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

New Article: Mountain Passes Ancient and Modern

Two bay horses in a steeply sloped pasture full of wild grasses and flowers
Descendants of mighty Rhaetian war-horses? West side of the Brenner near Patsch, Tirol.

In mid-September I got lost on my return from the Goldbichl and found myself between Patsch and the Brennerautobahn. If you spend time hiking in Tirol that happens frequently, even though the mountain peaks provide good points of references and there are networks of paved or gravelled paths dotted with nice yellow signs, some of which even point within 90 degrees of the actual direction. And if you think about why that happens, you will understand the topic of my latest article for Ancient Warfare, namely why armies in eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) follow the same few routes for thousands of years.
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Cross-Post: Oxbow Books Sale

Oxbow Books, purveyors of choice tomes on archaeology, history, and ethnology, is having a spring and summer sale. If your purse is deeper and your dwelling is wider than mine, check it out! I have picked out some titles which my gentle readers might be interested in.

  • Rose Mary Sheldon, Ambush! Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare (Frontline Books, 2012) {Sheldon, John Lynn, and Myke Cole- soldiers or the teachers of soldiers- are doing the work of rebutting some false and bigoted ideas about the ancients in a form that ordinary people actually read}
  • Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia Second Edition (Oxbow Books, 2019) GBP 30 {big ideas book on ritual magic in the Norse world which combines the sagas, archaeology, and modern ethnography/comparative religion}
  • Alireza Askari Chaverdi & Pierfrancesco Callieri, Tang-E Bolaghi (Fars) Sites TB76 and TB77: Rural Settlements of the Achaemenid and Post-Achaemenid Periods (Archaeopress, 2016) GBP 43 {the first published excavation of a rural site from Achaemenid Fars!}
  • B. V. Andrianov and Simone Mantellini, Ancient Irrigation Systems of the Aral Sea Area. American School of Prehistoric Research Monographs (Oxbow, 2016) GBP 13 {apparently a translation of a work from the 1970s, but data does not go out of date like interpretations do and Rudenko published when Stalin was still alive}
  • Daniel T. Potts, Nomadism in Iran (Oxford University Press, 2014) {argues that until the Turkish migrations of the 11th century CE, most herders in Iran lived in villages and sent only a few people to watch the flocks when they migrated to distant pastures. A similar book by Silvia Balatti is on my to-read list}
  • Melanie Schuessler Bond, Dressing the Scottish Court 1543-1553: Clothing in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland. Medieval and Renaissance Clothing and Textiles volume 3 (Boydell & Brewer, 2019)
  • Cecilie Brøns, Gods and Garments: Textiles in Greek Sanctuaries (Oxbow Books, 2016) GPB 15 {heavily discounted! books like this are best purchased when they are published, because rare copies become very expensive}

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Agricultural Surplus is a Dangerous Idea

A muddy, freshly plowed field with bare trees and a fence with billboards along one side
Its a rainy September, so how about the field across from the Atrium in a rainy September? The field is now a construction site.

A lot of historians throw around the term ‘agricultural surplus.’ By this they mean food which the farmers and their livestock don’t eat, and which can be used to feed stonemastons and metalworkers and scribes and priests and gentlemen farmers. In this theory, societies have to find a way to produce a larger surplus before they can produce things historians like such as books. I think this term is one of the terms which historians borrowed from economists in the early 20th century.

At first the idea seems harmless enough: if a family needs 20 bushels of barley to feed itself and its animals and have seed for next year, and they harvest 30, they will probably trade 10 for something else or use it to fatten stock. But in the real world there is rent and taxation. And when you look at the science of nutrition, you find that there is a range in the amount of food that farm workers eat. At the low end, they can’t work very well, lose most of their children, and die young of chronic diseases or infections which their weakened body can’t fight off; at the high end, they have a varied diet, grow taller and stronger, and can be pretty sure of having surviving children. Its not actually the case that people need a certain number of calories of Generic Food ™ a day, above which they just get fat and below which they die. Taxes and rents often come out of this margin in between. And it is usually taxes and rents which pay for the stone buildings, the scholars writing treatises on ethics, and the beautiful silver cups.

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Good King Robert’s Testament

A group of soldiers in full suits of mail with bascinets and kettle hats and lances or axes and shields in their hands are standing in water on the left. A group of men in pseuydo-antique robes, one of them with a Jewish hat and the rest bare-headed, hold swords and axes and stand on land on the right
Soldiers and civilians in the age of Bannockburn (pharaoh’s soldiers drowning in the sea?) on folio 24v of the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library BL Royal 2 B VII, painted in London c. 1310-1320). A good general doesn’t plan for miracles!

