For many people, dressing up and acting out battles from hundreds of years ago – while mainly surviving on a diet of foraged berries and mutton (and the odd ice cream) – wouldn’t feature too highly on their list of weekend plans.
However, for 36-year-old Jenny Kell, there’s nothing she’d rather do.
From Monday to Friday, the mum-of-two works as a clinical pharmacist. But come the weekend, she metamorphoses into her chosen role: an indentured wet nurse from the Viking period.
Based in Cumbria with her husband and four year old twins, the family often travel far across the country to participate in events, camping out alongside hundreds – if not thousands – of other historical reenactors moving back in time.
‘They’re almost like little holidays, because it’s a complete change from our normal life,’ explains Jenny.
Indeed, any ties to the 21st century must be left at the entrance to the ‘show’, as she describes it.
Modern technology, while used for safety purposes, must not be on display. Clothing must be as accurate a representation as possible to what would have worn at the time – to be considered a successful event, the experience should feel like a deep-sea dive into the past.
Historical reenactment, or living history, as it’s also known, first took root in Northern Europe in the 1890s. Today, there are around 140 reenactment societies in the UK, with around 20,000 enthusiasts devoting their time, money, and expertise to the hobby.
While these groups recreate all periods between the Roman Ages up to the Vietnam War, activities remain broadly similar: camp tasks, arms drill, sentry duties, historical crafts and skirmishes between troops. There’s a space for everyone, no matter their interest.
Jenny’s path into living history was preordained from childhood: where summer holidays would see her family packing up the car to visit key sites of historical interest, with performing reenactors opening Jenny’s eyes to how fun history could be.
However, it was on meeting her husband that her fascination with living history became a hobby.
‘He got into it at St Andrews University and when we moved to Cumbria some of his old uni pals told him about a local group… and the rest is history,’ she quips.
When Jenny talks about her hobby of seven years to those outside of the living history circle, she admits she’s often met with raised eyebrows.
‘Most people are either interested in it and so start conversations with me on it,’ Jenny explains. ‘Or else they are not – but at least can see I enjoy it.
‘I’ve had a lot of people when I first talked to them about it ask, “really, you want to go camping, without any mod cons? Why do you enjoy that?!”’
And now with many of her colleagues clued up about her weekend pastime, come Monday morning, Jenny knows she will be asked to share photos of her children in their Viking regalia at work.
Even the teachers at the boys’ primary school ask for pictures to be sent in; ‘they’re just so cute in their Viking kit!’ beams Jenny.
For Jenny, who is neurodivergent, becoming fully immersed in a hobby that introduces her to like-minded people has felt comforting; she’s free to be herself without fear of judgement.
‘Both my husband and I have autism, and many other people within the society are either diagnosed or currently seeking diagnosis for any form of neurodivergence,’ she explains. ‘For us, reenactment is probably one of the least tiring forms of social engagement, because you get fewer people taking insult when you say the wrong thing, and because you have a clearly defined role. That’s why a lot of neurodivergent people actually go into acting, because you can put the mask on.’
Underneath the mask, Jenny laughingly describes herself as ‘slightly obsessive’. But in her eyes, it’s this quality that so suits historical reenactment: a hobby requiring extensive fact-checking and accurate research. ‘At a show I can sit there for ages and go through all the facts I’ve picked up that are relevant to my position in the household,’ she says.
Being so well educated on the Anglo-Saxon period means Jenny’s indentured wet nurse costume is an incredibly accurate representation of what would have been worn thousands of years ago. While certain living history period costumes can be costly, Jenny has ensured the family’s hobby doesn’t break the bank.
‘I make all of our clothing by hand’, she explains. ‘A lot of kids’ kit is handed down and we tend to have spare stuff in the group for new members to borrow – like my parents who joined last week. My mum has just made herself a basic pair of shoes from some shammy leather she had lying around at home.
‘Even though I spent £180 on cloth to make clothes this month, it’s the first time in three years I have bought any material. For us, it’s a really cost-efficient hobby. Cloth to make a full beginners kit is usually £30-40, and shoes are usually £50ish.’
