Historical reenactment is a type of roleplay 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, such as the reenactment of Pickett's Charge at the Great Reunion of 1913, or as broad as an entire period.
Activities related to "reenactment" are not new. Tournaments in the Middle Ages had Roman or other earlier themes (while the Romans themselves staged recreations of famous battles within their amphitheaters as a form of public spectacle), and the Victorians recreated medieval jousts. However, historical reenactment in pursuit of practical historical interest, beyond merely re-inventing history as an entertainment to suit contemporary convenience or sensibilities, seems to be an invention of the 20th century.
The term living history describes attempts to bring history to life for the general public. Historical reenactment includes a continuum from well researched attempts to recreate a known historical event for educational purposes, through representations with theatrical elements, to competitive events for purposes of entertainment, which might be considered a form of live-action role-playing within a historical context. The line between amateur reenactment and presentations at living history museums can be blurred as, while the latter routinely utilize museum professionals and trained interpreters to help convey the story of history to the public, some museums and historic sites employ reenactment groups with high standards of authenticity for the same role at special events.
Most reenactors are amateurs who pursue reenactment as a hobby. Participants within this hobby are extremely diverse. The ages of participants range from young children whose parents bring them along to events, to the elderly. Among adult participants, people from all different walks of life can be found - college students, firemen, lawyers, members of the armed forces, doctors, and even professional historians.
Reasons given for participating vary. Some participants are interested in getting a historical perspective on a particular period or war, particularly if they can trace their ancestry back to an individual or individuals who were involved. Others participate for the escapism that such events offer.
Some, called "Farbs," are re-enactors who spend relatively little of their time or money maintaining authenticity with regard to uniforms, accessories, or even period behavior. The 'Good Enough' attitude is pervasive among farbs, although perhaps few casual observers would be able to point out flaws in their impressions.
The origin of the word "farb" (and the derivative adjective "farby") is unknown. Some think that the origin of the word is a truncated version of "Far be it from authentic." An alternative definition is "Far Be it for me to question/criticise", or "Fast And Research-less Buyer". Some early reenactors assert the word derives from German farbe, color, because inauthentic American Civil War re-enactors were over-colourful compared with the dull blues, greys or browns of the real uniforms that were a principal concern of American reenactors at the time the word was coined.
Most mainstream reenactors make an effort at appearing authentic, but may come out of character in the absence of an audience. Visible stitches are likely to be sewn in a period-correct manner, but hidden stitches and undergarments may not be period-appropriate. Food consumed before an audience is likely to be generally appropriate to the period portrayed, but it may not be seasonally and locally appropriate. Modern items are sometimes used "after hours" or in a hidden fashion. The common attitude is to put on a good show, but that accuracy need only go as far as others can see.
The period of an event is the range of dates . See authenticity (reenactment) for a discussion of how the period affects the types of costume, weapons, and armour used.
Popular periods to reenact include:
Small cottage industries abound that provide not only the materials but even the finished product for use by reenactors. Uniforms and clothing made of hand woven, natural dyed materials are sewn by hand or machine using the sartorial techniques of the period portrayed. The same holds true for headgear, footwear, camp gear, accoutrements, military equipment, weapons and so on. These items (which are generally much more expensive than clothing and uniform in modern production) offer the wearer a life-like experience in the use of authentical materials, tailoring techniques and manufacture. Event spectators may also derive more satisfaction when a high level of authenticity is attained in both individual clothing and equipment, as well as equipment used in camp.
Experimental archaeology is an important part of many authentic living history events, where crafts and techniques are evaluated to see whether they make sense in the appropriate historical setting. For example, various combinations of armour can be tried to see if an item for which no historical evidence exists is actually easy to make with the tools available and practical to use in the battles of the time.
Living histories are meant entirely for education of the public. Such events do not necessarily have a mock battle but instead are aimed at portraying the life, and more importantly the lifestyle, of people of the period. This often includes both military civilian camps. Occasionally, a spy trial is recreated,and a medic too. More common are weapons and cooking demonstrations, song and leisure activities, and lectures.
In the United States, living history is the only reenactment permitted on National Park Service land; NPS policy "does not allow for battle reenactments (simulated combat with opposing lines and casualties) on NPS property."
