Medieval

Posts on events in the late first and early second millenia CE

I Was Wrong about the HEMA Movement

Photo of a stunning church entrance with a multicoloured stone archway with double doors set inside it
I understand that its traditional in the German-speaking countries to nail these manifesti to a church door, but since this is the 21st century, and there do not seem to be any historical fencers in Innsbruck, a photo of San Anastasia in Verona will have to do.

There are those who say that because most people forget their false predictions and remember their true, it is healthy to make a note when one notices that one was wrong about something. There is a movement variously known as historical European martial arts, Western Martial Arts, or historical fencing. Its central activity is recreating dead martial arts from the manuals which they left behind, although many practitioners also try to recreate ‘prehistoric’ martial arts which died without leaving manuals, or revive obscure but still living European martial arts such as Irish stick-fighting. And my understanding of what it is about, and what sort of people it attracts, has drastically changed over the past few years.


When I got involved in historical fencing, I thought that it was a community of amateur scholars with a broad interest in history like the serious re-enactment groups I knew. The end of the community which I became involved with was led by former members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who had drifted away from the organization as their interests drew them in a more historical, less creatively anachronistic direction. While my academic déformation professionnelle means that I often have small differences with people whose focus is on recreating past skills and experiences, I can usually find enough common ground to have a conversation with them, and sometimes I have a source to contribute which is much more useful to them than to the academics who originally discovered it. It was obvious to me that turning 15th century manuscripts into working martial arts required a broad familiarity with academic research in medieval studies, and the historical fencers whom I knew seemed to agree.

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The Madness Begins

I am sorry to be cryptic, but this is closer to my hobbies than my work, and people with the right interests will recognize it.


Some Thoughts on “Armour Never Wearies”

Timothy Dawson, Armour Never Wearies: Scale and Lamellar Armour from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0-7524-8862-2. Cover shows a cavalryman in scale armour riding over fallen enemies with a background of armour of steel scales laced to leather bands
Timothy Dawson, Armour Never Wearies: Scale and Lamellar Armour from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0-7524-8862-2. Cover shows a cavalryman in scale armour riding over fallen enemies with a background of armour of steel scales laced to leather bands

Timothy Dawson, Armour Never Wearies: Scale and Lamellar Armour from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0-7524-8862-2 Biblio
128 pages, GBP 14.99

Dr. Timothy Dawson has undertaken a difficult task: to understand armours of small plates laced or wired together, often known as scale or lamellar. Although these kinds of armour were once common, they tend to fall apart as the backing or lacing rots, so understanding how they were made is hard. Even worse, he is most interested in styles from the Greek Christian world which are only preserved as vague references in texts, stylized images of saints, and a few fragments of rusted iron. Moreover, arms and armour studies are not well supported by academe, so he has to do his work at his own expense and without the discipline of needing to submit his ideas to criticism by a group of peers. The resulting book is not very useful to me, but under the circumstances I can’t complain.

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Things Found in Footnotes

A silver coin with Athena seated on a throne holding a round shield with a word in Greek and a B-shaped bow behind her
Although the bow was rarely the most prestigious weapon in the Aegean, it was still an important part of life and warfare. Museum label: “Tetradrachm. Obv. Head of Philetairos right. Rev. Athena enthroned left with shield and spear, legend: ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ, bow, ivy left, monogram. The Pergamene Kingdom. Attalos I Soter, 241-197 B.C. Silver, chasing. Provenance, 1952.” Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015, of an object in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

On New Years’ Day I was sorting through some old papers from my time in Calgary and found something which set me to cursing. I was looking for an article which I had ordered while I was writing my MA but never done much with. As it was delivered on paper, and I never typed up the citation, I did not have it in Innsbruck and could not find it again. A.D.H. Bivar’s “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier” mentions in passing that:

There is support for the general hypothesis that the so-called “Mongolian draw” was used by the Huns, and from them taken up by the Byzantines, in a passage from the anonymous sixth-century chapter on archery, περὶ τοξείας. (p. 284)

He cited a German translation and commentary with the Greek text attached. I was intrigued because the sources on archery in the Mediterranean which are most often used are written in Arabic and date between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. I now have it in arm’s reach, and it is indeed a treatise on archery, and it does date to the first millennium CE.

