All martial arts can be divided into three types, the traditional which have passed from master to student until the present, the historical which died leaving detailed instructions by a practitioner, and the prehistoric which died without leaving such instructions. Just as prehistory in Mongolia extends much later than prehistory in Iraq, prehistoric martial arts can be more recent than many historical or traditional ones.
People trying to reconstruct prehistoric martial arts such as Plato’s hoplomachia or 17th century Polish sabre fencing pay a lot of attention to the ergonomics of weapons. If a spear was balanced towards the butt, it probably was not meant to be thrown: if a sword builds up a lot of rotary momentum when it is swung, it was probably designed to move in circles rather than back and forth. Good weapons were expensive objects, and outside the Roman and some Chinese armies there were no committees forcing warriors to use one type of weapon, so we can take as an axiom that common long-lived forms of weapon were well designed to meet their users’ needs. If they were not, they would have fallen out of use.
Military historians often admire professional armies whose members have no trade but war. These armies can learn their art well, carry out clever manoeuvres, and don’t start arguing with each other when their general wants them to be making some decisive attack (before the 1980s, military historians tended to identify with the generals). In Europe this tradition goes back to Xenophon in the 4th century BCE and can be traced through wanna-be army builders like Sir John Smythe of Little Badow or J.F.C. Fuller the British general, tank visionary, fascist, and mystic. This line of argument has its virtues: the history of the past 500 years is dotted with sad tales of keen but untrained and poorly equipped fighters marching into the bullets and shells and being mowed down. But it usually summons a counter-argument about what those young, aggressive, highly trained men will do when there is no war to fight. I can trace this tradition back to Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s Erra Epic, which was composed sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE as the Assyrians were sowing blood and flesh to plant the first world empire. Erra has Seven terrifying weapons, and they are feeling bored:
Warrior Erra, why do you neglect the field for the city? The very beasts and creatures hold us in contempt! O warrior Erra, we will tell you, though what we say be offensive to you! Era the whole land outgrows us, You must surely hear our words! (80) Do a kindly deed for the gods of hell, who delight in deathly stillness, The Annuna-gods cannot fall asleep for thge clamor of mankind. Beasts are overrunning the meadows, life of the land, The farmer sobs bitterly for his [field]. Lion and wolf are felling the livestock, (85) The shepherd, who cannot sleep day or night for the sake of his flocks, is calling upon you. We too, who know the mountain passes, we have [forgotten] how to go, Cobwebs are spun over our field gear, Our fine bow resists and is too strong for us, The tip of our sharp arrow is bent out of true, (90) Our blade is corroded for want of a slaughter!
Epic of Erra, tablet I, from Benjanim Foster, Before the Muses, pp. 775, 776
Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.
Elizabeth Moon, Hunting Party (Baen Books: Riversdale, NY, 1993). Later released in an omnibus as Heris Seranno.
Calgary is a hard town for the poor and pedestrian, but when I lived there I discovered some authors in the few hardy used bookstores which held out like poplars in draws along the rivers. One of those was Elizabeth Moon. I had read a few of the Kylara Vatta novels and not felt inspired to finish the series, but when I read some of her earlier novels and short stories I was very impressed.