Arms and armor programs offer new perspectives websites that include historical female characters often will include bios of the women,” explains Sarah. “You find a name, start Googling to see what else is out there, find some artwork, find corroborating historical sources, and start to piece together a narrative.”
Sarah, who worked as an interpreter in the education Dressed as a female samurai warrior Sarah Leveille poses with Neal department at the former Bourbeau, who is dressed as a Viking warrior. Both are Museum Educators associated with the Knights! exhibition. Higgins Armory Museum, is no stranger to its arms and armor collection and rom video games to costumed rethe scarcity of information about the role enactments to Japanese anime, people interact with and explore of women in battle. “Women’s history history in so many ways. For Knights! survives in mythology, oral history, and educators Sarah Leveille and Neal artwork,” she says. “You have to dig Bourbeau, these were all jumping-off points deeper and really look outside of tradifor developing two new arms and armor tional research tools to be able to expand women’s stories.” programs introduced in the fall of 2015.
When creating Onna-Bugeisha: Women of the Samurai, Sarah quickly realized that she’d need to turn to nontraditional sources for information on the female Japanese warrior. There is not a large body of scholarship about women in combat in general, and only one book in English about female warriors in Japanese history. But as a fan of Japanese anime, she knew that many of those animated stories are based in real historical detail. “Stories are shifted to make them entertaining, but if you know what to look for, you can start to sort out fact from fiction,” she says.
Japanese video game websites were among the most useful source materials while researching Onna-Bugeisha. “Game
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A lack of source material was not a problem for Neal Bourbeau as he developed The Viking Age, an arms and armor demonstration that puts the Vikings into a broader historical context. “There are a lot of misperceptions out there about Vikings,” he says, adding that popular entertainment, such as the History Channel drama “Vikings,” doesn’t always help set the record straight.
For starters, there’s “the horned helmet thing.” Vikings didn’t really wear those. It’s an image that likely began with operas of the eighteenth century. “I like to get that out of the way at the beginning,” Neal says, laughing.
Neal was inspired to learn more about the Vikings after working with volunteers from
Hurstwic, a Viking combat training center now in Millbury, while he was working as program and outreach manager at the former Higgins Armory Museum. “The Vikings have a reputation as bloodthirsty killers, but so much of what was written about them was penned by their victims,” he says, and that has to be taken into account. “The problem was that they operated outside of the Anglo-Saxon culture of warfare. They came out of nowhere, they hit and ran, and there was no way to get back at them.”
Neal, who also worked for many years as an interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, uses a hands-on approach in his work at WAM, where he not only wears the armor and demonstrates the weaponry, but also enlists the audience in practicing tactics, like forming a field wall.
What’s next for Knights! education programs? Neal is interested in transitional periods in history. “That’s where change really happens,” he says. “There’s a bit of Ancient Greek, Roman, even Egyptian armor in the Higgins collection. There’s a lot of potential to connect the armor collection with the Museum’s artwork.” Sarah is excited to continue researching women’s history in other time periods. “I want to find lesser-known figures,” she says, “and continue to read between the lines of published scholarship to expand these women’s stories.”
Join Sarah and Neal on Saturdays and Sundays, 11:30am to 12:30pm for a wide variety of arms and armor demonstrations, including samurai and onna-bugeisha, Vikings, Roman warriors, Medieval soldiers, and much more. Check the event calendar for up-to-date details.