Living History Through Reenacting, Part Two

Are Renaissance fairs good examples of historic interpretation and reenactment??

In my last post, I brought up the term “living history” and sought to explore the dual meaning behind “living history” and living “history”.  I discussed my personal experiences in reenacting, as in living “history”. In this post, I will be exploring what “living history” is and analyze its importance in terms of historic interpretation.

To find a concrete definition of living history would be hard. Like the term reenactment, the term “living history” possesses many connotations and surely denotations as well. Some equate living history with reenactments while others align living history to historically preserved sites. And to some, living history might simply mean museums. Given that I live in southeastern Wisconsin, I’m most familiar with such institutions in Wisconsin such as the Milwaukee Public Museum, Old World Wisconsin, the Old Wade House, the Trimborn Farm as part of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, and other local parks and museums. But it would not be difficult to translate my experiences in Wisconsin to a more national scale in terms of living history.

From viewing blog posts to engaging in conversations with fellow reenactors, it is interesting to learn the differences between “good” and “bad” reenacting. I’ve encountered some people who very much delve into their personas through countless hours of research, attempting to piece together first-person snippets of the past to create the most believable stories. But then, without a generalization of reenactors as a whole, we see some others who clearly only desire to be a reenactor simply to wear the clothes and act like someone from the past just because of the “coolness” factor.

Indeed, some consider Renaissance fairs as one of the lowest forms of historical reenacting. As an instance of “living history”, it would be easy to condemn Renaissance fairs as a true testament of “accurate” history. I mean, one did not see fairies fluttering around amidst verdant trees or dragons sending searing flames against a knight’s shield emblazoned with a golden lion, now did we? Conversely, however, most Renaissance fairs seek to celebrate the emotions, atmosphere, and nostalgia the term Renaissance invokes rather than actual historical accuracy. Furthermore, it seems most Renaissance fairs seek to make a profit; no reenactment event I’ve ever been to ever charged an admission fee to the public though people can still browse shops.

Genuinely good historical reenacting to historic interpretation has a large amount of significance. Most people are exposed to history in their high school history which often forces students to memorize dates and people rather than focusing on the larger picture, the proverbial looking at the trees rather than the whole forest. Also, some teachers fail to incorporate critical thinking into history classes even though history as a liberal arts discipline requires and stimulates higher-end thinking.

In any case, reenactments help expose the public to living historical instances. This allows them to experience history in a vibrant, engaging atmosphere, often with hands-on activities. Places like Old World Wisconsin gain prominence because they allow constant interaction with artifacts, people, stories, and first-hand experiences to reinforce the exciting aspects of history. And in my short reign of terror as a reenactor, I’ve learned to appreciate and aspire to be one of those “good” reenactors. In this way can I enhance my skills as a historian as well as prepare myself for what I should do and not do should I enter the museum field.

I shall end this here before I begin to discuss the limitations and issues of historic interpreters and institutions. That could encompass another entire post, but I’d rather keep my readers than bore them to death with politics behind non-profit organizations. Quite possibly another time!

In conclusion, reenacting is much more than just “dressing up in fancy clothes and camping”. Authentic reenactors bring history to life in a way that history classes and textbooks cannot. As a history student with a fair amount of experience in the museum field, I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of historic interpretation. By allowing myself to enter the field of “living history” (as defined by reenacting), I’m both able to live “history” and indulge my inherent geekiness as well as be able to educate others as to why history matters and still lives on and should not be shelved away into the dusty annals of time.  I fervently that what little I can expose people to might just change their views on history, and I know for a fact that that is a goal that many reenactors also share.


8 thoughts on “Living History Through Reenacting, Part Two”

  1. Amy,
    Thank you! As a reenactor myself, I would almost word for word say everything you have said about reenacting, including the difficulty of defining it. And I say almost, as I am a he, so I would have to change some of the pronouns.
    As someone who has been reenacting for a few years, welcome to the hobby!
    Now the bad part; I came across your post while researching reenacting for a book I am working on. While I am so grateful that an academic speaks well of us, I am sure you are aware most academics, with some notable exceptions, are very critical of reenacting almost in whole. Why do you think this is?
    I’d love to hear back from you! And thanks again for writing so thoughtfully about what we do!

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thank you for commenting! I love hearing any and all feedback!

