“What do you do when you’re not a grad student?”: An Interview with Aaron Meidema

As part of our efforts to connect graduate students outside of the classroom/department, we’re interviewing our fellow grad students about what they do when they’re not reading, writing, or researching.

This week we interview Aaron Meidema, a PhD Year II studying the duel in sixteenth century Italy with a particular focus on institution of the second and the use of the formalities of the duel to mediate disputes.

1. What do you do when you’re not a grad student? Describe your hobby/job/talent keeping in mind that others may know little or nothing about it.

Curiously, I became a Grad Student in order to better understand my hobby.  So making the precise distinction between hobby and studies is not so simple.  For 15 years, I have been a practitioner of ancient and historical fencing.  What this means is that I study fencing, but, not the kind that you see at the Olympics and in the Rec center.  I study fencing from the time when it was not only a sport, it was a life skill.  Using reproduction weaponry, I reconstruct, interpret and practice various sword and martial arts of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.

All though this is not all I do.  I have also worked as a historical advisor, set designer, trench digger, and actor on the feature film 21 Brothers.  Which also mean I hold a—albeit shared—Guinness Book of World Records title for “Longest Film Shot in a Single Take.”  I am also involved in a variety of living history organizations and engage in the practice of other—besides fencing—forms of material culture.  I have practiced historical cookery, dance, dress-making, and tailoring.  Additionally, in my misspent youth, I ran a theatre company that performed sixteenth and seventeenth century plays in their original context of performance.

So, not only do I study the Renaissance, I guess, I am a bit of a Renaissance Man.

 2. How long have you been doing this, and how did you get involved?

In spite of having disparate interests and experiences, they are all related to each other.  Although it is far from a straight-forward tale.  It all started when I began my BFA in theatre here at York in 1990 (Yes, I AM that old).  I got hooked on the Elizabethan theatre, and decided that was I wanted to do.  But, I took it a step further and decided that I wanted to do the Elizabethan Theatre as it was done in the sixteenth century.

So, I set up the Renaissance Stage Company (RSC) and began to gather the skills I needed to have in order to produce these plays from where ever I could.  One source of these skills was the Society for Creative Anachronism, and so this began my long involvement with various living history organizations and interest in the study of material culture and experimental archaeology.  Of course, the Theatre Department at York also provided me lots of useful skills: management, directing, set design, costuming, and (quell surprise) Stage Combat.  Between 1992 and 2000, the RSC produced 19 full stage productions in Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, and St. Catharines.  Including works by: Shakespeare, Moliere, Machiavelli, Jonson, Webster, Ford, and Middleton.  However, theatre proved not to be a lucrative field and eventually I had to find something to justify my existence.

However, even before the theatre company closed its doors, I turned my interest in material culture and stage combat to the study of period fencing manuals.  Since 1998, I have studied a variety of different medieval and Renaissance martial arts.  I have since, helped to found several clubs in both Kingston and Ottawa.  This began with the handful of extant English manuals, but quickly moved to the wealth of Italian material.  In 2003, I began translating one of the shorter Italian manuals from scratch.  Not only did this become the basis for my second book, it also suggested that I wanted to go back to school.

Cover of Bayonets and Blobsticks by Aaron MiedemaIn 2005, I returned to school to prepare for graduate studies.  I studied at Carleton to expand my knowledge of the history of early modern Europe and Italian and Latin.  Of course, not all of my course selections precisely fit this mandate, and, I ended up taking a number of credits in Canadian Military History under Dr. Tim Cook.  In my last year, Tim discovered what it was I did for a hobby and suggested that I should turn my talents to the use of the bayonet in the Great War.  Using my understanding of combative action, I turned to the bayonet manuals and archival training records to uncover that the bayonet was an important weapon in the Great War.  However, what started as a fourth year paper led to also being the topic of my Master’s Thesis at the Royal Military College of Canada.  I defended the thesis in 2010 and it became my first book Bayonets and Blobsitcks in 2011.

Between the defense and the release of Bayonets and Blobsticks, my past seemed to collide.  Some of my old colleagues from my time in the theatre approached me with a film project.  It was a film set in the Great War, and they thought I was a natural choice for a Historical Advisor.  Of course, it helped that I was willing to work for free.  Over the next year, I turned my interest in material culture to new topics: I arranged trips to museums to examine artifacts from the war, I searched Trench Slang dictionaries to help give the script an authentic feel, and I studied fortification manuals from the War to help design the set for the movie.  I even engaged in actual experimental archeology in helping dig the 350-foot trench.

However, my dabbling in the early part of the twentieth century has come to end; for the time being at least.  I have returned to the study and practice of duelling in sixteenth century Italy.

 3. What’s your favourite aspect of this activity?

When it comes to fencing, obviously, not getting hit is one of the preferred aspects of the sport.  However, the most important aspect of it is focus.  In fencing, you have to take every other concern spinning your head and put it aside so that you can concentrate on the problem at hand, an opponent with a sword.  This ability to clear your mind and focus is a good life skill.

 4. How do you manage the balance between your graduate career and your activity?

Euhm…  I’m doing comps…  No one said that was an option…

Aaron fencing!

Thank you, Aaron, for finding the time to answer our questions! If you or someone you know would be interested in being interviewed for this series, please contact us!

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