Angel Burria-Quintana: Britain's Festival of History Draws Attention





I am queuing outside a portable toilet behind a Viking and a Roman legionary. The air is thick with the fatty smell of spit-roasts from a nearby Norman encampment. Over the sound system, an excited narrator gives a real-time, blow-by-blow account of the action unfolding on a grassy arena, where a division of British light infantry is facing a French line at the battle of Salamanca - originally fought in 1812. Acrid gunpowder smoke wafts over a crowd of wet onlookers. A woman in a heavy velvet dress stumbles out of the toilet, soaked hem held aloft, grumbling that Portaloos were clearly not designed for 15th-century ladies.

Such inevitable anachronisms are the bread and butter of historical re-enactors - and nowhere are they more conspicuous than at the Festival of History, Britain's annual jamboree. This year's event, held over a soggy mid-August weekend on the grounds of a Northamptonshire stately home, gathered almost 1,000 re-enactors and attracted 17,000 visitors, illustrating a rising interest in an activity once considered the domain of enthusiastic anoraks.

Known as "living history", "public history" or "historical interpretation", the re-enactment of historical periods, events and characters has become one of Britain's favourite pastimes. "There are indications that it may be the fastest growing hobby in the country," declares Rachel Evans, editor of Skirmish, a magazine for re-enactors.

It is hardly a new phenomenon. Ancient Roman emperors were fond of restaging battles of antiquity, often as an excuse for gladiatorial contests. Religious customs have traditionally placed re-enactment at their centre - passion plays are the restaging of Christian history's climactic episode. In all of southern Europe some variation of the Moors-versus-Christians clash is ritually acted out.

Britain's Victorians were famously fond of medieval pageantry. The romantic cult of the Middle Ages fostered an abundance of mock- tourneys and other displays of chivalric skills that remain hugely popular today. The most common type of historical interpretation is performed in the name of national pride.

Yet the history of re-enactment as a hobby is more recent. In the US it took off in the 1960s, mostly as a result of centennial celebrations of the American civil war. It has since exploded into a national pursuit and multimillion-dollar industry. In 1998, as many as 25,000 living historians gathered to restage the battle of Gettysburg - the largest re-enactment ever.

In Britain, the first modern re-enactment society, the Sealed Knot, was formed in 1968 to replay aspects of the English civil war. The same year, enthusiasts of the American civil war formed the Southern Skirmish Association. In 1971, Napoleonic era re-enactors formed the Sabre Society. Some of its members seceded in 1976 and constituted the Napoleonic Association.

Today there are approximately 700 different living history groups in Britain, representing anything from the Saxon era to the Vietnam war. Their specificity is extraordinary and their attention to detail staggering.

"Pretty much all periods have been covered," says Evans, "although there are new groups being created all the time, whenever there's an anniversary."

[Editor's Note: The original piece is much longer. Please visit the Financial Times for more.]

comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list