"The internet changed everything."
It sounds more like Brian Mcilmoyle is opening a TED talk about getting rid of furniture, rather than explaining the modern proliferation of medieval martial arts.
"Every hundred years or so, there's a resurgence of interest, but it dies out with those practitioners because it's generally individuals who studied the stuff in obscurity." Brian tells me amidst chainmail, gauntlets, swords, and even a portable grill in his Toronto armoury. "Crazy guys in their backyards mostly. But with the internet you can build a community."
Brian cuts an imposing figure, standing well over six feet with the demeanor of your hardass phys-ed teacher who loved the beep test. He jumps back and forth between good natured chuckling and sternly staring at me like I may have poisoned his drink as we discuss his decades-long infatuation with medieval combat. Like many young boys, Brian found the part where people duke it out the most entertaining and alluring aspect of history, and like my father—a man who can remember the exact time and place of historic battles but not where he put his sunglasses—Brian is a compendium of information.
Other than "don't die," it's difficult to imagine what one-on-one fighting strategies were salvaged from the notoriously brutal medieval age, but that's exactly the kind of plebian notion Brian and his colleagues at the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts aim to dispel with their teachings.
"Many people believe that Europeans didn't have martial arts, that it was predacious and you needed to only have a heavy sword." He explains. "Every culture developed a martial system based on their technology, and European technology was second to none, as far as creating weapons and armor."
The early days of the academy were spent compiling and digitizing those systems based on whatever ancient manuscripts they could get their hands on from libraries and museums around the world, most notably the Flos Duellatorum, an obscure 14th-century Italian combat manual that after years of translating has come to act as a manifesto of sorts. Encompassing wrestling, knife fighting, sword technique, archery, and other practices from a time when not having dysentery was a solid status update, the AEMMA currently teaches classes of up to 20 students three times a week.
Now, the image of grown men wielding swords may have the tendency to lead you into a youtube hole of infomercials and driveway samurais, but when Brian engages in armoured combat, every blow is the real deal (as you can see in the videos on the AEMMA's charmingly pre-internet site).
"I wanted to know how to do it, not just pretending to know how to do it. What techniques were done? What physical manifestations of human skill were necessary to do this well?"
Broken fingers, punctured flesh, and a torn ACL are just a few of the mere mortal wounds he's sustained when duelling, and Brian scoffs at the inquiry of anything so rudimentary or modern as a points system for these fights.
"When you fight in armour, we stop the fight when the next thing that happens is someone dies."
While this makes him sound like he's just a few chromosomes away from someone who hunts humans for sport, it's a testament to how viscerally serious he takes the artform he studies. This is swords without the sorcery, and a far cry from the spells, mana, and innocent smiles of the LARPing community.
"Tag with swords," he shrugs at the mention of the name.
Dungeons & Dragons? Poppycock!
But despite it's bloodsport allure, Brian stresses that though he's been sparring for 33 years, actual combat is the least important part of what him and his academy stand for.
"I'm not a gladiator. The fighting is something that you can do as a consequence of your training—but it's the training that's important."
With chapters of the academy training men and women of all ages in Guelph, Stratford and Nova Scotia, the community has found some stable footing throughout Canada. They may prefer laboriously tying a tunic than slipping into yoga pants or throwing on a pair of boxing gloves, but medieval martial artists share the same common thread with anyone who obsesses over their practice—to constantly be getting better at something you love.
Training for the second coming of the dark ages actually isn't such a bad idea these ideas, but regardless of how people view medieval martial arts, Brian and the teachers and students of the AEMMA who gleefully obsess over this time period always know exactly what they're doing on their weekend, which at the very least is far more than most people can say.