Who likes medieval martial garments? Students of medieval martial arts.

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.

Martial Beauty: Padding and quilting one's way to a masculine ideal in 14th century France

Martial Beauty: Padding and quilting one’s way to a masculine ideal in 14th century France

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.

The pourpoint of Charles VI of France: Structural Details Revealed

The pourpoint of Charles VI of France: Structural Details Revealed

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.

Christian Cameron vs. Gregory Mele

Christian Cameron vs. Gregory Mele

Here are a few reviews of the weekend from instructors at the event:

Blog post by Devon Boorman, owner of Academie Duello in Vancouver, British Columbia

Blog post by Gregory Mele, dean of the Chicago Swordplay Guild and co-owner of Forteza Fitness and Freelance Academy Press, in Chicago, Illinois



Impressions after the Medieval Congress

For the third time, I attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which went from Thursday, May 9th through Sunday May 12th. My first time there was 2004, when I was five months pregnant with my son. I experienced the conference with the sense of being an outsider, since I was not affiliated with any academic institutions, nor was I presenting as an independent scholar. I was merely a tourist, eager to see the DISTAFF panels. I enjoyed myself more than I probably would have, had I been in ideal health. I was just coming out of a long haze of pregnancy nausea (it’s not confined to “mornings”, folks), and being able to TRAVEL somewhere and DO something was novel.

Last year I attended as the assistant to Gregory Mele, publisher of Freelance Academy Press and also my sweetheart. We had a booth in the Exhibitions Hall, which is more commonly called “the book room”, though it spills out into other areas beyond the main hall. Once again, I was not presenting, but not for lack of material – I had signed on to present as part of the DISTAFF sessions at the sister conference in Leeds, UK, in July of that year. I must confess: I wanted to present in Leeds so that I would have an excuse to finally see the Royal Armouries in person.

Assisting in a book room booth is deceptively hard work. The hours are grueling: 8AM to 6:30, and since someone must always be present, there is no opportunity to go out to lunch. All we could do, both last year and this year, was catch as catch can, gulping down a sandwich perched in our laps as time permitted. The upside to this endeavor was the networking. If you sit still long enough, people will eventually come by and see you.

Hanging at the booth

Hanging at the booth

Both years, Greg met a number of scholars who had manuscripts appropriate for Freelance. One of those scholars, Noel Fallows, has a book forthcoming as a result of meeting Greg last year (you can see the printer proof on display in the photo above: The Twelve of England). Excellent connections continue to be made. Last year, I found myself asked by a mentor of mine, Robin Netherton, whether or not I would want to present the following year. I agreed on the spot, though my research for the next paper was still an unformed blog rumbling around in my head. The encouragement to present was the fire lit under me that would guarantee I would sit down and actually write something of value, rather than just continue to think about it in a nebulous fashion.

This year, aside from booth assistance, I also had commitments in sessions: 1) As an actress (albeit without lines) in the judicial duel demonstration presented by Greg with assistance from his senior students of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, David Farrell and Jesse Kulla, as well as key players in La Belle Compagnie, a living history group who were also at Kalamazoo that year to present a century’s worth of armour harnesses; 2) As a participant in the DISTAFF exhibit (my Charles VI pourpoint reconstruction); and 3) As a presenter of the paper that finally coalesced into something reasonably coherent: “Martial Beauty: Padding and Quilting One’s Way to a Masculine Ideal in Fourteenth Century France”.  The paper was well-received by the audience at the DISTAFF session in which I presented, and I got a fair number of thought-provoking questions during the Q&A afterwards. I have been invited to submit a fleshed-out version of the paper to be considered for publication in Medieval Clothing and Textiles, a yearly journal published by Boydell & Brewer. Robin and Professor Gale Owen-Crocker are the co-editors, and they have been very kind in encouraging my work over the past few years.

It was a busy but intensely gratifying few days, and it was made all the more wonderful by the great people who came out and supported Greg’s and my efforts.

Sparky, Matt, and Josh

Sparky, Matt, and Josh

Medieval Martial Lovefest in Kalamazoo

This coming week is a busy one! I’m flying into Chicago on Wednesday and will then travel to Kalamazoo, Michigan with my beau to attend the 48th Annual International Congress on Medieval Studies held on Western Michigan University’s campus from Thursday May 9th through Sunday May 12th. Bright and early Thursday morning (8 AM), we’ll open the Freelance Academy Press booth in the Book Room. I will then spend a part of the day visiting dear friends in another town in Michigan. Lots of driving for me that day.

Friday morning at 10AM, I will take part in Greg’s Judicial Duel Demonstration, which is set to be a fascinating overview of judicial duels in Europe followed by a re-enactment based on a fictitious accusation. A cast of thousands (I really mean “maybe ten of us”) will thrill the audience with a salacious tale of alleged adultery followed by pitched combat waged between the accuser and the injured party. I play one of the accused, though not the one in armour defending my virtue.  That task falls to the other injured party. I sure hope he wins! My reputation in my guild will be forever tarnished if we are proven guilty by his loss. *bites knuckles dramatically!*

Friday evening at 5:30 PM, I will be displaying my reproduction of the Charles VI pourpoint as part of the DISTAFF exhibition. If you are coming to the conference, please come say hi!

Saturday morning at 10 AM I will be presenting a new paper, “Martial Beauty: Padding and Quilting One’s Way to a Masculine Ideal in Fourteenth Century France”. I present last as part of the DISTAFF session entitled Dress and Textiles III: Interpreting Surviving Artifacts. I will speak for 17 minutes, hopefully on the nose, and will be showing slides as well.

At some point I will fly home and collapse in exhaustion. My only regret is that this conference is consistently held over Mother’s Day weekend, which seems awfully unfair for the moms who want to attend. Nonetheless, I look forward to presenting my new synthesis of data and receiving feedback. I also look forward to the conviviality amongst those of us whose passion exists in the peculiar niche of late medieval martial matters.