Book and Sword
pontifex minimus

Book and Sword

My First Book is Out

the cover of "Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire" (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021) with a background of coloured rectangles

Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire: Past Approaches, Future Prospects. Oriens et Occidens Band 32 (Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart, 2021) 437 pp., 8 b/w ill., 4 b/w tables. ISBN 978-3-515-12775-2 EUR 74,– (softcover) (publisher’s website)

My first book is coming out from Franz Steiner Verlag this month. It is the first book on Achaemenid armies since 1992, and the first written by someone who can read any ancient Near Eastern language. I show that most of what we think we know about Achaemenid armies and warfare goes back to classical writers and to 19th and 20th century stereotypes about the east. So many books sound the same because they are repeating the ideas of early authorities in new language. By focusing on indigenous, contemporary sources and placing the Achaemenids in their Near Eastern context- the standard methods in Roman Army Studies and Achaemenid Studies since the 1980s- we can tell a different story.

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How am I Following the Russo-Ukrainian War?

an oil painting of laughing, smoking, drunken Cossacks with muskets and sabres dictating a letter to a priest
Meme culture is not my culture but this week one seems appropriate. Repin’s oil painting “The Zaparozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ilja_Jefimowitsch_Repin_-_Reply_of_the_Zaporozhian_Cossacks_-_Yorck.jpg

The war in Ukraine has changed since spring. I thought that some of my readers might be interested in the resources I am currently using to follow it. Since I don’t know Russian or Ukrainian, and since many people have agendas, sorting things out is tricky for me. People following the war like corporate social media with feeds, and on those sites quotes and images float around without attribution. People who like them imply that they hear all kinds of rumours. And because so much is at stake (the future of 200 million people, the energy supply to Europe and grain for the Mediterranean) many people slip into boosting their side rather than provide dispassionate analysis.

Now that Ukraine has much larger armies, and weapons to counter Russian artillery, I expect Ukraine to keep driving Russian forces back until at least spring 2023. The most likely things which could change the situation would be a complete collapse of Russian forces and Russian use of nuclear weapons (which would probably end very badly for Russia, but Putin keeps making stupid decisions and does not live in the same world we live in). Turning recruits into an army takes 3 to 12 months if you have systems for gathering, training, and arming them, and those trainers and vehicles are dead or destroyed in Ukraine. Putin is scared of mass popular movements like the original levée en masse. So until 2023, the main effect of Russian mobilization will be a lot of dead Dagestanis and Buriyats and a lot of rich landlords in Tbilisi and Istanbul.

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How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2

In my first post on Iron Age bows, I showed that there is a lot of evidence that archers in England, the Ottoman Empire, and the Manchu Empire used bows with very heavy draw weights (over 100 pounds / 45 kg at the intended draw length) around the 15th-17th centuries CE. People who are keen on early modern archery often project these heavy draw weights onto all war bows in all cultures. But we have reconstructions of ancient bows from the area from Egypt to India by people who examined the remains of bows and arrows from that place and time. What kind of draw weights did those bows have?

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Some Thoughts on Lara Broecke’s Cennini

the cover of Lara Broecke's edition of Il Libro dell'Arte by Cennino Cennini
Lara Broecke, Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte: A New English Translation and Commentary with Italian Transcription (Archetype Publications: London, 2015) ISBN-13 978-1909492288

This summer I am reproducing some ancient shields, and since most face-to-face classes where I live are still closed, I am turning to the best possible teachers: Theophilius (fl. around 1100 CE) and Cennino Cennini (fl. around 1400 CE). Theophilius and Cennino teach almost everything you need to prepare a shield (or a panel) for painting.

The standard way to access Cennini is through three books published by Daniel V. Thompson around 1930 (an Italian text, a translation titled The Craftsman’s Handbook, and a practical handbook called The Practice of Tempera Painting). Lara Broecke has recently published a new edition, translation, and commentary of Cennini. These are thorough and scholarly and synthesize the past 85 years of art-technological research. If you want to know the chemical composition of Cennini’s gesso grosso plaster or giallorino pigment, look here. But Broecke distances herself from people who read Cennini as a textbook (pp. 1, 13, 305). Cennini was not a very good writer, his book may have been incomplete when he died, and none of the surviving copies of his work is a perfect representation of what he wrote. To understand why the old translations and editors of Cennini’s Book of the Art have the quirks which they have, lets turn to the Italian independent scholar Giovanni Mazzaferro:

