About Living History

Introducing the Living History...

The Living History is a relatively new discipline, nevertheless it has spread very fast and has become more and more visible, growing as a movement into one of the foremost and preferred ways of studying and practicing in History, also thanks to the development of non-military themes, the great variety of the eras portrayed, and the activity of many groups boasting deep historical knowledge and high authenticity standards.

Through this page we hope to contribute to present the Living History in its true essence and spirit, as a quite unique educating, inspiring and entertaining activity, that offers both to the participant living historians and the attending audience an intimate, exciting and face-to-face experience, and is really able to bring History to life and reconnect us all to our collective heritage in the most fascinating and unforgettable way, i.e. providing a first-hand insight into history, culture and environment in a pretty welcoming, creative and family-friendly.

Last updated: February 2017

Defining the Living History and the Living Historians...

The Living History and Historical Reenactment practices are nowadays already known and widely spread in Northern America and throughout Europe, and they are experiencing a very fast development worldwide thanks to their enormous potentialities in terms of experiential learning and interactivity. Nevertheless, many of us still have some difficulties in fully understanding these terms. We wish to provide on this page a useful and enough comprehensive definition of these practices while trying to keep the concepts as easy and accessible as possible.

Image: 17th century living historians family from Italy (copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web).

In simple words, we can define the Living History as any practices through which the participants try to relive History by portraying people and episodes of the past, from the Stone Age onwards, while recreating all aspects and conditions of the civil and military life in a given historical period in the most realistic and authentic way possible, through habits and customs, arts and crafts, textiles and garments, weapons and strategies, food and medicines, music and dances, games and other pastimes, including any objects and rituals of the past daily life. In a few words the term Living History refers to any performance aimed to bring history to life for educational purposes by the means of scientific research, experimental archaeology, theatrical and physical interpretation, live action role playing and martial arts as well.  

American Living History expert and university professor Jay Anderson said: "Living History can be defined as an attempt by people to simulate life in another time. Generally, the other time is in the past, and a specific reason is given for making the attempt to live as other people once did: to interpret material culture more effectively, to test an archaeological thesis or generate data for historical ethnographies, and to participate in an enjoyable recreational activity that is also a learning experience." 

These historical reconstructions are usually conducted not following a planned script by individuals and groups, called Living Historians, who wear thoroughly researched reproductions of period clothing, apparel and garments, and speak and act as a specific or composite character from the past in occasion of public performances for commemorative events, historic anniversaries, community festivals, museums exhibits, school initiatives and other educational displays, as well as for any kind of private and public gathering.

Contrary to what one may think, Living History activities are not restricted to a few specialists or professional actors, but they are mostly practised by volunteers and ordinary people, male and female, from all walks of life. Gender, ethnicity, cultural background and social status don’t play any role, and there is absolutely no discrimination based on age or physical conditions, thus making the Living History one of the most democratic activity. Enthusiasm and love for History are the only things really counting.

The Living Historians usually meet in small groups or associations, free or regulated.

Aims and methodology of the Living History...

The Living History practice aims to improve the knowledge, understanding and promotion of History, as well as to educate people through accurate and comprehensive historical portrayals and reconstructions. To achieve this goal the Living Historians seek to provide the audience with a live-in, tangible, and visual interpretation combined with an interactive and as much as possible immersive, thus emotional, presentation of the past heritage. Besides, the Living Historians are willing to openly share the results of their studies and researches with any other people, not only the fellow participants or scientific researchers, but also the audience.

Image: reenacting the foundation rite of an Ancient Roman city (copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web).

To portray History as much authentically as possible requires great devotion and a continuous activity of research, practice and training, combined with serious and documented reconstructions of historical clothing, tools and equipment, as well as the realistic staging of a given event in original or faithfully restored settings, where the objects featured, the characters interpreted, and the scenery itself are based on accurately verified historical and archaeological data.  

The methodology of the Living History presupposes a multidisciplinary and experimental approach, which combines elements of archaeological and historical research, arts, crafts, presentation techniques and sometimes also martial skills. The Living History requires as well respect for the principles of accuracy and authenticity, where accuracy can be defined as attention to detail, while authenticity indicates the measure of how the making and usage of items, props, actions, weapons, or customs are close to what they would actually have been in the time period portrayed. Of course both these matters are widely debated by historians, archaeologists, reenactors, craftsmen and all the people involved in the Living History field, and since a real time machine is not available yet, the Living Historians and Reenactors can only try to offer their best living interpretation possible about how clothes, weapons and tools were used in the past given the evidence made available by studies and researches.