Throughout the long five hundred years of war between Scottish and English kings, the Scots tended to win the wars but lose the big battles. Scotland was a smaller and poorer kingdom, and the way of fighting battles that the Scots were good at (lining up big masses of spearmen and axemen with jacks and steel caps) was not very effective against the way that the English were good at (dismounting their armed men and galling the enemy with arrows until they charged, breaking formation as they came because no prince in Europe could keep a large army together long enough to drill it). A fourteen-line gem of a poem describes the way of fighting which proved most successful in campaign after campaign:

On fur suld be all Scottis weire, // weire = Wehr, defense
By hyll and mosse themself to reare. // reare: roar? an earlier edition has weire “defend”
Lat woods for wallis be bow and speire,
That innymeis do them na deire.
In strait placis gar keep all store,
And byrnen ye planeland thaim before.
Thane sall thai pass away in haist
Wenn that thai find na thing but waist.
With wykes and waykings of the nyght // wyke: wake
And mekill noyis maid on hytht, // mekill: big, large
Thaime sall ye turnen with gret affrai, // affray: fright, alarm
As thai ware chassit with swerd away.
This is the counsall and intent
Of gud King Robert’s testiment.

– After Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War: The Middle Ages from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century. New and Cheaper Issue (Meuthen & Co.: London, 1905) p. 579

Now roll that around in your mouth a bit and savour it. Enjoy the language and the rhythm and the joy with which it describes something horrible in ways that poor crofters and shepherds can understand. Think about how rare it is to have something like this from the side which was wise to avoid battle. And then if you really must, go on where I ask my annoying academic question, namely where does this poem come from?

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Datini’s Wares in GURPS

Two soldier crush silverware for easier packing as a comrade throws more loot out a window
Want to know whether helmets of scales like Mr. Red wears were just artists’ fantasies? Check out Medieval Warfare VIII.1. British Library, MS. Royal 20 C VII (painted in Paris between 1380 and 1400)

Last spring I published a two-page article in Medieval Warfare VIII.1 talking about the kinds of concealed armour which were for sale in the Avignon of the Babylonian Captivity. As far as I know nobody else has talked about these sources in any language except Italian, so I hope translating them was helpful! Now, I am interested in the real things and how they were made … if I ever have money I might commission a few reproductions. But what if your interest is in gaming? How might you represent this armour, say in GURPS?

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Oh, The Scholar and the Swordsman Should Be Friends

Two books with a wooden rondel dagger in a leather scabbard with a brass chape between them, laying on top of a hand-sewn linen shirt
Three historical fencing projects: a review of Jeffrey Forgeng’s “The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship” (2018) and a review of Guy Windsor’s “The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts” (2018)

The historical fencing world had 20 glorious years. Between 1992 and 2012, people around the world came together, pooled their different skills and interests, and turned a jungle of confusing manuals and manuscripts into working martial arts. At first, everyone was so excited to find someone else interested in swords that they were willing to overlook some other differences and tolerate each other’s flamboyant eccentricity. In the twilight of this period, Tom Leoni wrote that “I look forward to the fruits of the next generation of researchers- of both the swordsman-historian and historian-swordsman types.” But as it got harder and harder to fit everyone in a single gymnasium, and as it became less necessary to learn things from books by academics rather than buddies in the salle, cracks emerged. The jocks stopped being polite to the nerds, the people whose passion was for medieval dagger fighting stopped attending workshops on 18th century smallsword play, and the people who thought a background in say Japanese sword arts was essential stopped having any time for the people who thought it was corrupting. This week, I would like to talk about three projects which show the state of the movement in 2019, as best as I can see it from the outside.*

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Folk Wrestling in Poland

The field behind the Zentrum für alte Kulturen, Langer Weg, Innsbruck, on 31 January 2019

Over on Patreon, Maciej Talaga talks about the folk sports which Polish peasants used to play in the slack times of the agricultural year. As he says, outside of the harvest season peasant societies tend to have more workers than useful things for them to do, so people on the land have to find ways to amuse themselves.

Biady, that is wrestling, was one of the most popular. It was played mostly by older boys and unmarried men, but there were exceptions. Participants would establish a specific hold – you can see it demonstrated on the video – and try to throw each other down without breaking it. Such matches could last anything from a few seconds to up to half an hour (with a single successful throw!). They involved no judges or coaches, as none of the participants would receive any formal training.

The latter was also the very reason why documenting “biady” required a specific research strategy. Since this martial game had no technolect or jargon, practitioners had no consistent way to talk about it. They couldn’t discuss given techniques, as we are used to do in HEMA, since there were no names for wrestling actions involved. Even less so in regard to tactics and theoretical concepts. In effect, my Grandpa also had hard times answering my inquisitive questions which I started bombarding him with after I discovered he has a vivid memory of this fascinating tradition. Being a simple man, he not only was surprised that anyone found it interesting, but also lacked words to explain martial matters in a structured way.

Having realised these difficulties, I called for help: I have a pleasure to run a little youth club teaching HEMA to some fantastic boys and girls. Three of them, Krzysztof Markowski, Marcel Kwapisz and Bruno Biernacki, enthusiastically agreed to assist me in a research trip. We went by bus to Wizna, a town located some 30 km away from my grandparents’ house in Łomża, and took a walk to visit the only Polish folk wrestler we knew about. And this time we were prepared much better – instead of asking questions, we started “biadying” in front of my Grandpa in the hopes that it would be easier for him to comment on our performance than talk about “biady” from a scratch on his own. And it worked!

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