The power of re-enactment

Re-enactments of historical events are nothing new. In 1839, as a mania for medieval revival swept through British culture, aristocrats and gentry paraded in medieval armour at the Eglinton Tournament. This was supposed to be a re-enactment of the medieval games described in Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe. There was jousting, a staged battle, banquet and a costumed ball. Among a crowd more than 100,000 strong, there were visitors from as far away as India and South America. By the 1880s the cast of ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ was entertaining audiences in the US and across Europe with imagined scenes from ‘frontier life’ being played out against massive scenery backdrops, live music, and the voice of a narrator. These were more condensed and sensationalist spectacles of skill and daring than any attempt at re-enacting authentic history.

Today re-enactment is as popular as ever. One database records the numbers of established re-enactment groups at 550-600 worldwide. Among the best known in Britain is The Sealed Knot, the single biggest re-enactment society in Europe, who re-create the battles and sieges of the English Civil War. The Sealed Knot is an educational charity with a programme of annual events which aims to educate the public about those wars and the lives and times of people who lived in the mid-17th century. Major battle re-enactments can last for two or three days and attract many hundreds of people to watch.

On the one hand, those who question their value often complain that re-enactments are a better guide to the concerns of the modern day than to the realities of the past. It is, of course, true that the settings are often fabricated and fictitious (indeed archaeologists greatly prefer re-enactments not to take place on the sites of actual events for fear of contamination by recent replicas such as lead shot which may be hard to distinguish from the original) and that there are limits as to how far any recreated experience can be considered ‘real’. Some re-enactments are better than others, in the sense that they might offer a balanced view of events and tactics, make every attempt to be ‘accurate’, decry sentimentality and employ and interact with replica objects of the highest craftsmanship. Conflict, others say, should never be a form of entertainment for public consumption no matter how well crafted. They may argue too that such events are meaningless and commercially grounded and that they can inspire unwelcome nationalistic tendencies.

On the other hand, some historians see re-enactment as a form of practice-based research which can make a positive contribution to scholarship. For example, re-enactment may pose quite specific questions about period details - what it feels like to wear a particular item of clothing, how long it takes to load and fire a matchlock musket, what the bread tasted like, and so on. In that sense some re-enactments can come very close to experimental archaeology, although the exercise may be hard to repeat or document or even quantify. Other positives are that re-enactments offer participants and spectators alike a broader sense of contact with life in the past, for example in getting them to think about colour and sound. Undoubtedly, they can be a powerful way of bringing historic landscapes to life and introduce the public to facets of the past about which they may know little, encouraging a sense of belonging and connection to the landscape. Re-enactment may help to reaffirm community identity and even remind us of the role of the past in shaping the present. And, of course, re-enactments may help to attract tourists and sustain communities too.

In this video (above) you can watch a re-enactment of the Battle of Dunbar in September 2016.

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This video is from the free online course:

Archaeology and the Battle of Dunbar 1650: From the Scottish Battlefield to the New World

Durham University