Bringing history to life: Reenactment

There are several ways to get involved in history, and a more hands on one is to participate in historical reenactment. Here Tim Bedcote, who is a member of the reenactment group committed to the Wars of the Roses give an insight to what it´s like.

 Sometimes reenactment is confused with roleplaying. Would you care to explain the difference?

Live-action roleplaying (LARP) is like a dress-up version of Dungeons and Dragons – you have a named character that you play, in a game with winners and losers. In re-enactment it’s more like a theatrical scenario in which we present a battle, knowing in advance who wins and who loses (Richard III never gets to win Bosworth, however much most of the crowd there would like him to!). Of at least equal importance with the battle re-enactment for many of us is the living history aspect, when we demonstrate more everyday aspects of period life – carpentry, spinning, weaving and so forth, to small groups of Members of the Public (MOPs) wandering around the camps.

Battle_of_Tewkesbury_reenactment_-_clashWould you say reenactments play an important part in making people interested in, and understanding, history?

I hope so. While the battle event pulls in the big crowds, you are more likely to get through to people in one-to-one or small group chats in the living history camps. My personal ‘crusade’ is to restore respect to the common perception of medieval surgery, one person at a time. The best moments are when you hear MOPs saying things like “I never realised…” Then you know you’ve got through to people, and that may spark them to find out more.

What part does it play in your own interest in history?

I have always been more interested in the lives of ordinary people than in the “poshBattle_of_Tewkesbury_reenactment_-_holding_the_line soap opera” approach to history. I can never experience what it was like to be the king (or his lover, given some people’s obsessions), but I can gain insights into ordinary life. Many reenactors start off being attracted by the battles, but move away from the big spectaculars because they don’t offer an authentic ‘immersion’ experience.

The most exciting thing in re-enactment is the feeling sometimes known as ‘period rush’ – a euphoric experience almost like a drug high (I would imagine, not being a drug user myself), which comes from the feeling of being entirely immersed in the past an out of touch with any 21st century input. The first time I felt it was seeing my first arrow cloud going overhead; I had a wonderful moment of it at Bosworth last year when walking down from the visitor towards the authentic camp on the Friday night (before any public came in) the only thing visible was a whole sea of period tents. It gave a momentary appreciation of what a genuine medieval army camp would have looked like.

But that connection can come from simple things too – threading a bone needle, lighting a fire with a flint and steel, or sleeping on straw.

Does it ever happen that someone is actually injured during a reenacted battle?

Occasionally, but as a rule re-enacting is somewhat safer than rugby and a lot safer than riding a motorbike. When it does happen it’s almost always accident or misjudgement personally I’ve never ha anything worse than bruises. People who like injuring others and getting injured themselves tend to gravitate towards a full-contact medieval fighting sport called Battle of the Nations. Like LARPers, I wish them all the best in their chosen hobby, but it’s not for me.

Roman_cavalry_reenactment_Carnuntum_2008_15How much time does it take to be a good reenactor? Do you get together and practice for example the battle of Bosworth?

Off-season training is worthwhile if you’re going to do anything ‘enhanced’ like working with the horses (something that’s a big feature of Bosworth). Generally though it’s not something you ever ‘finish’ – every reenactor has goals of their own to achieve, kit they could improve or replace, skills they could acquire… the whole thing is gloriously open-ended like that. It’s always best to ‘start small’ and aim low with your first kit. I sometimes encounter people on FB history groups – usually women, for some reason – who express a desire to join a re-enactment group “as the queen, with lots of gorgeous gowns!”

Well, I’m sure you’d like to, but could you carry it off? Can you afford that sort of kit, or800px-Bataille_Waterloo_1815_reconstitution_2011_3 make it yourself? Can you afford, as starter kit, to have a fully-furnished pavilion with carpets and high-status furniture? Will you be bringing your own servants? Starting as a peasant woman is far more achievable.

My first kit was as a common archer (a role I am still happy to take on the battlefield), but as I have got more into living history my civilian kit has improved beyond peasant bowman to something more middle-class, with a chaperon and fur-trimmed robe (both of which I’ve made myself), demonstrating surgical instruments and the making of potions and ointments.

There’s one legendary guy within medieval re-enactment who did a complete pilgrimage to Canterbury last winter, who comes to events as a pedlar with his own cart. That’s ‘low status’ but he does it so well, and in such detail. I had a conversation with one lady who was keen to get into re-enactment and suggested that a really good role that nobody else was really doing in detail would be that of washerwoman. A good, knowledgeable washerwoman would be a better asset for any group than a poorly-researched queen.

Is re-enactment something which is growing in terms of people participating or forming groups of their own?

Reenactment covers so many periods and groups it’s very difficult to say for certain; some individuals and groups join and others drop out almost every season. but my perception is that for my period (Wars of the Roses) as a whole it’s not only expanding but getting better in quality. Re-enactment of any period tends to start off with homemade and adapted kit, but over the years craftsmen start researching the period kit and producing better items. I blush to think of the gear I wore in my first-ever c15th re-enactment 30 years ago! ‘Authenticity’ is less a goal at which you arrive than a philosophical or ideological approach to getting deeper and deeper into the period.


Images, in order, from Wikimedia Commons. Photographers name/Alias below

(included images are from different groups, reenacting different periods)

Battle of Tewkesbury – Antony Stanley

Roman cavalry reenactment – Matthias Kabel

Battle of Waterloo – Myrabella

Battle of Grunwald, Poland – Wojsyl



2 thoughts on “Bringing history to life: Reenactment

  1. It’s sounds like a lot of work. Thanks for this article to learn more about it and thanks for all the effort you and the others put into it.
    I once saw a historic battle of Napoleon here in Bavaria and it was impressive to see how a battle at that time took place and all the running and shouting – and how loud the canon-fire was… And afterwards there was a camp where one could see the uniforms up close and everybody explained his role and how the soldiers lived… Great and impressive.
    That’s learning history with all senses.

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