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Three Swords

Three swords and a solid wood scabbard on a textured linoleum floor with a pencil for scale

Travel involves leaving things behind, and the holidays are a time to get reacquainted with them. This week I thought that I would talk about three swords and the different problems which they attempt to solve.

At the top we have a Naue type II by Neil Burridge, the only man alive who has mastered the process of hammer-hardening the edges which was used on Bronze Age European swords. Neil can make bronze swords which would be very hard to distinguish from the originals, and provide them with scabbards copied from Bronze Age graves and paintings and reliefs. But his swords are sharp, and the only hints about how people in the Late Bronze Age used their weapons are the two-faced evidence of art and the weapons themselves and parallels in later martial arts. Burridge’s swords tend to be bought by collectors and museums to display, by archaeologists to experiment with, by reenactors to wear, and by enthusiasts to reap a dreadful harvest of plastic bottles, Tatami mats, and gourds.
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Some thoughts on “GURPS Fourth Edition Low-Tech”

Cover of GURPS 4th Edition Low-Tech illustrated with Greek hoplites in combat, a First Nations man in bearskin cloak standing in front of a fire with a spear, and an eighteenth-century ship firing a broadside

William H. Stoddard, with Peter dell’Orto, Dan Howard, and Matt Riggsby, GURPS Fourth Edition Low-Tech. Steve Jackson Games: Austin, TX, 2010. Link to publishers’ online store.

Its a hard time for small publishers. On November the 12th Steve Jackson Games released its annual Report to the Stakeholders and announced that in a year with their second highest revenues ever they could not afford to print their fully typeset GURPS Discworld. Apparently they have a much harder time selling their roleplaying games than their card and board games. I think that is a shame, because many of their books would be valuable outside the small number of people who play games with the GURPS rules. One of these books is GURPS Fourth Edition Low-Tech.
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Link Dump

A plywood wheel like a waterwheel with angled bookshelves in place of the buckets
An overwhelming flow of information is not a new problem: a bookwheel inspired by ones from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at the Hauptbibliothek Neubau, Universität Innsbruck. Made 2008? Photo by author, October 2015.

German for Classical Studies at the University of Cologne, free course June/July 2016, application deadline 30 November 2015 (link: warning, Facebook!)

The academics in Ghana went on strike again over nonpayment of their book allowance in August 2015 (link). As often with news from Africa, this has not received much attention in Europe and North America, even though its hard for any academics at universities in Ghana to work if they can’t buy books and journals.

Meanwhile, historian Alice Dreger has resigned from her post in Illinois after a dispute about whether a glossy magazine with her university’s logo was research (protected by academic freedom) or publicity (overseen by the university administration) revealed a deeper difference about what sort of institution she was working for (her public statement on the subject and her resignation letter). This issue has received a great deal of attention on the Anglophone internet.

The Carmarthenshire Archives in Wales are being devoured by mould, and a Freedom of Information request by J.D. Davies has revealed some disturbing facts about how the local authorities are responding to this crisis.

Some people with more money than sense decided to see what happens when you throw a human-weight or hobbit-weight mass of organic material into a pool of lava. There are videos.
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An Outline of Toby Capwell’s “Armour of the English Knight”

A folding slip of corrugated cardboard with a printed label carrying the address, over a green nylon bag a metre long and 50 cm wide labeled Swiss Post
Courier firms work in mysterious ways: Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450 in its double packaging

Tobias Capwell, Armour of the English Knight, 1400-1450 (Thomas Del Mar: London, 2015)
308 pages, 24 x 30 cm
All glossy paper, most pages contain at least one line drawing or colour photo
ISBN 978-0-9933246-0-4
GBP 54 (UK, France, Germany, Italy), 64 (other countries) including shipping and handling; I don’t see any reason to believe that it will ever be available from other sellers or in softcover.
Link to publisher’s online storeLink to publisher’s new online storelink to online store with volume 2 AOTEK 1450-1500

After five years of anticipation, the first volume of the results of the inquiries of Toby Capwell into English armour began to arrive at customers’ doors in the middle of October. For reasons which seem good to them, the publisher and author have made very little information about the book available on their website. For quite a few buyers, “a book on English armour by Toby Capwell with drawings by Mac and Jeff Wasson” was all they needed to know. But for those who are on the fence, or waiting for their copy to arrive, I thought it would be helpful to sketch out the sort of things which this volume contains.

