An Unusual Obstetic Technique

My interest in linen armour lead me to texts from around the year 1000. Chrétien de Troyes died leaving one of his works incomplete, and sometime around 1190 to 1210, someone wrote the first surviving attempt to fill in the missing attempts. In one of these passages, an Arthurian hero is arming. The narrator mentions an unusual way of helping a woman in labour deliver:

Then they girdled a sword
Such that in all the world there was no woman in labour,
Who when struck on the head
With the flat of that naked sword (1048)
Would not immediately give birth,
As she hung between death and life.

My translation. Text after William Roach and R.H. Ivy, eds., The Continuations of the Old French Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes. Volume II. The First Continuation: Redaction of MSS EMQU. Romance Languages and Literatures, Extra Series, No. 10. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Department of Romance Languages, 1950), 32-33, 485-486, 548-549. There are complete translations of the continuation in Ross G. Arthur, tr., Three Arthurian Romances: Poems from Medieval France (London: Dent, 1996) and Nigel Bryant, tr., Chrétien de Troyes, The Complete Story of the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes‘ Perceval and its Continuations. Arthurian Studies 82 (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015), 87; my translation is influenced by this one, especially in the last five lines.
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Linen Armour in the Twelfth Century

the cover of Medieval Clothing and Textiles 18, a thin hardcover book, in a patch of sunlight on a hardwood floor

The first part of my three-part series on medieval linen armour has appeared in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 18. Whereas in some periods linen armour is commonly showed in paintings and sculptures, there are very few pictures of fabric armour from western Europe between 500 and 1250 CE. No quilted garment survives from Europe in this period either. So I discuss about thirty texts from this period. I work with texts in Greek, Latin, Old French, Ibero-Romance, Irish, Middle High German, Old Norse, and Arabic, and provide my own translations of the Greek, Latin, Romance languages, and Middle High German. Whereas most books summarize and allude to a few of these texts, I put them in context and give both the original language and a translation.

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Coiled Shields and Helmets

a coiled grass bowl wrapped with light brown and off-white fibres on a vanished wooden tabletop lit by a candle and an electric lamp
A little bowl like this was all my budget could afford, but its still handy for holding my sewing things!

One weekend in May 2023 I did two things on a weekend which involved spending several hours away from home doing things with people I did not know in 2013 other than the day job (!). When I was passing through downtown Victoria I stopped at a stall run by Journey House Actions, a Rwandan charity. They sell bowls, baskets, and jars of coiled grass ropes laced with dyed sisal fibres. As I worked my way through them, I was struck how much they were like the Turkish shields in Schloss Ambras.

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The Triumph and the Tragedy of Atrocitology

To be honest, though, I’m sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced to find my statistics, but beggars can’t be choosers. Very few historians have the cold, calculating, body-count mentality that I do. They prefer describing the quality of suffering rather than the quantity of it. Often, the only place to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, “over a million” does not mean “>106“; it’s just synonymous with “a lot”.

Matthew White,

Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011) lists 100 tragedies, but the 101st tragedy is the book itself. White worked very hard to find numbers for various atrocities, and noticed that often he could find no source for the number in the glossy magazine or the airport book. He noticed that some of the numbers seemed to be just made up, he noticed that some didn’t seem to be meant to be taken literally, and he noticed that often the new book or article relies on the old book or article without correcting its mistakes or asking whether we have learned anything since. When I look at the website which became the book, I see how he came close to agreeing with me that almost all of these numbers before the 19th century say more about other modern numbers than about the past. He could have written a good book about how we just don’t know how many people were killed by Tamurlane, or the An Lushan Rebellion, or the Crusades. But instead he wrote yet another book full of made-up numbers backed with footnotes, and he gave old nonsense a whole new audience when a very famous Canadian psychologist took his numbers and ran with them.

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Books Read in 2023

a polished stone statue of Buddha seated cross-legged on the coils of a serpent whose hood expands to seven heads which cover his head
The naga serpent protects Buddha from the rain for seven days, from the exhibit Angkor: Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia (National Museum of Cambodia at the Royal BC Museum, 2 June 2023 to 14 January 2024). They say this is limestone but it seems awfully fine grained. Photo by Sean Manning, 4 January 2024.

Creating one of these lists is difficult, because scholars don’t read a lot of similar books end to end like novel readers, but dip into a variety of books looking for data. I reserve the right to skip some things I read and decide when a partial read ‘counts.’

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Why Do Armies March through Gaza?

a line drawing of Palestine, Syria, and south-eastern Turkey with coasts, rivers, ancient cities, and dotted lines indicating roads
The roads of Palestine in the Achaemenid period, after Graf 1994: figure 1

On another site, someone asked why armies have been marching through Gaza for thousands of years. I don’t have anything useful to say about Hamas’ torture, murder, and kidnapping of about a thousand unsuspecting elders, civilians, children, and tourists, or the Israeli government’s blockade of water, food, and medicine to the several million civilians in Gaza in response to the murders and kidnappings, but I can talk about geography and ancient warfare.

My regularly scheduled post (about Vitruvius and the design of forts during the Roman Principate) will come out next week instead! When commenting, keep in mind that my site is not the place for people to share angry opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I will moderate accordingly. Because I will not have time to moderate or respond to comments until Tuesday 31 October, comments on this post will not be enabled until then.

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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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