History in Action

Article excerpt

ON AUGUST 11TH AND 12TH, a grand but semi-ruined stately home in Northamptonshire will play host to the largest historical re-enactment meeting in the world. Since 1996, Kirby Hall has been the showcase of `History in Action', an annual event for living history and re-enactment enthusiasts.

The event is perhaps the most ambitious, large-scale historical function managed by English Heritage and organised by a small team of professionals that is the Events Department. Kirby Hall itself is an elaborate sixteenth-century house that was saved from ruin by English Heritage.

Since it started in 1996, History in Action has attracted a growing number of the top re-enactment groups from the UK and abroad. This year about 3,000 participants are expected, ranging from Iron Age Celts to Second World War enthusiasts. These groups are mainly British, but Flemish, German, French and Dutch societies will also be present, and even some Russians.

Re-enactment used to be more about pageantry than history -- numerous village fetes of the 1960s and 1970s saw St George slaying the Black Knight in front of the tombola stall, and throughout this time various pub gardens were cleared of furniture to make way for oddly dressed Viking raiders taking on Alfred's men before the Morris Men took to the stage.

Today, the attention to detail among re-enactors is staggering, as thousands of hours are spent researching the costumes, weaponry or household items of our ancestors. Societies that concentrate on 20th Century re-enactment have been fortunate enough to be able to draw on the advice of veterans. However most societies have to rely heavily on archaeological papers, ancient commentaries, visual representations and even images on coins which are used to recreate the dress and accessories of the past. So meticulous is the research that re-enactors are frequently asked to advise film- and documentary-makers and their work is sometimes even used to illustrate academic conjecture.

In recent years, the interest in re-creating historical military and civil cultures has branched out far beyond the traditional confines of the popular English and American Civil War periods.

The Ermine Street Guard, founded in 1972, were the first group in Europe seriously to attempt to recreate the life of Roman legionaries, and now countless Roman re-enactment `legions' have sprung up across much of the old Roman Empire. Many modern Germans delight in re-creating the units stationed along the Rhine frontier, curiously there is even a `9th Roman legion' in the United States!

Britannia is a later Roman society that featured in Ridley Scot's epic film Gladiator. It was founded in 1990 and seeks to research and re-enact the conflicts that took place during the fall of the Western Roman Empire; originally a fifth-century `Arthurian' Group, they found the historical backdrop to the original story of Arthur more fascinating than the idea of the vague character lost in legend. Recently, interest in this period has grown -- with groups like ERA (End of the Roman Age)and the Franks, a French society, boosting its popularity. Wulfingas are mainly concerned with the living history of sixth- to eighth-century Germanic settlers and re-create a full Saxon warrior funeral at their shows.

The Vikings (a vast and appropriately, if obviously, named Norse group) cover the period from the ninth century to the field of Hastings, where the specialist group Conquest takes over, whose particular time focus runs from 1066 to the civil war of Stephen and Matilda. …