In the Middle Ages, many European villages enjoyed an abundance of mock tournaments and displays of chivalric skills that remain quite popular even today. Ancient Roman emperors took pride in re-staging battles in which they had emerged victorious, often using the re-enactments as an excuse to have gladiator contests. Religious customs and stories have traditionally been presented as re-enactments, such as the passion plays that are the re-staging of the most climactic episode in the history of Christianity. And the pageantry of Victorian-era military is legendary.
Just as the popularity of these events has spread, so has the intricacy and accuracy of the proceedings. In the United States, they took off in the 1960s as a result of centennial celebrations of the end of the Civil War. Today, these arts are a multi-million-dollar industry in the United States, and in 1998, as many as 25,000 living historians gathered to re-stage the battle of Gettysburg, in the largest re-enactment ever held.
These performances have been performed through the ages in the name of national pride, and Great Britain is no exception. Known as living history, historical interpretation, or public history, such re-enactments of famous episodes and circumstances of various periods have been one of the favorite pastimes of the British. According to Rachel Evans, editor of Skirmish, a magazine for re-enactment enthusiasts, there are indications that it may be the fastest growing hobby in the country. The first modern re-enactment society in Britain, the Sealed Knot, was formed in 1968 to produce and put on re-enactments of the English civil war. That same year, British enthusiasts of the American Civil War formed the Southern Skirmish Association. Later, in 1971, another group of re-en-actors formed the Saber Society to present battles that took place during the Napoleonic era. Some of its members seceded in 1976 and developed their own splinter group, the Napoleonic Association.
Historical reenactors all across Britain come together once a year to compare techniques, learn new ones, and put on demonstrations of their abilities, including cooking, music, and weaponry. At the annual Festival of History, the air is thick with the aroma of spit-roasted meats and acrid gunpowder smoke. Women and men dressed in period costumes roam the premises to help visitors immerse themselves in the feeling of living in various historical periods, despite the anachronisms that abound, such as portable toilets and mounted speakers loudly barking out excited blow-by-blow accounts of an 1812 battle being waged on the grassy arena between British and French infantry brigades. The increasing popularity of the annual festival illustrates the growing interest of the general public in the re-enactment of British history.
Today there are over 700 different living history groups in Great Britain representing a wide variety of historical eras from the Saxon era to the Vietnam war. The uniqueness of each group's specific focus is mind-boggling.