This book has a diverse audience. I will do my best to say things which I think armourers and armoured fighters would like to know, then give my own academic thoughts. But this is definitely not a review, and I refuse to find something to quibble about. Since I do not even dabble in fifteenth-century history, there would not be much point. I also refuse to give a summary since this book is newly published.

This is a study of full harnesses in a distinctive style worn by extremely rich men in England and Wales in the early fifteenth century. The main source is effigy sculptures, but documents, literature, funerary brasses, manuscript illuminations, and other kinds of medieval evidence are used to supplement them. The author’s experience as a jouster, and his helpers’ experience making plate armour, are also used to help interpret the sources.

The contents are divided into four parts. First is an introduction which sets the effigies in context in fifteenth-century England and discusses the problems of studying a style of armour which has all been destroyed (52 pages long). Then there are two sections on armour in the periods 1400-1430 (136 pages long) and 1430-1450 (75 pages long), each broken down by part of the body (helmets, cuirasses, shoulder defenses, vambraces, gauntlets, leg armour, sabatons). Last comes a miscellaneous section with a conclusion, the author’s experiences wearing armour in the English style, a bibliography, a list of effigies divided into six styles, a glossary, and two short indices (total 45 pages).

This miscellaneous section contains 25 pages on the famous blackened and gilt harness which he commissioned from Mac, and his experiences planning it, having it built, jousting in it, and having it modified.

A photo of an open book with a photo of a statue of a recumbent man in armour on the verso and a group of pencil sketches, four photos of details, and a paragraph of commentary on the recto opposite
Pages 204 and 205 of Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450. Full-page colour photos of important sources, closeup colour photos of details, pencil sketches, written commentary. As always, click to enlarge.

All pages are glossy, and some contain double-page spreads of important manuscripts, effigies, paintings, etc. Many of these images are not available online, and all the photos are printed in higher resolution than normal computer screens can display.

There are a series of line drawings by Mac of six typical harnesses representing six styles of English armour. Each is sketched from front, side, and rear for maximum clarity, and each of these views fills half a page.

There are a number of comments by Mac on specific technical problems which armourers in the fifteenth century faced, and how this might have affected the armour that they built.

There are pages of pencil sketches by Jeff Wasson with structural diagrams of different styles of armour and details of motifs, borders, etc. Individual sketches are scattered throughout the book alongside the closeup photos of details.

So for armourers, this is 300 pages on the development of armour in England with photos and sketches of details and suggestions of how to reconstruct it. For armoured fighters, this is 300 pages on the development of armour in England with suggestions of the advantages and disadvantages of different choices. And for academics, this is 300 pages of analysis of armour in England as a social tool and as a martial tool. While the publishers could make it easier and cheaper to buy and quicker and cheaper to deliver, and while this is a specialized book, I think it does what it tries to do very well. Although the shipping is a bit slow and expensive, the basic book is quite cheap for its size and complexity, especially considering that it will not sell thousands of copies. And everything about the physical book is professional.

Now I will put my academic hat back on and say why I think this book is important. Even though I can’t really afford it, and even though my dabblings in medieval history focus on late 14th century Italy rather than early 15th century England, I pre-ordered a copy. This was because I knew two things about this book.
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Sasanid Archery on Silver in the Hermitage

Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

In the comments section of an earlier post I have been talking with ryddragyn about archery on the border between the Roman and Sasanid empires around the sixth and seventh centuries CE. Often we do not have sources to answer all the questions which people have today about how soldiers used their weapons, because ancient people preferred to pass that kind of knowledge on in person. But it happens that we have many kinds of evidence for archery in this period, including slightly later archery manuals, books on generalship, a wide variety of works of art, the remains of archery equipment, and odd references in histories and other kinds of literature. I would say that we have at least as good evidence for how Romans and Persians shot at each other in the age of Khosrow and Heraclius as for how Greek hoplites fought one another in Xenophon’s day.

One of the most important pieces of evidence for how the Sasanid Persians drew their bows is a group of gilt silver plates and vases hammered with images of the king hunting with the bow on horseback. It happens that I was recently in St. Petersburg, and I was able to photograph many of these bowls and vases in the State Hermitage Museum. This week I thought I would post some of my photos. Because I have not shot a bow for too many years, nor read up on this period of history, I won’t try to provide a commentary. The captions for each photo are based on the English labels in the Hermitage.

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