A few months ago I was invited to present on my recent research into medieval martial garments of the 14th century by Jason Smith, the organizer of a Western Martial Arts event called Borealis Swordplay Symposium. The event was held last weekend in Ottawa, Ontario. I figured I received the offer to present out of courtesy to my sweetheart, Gregory Mele, who was an invited instructor in historical sword-fighting techniques. I was planning to accompany him on the trip, and I assumed Jason was just trying to make me feel more included, which I certainly appreciated. I expected I’d have five to ten attendees, at most, and maybe two or three of them would be mildly interested.
I now see that I did not give enough credit to the interest in historical material culture held by the good people who attended the symposium. Not only was my talk well attended, but this audience was the most hungry, excited, interactive audience I have yet encountered. Between the two talks I gave—I’d given one or the other of them to six different audiences in the past year—the reaction to this one was markedly different in the best kind of way.
I forgot to ask people to hold their questions until the end, and I’m rather glad I did. I began receiving thoughtful inquiries a few minutes into my presentation, and they gave me the opportunity to step away from my scripted reading and extemporaneously explain the answers. Greg tells me I’m best when I’m off-script, and I got a lot of practice being off-script. I must admit that it felt better to look people in the eye and speak from knowledge in my head than to read it from a paper.
My talks were scheduled opposite an open sparring practice, which is stiff competition, if you think about the purpose of the weekend: sword-fighting. Nonetheless, I had at least 20 attendees, which constituted about a quarter of the overall attendance at the symposium. At least one was an invited instructor, and another was a successful historical novelist who admitted to me that while sword-fighting is great fun, sewing is even more fun. (I enjoyed that confession immensely.) I was even asked to sign one of my Charles de Blois pattern books, which I do believe is a first for me!
My biggest revelation was that while I consider myself a hyper-focused material culture historian (amateur though I am), due to my proclivities for medieval martial garments, my most enthusiastic audience is the branch of the Western Martial Arts crowd that embraces a holistic approach to their learning. Wearing what their forebears wore when sparring or warring better informs their understanding of the skills and challenges in recreating a medieval fighting experience. My work is, apparently, a vital little puzzle piece for those who care about such things.
Here are a few reviews of the weekend from instructors at the event: