book review

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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Some Good Armouring Books

A display of 16th century arms and armour on wooden manekins and wall hooks
The first Rustkammer at Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2018.

In an earlier post, I talked about videos on making armour. But what if you prefer books? Whereas 20 years ago very little was available, today there are quite a few things to read and look at.

There is one textbook on making European plate armour: Brian R. Price, Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction: The 14th Century (Paladin Press: Boulder Colorado, 2000). The book is a reasonable introduction by a mid-level armourer with a troubling history. Brian R. Price (now an Associate Professor at Hawai’i Pacific University) once ran a small press (Chivalry Bookshelf) until it emerged that he had not been paying the agreed royalties, had not obtained rights to all the illustrations, and had not registered their works with the appropriate authorities. Many of his other business (Thornbird Arms, Revival Enterprises, Past Tents, Fettered Cock Pewter) and martial-arts (Schola Saint George) associates had similar stories dating back to the 1980s, and in the end a coalition of authors sued him and regained control of their works in exchange for a nondisclosure agreement.* While Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction was published by Paladin Press, an independent business, many people are uncomfortable with supporting the author. (Also, this book is specifically on late medieval European armour … if you are interested in ancient kinds or kinds outside of Catholic Europe you will need other resources).

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Some Thoughts on “The Cosmic Computer”

A cover painting of infantry in pressure suits crouched behind the wreckage of a crashed jet vehicle and blazing away with automatic weapons against a red sky and purple moon
The cover of the Ace edition of The Cosmic Computer by Michael Whelan c/o http://www.zarthani.net/ Say what you like about the 1970s, but their oil painters could do cover art!

On Canada Day 2017 I finished re-reading the project Gutenberg text of Piper’s Cosmic Computer (my paperback copy with the wonderful red-and-purple cover is back in Canada). I read this novel every few years, and I always learn something new. Quite a few people who grew up on the American science fiction of the 1940s through 1970s have been reading the news, finding something uncomfortably familiar, and looking back to those Silver Age writers to understand some current madness (Phil Paine reread Revolt in 2100 for the same reason). I can’t talk about that here, but I want to talk about some of the things which I found valuable in this novel.

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Some Thoughts on “Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia”

An oblong sealstone showing a horseman stabbing a charging boar with a lance
A stamp seal of chalcedony in a ?modern? silver mount and an example of the impressions which it leaves on clay. British Museum, Museum Number 120325. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013) ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (Oxbow Books)

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia deserves a wide readership because it is brave enough to try to talk about what life was like in Anatolia in the 220 years when it was part of a timeless empire with Persian kings. The only texts which survive come from the far western and southern fringes, where mountain chieftains and coastal cities carved messages into stone and a few writings became part of the classical tradition. But it has been well studied archaeologically, partially because the region is rich in metal and stone, and partially because Turkey is usually a safe and orderly country open to foreigners. For most of the last century, it was easier for foreign archaeologists to work in Turkey than in Turkmenistan or the Sinai.
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Some Thoughts on “Hoplites at War”

The cover of "Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE" ISBN-13 978-1-4766-6602-0

Paul M. Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray, Jr., Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE. McFarland and Company: Jefferson, NC, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4766-6602-0 (paperback) 978-1-4766-2636-9 (ebook). 233 pages.

In 1989 Victor Davis Hanson threw a match into some scholarly tinder by publishing a book which was both very readable and obviously flawed. Since no two scholars could agree about which parts of his book were incorrect, this has lead to thirty years of argument about just what happened on Greek battlefields. Unlike most scholarly debates, this one has fascinated people outside the university who follow the debates and try to push forward their own theories. Some of them have gone on to graduate school, others organize re-enactments and backyard tests, and a few write books. One of these amateur contributions is Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE by Paul Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray. That is an ambitious title for a book of 233 pages, and the preface is bold too:

In this book, we make use of traditional sources, but combine those with cutting-edge (apt for a book on warfare!) science … We hope the result provides a comprehensive source on hoplite warfare that will advance key debates for modern scholars, while entertaining the general reader. … [what we present here] is an assessment of what we firmly believe to be most probable based on all evidence at hand.

While this book’s reach exceeds its grasp, I think it contains some important ideas.

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Some Thoughts on “Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics”

The cover of a book showing a map of Eurasia in the background and a tree of Indo-European languages in the foreground

Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link

A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
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Some Thoughts on “A Greek Army on the March”

John W.I. Lee, A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007. DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511482830 Bookfinder link to the hardcover version.

John Lee’s book on the Greek-speaking half of the army of Cyrus the Younger does not seem to have found the audience which I think it deserves. That is a shame, because I found it very useful when I was writing my Master’s thesis, and I think that a wide variety of other people both inside and outside the university would find it helpful too.

Many books on life in the Ten Thousand have been written by retired soldiers or policemen, and implicitly or explicitly take the bureaucratic armies of the last hundred and fifty years as a model. Writers searched for a detailed chain of command with large units made up of small ones and a network of officers and non-commissioned officers, a relationship between the organization of the army in camp and the organization of the army in formation, and other things which modern armies have. It was possible to do this by ignoring or minimizing a large number of anomalies. John Lee had the courage to ask “what if we take Xenophon seriously? What if we accept that what he describes seems very different from a modern army, and ask him what he means?” And so he wrote a book about how the Ten Thousand functioned as a community of men and women living and marching and fighting together.
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Three Historical Novels

Three books sitting on a hardwood floor: "The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate" on an eReader, "Flashman and the Dragon" in paperback, and "Tyrant" in paperback

Last winter I read some novels instead of puttering around on the Internet. This week I thought I would talk about three novels by three authors which span the range of the genre of adventurous historical fiction. While all of these have peril, romance, blood, and all the other Dionysiac fluids, each has its own mix and its own style. In some ways this reflects the three different adventurous individuals who wrote them.

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Some Thoughts on “Armour Never Wearies”

Timothy Dawson, Armour Never Wearies: Scale and Lamellar Armour from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0-7524-8862-2. Cover shows a cavalryman in scale armour riding over fallen enemies with a background of armour of steel scales laced to leather bands
Timothy Dawson, Armour Never Wearies: Scale and Lamellar Armour from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0-7524-8862-2. Cover shows a cavalryman in scale armour riding over fallen enemies with a background of armour of steel scales laced to leather bands

Timothy Dawson, Armour Never Wearies: Scale and Lamellar Armour from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century. Spellmount: Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0-7524-8862-2 Biblio
128 pages, GBP 14.99

Dr. Timothy Dawson has undertaken a difficult task: to understand armours of small plates laced or wired together, often known as scale or lamellar. Although these kinds of armour were once common, they tend to fall apart as the backing or lacing rots, so understanding how they were made is hard. Even worse, he is most interested in styles from the Greek Christian world which are only preserved as vague references in texts, stylized images of saints, and a few fragments of rusted iron. Moreover, arms and armour studies are not well supported by academe, so he has to do his work at his own expense and without the discipline of needing to submit his ideas to criticism by a group of peers. The resulting book is not very useful to me, but under the circumstances I can’t complain.

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