Book and Sword
felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas

Book and Sword

Short Swords and Arming Swords

In an earlier post I talked about how some people in 15th and 16th century England and France thought that a sword for war should be shorter than was ideal in an unarmoured duel. This week I would like to return to that and talk about how the medieval concepts of “short sword” and “arming sword” are closely related.

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Ancient Greek Armies Were Part of Ancient Greek Society

a terracotta model shield painted with a red crab on a white background
Crab! A Boeotian Greek model of a shield in the British Museum, museum number 1895,1026.5 under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Responses at the International Ancient Warfare Conference 2023 made me wonder whether something I take for granted is obvious to other people interested in ancient Greece.

Today our armies are parallel societies or total institutions. They take in individual recruits, separate them from their prior friends and relations, and teach them everything they will need while they are isolated from their civilian associates. They re-organize these recruits into a new hierarchy of units for both everyday and tactical purposes (people in the same platoon both live and fight together, at least in the field). Armies like the army of Classical Athens were nothing like this and yet they fought.

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What Are ‘Big Idea’ Books?

Over on the group blog Crooked Timber there is a retrospective post on David Graeber’s Debt ten years after they hosted a discussion of the book on the blog. The post and comments say something very important about ‘big ideas’ books which scientists mostly take for granted, but might not be obvious to curious, clever people who are not active in research:

I think the best way to understand Graeber is as a writer of speculative nonfiction. He is often wrong on the facts, and more often willing to push them farther than they really ought to be pushed, requiring shallow foundations of evidence to bear a heavy load of very strongly asserted theoretical claims. But there is value to the speculation – social scientists don’t do nearly enough of it. Sometimes it is less valuable to be right than to expand the space of perceived social and political possibilities. And that is something that Graeber was very good at doing.

Henry Farrell
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How Did Ancient People Carry Letters on Papyrus?

a black and white photo of a statue of a man wrapped in a cloak holding a scroll; his bearded face looks serious. A case like a bucket with a lid site beside his feet
A photo of an ancient statue of Demosthenes in the Vatican Museum by early photographer Robert MacPherson (Getty Images)

When we think of people moving writing on papyrus, we probably think of one of the ‘bucket’ shaped cases from ancient statues of orators and paintings at Pompeii. These had a handle or straps so they could be carried like a lunchbox or worn like a backpack. A whole treatise could fill dozens of books (ie. scrolls), which could last for a century or two if they were treated carefully, so someone who wished to transport a lengthy work needed a case or capsa (logeion). This is probably not how people transported everyday letters and correspondence!

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Some Thoughts on Davies’ “Lying for Money” (2018)

the cover of the US edition of "Lying for Money" by Dan Davies. It has a red background, a white and green dollar sign containing some keywords, and an endorsement by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a yellow circle

Dan Davies, Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of the World. US edition (Scribner: New York and London, 2018)

Lying for Money is one part a monograph by someone who has studied and taught a problem for decades, and one part an extended blog post. It is also a bleak book. Davies thinks that fraud grows out of the cost of verifying facts and the techniques by which managers simplify the world to make it comprehensible (legible in James C. Scott’s terms). The cost of auditing or checking references appears every day, but the cost of discovering that one of your nurses never completed high school and one of your suppliers disappeared overseas with your money only comes up occasionally, so people tend to take fewer and fewer precautions until they suffer for it. Whereas some fictional fraudsters target the psychology of individuals, Davies’ fraudersters target the psychology of institutions and cultural expectations about what is trustworthy and authoritative. Very few large frauds are the fraudster’s only attempt: many get out of prison for one fraud and are trusted with other people’s money a few years later. (I would be interested to hear more on why fraudsters are often the victims of other fraudsters, and sometimes throw in money to keep the illusion alive when they could just take it and run).

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Tlusty on Bearing Swords in the Later Middle Ages

the cover of B. Ann Tlusty's book "The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany" with a painting of two men in doublets and hose fighting with swords while a man behind a desk hangs his head in his hands

A classic problem in social history goes like this: in the thirteenth century CE, the heaviest weapon that was commonly worn in European towns was a dagger or long knife with a blade up to 30 cm long. By the sixteenth century CE, towns were full of men wearing swords, particularly in the British Isles, the Low Countries, Germany, and Bohemia (in Italy and Spain wearing swords may have been restricted to gentlemen). How and when did this change happen? This has caught the attention of academics because it is linked to the civilizing process, state formation, and the monopoly on violence and those were fashionable at universities in the twentieth century. Back when I was in contact with them, the people who study German fencing from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tell people that one book shows that medieval Germans wore swords everywhere just like people in the sixteenth century: B. Ann Tlusty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (Palgrave Macmillan: 2011). What does it actually say about medieval law?

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Violence Makes Permanent

The ancestral apple orchard is almost ready for harvest Military historians tend to dislike the idea of the Decisive Battle. Its surprisingly hard to find a time where a single battle decided a war over something more complicated than who should be king. Battles make for great stories but they are only a small part... Continue reading: Violence Makes Permanent

Cross-Post: Chris Dobson’s “Beaten Black and Blue”

the cover of Chris Dobson's new book

Armour scholar Chris Dobson has released a new book: Beaten Black and Blue: The Myth of the Medieval Knight in Shining Armour. This will be a limited edition like an academic monograph to make sure its available for armour scholars centuries to come. I have ordered a copy.

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