BY: SERENA YPELAAR
When visiting historic sites, I’m always trying to visualize what they might have looked like centuries ago, back when the surrounding area was devoid of parking lots, gift shops, and camera-toting tourists. Many of my fondest museum memories involve military demonstrations or costumed interpretation, which led me to wonder: when and how did re-enactment first begin? Read on to learn how historical re-enactments evolved from an early form of showmanship to an interpretive tool to animate historic sites.
|Historic interpreters at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Louisbourg highlights storytelling as an interpretive approach and immerses visitors in the 18th century French fort. Source.|
The origins of re-enactment date back to the Roman Empire, when re-enactment was a public spectacle involving the recreation of well-known battles. Just as contemporary gladiator films often depict hand-to-hand combat in a crowded amphitheatre, staged battles also served as public entertainment in Roman society. This tradition of dramatizing battles carried on into the medieval period, in which tournaments were fought with thematic elements from Ancient Rome.
|This lithograph by Edward Henry Corbould, titled The joust between the Lord of the Tournament and the Knight of the Red Rose, illustrates the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, a re-enactment of a medieval joust. Source.|
By the 17th century, these historical displays had become popular in England, specifically as military re-enactments. Both during and after the English Civil War in the 1640s, re-enactments sought to demonstrate recent battles such as the battle at Blackheath in 1645.
Alongside the recreation of high profile military conflicts, the 19th century saw another shift as the Middle Ages were celebrated once more. In light of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, a fascination with the medieval era emerged and was perpetuated by shows that romanticized medieval jousts (not unlike the present-day dinner and tournament at Medieval Times). In this sense, nostalgia for centuries gone by informed a cultural phenomenon in Great Britain. But this longing for the glamour of the past did not completely eclipse the present, as the 1815 conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars inspired a public re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1824.
|An illustration of Astley's Amphitheatre in London, published c. 1808-1810 and held by the British Library. Source.|
Celebrating Military Efforts
While re-enactment had become prevalent in the United Kingdom and the United States by the late 19th century, re-enactments now offered a way for military regiments to display specific, more recent conflicts, rather than reflect on the romanticism of past societies. In 1895, the Gloucester Engineer Volunteers re-enacted the famous British victory at Rorke’s Drift (1879).
|American Civil War Re-enactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Source.|
Not all regimental performances were sentimental or self-congratulatory, however. The U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment re-enacted their defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn within a year of its occurrence, meaning that the re-enactors were the actual survivors of the battle. In this case, the re-enactment was photographed, and its purpose was more educational than spectacular.
Education and Commemoration
After the American Civil War, veterans demonstrated famous battles to educate people on the conflicts and to pay tribute to their fellow soldiers who had been killed. This tradition developed into commemorative events whereby re-enacting groups continued to stage significant battles for an audience – the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 was attended by 50,000 veterans, both Union and Confederate.
Also in the early 20th century, re-enactments gained popularity in Russia, with demonstrations of conflicts such as the Siege of Sevastopol (1854 to 1855), re-enacted in 1906. Alongside educating audiences, the re-enactments were a means of forming national identity through military commemoration. They perform similar functions today, as re-enactment groups often partner with historic sites to commemorate military anniversaries. (I myself had the chance to attend the re-enactments of the Battle of Queenston Heights at Fort George in 2012, and the Battle of York at Fort York in 2013, both for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812.)
|Today, re-enactments commemorate significant historical battles, such as the Battle of Queenston Heights (1812) in Niagara, Ontario. (Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar)|
Despite its origins as a form of visually impressive entertainment, re-enactment has transformed into a storytelling technique we recognize at historic sites and commemorative events today. I'm looking forward to seeing how re-enactment will continue to change in the future!