Combat demonstrations are mock battles put on by reenacting organizations and/or private parties primarily to show the public what combat in the period might have been like. Combat demonstrations are only loosely based on actual battles, if at all, and may simply consist of demonstrations of basic tactics and maneuvering techniques.
Scripted battles are reenactment in the strictest sense; the battles are planned out beforehand so that the companies and regiments make the same actions that the were taken in the original battles. They are often fought at or near the original battle ground or at a place very similar to the original.
Tactical battles are generally not open to the public. Tactical battles are fought like real battles with both sides coming up with strategies and tactics to beat their opponents. With no script, a basic set of agreed-upon rules (physical boundaries, time limit, victory conditions, etc.), and on-site judges, tactical battles can be considered a form of Live action role-playing game.
Creative history and fantasy events are distinct from historical reenactments, as these types of events typically allow clothing and equipment that is not historically correct (for example, cotton clothing in a medieval setting), or may have no basis in history whatsoever.
While all such groups follow a looser interpretation of history (sometimes mixing equipment from closely related periods, for instance), some go a step further and mix historical elements with elements of fantasy, or incorporate modern technology or culture into a historical setting. (Often this is done in the interests of increasing safety or reducing costs, such as making melee weapons out of rubber or plastic rather than iron or steel).
Notable examples of this variation on the theme are the Society for Creative Anachronism, and Renaissance Faires, which blend approximately medieval customs, dress, and activities within historically inspired fantasy kingdoms. However, many Renaissance Faires have begun to rein in the fantasy elements and have a more historical feel.
Another popular book is The Medieval Soldier by Gerry Embleton and John Howe, 1995. It has been translated to French and German. It was later followed by Medieval Military Costume in Colour Photographs.
For the Napoleonic Period there are 2 books of interest that cover life in the military at that time and Living History; "The Napoleonic Soldier" by Stephen E. Maughan, 1999 and "Marching with Sharpe" by B.J. Bluth, 2001. The various Napoleonic reenactment groups, some of whom are listed in the External Links below, now cover the history of their associated regiment as well as try to describe and illustrate how they approach recreating the period. The aim to be as authentic as is possible from the various source materials has led many serious reenactment societies to set up their own research groups to verify their understanding of the uniforms, drill and all aspects of the life that they strive to portray. In this way reenactment plays a vital role in bringing history to life, keeping history alive and in expanding the knowledge and understanding of the period.
Skirmish Magazine, edited by long time Living Historian Rachel C Evans, covers all periods of world history from the last 4000 years. Aimed at reenactors and living historians, it provides articles on topics including living history, reenactment, historical essays and archeology from leading living historians and historians such as Dan Snow, Tony Pollard and Jonathan Davies. The Advisory Board includes high profile reenactors including Jonathan Egglestone and Trevor Poole.
Common criticisms revolve around motivation, as well as concerns about the level of immersion found in some arenas, notably those involving 20th Century conflicts where combatants had stricter regulations regarding personal grooming. The average age of reenactors is also generally far higher than the average age of soldiers in most conflicts. Few reenactment units discriminate, however, based on age and physical condition. However, there has been criticism about the exclusion of women from some American Civil War combat reenactment units. While there were a small handful of women who may have fought in the conflict, almost all of them did so disguised as men. Attitudes on this topic seem to vary widely.
A final concern mentioned by Thompson's book is the "fantasy farb", or tendency of reenactors to gravitate towards "elite" units such as commandos, paratroopers, or Waffen-SS units resulting in an under-representation in the reenactment community of what were the most common types of military troops in the period being reenacted. This is largely drawn from an North American perspective, although there are parallel issues on the European scene, such as the tendency in Britain for Napoleonic War reenactors to perform as members of the 95th Rifles (perhaps due to the popularity of Sharpe). In the UK there are multi-period events such as 'History in Action' where groups get to look at each other's appearance and performances as well as perform for the general public.
There is certainly much criticism from within reenactment organisations as to meritocracy, leadership and so-on. On the whole reenactors could be guilty of projecting their own, present-minded attitudes onto their historical alter egos.