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Poisoned Daggers and Poisoned Darts

Over on another place, I have been talking to Jean Henri Chandler the fencer and RPG writer about the trope of poisoned weapons. Writers of adventure stories in the 20th century loved this trope. In Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus” a beast is defeated with a poisoned dagger, while in Hour of the Dragon a poisoned needle protects a treasure and can kill with a scratch. Tolkien’s Witch-King wields a cursed knife whose wounds cannot be healed by ordinary medicine, and in the Warhammer setting Dark Elves or Dark Eldar love their poisoned daggers and flechette launchers. Brian Jacques’ villain Cluny the Scourge has a poisoned barb on his tail, and Jack White’s Arthurian novels (goodreads) have poisoned needles too.

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Cross-Post: Capwell’s “Continental Armour in England, 1435-1500” in Pre-Order

Seven years after the first volume arrived at my doorstep in the Before Times, Olympia Auctions is accepting pre-orders for Armour of the English Knight, Volume 3: Continental Armour in England, 1435-1500. You can order a copy for a 10 GBP discount from the retail price at the Olympia Auctions website. I have to be... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Capwell’s “Continental Armour in England, 1435-1500” in Pre-Order

The Lying Chisels of Scribes

“‘How can you say, “We are wise,
    for we have the law of the Lord,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
    has handled it falsely?

Jeremiah 8:8 New International Version

The ancient world was a long time ago, but even in antiquity it was often hard to know what happened in the ancient world. With no trusted neutral institutions to establish facts, and no way of making many identical copies of a text or a speech, the curious had no reliable way to decide between competing claims by different interested parties. Already in antiquity, clever people turned to old writing painted on wood or carved on stone. But dishonest people realized that they could destroy or alter awkward inscriptions and forge new ones. Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians show us how this worked.

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Why is LARPer an Insult?

a picture explaining "historical fencing is not LARPing or reenactment" with three pictures of the named activities crossed out in red
An incredible amount of stupidity in our culture came from Tumblr via Twitter to press releases, policies, and proposed laws. Tumblr post found in the early 2010s, captured in January 2018, source unknown.

Anglo culture in the early 21st century makes it hard to use good curses and insults. Our middle and high culture is strongly against insulting anyone for their parentage, body shape, disabilities, religion, private life, and other natural human things. But one of the insults which almost everyone feels comfortable throwing around is LARPer. If third-parties object, it is to dispute whether the object of the insult is really a LARPer, not to ask whether being a LARPer is a bad thing. Ten years ago when I was spending time with more types of geeks, I noticed that people whose hobbies have a lot in common with LARP, such as the historical fencers in black or the Society for Creative Anachronism, wanted you to know that LARP was totally different from what they do. People from socialists to the hard right agree that being a LARPer is bad. This week I would like to talk about what people object to, and some of the things which the insult misses.

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Google and the Culture of Searching

saying everything’s on the internet is great if you know how to use the internet. People who say it’s all on Google probably haven’t spent a lot of time watching people try to find what they want on Google. It’s challenging. There’s a lot of syntax to know, you’ve got know how to use a mouse, you’ve got to understand clicking, what’s a tab, what happens when I do this that and the other (thing), and there really isn’t a social institution dedicated to helping you figure it out. And then, that’s just for digitally divided folks, but for average folks who know how to use a computer, they still need to know how to be discerning about the information they get.

Jessamyn West, interview with Vermont Public Radio, 27 May 2016 https://medium.com/tilty/libraries-information-access-and-democracy-85e213086d22

“Don’t be evil” or not, Google has a great deal of power over Internet culture. One example is the way that Google discourages searchers from marking up their search (with quotes, Boolean logic, restrictions like “only from the following domain,” etc.) Google Advanced Search was removed first from their main page and then from their list of other Google tooks on google.com, and their algorithm takes more and more freedom to ignore quotes and deliver sites with only partial matches. Rather than encouraging users to become skilled searchers, it teaches them to type quickly and trust the algorithm.

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Plataia 2022 is Happening Now

Reenactors on the walls of Plataea. Photo by Photo by Ilia Iatroo, “Plataea 2021-2022” group, Facebook The long-planned reenactment event at the ruins of Plataia in Greece is finally happening! The event website is https://plataea2022.com/ I can’t be there because of health problems, a very low income, the abandonment of infection-control measures against COVID-19, and... Continue reading: Plataia 2022 is Happening Now