Saturday, November 19, 2016

Reenactment Vs. Living History...and the Renaissance Faire?

Old West Reenactment Camp

By Alanna Radle Rodriguez

Last month, Linore Rose Burkard did a blog on Ye Old Renaissance Faire, and it got me to thinking. What is the difference between a reenactment and living history? And where does the Medieval/Renaissance faire fall?

We have all tried to relive the past in different forms and fashion: The old kids’ game Cowboys and Indians, school Thanksgiving plays, movies and TV series, books, paintings, reenactments, museums and living history. Here in the State of Oklahoma, during the third or fourth grade, some students get to reenact the state’s land run. But why couldn’t this school “land run” be called living history? The terms reenactment and living history are very similar and are sometimes used interchangeably. Most may say there isn’t a difference, but to the historians, there is a difference. 

Hayes, Ohio 2015 Civil War Reenactment

A reenactment is an educational or theatrical performance that portrays a past event or times past, quite often following a script. In the United States, Civil War reenactments are everywhere. Living history is generally a recreation of living conditions and historical tools, usually a presentation that generally do not follow a planned script. Re-enactors may give you the sense of stepping onto a movie set, but living historians can give you a sense of stepping back in time. Some would say reenacting got its start in the Roman Coliseum. While many places have historical content and context, most reenactments and living history events are hosted by, or completely managed by, a museum or historical society. In many cases, living historians working directly with a museum or historical society. Most specialize in a specific time period and region, typically their own town and state. 

Reenactment of the Roman Legion XV "Apollinaris", taking place in Austria-Wikipedia

Today, people gather to celebrate Medieval or Renaissance times across the globe. Of course, these assemblies are aptly called Medieval or Renaissance Faires. This is where the line can blur between reenactment and living history. Generally, a faire is a celebratory gathering—a festival. You usually have groups that frequent these faires. The Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA) is a worldwide organization that provides reenactment encampments and sometimes living history. But most who visit a faire consider it a chance to dress up like a princess, Robin Hood, or a pirate. For others, it’s a perfect cosplay opportunity. A contraction of the two words “costume and play,” cosplay is the practice of dressing up like your favorite fictional character or even a different you from an alternate universe. While these “reenactors” stay in their cosplay character during an event, most living historians are just that. Historians. They have researched and confirmed their material, the process, the very way of life of their ancestors or the people they portray. Simply put, while living historians are playing a role in the overall scheme of an event or museum, they are still first and foremost, a student of history. 

Video Cosplayer-google search

Interesting Cosplay: "Snowba Fett" Mix between Snow White and Bobba Fett from Star Wars

To see the living historian at work is to take a step back to a different time and sometimes a different place. Did you know that when you talk to a living historian in garb, you are talking not only to an artisan, but an artist? You are. They make it their goal to allow for the full experience. Although you get to see the times portrayed own troubles and hardships, it is, for most people, an excellent way to contrast the complexities and troubles of the current day with a “simpler” time. If you haven’t had the chance to take a trip to either a cultural center or a living history museum, it would be an experience worth the having. 

Viking re-enactors at the Battle of Clontarf millennium commeration, Saint Anne's Park, Dublin-by Hibernian, Wikipedia

My husband and I are both re-enactors and living historians. When we volunteer at the 1889 Territorial Schoolhouse in Edmond, Oklahoma, we come alive, not only for the adults who come in but for the children too. It is so fun to ask children what they think I, as the schoolmarm, would use to heat my schoolhouse. “Wood!” they enthusiastically reply. At that time, Edmond was tall prairie grassland. There were no trees! I show them a picture of historic Edmond and ask them what’s missing. When they tell me a popular fast-food restaurant directly across the street, I can’t help but laugh. I tell them trees are missing! Early settlers would use cow chips to fuel the fire! “If you were in my classroom, once in a while it would be your responsibility to bring fuel for the stove for a week,” I tell them. Of course, I get a good, “EEEEEEEWWWWWW!!!!” and I laugh with the parents. 

Husband and I at the Schoolhouse

We love being asked questions as living historians! “Is that a real stove?” Yes, it is. This was our heater when we didn’t have electricity. “Where’s your smart board?” Well, see the big black board behind my desk? That’s our smart board. You have to write on it with chalk. “Where are your Ipads?” Slates were our Ipads. “Did you make your skirt?” Yes, I did. In living history situations real firearms are allowed, my husband is always asked, “Is that gun real? Can you use that knife? Why is your holster so high up?” My favorite one he gets asked a lot is, “Are you a REAL cowboy?” I can’t help but smile. Yes, my computer IT husband is a real cowboy. 

Part of my crew. Medieval Fair in Norman, OK 2011

So where do the Medieval/Renaissance Faires fit? Well, it depends on the faire. In Oklahoma, there are two famous faires: The Medieval Faire in Norman and The Renaissance Faire in Muskogee, and there are differences even between the two! The Medieval Faire does have the historical jousting put on by the SCA, but it has more of a modern market. The Renaissance Faire is to preserve the culture, fashion, goods and celebrations. While there are reenactments at most, if not all faires, re-enactors, living historians, and cosplayers all are intermingled at the faire!

Tinker Bell Cosplay

Born and raised in Edmond, Oklahoma, Alanna Radle Rodriguez is the great-great granddaughter of one of the first pioneers to settle in Indian Territory. Alanna loves the history of the state and relishes in volunteering at the 1889 Territorial Schoolhouse in Edmond. Her first published story, part of a collaborative novella titled Legacy Letters, came out September 2016. Alanna lives with her husband and parents in the Edmond area. She is currently working on a historical fiction series that takes place in pre-statehood Waterloo, Oklahoma.


  1. Good post. I like the pictures. How many re-enactments have you been to?

    1. That's a really good question, Vickie! I should have asked that in the blog! Note to self. Hehe. How many have I been to? Oh, my... a lot of medieval faires. One generally once a year. They are more of a place I can dress up ;) I was part of a Victorian/old west reenactment group for about 8yrs so that was almost every Saturday... And the 1889 Territorial Schoolhouse has been more of living history almost every 1st & 2nd Saturday since 2008... I do a little. LOL

  2. Over here in Britain, a lot of Living History and Battle re-enactor types take it very seriously. They'd be horrified at some of the things at Renaissance Faires.

    I know I am still mortified knowing that they serve up Turkey drumstucks, potato wedges, and corn at Medieval Times NONE of which were present in Medieval Europe.

    1. You are so true!It does seem to be more of a cosplay opportunity or just to dress up. I would love see some of the Living History over there in Britain! Then again, it would just make me want a job doing that! Haha. Thank you for reading, hope you come again.