousting event.


Toward the end of the 19th century, America begins to use reenactments for other reasons. Soldiers and civilians reenacted battles to commemorate the casualties, and teach the public the true nature of the Civil War. Less than one year after the Battle of Little Bighorn, survivors banded together to create a collection of photographs as means for remembrance of their defeat. Many of these battles are still remembered through reenactment today.


The twentieth century popularized reenactments in Russia. Common reenactments were based on the Siege of Sevastopol, the Battle of Borodino, and the 1917 Storming of the Winter Palace. The 1917 reenactment inspired filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein to create “October: Ten Days That Shook the World.” By the 20’s, large scale reenactments were scheduled regularly at Royal Tournament, Aldershot Tattoo. Some of the shows consisted of many historical events and lasted six days!


Modern reenacting began in America around the time of the Civil War Centennial commemorations. These events didn’t gain popularity until the end of the century. Many people speculate the huge success of the 125th Anniversary reenactment near the original Manassas battlefield. It was a massive event with over 6,000 reenactors getting involved.


Types of Historical Reenactment


Living History

This is an often improvised style meant for the general public to bring history to life. There is a wide range of professional and ameteur groups out there. Some are more interested in preserving accurate depictions of daily life and behaviours of the time, right down to the creation of their garb and construction and maintenance of their facilities. These are often site specific recreations, such as a village or plantation, to reflect an impression of the lifestyles of people from that specific time period.


Living History enactments often educate people by using demonstrations, acting, and interactive activities. Those who visit places like Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts walk into the past. They can walk through the town and see farmers, blacksmiths, leather workers, and more. These reenactors attempt to perform their trades, and interact with visitors as if they are from that time. Visitors also learn about class and politics by attending town meetings, leisure activities, and cooking demonstrations in different households.


Combat Demonstration.

These are not as involved as scripted battle reenactments. Combat demonstrations give audiences an idea of what combat might have looked like. Professional or private organizers teach their audiences about battle tactics, combat training, maneuvering techniques, and the weaponry used throughout history.


Battle Reenactment.


These reenactments are scripted and rehearsed so that the reenactors can depict the battle as closely as possible. Because many of these historical sites are on National Park Service land, these events can’t take place on the original sites. Instead, companies often resort to using land nearby, or that is similar in layout to the original. These events can have anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand reenactors.


Tactical Combat

Tactical combat reenactment is essentially “historical airsoft.” The battles are usually closed to the public and include only the reenactors. These are fought similarly to actual historical battles. Both sides agree upon the physical boundaries, victory conditions, time limit, etc. They also have judges to help uphold rules and determine the victor. Both sides brainstorm strategies to beat their opponents. Some groups even use historically correct weapons with blanks.


Commercial Reenactment


You can find a variety of commercial reenactment all over the world. Castles, museums, forts, bridges, plantations, and more use reenactment to enhance the experience of their visitors. Actors follow choreographed blocking and scripts to educate people about the history of a specific space or activity.