The Harbour School

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Living History and Learning Through Reenactments

John Montrie, Historical Reenactor-in-residence

For the last 40 years, I have been an historical reenactor. What’s that, you ask. A historical reenactor is someone who immerses themselves in a culture from another time by wearing the clothes, preparing the food, using the tools, and duplicating the tasks of daily life.  

Reenacting is a way to understand history through direct experience. You can read that knights wore heavy armor, but you get a different point of view when you lift and wear the armor yourself.  Reenactors can study and focus on many aspects of history – art, science, warfare, food, and everyday domestic life.

All levels of reenactment can help teach history. For example, you can try on historical clothing, make the clothing yourself, make the clothing from fabric you’ve woven yourself, weave the fabric from yarn you’ve spun yourself or even, to produce the wool from heritage breeds of sheep.  

However, a rich learning experience doesn’t require a full-on authentic immersion. Reenactment ranges from performing as a character at an historical site to learning and demonstrating how craftsmen used period tools.  We’re bringing historical reenactment to the Harbour School to teach social and cultural history through experience at the school’s annual Renaissance Faire organised by the fourth graders.

Historians call it living history or interactive archaeology, and it sheds new understanding to researching past cultures.  By making and using replicas of artifacts, we can learn details that were so obvious to people of the time that they were not set down in historical record.

Each year in Jamestown, Virginia, many reenactors convene to be part of an event called "Military Through the Ages" where re-enactment encampments represent different time periods from Ancient Rome to World War II. In one year, I participated as a member of a medieval reenactment society called Markland (a Viking name for North America). One of our members made a replica of a pin commonly found at many 10th Century Viking sites. It is a simple, straight pin with a loop on the end. He theorised that the loop was likely tied to a piece of string, which would leave little trace in an archaeological dig.  He reasoned that so many surviving examples meant it was used for common, daily function. He used it to pin the brim of his hat out of his way.  As my friend is a sailor - on a replica Viking longship no less - he reasoned that the best way to wrap the string around the pin was to mimic how sailors belay ropes on a boat.

A spectator at the event was staring intently at my friend’s hat. Later, he introduced himself as a curator at the Viking museum on the Isle of Man.  He told my friend that they have many Viking pins in their collection but never thought about how these pins were used, and the way the string was wrapped fascinated him.  When he went back to the museum and examined the pins, he found traces of string in the same pattern.

Understanding the past is similar to piecing together a giant puzzle which sometimes we cannot find the connections by examining artefacts alone. Reenactment can help to answer many historical questions that can only be understood with direct use.  But more importantly, it teaches history through making memorable, fun and relatable experiences.  By reconstructing a part of history, we can learn details of it that we otherwise wouldn’t know.

Annual Renaissance Faire, Produced by Grade 4 students

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