Re-enactor: bringing history to life
By Gery de Pierpont
Assuming the persona of a historical character
‘Re-enactor’ is a rather clumsy neologism which does little to describe those passionate history buffs who for the pleasure of experiencing the past as closely as possible, strive to bring certain pages of history to life. War tactics of the Roman legions, Viking raids, medieval fairs, court balls, military marches, or trench warfare are all grist to their mill. More and more living history lovers are grouping together to devote their free time to researching a period and role-playing in order to re- enact or reconstitute a way of life, or an important historic event—remarkable period adventures, nurtured by very real emotions and interaction with the past.
A passion for daily life in another era
Our school text books have left many of us with the impression that history is just a succession of battles and dates, of historical celebrities and political decisions. These facts were enhanced by a few ideological trends, scientific inventions, and artistic movements. What our lessons often neglected to convey was the taste of history—how life was lived on a day-to-day basis, whether in noble residences or peasant huts. What were our predecessors’ livelihoods? What was their hygiene like and their sanitation? What did they use for heat and light? What artisanal know-how and techniques did they proudly maintain? How did they behave amongst themselves? What were the down-to-earth practicalities that varied from region to region and from one community to another?
It is this substance of life—the practical and the social side of it that so intrigues these historical re-enactors. It is the concern they have for the ‘how it was done’ and for ‘who made the decisions’—the raw materials available, what people wore, what they ate, the gestures they made, the hairstyles and the language they spoke—that are the areas of their research and mutual participation in acting it out.
If these scene-setters spend much of their time researching their individual roles from the pages of history that interest them, it is nevertheless a collective experience. It is important to interact as a group with a complicit sharing of a past era; there is nothing like being among like-minded people for a themed occasion, or an arms-training session, or an exchange of medieval recipes, or the practice of old skills. The militarily inclined might also organize a few days bivouac at strategic battle sites. Families might spend their holidays in medieval habitations, without the trappings of modern life—their watches, mobiles, or even razors and shampoo …
Historic fairs and and artisanal markets are other sources of inspiration for re-enactors—public activities that are becoming more and more popular with their jousts, their acrobats, their blacksmiths and clog makers. Many museums employ permanent role players to welcome visitors in period costume and to bring interiors of other epochs to life. Some archaeological sites and ecomuseums show off traditional skills and have ‘period’ artisans to practice them in situ.
Re-enactors are also called upon to enact commemorative events such as jubilees, triumphant entries, processions and marches. Reconstituted famous battles are among the most popular—the Norman Conquest, the American Revolution, or the 1944 Normandy landings. It is a point of honour for the re-enactors to reproduce troop movements and conflicts as faithfully as possible by wearing the correct uniform, by using appropriate weaponry, and by following the same command procedures of the times. Each actor relives confrontation with stupefying conviction, and takes warlike gestures to the very limit before stopping at the last minute to avoid injuring someone else. Exhortations, gunpowder, arms clashes, intimidation tactics, accompanied by trumpet, fife and drum, are all very much part of the programme. Re-enactors also participate in many historic films, and with their stunts, make-up, and fake injuries, they push realism to the limit.
Getting into a character’s skin
Re-enactors, choose a period in which they can lose themselves, and where they can also adopt very individual profiles and choose a profession and status that correspond to their individual temperaments and to their expectations or secret dreams. Quite often, they will be inspired by their own family history or that of their community. Although some take the names of real people (be warned: not everyone can become William the Conqueror!), most role players will opt for fictional characters within various professions, such as soldiers, merchants, artisans, scientists, or doctors.
It is worth noting that these re-enactments are not role-playing games, where strict rules apply and are controlled by a role master. The entertainment factor is not the main motivation behind them, even if the participants enjoy themselves while acting their parts.
Women are also well represented in a series of key roles—the aristocrat, the canteen worker, the shopkeeper, the actress or mother and housewife. Breaking down the barriers of customary roles, and at the risk of shocking the purists, the more intrepid do not hesitate to don military garb and to mix with the soldiers. From the age of twelve, children too can emulate their elders by playing the parts of errand boys, embroiderers, pages, apprentices, or musicians.
It would seem logical that one of his descendants represent the Duke of Wellington, and that a high-ranking officer should be a real military man, or that the person reincarnating the castle butler should be played by someone who works in a hotel. In reality, many living history re-enactors have no hesitation in assuming a completely different status or environment. Thus, Maréchal Ney, who commanded the movements of so many cavalrymen with great assurance on the (modern) battlefields of Waterloo, is, in everyday life, a simple librarian; the warehouseman becomes a knight, and the university professor, a town scribe.
Re-enactors are usually very discreet when it comes to their real life. Once they have assumed their historic personas, the use of nicknames is usual (as it was in former times) and few of them are known by their real names.
No one ‘dresses up’
To be clear on one point, re-enactors actually embody historical figures. They will design their own costumes; obtain boots, hats, the appropriate arms and all the kit that is required to play the chosen role as authentically as possible. ‘Dressing up’ would be a pejorative term and reduce re-enactments to the level of fancy-dress parties or masked balls. Nor is it the same as a show put on by stage actors. Living history re-enactors do not perform according to a predefined staging, or act out dramatic texts they have learned by heart. They endeavour to get into the skin of people of past eras, and only following general guidelines, interact spontaneously with the group (or the public) within a specific spatio-temporal setting.
