13 Secrets of Historical Reenactors
By Jane Rose
While time travel might be impossible (so far), historical reenactors say their hobby is the next best thing. But what’s it really like to take part in a Revolutionary War battle or to live in a Viking village? How—or why—does one get started as a reenactor? And really, aren’t those shoes uncomfortable? Mental_floss spoke with several historical reenactors to get their insights on what it's like to bring history to life.
1. THEY’RE OFTEN JUST REGULAR PEOPLE—IN CHAIN MAIL.
While some historic reenactors are paid museum employees or professional historians, the majority are people with regular jobs who got inspired by a particular period in history. Some say they got hooked visiting a reenactment village, while others describe a more surprising inspiration. Benjamin Bartgis, a Maryland-based reenactor who specializes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, says it was reading the My Name Is America historic novels in elementary school that got him interested. Jack Garrett, founder of the California-based group the Vikings of Bjornstad, says that for him it was the 1958 movie The Vikings—plus a curiosity about what it would feel like to wear chainmail.
2. IT’S NOT JUST DUDES DOING BATTLE SCENES.
One common assumption about historical reenacting is that it mainly consists of people (usually men) recreating specific battles from history. And while battle reenactments are popular, many reenactors are equally passionate about portraying daily activities. Historic villages, like Colonial Williamsburg, and events like the Jane Austen Festival in Kentucky often showcase reenactors carrying out historic trades, such as cooking, tailoring, and blacksmithing, as well as going about other ordinary aspects of daily life. Such “everyday” reenactments may become even more popular in the future: “Millennials are more interested in everyday life and civilian portrayals” compared to older generations, Bartgis says.
3. THEY DON’T WEAR “COSTUMES.”
Some reenactors will bristle if you call what they’re wearing a “costume.” They refer to the clothing and other physical gear needed to create a historical persona as a “kit,” and lavish a lot of time and labor on making their kits as accurate as possible. Period-appropriate, handmade clothing can also get very expensive, with specialty items such as coats and shoes starting at several hundred dollars.
4. EVEN HISTORICAL REENACTMENT IS SUBJECT TO TRENDS.
As with a lot of things, pop culture influences which reenactment eras and activities are popular at any given moment. The release of a smash book, movie, or video game can cause a surge in popularity; WWI and WWII video games have particularly boosted reenactments of those eras in the past few years. Historical anniversaries—like key dates in the Civil War or American Revolution—can also spark a flurry of renewed interest and commemorations.
5. THEY HONE HISTORICAL SKILLS.
It’s not just about dressing the part: Reenactors also practice the skills of an earlier era. Albert Roberts, a reenactor who portrays physicians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, jokes that when he began he didn’t have any practical 18th century skills at all. “I couldn’t hunt, I couldn’t fish, I couldn’t soldier, I couldn’t ride horses, I couldn’t blacksmith, I couldn’t carpenter, I couldn’t birth babies,” he says, “so I had no value.” But after assisting, and then taking over, for the doctor at historic Mansker’s Station in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, he now has a deep knowledge of old medical techniques.
Bartgis, in addition to mastering Colonial penmanship and bookbinding for his 18th century persona, also has a basic grasp of sailing skills for his work with Ship’s Company, a living history organization dedicated to preserving late 18th and early 19th century maritime history.
Plus, many reenactors also have significant craft skills. Garrett notes that his group crafts most of their Viking gear, aside from speciality items like helmets. They even created their own Viking treasure hoard by molding and casting ancient coins.
6. THEY ARE HISTORIANS.
Most reenactors spend countless hours delving into the history of their preferred era and becoming knowledgeable specialists. Steve Santucci, the adjutant (military secretary) for Revolutionary War group the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, tells mental_floss: “the amount of time spent on the field is quadrupled by the time we spend researching.” He refers to the battles themselves, which are fought as much as possible in the same places they originally occurred, as “walking in the footsteps of history.”
But while reenactors pride themselves on their scholarship, there can be some guesswork involved, especially for particularly ancient or less well-documented eras. Garrett (whose own library numbers 700 volumes) says researching 9th through 11th century Vikings often requires testing equipment and theories in order to connect random dots. “A good deal of what we do is what we call ‘experimental archaeology,’” he says, explaining that he will often take information from archaeological sources—like ancient carvings depicting Vikings carrying their swords a particular way—and test it out.
