The world of historical re-enactment is a strange place as I discovered this weekend at Lindisfarne Priory. A Viking raid was in full flow when I arrived on the island.
So I headed down to the Priory to find that its ruined grounds had been transformed into part battle field, part Viking encampment.
The blurb promised “grisly displays of combat culminating in a full-scale, deadly battle with the re-enactors of The Vikings”. Who could resist taking a look?
Lindisfarne was the first place on the English mainland to experience a Viking raid in AD 793 when attacking forces ransacked the abbey. Many monks were killed in this brutal attack.
I’m never completely convinced by historic re-enactments of this nature. Although they’re colourful and fun, there’s a nagging fear that this is history turned into pantomime.
The “Yo ho ho – take that! Oh, he’s dead. What a shame!” banter seems more about comedy than re-creating history. I’m sure a lot of research went into the costumes and combat sequences but playing a massacre for laughs feels uncomfortable.
This Blackadder version of history makes me feel uneasy. I’m never sure how authentic it is. There’s also a feeling that the event is geared up to the re-enactors having a fun day out rather than it being about the audience.
As well as the ‘skirmish’ and ‘raid’ the re-enactment group had recreated a Viking encampment in the walls of Lindisfarne Priory.
For those with an appetite for warfare, classes in warrior training were available for adults and their kids.
I’m not sure that mini-warrior training for children encourages bellicose behaviour in later life but it feels dodgy on a weekend when we’re commemorating the millions of dead from World War One.
I guess that everyone likes a good war – especially if you’re a re-enactment society.
Looking back at real events, Alcuin, a scholar. gave this account of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. It’s more revealing and scarier than the Viking Raiders re-enactment:
“Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race… The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”
I’m sure that you’ll be thinking re-enactment is just good fun, which it is in small doses. But after several decades of watching historical re-enactments at castles, historic palaces and battle fields around the UK, hasn’t the time come to reinvent this type of event?
I also wonder why the re-enactors get involved in this hobby. They’re obviously passionate about what they do.
Perhaps it’s escapism? Or a sense of discovering history from a personal perspective? Could it be in the genes – an urge to connect with one’s ancestors?
Today it’s estimated that 20,000 people belong to re-enactment societies. I wonder who chooses whether they’re a servant or master, warrior or war lord?
English Heritage has an extensive programme of re-enactment events at its properties across the country. You can ‘get medieval’, discover your inner Anglo-Saxon, witness the English Civil War or re-live the Battle of Hastings. The choice is endless.
Re-enactment has also spawned its own mini-industry with experts and crafts people supplying costumes, jewellery, weaponry, pottery and props.
Anyone can go along and join the fun. Wuffa, a Saxon and Viking re-enactment society, offers weekly combat training for those who fancy wielding an axe or indulging in sword play. Dozens of societies provide similar sessions.
All harmless fun, I guess, or is it?
For many of the re-enactors the whole thing becomes quite obsessive, right down to the authentic detail of their costumes and language.
But where do you draw the line when it comes to authenticity? Looking at a Viking in full dress wearing Marks and Spencer shoes or sandals is slightly distracting for me. Am I being harsh?
I spotted a group of Vikings having a quick fag in full view of the audience – and a trio of warriors enjoying cornettos at the village ice cream parlour. It does destroy the illusion of the immersive experience. All very surreal!
I’ve learned that there are groups known as ‘farbs’ who do re-enactment for fun rather than being super-authentic. They are regarded with suspicion by hard-core re-enactors. But how do you know the difference between the two?
Many argue that at least this re-enactment malarkey brings history to life. I guess it’s a question of how you like to enjoy your history at the end of the day.
One intriguing thing that I’ve discovered on my travels is that northern Europeans and Americans love dressing up and re-enacting history. It seems most prevalent in Scandinavia and the UK.
The Danes can’t get enough of it – it seems to be deeply rooted in their national sense of identity. It’s no surprise that Viking re-enactments are especially popular. It’s a golden age in their history.
But how far do you take authenticity? At Roskilde Museum in Denmark we watched one Viking skinning a real deer and cooking it over a hot spit!
The Scandinavians also invented the idea of open air museums as places where collections of buildings and folk traditions could be preserved for future generations.
This tied in with providing a living history style experience with costumed villagers and crafts people at museums like Skansen (Stockholm), Aarhus (Denmark) and Lejre (Denmark). In Britain we’ve done the same at Beamish Open Air Museum.
In Holland they’ve taken it one step further. Enkhuizen Museum features costumed folk going about their business in a very simple, quiet way on a large outdoor site rebuilt with original buildings. It feels authentic and engaging.
Bottom line – I enjoy this type of re-enactment much more than the set-piece battle reconstructions and marauding Viking shows.
Watching ordinary people doing stuff in an authentic way is both fun and educational.
It’s more performance than pantomime. A slice of social history. The actors are also keen to set the historical records straight if you have any questions.
The Americans also love this form of dressing up as a way of connecting with their history. Needless to say, there are also plenty of epic, cinematic American Civil War reconstructions of battles and wars.
Of course, historic re-enactments are nothing new. They go back to the Romans who loved nothing better than staging re-creations of famous battles in their amphitheatres.
During the Middle Ages there were re-enactments of earlier historic periods at tournaments. Military displays of mock battles have continued to be popular throughout the centuries.
In the late 19th Century the USA became a hotbed of historical re-enactments. Buffalo Bill staged enormous shows recreating this history of the wild west featuring rodeos, shooting contests, wild animals and a re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
In 1998 an epic American show recreated the Battle of Gettysburg with 25,000 troops played by re-enactors. An amazing event in its scale and ambition.
British re-enactment societies started to mushroom in the late 1960s with groups like The Southern Skirmish and The Sealed Knot. The boom continued with the growth of living history activities and events.
But the real turning point in the UK came in 1984 when English Heritage employed Howard Giles who introduced authentic historic re-enactments to historic properties. His legacy continues today.
After leaving that job, he went on to create spectacular re-enactments for TV films such as the Battle of Orgreave, a clash between miners and police, shown on Channel 4.
With the explosion of re-enactments, I wonder if we’ve overdone the whole heritage trip?
I favour big dramatic re-enactments that offer a theatrical experience with an authentic historic story. But I guess these are too expensive to mount regularly.
What we’ve left with is a glut of smaller pantomime style battles – for kids and family viewing. Sanitised and safe. It’s history not taking itself too seriously.
So is all historical re-enactment bunk?
Perhaps there is a certain pleasure in enjoying fun-filled, hands-on history.
But there’s a big difference between good and bad re-enactment. And I’m still to be convinced.
Now where did I put that Viking hat, robe and sandals?
Tammy’s top tips – Holy Island and the Vikings
Holy Island or Lindisfarne is located in northern Northumberland eight miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed on the A1.
Before visiting Holy Island it’s crucial that you check the crossing and tide times. Many motorists have been stranded on the causeway during high tides resulting in dramatic rescue operations!
Lindisfarne Priory is open daily in the high season at weekends during the winter. Admission fee.
English Heritage runs regular re-enactment events at their properties across the country if you’re tempted by swords, sandals and warfare.