Month: August 2020

Sword and Buckler Fencing in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven

two monsters with serpentine lower bodies fighting with clubs and bucklers
I don’t know of any mermen fencing so how about these marginalia monsters? Fighting with clubs instead of swords was popular as a way of managing danger, some of the legislators trying to take control of duelling proposed to allow clubs but ban sharp weapons (Ariella Elema, “Tradition, Innovation, Re-Enactment: Hans Talhoffer’s Unusual Weapons.” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 7.1 (2019) https://doi.org/10.2478/apd-2019-0001). From Besançon BM MS.551 Miracles de Notre Dame folio 87r c/o Manuscript Miniatures

For at least 15 or 20 years, people who attend the right events and drink with the right people have known that much of the fencing jargon in later fencing manuals first appears in French chivalric literature of the 12th and 13th century. In 2015 Olivier Dupuis published an article in Acta Periodica Duellatorum so the evidence is available to everyone. But he overlooked one important source, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet. This was written in German but inspired by a “welsh (Romance-language) book” brought to Austria by one of the hostages for Richard the Lion-Heart named Hugh de Morville. Ulrich was so impressed by it that he translated it into German. We don’t have any one manuscript in French or Norman or Occitan which tells the exact same story. Translating a romance could be a creative process in the middle ages, and ancient and medieval writers loved to disguise fiction as “a translation of a manuscript in a foreign language which I discovered.” But in terms of content Lanzelet is very much a romance of the late 12th century, with strong parallels to Welsh and Irish stories. Fencing appears in three or four stories in this romance.

The first story comes from Lancelot’s education by his guardians in the Otherworld. There were no soldiers or horsemen there and he was still a child so he learned other skills:

At the youth’s request the lady did a wise thing, for he seemed to her a lively boy: she sent for mermen (merwunder) and had them teach him to fence (lêren schirmen: 279). In this exercise he would never give up before he had to. He had also to play prisoners’ base, to jump extraordinary distances, to wrestle strenuously (starclîche ringen: 284), to hurl stones, both big and little, a good distance, to throw darts (he was never wearied by any of his instruction), to still-hunt, to hawk, to chase with the full pack, and to shoot with the bow. The men who came from the sea gave him skill. In all ways was he wise and manly, but about knightly horsemanship (ritterschaft) he knew nothing whatsoever, for he never mounted a horse, and he was ignorant of armour (harnasch). And so he grew to be fifteen years old in that land.

– lines 275-301 of the Bibliotheca Augusta transcription based on W. Spiewok’s edition from 1997. I have adapted the translation in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, Lanzelet: A Romance of Lancelot, tr. Kenneth G. T. Webster, ann. Roger Sherman Loomis (Columbia University Press: New York, 1951) pp. 28-29

Ulrich makes fun of his hero when he first gets on a horse and takes a spear in his hand.

The second story comes from one of Lancelot’s indiscretions with his host’s daughter or wife (this time it is his daughter, there are signs that she was his wife in an earlier version of the story like in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). They take great pleasure in each other for the night, but dawn is coming:
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Shameless Plug: War and Soldiers in the Achaemenid Empire

One of my articles which has been in press for some time finally appeared: “War and Soldiers in the Achaemenid Empire: Some Historiographical and Methodological Considerations.” In Kai Ruffing, Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, Sebastian Fink, and Robert Rollinger (eds.), Societies at War: Proceedings of the 10th Symposium of the Melammu Project held in Kassel September 26-28 2016... Continue reading: Shameless Plug: War and Soldiers in the Achaemenid Empire

Studies on Mounted Warfare in Asia

A cat at the tomb of the poet Hafiz in Shiraz.

I am not writing new posts for this blog right now due to some personal emergencies, a summer I want to enjoy, and the death of my father. I have a post scheduled every two weeks until the end of September. But I seem to be getting some new visitors from Bret Devereaux’s blog.

So if you like big ideas about warfare before gunpowder, this week I would like to recommend a book by Eduard Alofs published as four articles in volumes 21 and 22 of the journal War in History in 2014 and 2015 (parts i, part ii, part iii and part iiii). Alofs did something which not many historians do which was write a general model of warfare from the Syr Darya to the Nile in the period 550 to 1350 CE. He sees two main military traditions in this region: the Iranian (the kind which the Strategikon of emperor Maurice describes, armies centred around armoured horsemen with bows and lances which come to the battlefield on foot, mule, or camel) and the Turanian (the kind which Frankish writers complain about Turks practicing, based on unarmoured horsemen with a string of spare horses and a few better-armed men with their own spare horses). To put this together, he read primary sources in Arabic, Greek, Persian, and Latin. Here is what he has to say about shields:

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If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons

a set of hardcover books bound in celuloid on a wooden bookshelf
The circle of book life! This copy of Will and Arial Durant’s “Story of Civilization” was in Russell Books, Victoria BC, in February 2020.

Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization (eleven volumes 1935-1975, original planned length five volumes, at the authors’ deaths thirteen volumes were planned) was as famous in its day as Sapiens, Sex at Dawn, or Twelve Rules for Life but represents much more work. It is an ambitious attempt to cover the story of “the west” and if you can find a copy it has some beautiful prose. But when they planned their project, they fell into a trap that people are still throwing themselves into today.

That first volume covers the Near East (Ur III to the Achaemenids), South Asia (to the establishment of the Raj), China (to 1935), and Japan (to 1935). Greece (volume II) ends with the Sack of Corinth by the Romans, Rome (III) ends with Constantine, then a single big volume for a thousand years of Latin Christendom (IV), Italy (V) ends in 1576, Germany (VI) gets the reformation, then its on to the Northern Renaissance (which the Durants call the Age of Reason, volume VII), three on the Enlightenment and one on the age of Napoleon (XI). That is a fine List of Places and Times that We Think Were Pretty Cool, but what determines who is in this list and who is out? And I know of at least three contradictory theories, each of which includes people most people who use this term don’t want to include.[1]

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Laudatio Ed Brayton

From Birger Johansson: Ed Brayton, humanist and scienceblogs.com founder, is dying in hospice in the United States after a long struggle with various health problems. His last post is at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches/2020/08/10/saying-goodbye-for-the-last-time/ I am with T. Greer: when a Snorri Stirluson comes to tell the tale of the death of the open Internet, they will spend... Continue reading: Laudatio Ed Brayton


Harbour Explosions

If you are interested in explosions in harbours, check out: H.J. Reitsma, “The explosion of a ship, loaded with black powder, in Leiden in 1807,” International Journal of Impact Engineering 25 (2001) pp. 507-514 https://doi.org/10.1016/S0734-743X(00)00067-1 and the SS Mont-Blanc incident on 6 December 1917 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halifax_Explosion That is all.


A Carefully Worded Footnote

Trebuchet test at the University of Toronto Back Campus, 12 April 1991. Figure 1 in W. T. S. Tarver, “The Traction Trebuchet: A Reconstruction of an Early Medieval Siege Engine,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 36, No. 1. (January 1995) In the early middle ages, Europeans learned about a much simpler technology... Continue reading: A Carefully Worded Footnote