7. THEY GET ASKED SILLY QUESTIONS.
Members of the public seem to love to ask reenactors the same kinds of questions. Among the queries they get tired of hearing: “Are you going to eat that?” (referring to food they’re cooking); “Aren’t you hot?” (referring to period clothing); and “Is that real fire?” (this one seems hard to explain). And inevitably there’s the smart aleck school kid who will ask where they’re hiding their TV.
8. THEY LIKE TO SHARE THEIR KNOWLEDGE.
Bartgis is quick to say that educating the public is one of the best things about being a reenactor. “As much as we like to make fun of questions like [the above], they’re all valid,” Roberts adds. “We’ve done all this research so we’ll have this knowledge that we can pass on to the public.”
Garrett agrees. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “Nothing makes you feel better about doing this than the smile of someone who may have a different understanding of history.” For instance, he particularly enjoys combating the image of Vikings as “wild, uncouth barbarians intent only on rape, pillage, and slaughter.”
“Without sugar-coating the realities of the Viking age, we try to put that in the context of their times and overlay the image with descriptions of their art, culture, religion and technology,” he explains. “What’s the most common artifact found buried with Vikings? A comb.”
9. THEY DON’T ALWAYS REENACT FOR THE PUBLIC.
As much as they like interacting with the public, reenactors will sometimes stage separate events for themselves. Bartgis describes taking part in a 15-mile overnight march in single digit temperatures as part of a reenactment of the 1777 Occupation of the Jerseys (part of the Revolutionary War). Besides the reenactors’ own enjoyment, the immersive event was staged for museum educators and professionals to enhance their understanding.
But sometimes reenactors will plan private events just for fun. Garrett’s Bjornstad crew convenes with other Viking reenactment groups at a twice-yearly feast held at a historically accurate longfort in Missouri.
10. IT CAN GET CLIQUE-Y.
Asked about the worst part of reenacting, Roberts says it’s the cliques. Reenactors often split themselves up according to their degree of commitment to accuracy and in opposition to the much-maligned, less accurate “farbs” (sometimes said to stand for “far be it from authentic”). Likewise, some professionals working at museums and historic villages take offense as being called “reenactors,” preferring instead the term “living historians.”
“The thing is, if you don’t encourage and educate the farbs, your hobby dies,” Roberts says, noting the need to educate new blood.
11. THEY MIGHT WEAR BREECHES TO THE GROCERY STORE.
“You really know that you’re a reenactor when your reenactor clothes make their way into your modern wardrobe,” Roberts says, explaining that he once wore his 18th century stockings to school, under his pants, because he had no clean socks. “Nobody knew but me, but I was like ‘I may have a legitimate problem.’”
“If you do this for a while,” Bartgis adds, “you end up going and doing grocery shopping in your old-timey clothes ... or putting gas in your car while wearing breeches and stockings and a wig.” He also says that he and his partner have flown on a plane in their kits, and sometimes ended up in a bar kitted up after an event—to the delight of the bartender and patrons.
12. IT’S A CHANCE TO ESCAPE THE EVERYDAY.
Reenactors say they love the chance their hobby offers to get out of the daily grind. Bartgis says the many magic moments he’s experienced are exemplified by “working with a bunch of people to haul a cannon up a hill, while someone is singing a work song, and you’re all pulling together—or coming together on a sail boat that’s under a full press of sail.”
According to Garrett, “The thing that connects all of us is that for a moment it’s nice to get out of traffic and the normal day to day stuff that we all deal with, and just do something different.”
13. THEY DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN THE PAST.
Most reenactors, while drawn to the past, are happy enough to be living in the modern era. Asked if they’d like to live in the time periods they reenact, the answer is typically a resounding “No!”
“Intestinal parasites and fleas,” says Garrett. “Dysentery and smallpox,” says Santucci. “I like my modern medicine,” says Roberts.
However, Bartgis notes that while studying the past has made him more appreciative of the present, he’s also been able to recognize that many other things have not changed much. “People have been arguing about what kind of country this country should be since the Revolution,” he says. Also, “people have been struggling to make ends meet for a really long time.” He adds that his perspective on the tenuousness of life in the past has given him “a lot of perspective about how we take modern stability for granted.”
All images via Getty except where noted.