Medieval

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

Some thoughts on John Lynn’s “Battle”

Title text over a sixteenth-century charcoal drawing of a man with a fleshy face in profile wearing fanciful embossed armour
Cover photo c/o The Caffeinated Symposium blog

John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Updated with a new epilogue. Westview Press: New York, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-8133-3372-4 (Bookfinder link)

This week I am going to talk about a book written by a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV of France, only two of whose eight chapters deal with ancient warfare in the broadest sense. That is because the book is one of the few which does the work of demolishing one of the most influential and least accurate ideas which an ancient military historian has ever presented to the public: the Western Way of War. Yet rather than be purely destructive, it goes on to sketch a scientific approach to war and culture, and even presents a model which scholars can apply to other cases. It does all that in an affordable volume written for lay readers in the United States where belief in a western way of war is strongest.

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Recreating Combat in the Viking Age

A number of people are trying to recreate prehistoric European martial arts: ones which have left neither a living tradition, nor manuals. One of the most serious attempts focuses on early medieval combat with sword and shield and is lead by Roland Warzecha:

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How the Grafs Trapp Acquired the Armour of the Vogts of Matsch

No energy to be poetic sorry
Schloss Churburg as seen from a third-story balcony outside the walls of Glorenza. Photo by Sean Manning.

Most weeks I post about things which I have seen or read myself, about domains in which I have reason to consider myself an expert, and refer to supporting evidence which my gentle readers can check if they doubt me.  This is a kind of history which began to take shape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along with other kinds of modern science.  It is certainly not the only way to tell stories about the past.  So this week I decided to try something more Herodotean.  What I will tell you this week comes from people met here and things read there, and I think that it tells something important, but in the end it is still a story about things long ago and far away, and just because it is great fun does not mean that every detail is true.  This is the story of how the Grafs Trapp acquired Schloss Churburg and the armour of the Vogts of Matsch.

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Fortification Report: Glorenza

No excess poetry to use here sorry
May mowing between the Etsch and the walls of Glurns in the Vinschgau, South Tyrol, Italy

Most travellers from Lombardy to the Germanies take the road up the Adige from Catullus’ Verona past Trent of the council. When they come to Bolzen beneath its castles the road divides to the right and left and they can follow the Eisack towards the Brennerpass or the Adige (now called the Etsch as one moves into German-speaking areas) towards the Reschenpass. In rich and well-organized ages, most travellers prefer the first route, because the Brenner has certain advantages if one can build bridges and cut roads and drive tunnels through the most difficult sections. If they take the second they will find themselves in a district called the Vinschgau where the fields yield rye more readily than wheat and the orchards apples and pears more readily than grapes. In that district on the bank of the Adige is the remarkable town of Glorenza.

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A Deed Never Yet Done

Line drawing of a relief where pharaoh with a falcon overhead draws his bow as his two-horse chariot tramples he fallen or fleeing enemy
A deed done over and over again: two dynasties after Amenhotep, Ramses III smites the Libyans (from The Epigraphic Survey (eds.), Medinet Habu, Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Plate 18 c/o the generous Oriental Institute https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oriental-institute-publications-oip )

While I do not think that many Bronze Age or Classical bows were as powerful as the longbows from the Mary Rose or the hornbows from the Tokapi Palace, I can think of one or two exceptions. Today I would like to give one which I recently stumbled over while reviewing an article by Pierre Briant. As often happens, reading this passage again revealed something which I had not remembered.

The Great Sphinx Stele tells the following story of Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the New Kingdom:

He also came to do the following … Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next. Then his Majesty appeared on the chariot like Mont in his might. He drew his bow while holding four arrows together in his fist. Then he rode northward shooting at them, like Mont in his panoply, each arrow coming out of the back of its target while he attacked the next post. It was a deed never yet done, never yet heard reported: shooting an arrow at a target of copper, so that it came out of it and dropped to the ground.

Andrea M. Gnirs, “Ancient Egypt,” in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge MA, 1999) p. 84 citing the Great Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 41, 42.
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Some thoughts on Tobias Capwell’s “The Real Fighting Stuff”

Photograph of the cover of the book with three suits of plate armour and a title
Cover photograph c/o the Wallace Collection website

Tobias Capwell, The Real Fighting Stuff: Arms and Armour at the Glasgow Museums (Glasgow City Council: Glasgow, 2007) ISBN 978-0-902752-82-5

Dr. Tobias “Toby” Capwell, jouster and curator with a PhD in fifteenth-century armour, is taking preorders for his forthcoming book on knightly armour in late medieval England. In honour of that, I thought I would post on the only one of his publications which I have been able to read, a book for beginners on arms and armour at the Glasgow museums.

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Quaestiones Forojulienses: Why is there so little advice on fighting with two weapons?

A man in a robe sits in an armchair with a circular table in front of him. The table rotates on a screw joint and supports two books, one open and upright and one horizontal and closed. In the background a glass window shows a dark night.
A student reading in his room, as painted in Paris circa 1420. British Library Royal MS 20 B XX. Cropped from an image in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which has been released under a Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

One of my academic interests is knightly combat in late medieval Europe as described in four manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi dating to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fiore’s works, and those of his contemporaries in more northerly lands, give us a unique chance to understand how the weapons and armour racked in museums were meant to be used. They at the very least give anyone interested in how ancient people fought food for thought.

This series of posts is inspired by the Greek scholar Plutarch, who wrote an antiquarian essay asking why the Romans practiced some curious customs. Plutarch was wise enough to give questions not answers, and that will be my policy in these posts as well.

Fiore’s teachings have a clear philosophy of combat and a clear structure, with longer sections which teach the core of the art and shorter sections which develop a single principle in detail, add some techniques which are useful for a particular weapon, or just demonstrate that his art can be used with whatever tools are to hand. He provides adequate instruction on unarmed combat, although enthusiasts sometimes complain that he does not address wrestling on the ground and that his stances are not very good for standing and exchanging kicks and punches. He provides very thorough instruction on fighting with a weapon in one hand and with short or long weapons in both hands.  But he has very little advice on fighting with two weapons such as sword and buckler or lance and shield.  Why not?

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Roman Archery

An archer on a galloping horse takes aim at a king with a broad-headed arrow
My library lacks photos of east Roman archers, but they and the Avars influenced peoples in western Europe,
so how about this nineth-century picture from folio 32v of the Stuttgart Psalter in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek http://digital.wlb-stuttgart.de/purl/bsz307047059

In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the Greek-speaking Romans systematically copied the military methods of the Huns and Avars who were ravaging Europe. One effect of this was that Roman soldiers and scholars began to write treatises on archery, and when Arabs and Turks conquered their lands they also adopted the practice of writing about archery. Because a certain YouTube video by a trick shooter (to which I will only link indirectly) has been making the rounds, I thought that it would be a good idea to post a passage from the only one of these treatises which I have to hand. This is the Strategikon of the Emperor Maurice, written within a decade or so of the year 600 (I quote from page 11 of G.T. Dennis’ translation).
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Link Dump

On the Internet as in a cavalry fight, there are too many things flashing in front of your face. Unknown painting of an incident in the Thirty Years’ War, Heeresgeschichtliche Museum, Wien. A village in France has preserved the bedroom of a young officer who died in the First World War... Continue reading: Link Dump