History and Recreation: Re-Enactment and Living History in Britain 2002. (Re-Enactor Roundup)

By Bell, Neil | History Today, April 2002 | Go to article overview

History and Recreation: Re-Enactment and Living History in Britain 2002. (Re-Enactor Roundup)


Bell, Neil, History Today


ON WEDNESDAY August 7th, men and women from all over the world will begin to gather in the fields around Kirby Hall, a half-ruined seventeenth-century house near Kettering in Northamptonshire. There to take part in a huge event called History in Action, they will be the first of an estimated 3,000 historical re-enactors who have gathered every year for the last six years to mount what English Heritage, the sponsors of the show, call `the world's largest display of history through the ages'. In the days leading up to the weekend a sprawling city of tented encampments will grow in the grounds around the hall, each one designed to offer the visiting public a detailed and painstakingly researched glimpse into our historical heritage -- from the severed head of a Gallic tribesman impaled on a spear outside the leather tent of a Roman legion, to the trench systems of the First World War, or the wreckage of a crashed Me109 languishing beside a British machine gun nest of the 1940s. Within the camps life goes on much as it did during the period portrayed, allowing visitors the chance to get close to many long-extinct crafts and skills that were once essential for a comfortable life. Rush lamps are prepared for the evening, twine is braided into ropes, vegetables and plants are gathered to dye cloth, armour is repaired, muskets and Kalashnikovs are polished. Here you can not only see a pole-lathe turning, you can have it explained by a well-practised operator.

Beyond the camps is a large market with traders selling kit and equipment used by re-enactors from every age, and it is here that visitors are often dazzled by the craftsmanship they encounter. Hand-stitched clothing and uniforms, delicate jewellery, armour and swords can all be had here -- for a price, of course. However, a full harness of fifteenth-century plate armour, hand-made to fit you perfectly will take several weeks of a craftsman's life to make and the enormous amount of research, skill and man-hours spent on it will more than justify the four-figure price tag.

These markets are the vindication of a constant drive towards authenticity, which has been growing within re-enactment for over thirty years, and the efforts of those early researchers have now bred a new generation of craftspeople with skills honed since childhood. These people have sought to resurrect skills that have, in some cases, been dead for hundreds of years and without the ready market of the re-enacting community, these crafts would expire again in our robotically constructed twenty-first century. But the demand for their work is so great that several of these artisans have started employing helpers in their workshops, young men and women who will grow up with the knowledge and skills of the armourer or crossbow maker, thereby spontaneously regenerating the traditional system of apprenticeship, so often lamented as irretrievably lost.

However, History in Action is probably best known for its battle displays. In earlier years the running order was strictly chronological, with the Roman legions marching out to take the field in the early morning and the representatives of successive time periods following on until the day drew to an end with a deafening crescendo as the armies of the Second World War clashed on the by-now mud-churned main arena, with a Spitfire screaming overhead. However, the number and diversity of the groups involved now means that more arenas have been added and this has led to a more mixed programme, though the Allies versus the Axis will once again top the bill this year.

Aside from the large-scale action, vignettes illustrating the personal experiences of soldiers are performed either within the hall or in tented areas away from the arenas. Staff from the National Army Museum will portray the medical unit of an advance dressing station (ADS) during the battle of Loos in 1915. While they go about the grim business of attending to the wounded and shell-shocked, they will be acting in the `first person': as if it is 1915 and will not, therefore, be able to answer a question from the public if it involves later events. …

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