Sunday, September 12, 2010

Reenacting History

When I was growing up, I almost always heard the words "historical reenactment" in conjunction with the words "Civil War." What this meant was that a bunch of overly-enthusiastic history nerds were going to dress up in blue and gray uniforms, run around on a hillside, and then lie down and pretend to be dead. Nonplussed by this activity, I discounted historical reenactment as a silly game without much historical value.

When I went to college and took some history classes, I discovered that there were other kinds of historical reenactment that were not related to the Civil War. My professor had us read a book called The Brendan Voyage. In this book, the author Tim Severin used reenactment to see whether St. Brendan, an Irish monk from the sixth century, could actually have sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to America as one ancient manuscript claims. Using clues from the manuscript, Tim Severin constructed a small boat out of a wooden frame and tanned ox hides. Then he and a few companions set out in this tiny "curragh"  in a reenactment every bit as exciting as the real voyage in the St. Brendan story. The voyage Severin took gave him a great insight into the events of the ancient tale and offered new possibilities of interpretation that he would never have thought of if he had relegated himself to a more academic research approach.

Today I witnessed a completely different kind of historical reenactment. An organization called Messiah's Mansion was in town for a week showing off a full scale model of the Mosaic Tabernacle. The tour, which lasted a little over an hour, focused on the history behind the Tabernacle, the ways that it prefigured Christ's ministry, and how that applies to us today.

Although the whole thing was a little bit hokey (with a lot more painted plastic than acacia wood), I was surprised about how well I can now visualize the layout of the tabernacle. The description of the building in the book of Exodus, with all of its cubits and woven cloth and wood paneling and gold overlay, mushes together in the mind without creating a clear picture of the building. Even after looking at the floorplan provided by most study Bibles, it is difficult to imagine, or retain, a 3-D image of what the building looked like. Walking through the re-creation of the Tabernacle helped create a mental picture in a way that reading the text could not.

Reenactment can be very valuable for giving us insight into history, but like academic research, it has its pitfalls. Sometimes there is not enough source information to fully re-create the past. Sometimes preconceived--and ill-conceived--notions about a time period can cloud re-creations. Oftentimes, movies will reenact historical events with slipshod or inaccurate historical detail. Audiences will leave the theater assuming that they are now experts on the persons and the period when really all they have gained is a misleading or warped understanding.

To benefit the most from reenactment is is essential to keep word and image in close proximity. If you are not familiar with the book of Exodus, then you have no measuring stick to hold up to Messiah's Mansion. If you have never read the tale of St. Brendan, then you cannot judge the authenticity of Tim Severin's voyage.

What kinds of historical reenactment have you witnessed or participated in? How did they further (or detract from) your knowledge of history?


  1. I've been to see Viking battle reinactment twice recently . I throughly enjoyed it!It is part of Heritage weel over here.

  2. Several come to mind. I live in St. Augustine so reenactments are commonplace. There is the Grande Illumination that involves candles, and torches and Christmas carols after the parade. We recently were in the authentic (no electricity, no windows etc) pub on the night of a pirate raid. Very fun! We've been to Bethlehem (amazing! w/ sheep, goats, slaves, scribes, lepers, etc among rows of thatched roofed buildings) that a church hosts every year. I've also enjoyed a trip to an authentic Cracker Cattle Camp at Kissimmee State Park. But perhaps the most eye opening was being on a replica of the Nina. It was so small!

  3. Those all sound like great fun! Thanks for sharing.


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