Book and Sword
pontifex minimus

Book and Sword

Meeting Ötzi

A few weeks ago I had a chance to visit the Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum in Bolzen. The modest stone building is the current home of the famous mummy of Ötzi, who died in an Alpine pass about 3300 BCE. Photographing the artifacts, including several sturdy longbows with the knife-marks still visible on their surface, was forbidden, but I did take a photo of this reconstruction.

A reconstruction of Ötzi, from the Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum, Bolzen.
A reconstruction of Ötzi, from the Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum, Bolzen.

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Two Unfortunate Choices of Script

My Internet connection is having trouble uploading, which it making it difficult to post some pictures which I wanted to talk about. Instead, I think I will use this post to gripe about design choices in another kind of information technology. My first career was in programming, but programming languages were not the first where it proved very difficult to change early decisions as their disadvantages became apparent or the context changed.
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The Copper Gutter

A photo of a stone bell tower with a corroded copper roof and rain-gutters shaped like fish
In later millennia, architectural copper could still impress

Last week I mentioned that one Hittite document tells the commander of a frontier post how they are to guard, build, and maintain their post. While the section on the curtain wall is badly damaged, the section on the watchtower is mostly intact:

Let the ?[watc]h? tower be 4 cubits around the top, but around the bottom let it be 6 cubits, and let it be encircled with a copper rain-gutter and a ?gallery?. Let the gallery be 6 cubits in circumference, and let it protrude 5 spans.

The word URUDḫeyawallit is not known elsewhere, but because it is proceeded with the determinative for copper and begins with the word for rain it fairly clearly means “copper rain-gutter”. The measurements of length and the word translated as “gallery” are not as well understood (the later could be more like “battlements” or “palisade”). I am not sure that the scholar who excerpted this text noticed what I did, because he didn’t translate the determinative.

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One Ancient Tradition of Tactical Writing: The Hittite

The orange cover with white lettering of a softcover book entitled "The Hittite Instruction for the Royal Bodyguard"

It occurred to me that recently I have been writing a lot about the last thousand years, but not so much about ancient Southwest Asia. I promised to write about the different ancient traditions of tactical writing. This is a topic known from Greek, Hebrew, Hittite, and Indian literature in the ancient world, and it may have been discussed in Latin texts as well. Of these, the Hittite is by far the oldest, being attested in the middle of the second millennium BCE.

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Three Links

A recent editorial reminded me of the problems of estimating army sizes. Many ancient armies were not divided into neat units of uniform size, they did not have a central quartermaster’s service or staff which tracked numbers, and as Thucydides reminds us everyone lied about the strength of their own forces. Reporters who want to estimate the size of a demonstration face similar problems and rhetorical pressures (chose a high number to shock, or a low one to dismiss? Trust the police or the protestors? Base it on whether the crowd seemed larger or smaller than one whose size you ‘know’?) Like ancient historians, modern reporters don’t always give a source for their numbers, but when people ask them they tend to be frank:
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Some thoughts on Guy Windsor’s “The Medieval Longsword”

original cover of "Mastering the Art of Arms, Volume 2: The Medieval Longsword" by Guy Windsor

Guy Windsor, Mastering the Art of Arms, Volume 2: The Medieval Longsword (School of European Swordsmanship: Helsinki, 2014) (link to author’s online store)

Sometimes reviewers are tempted to review the book which they wish was sitting in front of them, rather than the book which actually is there. This is not a discussion of possible interpretations, their strengths and weaknesses, and why the author prefers the one which he does. Instead, it is an experienced teacher’s best attempt to teach Fiore’s art to people today from scratch, and it does that very well if somewhat narrowly.

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The Work of Laying Siege

Stories about capturing animals from a town, attaching fire to them, and releasing them to burn it to the ground are common. Sometimes these appear in stories about clever old kings which should be read with a grain of salt, but other times they appear in sober technical manuals. The only version from ancient Southwest... Continue reading: The Work of Laying Siege

Quaestiones Forojulienses: What does it mean to “enter”?

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.

One of the most common verbs in Fiore’s works is “to enter” (Italian entrare or intrare). Translators often translate the Italian word with its English cognate, but I have never felt that I understand every use. Tom Leoni speaks of three types of expression which a translator must handle: those which are purely technical, those which are part of ordinary speech, and those which have both a common meaning and a technical one. Phrases like “to enter into the zogho stretto” fall into his third category, the most difficult to translate. Fiore also wrote in verse, and poetry usually allows a wider range of words, meanings, and expressions than prose. Being away from my books, I have used Wiktenauer to compile some examples of usage:
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Some Thoughts on Guy Windsor’s “Italian Longsword Guards”

Ancient martial arts are dead and beyond recovery. Anyone who wishes to learn a method for using ancient weapons effectively must study an art originating within the last thousand years before looking at the scraps of literature and painting and sculpture which give us some hint to how Assyrians or Romans fought. We are extraordinarily lucky to have a series of European fencing manuals running back to circa 1300, and over the past decades these sources have attracted researchers willing to face the formidable scholarly, epistemological, and physical challenges of interpreting them. In Italian Longsword Guards: Comparing Vadi’s Guards with Fiore and Marozzo Guy Windsor makes a first attempt at one of these problems: the relationship between guards for the sword in two hands in the oldest known Italian writers who describe that weapon, namely Fiore dei Liberi (wrote circa 1404-1410), Philippo Vadi (wrote circa 1482-1485), and Achille Marozzo (first edition printed 1536). Vadi’s verse manual contains many names and phrases which resemble Fiore’s words, but also significant differences.
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Regnal Numbers

  Most people today take for granted the custom of numbering kings, so that James Stuart is James VI of Scotland and James I of England.  I am not certain that any society used this before the sixteenth century, although I have heard a story that it was invented in 14th century England to deal... Continue reading: Regnal Numbers