The hobby is also a way of bringing history to life for her boys, adds Jenny. While school may have her twins learning from books, dressing up alongside other reenactors teaches them ‘the bits that really interest kids – not just who the king was at the time,’ she says.
In fact, a study completed by teachers, Mike Pond and Alan Childs, proved how effective this method of learning is. The pair’s research involved 148 children from nine schools in Norfolk. In each school, an ‘experimental group’ attended a two‐and‐a‐half‐day residential Second World War evacuees experience at Holt Hall in the 1990s. Each group was matched by a control group in each school, who were learning from teachers. The results discovered that the children learning from historical reenactment achieved higher grades.
And at shows, Jenny knows her kids are learning in a safe environment. ‘I love that it is a family hobby we can do all together: all four of us and the dog, who even has her own authentic lead. Someone will walk off with my children, someone will walk off with my dog, and usually someone will walk off with my husband too so I don’t have to entertain him!’
However, bringing history so intentionally into the modern day can also be problematic, not least for the organisers of historical reenactment groups in the US.
Ruth Taylor is Director of Newport Historical Society (NHS), a group committed to telling the stories of Newport’s original inhabitants: from the Narragansett and Wampanoag nations, to people of African descent – both enslaved and free – and the waves of immigrants who have made the town their home.
In the wake of the US Capitol riots in 2021, Taylor felt compelled to call a meeting to discuss the relevance of the NHS’ historical reenactment events.
In imagining how the Capitol riots may be reenacted in the future, Taylor questioned whether the hobby ‘perpetuates myths and anachronistic attitudes’, as well as a culture of violence glamorisation. As one Second World War veteran put it, ‘if they knew what a war was like, they’d never play at it.’
Back in 2017, Officials in Manassas, Virginia, cancelled their Civil War reenactment following a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville where a neo-Nazi killed a counter protester. Their statement explained: ‘recent events have ignited passions in this country surrounding the Civil War and the symbols representing it. . . . The city does not wish to further exacerbate the situation.’
Living history societies have good reason to be wary. In the past, they’ve been targets for white supremacy groups, who have appropriated pictures from historical reenactment social media pages to use in their promotional drives.
It’s a worrying trend that reenactors, in Jenny’s opinion, ‘absolutely hate’ – which is why she is keen for the living history community to ensure they are as welcoming as possible in their public outreach. ‘We’ll continue to speak to people, telling them how diverse populations were in the past,’ she says. ‘Education is always key to becoming a more tolerant society.’
However, for some members, reenactment groups can be more accepting than the modern day society in which they operate.
Kay Ivins, a 69 year old transgender reenactor, has felt welcomed ‘with open arms’ into the hobby.
Having studied history at university, Kay saw reenactment as a means of further building her knowledge of the past; and as a follower of paganism – an ancient religion that suffered under the Romans’ cast iron Christian rule – she joined an Anglo-Saxon reenactment group where she could understand more about the ‘golden period’ of her faith.
‘I’m quite openly pagan’, says Kay. ‘I was wearing a cross around my neck and have been putting pentagrams in my window for years before I started reenacting. So to family and friends, reenacting didn’t come as much of a surprise.’
Kay took the plunge into living history after bumping into a reenactment group at Garstang, an ancient market town between Preston and Lancaster. Upon attending her first event, Kay knew she’d met a group of like-minded people who ‘didn’t care a jot’ about her being transgender.
‘As a reenactor, you have to understand people from thousands of years ago. Vikings were slavers, which seemed completely normal to them, but is obviously abhorrent today. We can’t hold these beliefs against them though – that’s just how life was. For that reason, our groups tend to attract people who are quite open minded to differences in other people.’
This sense of community has tangible benefits when it comes to trading the equipment needed to look the part. ‘I’d say we make half the clothes we need, and buy the other half from markets. But there’s a lot of bartering between group members for the things we make – everyone is only too happy to help. I’ll spend three days making a pair of socks, which I’ll trade for a few needles from my friend Chris, which he’s only spent two hours on making. There’s an imbalance in the time put in, but no one cares in the slightest, we’re all just there to help.’
Crucially, living history has created a space for Kay where she feels accepted, after many difficult years of being targeted for her differences.
