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: Read more
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:
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.
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
For one of my projects on linen armour, I had to quickly check a reference to the memoirs of Usāmah Ibn-Munqidh, a garrulous old pirate with lots of tall tales about fighting and hunting and the barbarous customs of the Franks. As I was flipping through it, I discovered another story which I want to share.
The Ismāˁīlites … attacked the Castle of Shayzar (in 1109 or 1114 CE) … On that day I had an encounter with an Ismāˁīlite, who had a dagger in his hand, while I had my sword. He rushed on me with a dagger, and I hit him in the middle of his forearm as he was grasping the handle of the dagger in his hand and holding the blade close to his forearm. My blow cut off about four inches of the blade and cut his forearm in two in the middle. The mark of the edge of the dagger was left on the edge of my sword. An artisan in our town, seeing it, said, “I can remove this dent from it.” But I said, “Leave it as it is. This is the best thing in my sword.” The trace is there to the present day. Whenever one sees it he knows it is the trace of a knife.
Foreigners who are not up on the details of Islamic theology call the Ismāˁīlites the Assassins after the hashish which they were said to consume. Shaizar is at a ford of the Orontes River in Syria. Read more
Pavel Vaverka reminds me that Oxbow Books has its usual spring sale right now. Here are some of the ones that my gentle readers might be interested in: Thomas Fischer and M. C. Bishop, Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History (Oxbow Books, 2019) £45 ISBN: 9781789251845 Paul R. Sealey, EAA 118: A Late... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Oxbow Books Sale
Archaeologist Sue Brunning has a new book on the sword around the North and Baltic Seas. In an interview she brings up a way of thinking about the parts of a sword which is worth pondering:
There are common features that all swords had to have in order to be swords.
First, a blade – which I describe in the book as the “body” of the sword because it is the part that “does the work”, from a physical point of view; it is usually concealed beneath “clothing” (the scabbard) and only those most intimately acquainted with the sword would see and come to know its finer details. The blade also, like a body, became the repository for history, reputation, character…
Second, a hilt (or handle), which I describe as the “face” because this was the focus of a sword’s visual identity – it was the part that most people could see and come to recognise, as it was not concealed by “clothing” like the blade was. Hilts, like faces, had unique features manipulated by their owners; they could be altered to shape their identities in a desired way; and eventually, as we all know, they would show signs of ageing – wear patches, like wrinkles.
Next, the scabbard – the early medieval sources disagree to some extent over how essential this component was, but in reality it was quite important. It enabled you to carry the sword on your body, as well as keeping it bright and sharp thanks to the fur lining.
Within these three basic components, there was huge scope for customising your weapon in how it was decorated, the materials that were used and so on. This was a way to make your sword your own, or – I would argue – its own!
I think that thinking about all three parts lets you understand swords much better than focusing on just one. If you aren’t a sword person, you might be surprised to learn that the standard typologies of Viking swords and rapiers just consider the hilts- which is like assigning cars a typology based on the bumper and paint, but the hilt is the easiest part to divide into groups and the people writing the typologies had never used a sword. Read more