Translating Fiore’s Armour Jargon Correctly
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Categories: Medieval

Translating Fiore’s Armour Jargon Correctly

as a man in late medeival armour bends down to pull off his coat of mail, another man in armour stabs him in the flank with a sword
BGE Ms. fr. 190/1 Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes (painted in Paris around the year 1410)

The self-taught scholars in the historical fencing world do many things well, but their translations of arms-and-armour terms are not always the best. A story from ancient Persia, how Artabanus murdered the king and his older sons and then was killed in turn by the young son he meant to use as a figurehead, helps us improve our translations. This story is available in the original Latin and in French and Italian translations written and illustrated during Fiore’s lifetime, so we can compare the Latin terms to the French or Italian terms to the paintings.

In Fiore’s sword in armour, both Tom Leoni and Colin Hatcher translate lo camaglio as “the mail coif.” It obviously means “camail: drape of mail hanging from a headpiece to protect the throat and the sides of the head.” Warriors in Fiore’s day no longer wore a complete hood of mail, but they often wore a camail to protect their faces and necks. In the picture above, two soldiers in the background have blue steel camails attached to their grey headpieces. Perhaps the blue indicates that the mail has been quenched in water and tempered by reheating to around 650-700 degrees Fahrenheit (Giambattista della Porta describes this in Natural Magic, book 13, chapter 4).

Back when Fiore was young and dumb, Niccolò da Bologna shows how to lift your partner’s camail to strike them beneath or pull them out of the saddle. Detail from Lucan’s Bellum Civile: Biblioteca Trivulziana, Bologna, MS. Triv. 691 fol. 88r,+c.+88r

In Fiore’s axe in armour, both Tom Leoni and Colin Hatcher translate coraze e panceroni as “breastplates and cuirasses.” Coraze does mean “covered pair of plates, brigandine.” Fiore’s contemporary Datini makes a fundamental distinction between a breastplate (petto “breast” or peza “piece”) which was uncovered and the corazza or corazzina which was covered in leather of fabric and riveted together, but that is a detail. But in 14th and 15th century Italian, North French, and German, panzerone, panchire, or Panzer means “shirt of mail, haubergeon.” Jean le Bel and Jaques de Hemricourt explicitly define this armour as a coat of mail or haubergeon (le Bel, Chronique, vol. 1 p. 127, de Hemricourt, “Guerres d’Awans et de Waroux” vol. 3 p. 40 ch. 41 for my Francophone readers). In the picture above, the prince Artaxerxes stabs his scheming chiliarch Artabanus as he removes his brevis lorica (Latin original) or corto panzerone (an Italian translation written during Fiore’s lifetime).

Some dictionaries think panzerone means “belly armour” but that is based on the etymology and falls apart as you read trecento writers using this word (and a fauld or a paunch of plates is not the same thing as a cuirass!). Lexicography is based on usage not etymology because words can change in meaning. Fiore says that the thrust of an axe can penetrate plate and mail, not that it can penetrate two different kinds of plate.

(scheduled 14 September 2021)

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Edit 2021-10-19: Added the painting from Triv. 691

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