To perform the Living History in an authentic and realistic way means first to choose the historical period to portray, and then a character with a well-defined personality and a back story. This character, which is usually called the "historical persona", can be either a real individual or a fictional character who could have lived during the time period of interest. It is essential to give depth to the chosen character and to achieve a high degree of identification with it and its specific historical reality, thus studying and recreating in details not only the clothing, but also, the jargon and posture, as well as the behaviour, the way of feeling and thinking. Finally, a great attention is required also for assembling the so-called "kit", the collection of garments, accessories and equipment (eventually weapons) matching the historical persona.

All this leads to another key element of the Living History: immersion, meaning the process by which the Living Historians try to surround themselves with the sights, sounds, culture, and physical reality of the past so effectively that the audience gets a deep and vivid experience of the historical period and persona portrayed.

The many fields and applications of the Living History...

Living History displays have become more and more popular year by year, also thanks to the development of non-military events and to the widening of the historical eras, characters and themes portrayed. Nowadays there is a wealth of Living History events scheduled all year long in Europe on occasion of historic anniversaries, outdoor and indoor commemorative events, local community festivals, museums and heritage sites promotion and enhancement, leisure and educational initiatives at schools, as well as other private and public gatherings, celebrations and themed parties.

Image: hands-on activities for children at a Celtic Age camp (copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web). 

A typical Living History public event usually lasts for a weekend and features historical encampments for the participant Living Historians, eventually a restricted campsite for modern tenting, one or more battle reenactments per day, and often also craft markets featuring historical and traditional products as well as modern goods for children and adults. There the enthusiastic and knowledgeable craftsmen and craftswomen, who have devoted time and resources in researching their crafts in a given historical context, interact with and impart knowledge to the visitors about their skills. There are usually open areas devoted to Living History displays of typical daily life chores and activities (e.g. authentic camping, cooking, pastimes etc.), crafts and experimental archaeology demonstrations and workshops (such as forging, woodworking, sewing).

The programme usually includes also themed exhibitions focusing on weapons, clothing and equipment, music concerts, dance shows, or other artistic performances (e.g. historical theatre, juggling, fashion), as well as parades in authentic kit and attire, lectures and conferences, guided tours, storytelling, historical and traditional cuisine, and many other leisure and educational activities for children and adults.

Among the many possible applications for the Living History in private and public events we can mention among the others historical dinners, historical themed weddings, historical dance and formal balls, historical portrayals (i.e. first-person dramatic portrayals of historic personalities), as well as historical discussions, lectures, scripted acting, poetry reading, storytelling, period singing, graduation and birthday parties, tea parties, and any other History-themed celebrations. The Living History is increasingly required also by corporate entities for any entertainment and training needs, like conventions, meetings, workshops, customer events, employee incentives or team-building initiatives.

The Living History plays also a great role in increasing the appeal of the traditional museums, by diversifying their offerings and services to the public, and generally in promoting the cultural & heritage tourism. The Living History represents an effective way to understand our heritage, to protect and preserve it for the future generations, as well as to enhance the touristic resources of the local communities in every aspect: landscape, nature, culture, arts, crafts and gastronomy. So, open-air and traditional museums, castles, parks and other heritage sites turn more and more often to Living History services to provide their visitors with an inspiring and educational experience through animated displays, interactive presentations and hands-on activities.

The Living History has become also a powerful educational medium used by interpreters, associations and schools to educate students and people in particular areas of History, such as clothing styles, pastimes and handicraft, or simply to convey a sense of the everyday life of a certain time period. This way the Living History can play an important role in supporting the History lessons as another useful means of teaching and learning, complementary to formal education and traditional methods, being aimed, not to substitute, but just to support and extend them thanks to the immediacy and vividness of a 3-dimensional sensory experience.

Among its many benefits, the Living History manages also to feed a new high quality artisanal industry which supplies the Living Historians not only with raw materials but also with final products, such as period clothing, weaponry, pottery, tools, tents and other props, all made with great care and high quality, by using the same procedures, techniques and materials of the given time period.

The Living History is often applied to the quite new field of the so-called historic fashion, meaning the reproduction of historical attire and garments for study and research activities, publishing, museum exhibitions and other public educational displays, as well as for private occasions, like historical wedding dresses, which are highly demanded nowadays.

Finally, the Living History has become also a popular way of conveying History through the media, such as the photography and scientific illustration for the publishing industry, where Living History images are increasingly used in books, essays, magazines and academic publications, as well as advertising, cinema and television which involve more and more often the Living Historians in the History-themed productions ranging from epic movies and TV series to documentaries and docu-fictions.

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