To become a re-enactor is to accept that the little comforts of the 21st century must be put aside in order to immerse oneself in the difficult living conditions of the past: cold nights under the stars on a bed of straw, boiled vegetables and dried meat, uncomfortable shoes, clothes sticky with sweat, the weight of one’s kit, the rain, the mud, the stifling heat. Soldiers who have chosen the excitement of adventure, also put themselves at real risk; even if they are not there to kill each other, they still charge with their bayonets forward; the horses panic at the sound of the canons; armour clashes in the fray, to say nothing of old rifles, which invariably cause a number of accidents when fired. Unfortunately, falls, toxic fumes, deafening detonations, involuntary knocks, fatigue, and heart attacks can beset the protagonists.
Serious but fun
The fervour for historical re-enactments used to be strongest in North America, Britain, Germany and Scandinavia. Today, however, the movement has gained popularity in many other countries and has affected every era.
If the number of followers is constantly growing, the degree to which a re-enactment is authentic does vary from group to group. The purists, faithful to their character and to the exigencies of the period, are for a total (uncompromising) immersion in history. Other participants are less scrupulous about making use of present-day trappings, such as sewing machines, modern dyes, thermal underwear, cigarettes, energy drinks, or ‘candy bars’.
What motivates the re-enactor?
Many reasons might push us to become living history actors. To begin with, there must be an interest in history, a nostalgic wish for a past era, as well as the (physical) enjoyment derived from this activity. Other common incentives might include searching for an identity, whether familial or regional, the need for recognition, or even an escape from the mundane. Added to which, is the social pleasure of being among friends, fraternizing around a fire or even travelling together from one event to another.
If you are tempted to join them …
Participate frequently in re-enactments; talk to members of the group, and search the internet to find active groups near you. The next step is to choose a period that fascinates you, find a character to inspire you, and then document all you can find out about your chosen era: how people dressed, customs, language, literature, and social history. Many clubs are recruiting. Their members will assist your immersion into the past, will lend you appropriate clothes, and they will help you to refine your choice, and to gradually acquire all the paraphernalia to go with your persona.
One usually starts at the bottom rung of the hierarchical ladder, which some re-enactors may climb by co-option, depending on their dedication to the group’s activities, their leadership qualities, and their ability to organize operations.
The illusion of reliving history
Despite the care taken with these re-enactments, it is of course, impossible to relive, in real terms that which has taken place in other epochs. If only because the risks are no longer the same (one is not risking one’s life) and the context is different—a spectator activity distorts the perspective. Even if certain episodes in history are documented to the smallest detail, the way in which these events were lived by every person who participated in them will be lost to us for ever. Indeed, the history that the re-enactors believe they can actually feel is history simplified, popularized, and riddled with the inevitable clichés conveyed in heroic fantasy films, chivalric romances, television series with bloody scenarios, video games in which no one ever dies, re-touched photographs and other pseudo-scientific information that proliferates across the Internet. And it is these images, that in spite of ourselves, we retain.
All the same, experiencing the physical aspects of living conditions in past epochs can be extremely enriching. The principal interest in these re-enactments is precisely to draw the historian’s attention to the myriad concrete details that very few witnesses took the trouble to record in writing: the way in which people communicated, how different sorts of merchandise were procured, how they told the time without clocks, the coexistence of different languages, or how they took care of their horses …
However, living history enthusiasts do not have many supporters among academic historians. Certainly some re-enactments are organized for political purposes—to raise (artificially) national awareness. Certain productions propagate a simplistic vision of the past or represent myths that have no scientific foundation. Certain extremist groups have kept alive the memory of totalitarian regimes condemned by humanity. Other organizations will concentrate on folk animation or on purely commercial events. Nevertheless, there is common ground to be found between the academic community and the living history buffs, where there can be mutual inspiration and where approaches can evolve side by side.
Historical re-enactments are nothing new. Roman emperors saw it as a way of shaping their own legends. The naval conflicts organized at the Château de Versailles are another example, as are the evocations of important battles in England and the United States during the romantic 19th century.
A second life … for real?
Creating a fictional period character (or that of a departed historical figure) is what fires the imagination of many re-enactors; particularly when it is possible to embody this virtual character within a group, and to assume the skin of an alter ego—in the ‘past tense’. It is often the case that this second life is more intense than normal existence. The position one holds is different and the challenge more inspiring. It must surely be tempting to reinvent oneself and one’s destiny, and to appropriate the persona of one’s historical ideal.
The Telegraph interviewed and photographed various living history actors from the Battle of Waterloo that marked the occasion of its bicentenary, and recorded some very interesting accounts from British, French, Prussian and Belgian re-enactors on their double lives and their military engagement as soldiers.
And what about you? For a few weekends out of a year, what period would you choose in which to be reincarnated and as whom—perhaps a blacksmith, an intrigante, or a major-domo?