What is Reenactment?


At first I had thought I might write yet another essay on the subject, incorporating graphs and so on. But who, in their post-Halloween candy-fueled state, would want that? Instead as I went back through my survey results I couldn’t help but share some quotes, and use those to highlight some themes I found in the responses to the open-ended question “How would you define reenactment for a friend who had never encountered it before?”

4: “Re-enactment in the UK (the definition varies in other countries) is the creation of a living image by means of costume and reconstructed artefacts of a person or people from a very specific period of history. Accuracy has become a defining feature of the pastime in the last ten years or so.”

So we begin with a very serious and well-considered answer to the question. Far and away “history” and all its associated forms (ie ‘historical,’ ‘historic’) were the most common repeated terms in the responses to this question, with 121 occurrences in 160 answers. “Specific,” too, came up about 20% of the time — referring either to a period of history or a certain skill the reenactor performs. The question of accuracy came up about as often, generally in a positive light: “we base everything we do on historical evidence and sources, to provide the most accurate representation that we can” (70).


111: “Basically, we go to castles, camp with a couple hundred mates, have a scrap, amaze small children and terrify their parents, make stuff, go the pub and do it all again the day after.”

After “history,” “community” and “fun” were the most common words associated with reenactment — a lot of the comments in this vein were written in the matter-of-fact humor that this quote illustrates well, I think. And yes, there were precisely THREE respondents who gave me some version of “the most fun you can have with your clothes, and armour on” (160). Still, out of 160, perhaps I should count myself lucky . . .

93: “. . . it’s not LARP like in that film Role Models.”

Having talked about ‘fun,’ let’s take a brief moment and address the elephant ranger employing his “sneak” skill in the middle of the forest– er, room. Only five answers specifically mentioned LARPing and it was always either in sharp contrast or in a “better than” sense, as in, “like LARP but with real swords.”

157: “Equal parts of acting, entertainment, education and sports for the purposes of bringing history to life for multiple age groups.”


I appreciated this response for its balanced approach. You’ll have noted above that since “history” came up 121 times, there were 39 in which it did not come up. Some of those were the answers focused on ‘fun’ or ‘LARPing’; the others were inevitably focused on sports/hitting people with swords. Actually “fun,” “combat,” and “education” turned up in roughly equal proportions in the definitions, and thus it seems fair to me to include them all and more. It seems appropriate here to note that, though at first this seems like a weakness to many critics — ‘they’re allowing themselves to be distracted from the true historical facts!’ etc — I actually think this mix of elements could be a strength of reenactment. After all, history itself wasn’t just about the facts when it was being made.

120: “It’s experiencing history hands on, the tastes, sounds and in some cases smells of the past . . .”

In a similar vein, I had about a dozen answers which made a particular mention of the “immersive” or “hands-on” nature of reenactment. The idea of performing turned out to be recurrent as well, showing up in a modest 12.5% of responses. I still remember reading these survey results after I had done substantial reading on the senses, perception, and theories of performance and feeling a small victory — I’m not entirely on the wrong path after all! But seriously, this represents a small portion of the total answers from reenactors — I suspect it may have come up more if I had surveyed the public attending reenactment events; but that’ll have to go on the list of future research!

141: “. . . An all inclusive hobby where one never stops learning”

“Learning” did not come up as often as combat, fun, or community — only 30 times, roughly 18%. However, the idea of “experimenting” came up nearly as frequently, and occasionally so too did the idea of bringing together “experts in traditional fields” (144). As mentioned above, “education” was popular, though generally in reference to the public.

98: “. . . We as reenactors are never going to get it completely right and often we have to dramatise and elaborate on some popular themes beyond the realms of reality to emphasise their strengths and weaknesses, but it also has the ability to highlight areas of heritage learning not often covered by Key Stage syllabus or indeed contribute to further archaeological study.”

This response exemplifies an approach that was a little harder to quantify. It wasn’t immediately apparent in most answers, but I had roughly 15% make direct note of a limitation on what reenactors could hope to achieve. That said, there were no responses that made any mention of “absolute,” “true,” or any such definite term, except regarding fun or community (ie ‘absolutely the most fun one can have’). Additionally several made particular reference to what reenactment could do in a critical sense rather than a purely presentational one — for example, “showing [the public] that Hollywood gets stuff wrong” (81) or asking “if what we know about [our ancestors] makes sense to us today?” (29). I found this thoughtfulness engaging.


18: “Best way I know to spend your spare money, time and sanity.”

Many responses contained some variation of this sentiment and it seemed like an appropriate note with which to end. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the exact reasons why reenactors continue devoting that money, time, and sanity to their hobby year after year!







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