‘Before retiring, I worked as a bus and coach driver. I used to get insulted more or less every day,’ she explains. ‘Somebody will make some sly remark about me being a weirdo – and I was not uncommonly called a paedophile.’
However, reenacting has given Kay renewed faith in public openness. ‘I think we had 8,000 members of the public through the gates at our last show,’ she says. ‘I lost count of how many times I showed people how to Nålebind (a knitting technique from the Viking period). I even had one woman who was so taken with it, she filmed me and went home to teach herself. It’s that close interaction with the public that I love. They really respect me as a teacher of these ancient skills – it’s a level of kindness I’ve sadly not been used to over the years.’
For reenactors, putting on a good show for the public is imperative; entertain the masses and the masses may just take up the hobby themselves.
Bringing history to the public is especially important for Liam Telfer, an ex-military firefighter from Sunderland. Though he’s only been reenacting as a Napoleonic soldier since September 2021, he’s quickly become hooked.
‘For me, historical reenactment is about breaking through that museum glass: to feel, to taste and to smell whatever period it is you’re interested in,’ he explains. ‘I’ve always loved history, particularly British Military history. I was in the army, so it goes hand in hand. Reenacting is like an extension of that: it isn’t just about dressing up and fighting battles for public display, for me it’s about bringing a history book to life.’
It was while in the army that Liam met his wife, Harriet. Though she hasn’t been persuaded to swap her modern-day military clothing for Napoleonic garb just yet, she is fully supportive of her husband’s hobby.
‘Liam’s met some really lovely people he has a lot in common with through living history,’ she explains. ‘It engages him completely – and gives me peaceful Saturday nights. It has also forced him to learn to sew – which is also a big win.’
Liam’s first experience of living history was at Tilbury Fort last year – a setting radiating British history.
‘Being able to put all the uniform and equipment on in a place that predates the Napoleonic period, and to really feel it you know – the sound of boots on the cobble stones, and the feel of the musket and the sun on the uniform – it just brings it to life,’ he says. ‘Yes, there are modern constraints, like the occasional aeroplane, but if you zone out from the modern stuff, I really felt like I was there.’
When members of the public approach Liam to feel the weight of his kit, or perhaps try on a red coat or marvel at the shine of the boots, he says it’s a moment when history becomes more tangible, more relatable.
He adds that forging this connection with the past is important on many levels: ‘Whether that’s tracing back to specific ancestors, or finding a connection to your local area – people want to feel that sense of belonging.’
However, it’s also about acknowledging our ancestors’ involvement in condemnable events, he adds.
‘Not everything the British army did was heroic and great and right – but if we don’t learn from the mistakes that humans have made in the past, they’re likely to be repeated.’
Still, having served as a soldier within the British army for 15 years, Liam feels a ‘weight of responsibility’ to accurately portray the lives of ‘guys who signed up and went to war under pretty awful circumstances at times.’
He has just returned from the Waterloo battleground, where he helped excavate the site as part a Waterloo Uncovered charity expedition. While there, he took part in a large-scale battle reenactment – joined by around 2000 reenactors, artillery and cavalry from the UK, France and what once was Prussia.
Just like Kay and Jenny, Liam says that he sees reenactment as a means of crossing social boundaries.
‘During periods of downtime at Waterloo, there was a bit of banter between the countries, but it was very light-hearted animosity between the sides’, he explains. ‘Generally everyone’s there because they love history and they love bringing history to life. We don’t want to start another war.
‘People come to see old friends from other countries – it’s a chance to reunite. It’s a real historical get together.’
Indeed, while at Waterloo, Liam caught up with old adversaries across historic battle lines: ‘It was funny at Waterloo when we faced up against the imperial guard reenactors, everyone was shouting silly insults at each other, lots of Monty Python Holy Grail type stuff, you know, “your mother was a hamster…”’
While Covid restricted the amount of social interaction between reenactment groups, Liam sees a bright future ahead for the hobby. ‘Recruitment’s really good, we’ve had some keen people come through the door,’ he says brightly.
‘It’s exciting times now things are opening up, there are events in our period starting all over Europe. The more we get the word out and the more we inclusive we make it, the more people will join and it’ll just get better.’
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