      Your question is very interesting and thought-provoking. Prior to becoming a reenactor, I had always been fascinated by the hobby. But I’m sure that reaction was rather atypical! It would not surprise me, however, if academics reacted negatively to reenacting as a whole because they liken it to, say, Renaissance fairs. They may think we seek to capture the essence of the time period rather than strive for period accuracy. I’d consider reenacting a form of historic interpretation, but others may feel we are simply actors. I’m sure that you have come across reenactors who are only reenacting because of the clothing. Or, I think the academics may simply not understand the hobby at all.

      Finally, according to Vanessa Agnew (;col1), academics may simply be jealous because reenactors “apparently fulfill the failed promise of academic history–knowledge entertainingly and authoritatively presented.” Which, I might add, I cannot entirely disagree with.

      Why do you think academics are critical of reenacting?

      Thanks again for responding, and I look forward to hearing your response!


  2. Thanks for the reply Amy!
    I read Agnew’s article. Lots of big words, but interesting, and at least not negative.
    I think academics have a negative impression because they only have a cursory look at the hobby. I’m don’t know about Renaissance period, but, for Civil War and WWII, often it is the worst and dumbest reenactors at public events that make the most noise and get the most attention.
    Also, often, at public events, most of the questions and discussions focus on equipment, uniforms, and weapons. People are always interested in weapons! This is fine as far as it goes, we enjoy talking about that and are certainly knowledgeable, but it is not the end all be all of what we are trying to do. From what I read in your posting, your interest in the period does not begin and end with fabrics. By ourselves, and around the campfire, we discuss historical at length and in depth, but the academics aren’t there to see that.
    Anyway, thanks again, I hope to hear from you again, and keep up the good work!

  3. Hi Chris! Sorry for the late reply. I thought that article was very interesting. By training, humanities academics are supposed to be skeptical, to question sources, and all of that, but what I don’t understand is why they would not take the time to try to understand what reenacting is all about. I’m sure we both agree that it is not about wearing the clothes or playing with fancy weapons; it is about indulging a love of history as well as educating those who might shy away from traditional methods of teaching history. Yes, we do like to have fun and sing songs around the campfire with a mug of grog, but by the end of the day, we are serious about what we do.

    You are writing a book, you say? I’m very curious, what is it all about?

    Hope to hear from you soon!

    1. Thanks for the reply!
      I’m working on a book to address just exactly this bias. I liked Dr. Jenny Thompson’s book, but I think she missed a lot not being a reenactor herself. I want to write something that addresses issues within reenacting, serves as a explanation for those who don’t, and explains it’s validity as a method for learning and teaching history.
      But as far as writing it, I’ve got a lot of research, notes, and outlines, but haven’t actually, you know, started writing yet.

      1. I really find that fascinating. It seems like it will be a while in coming, but I’m going to have to keep my eye out for it! Please let me know what it’s going to be called and all that fun stuff. I really would like to read it and see what your research finds! If you would like to contact me further for any reason, feel free to email me I really have enjoyed our conversation because I always one, value feedback on my blog, and two, enjoy having conversations on reenacting with other academics/professionals/etc.!

        Thanks again!!

  4. Amy,
    Thanks again for the response!
    Actually, a title is the one part I have, “Touching the Ghost: A book for 29th Century Reenactors and those who love them.” I intend to cover a basic explanation of what reenactors are and what we do, issues and controversies inside and outside the hobby, and, perhaps most importantly, tie it all together with a section on how reenacting is a viable form of historic research. Yes, it can be just middle-aged guys wearing costumes and making noise, but it also can be a legitimate form of research and understanding.
    So far, as far as research, I have found, read, and summarized a lot of internet articles and blogs, which, gives me I think an informal but accurate assessment of opinions on things like, interactions with the public, levels of acceptable authenticity, and so on. I have read every solid book on reenacting I can find, such as “From Farb to Pard,” “Wargames” and “Confederates in the Attic” as well as books that discuss reenacting at length, like Van Creveld’s “Culture of War” and I’m just starting “Myth of the Eastern Front.”
    Most of my “research” comes from just doing it. This is why I’m limiting myself to 20th century reenacting, it’s what I’ve done. Dr. Thompson’s book was good, but I think she missed a lot just because she was always an observer and outsider, never really a participant. And, while I will probably have little to no solid methodology, I don’t think her’s was good anyway.
    And, there you are. I’d love any hints, questions, opinions, or suggestions you might have!


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