medieval

Where Did the Weapons Come From?

Back in February, as the evidence grew that Putin was about to commit the great mistake, journalists were sharing stories like this:

Dmytro Skatrovsky said he had not been notified by text but had turned up anyway outside the Svyatoshynskyi recruitment centre, in western Kyiv. He spent three years in the army and took part in the 2014 battle to evict separatists from the port city of Mariupol, he said.

“I’ve bought two sniper complexes with good optics,” he added. “I’ve also ordered a drone on Amazon. It hasn’t turned up yet.” Skatrovsky said a group of friends had chipped in to get the rifles – at a cost of $10,000 (£7,370). US contacts had paid $2,300 for the drone, he said.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/23/business-brisk-at-kyiv-gun-shops-as-ukrainians-rush-to-buy-arms

Over on corporate social media, I see some people who are amazed and offended to see a wide range of kit in photos from the war in Ukraine, ranging from the latest and most fashionable rifles to Maxim guns on steel carriages and – well, I have not personally seen the 1903 Springfield rifles, and the WW II vintage Panzerfaust may have been stolen from a museum. I am not sure if that is as unusual as they think: the German army which invaded the USSR in 1941 has been described as a military museum on wheels, one of the machine guns in the Citadel at Halifax was removed from the museum collection circa 1991 because the Army needed it again, and an American National Guard veteran claims that his unit invaded Iraq in 2003 with old M3 grease guns last produced in 1945. In fact, if you looked at a random army sometime in the past few thousand years, I think you would see just such a diversity of arms, some bought from private sources, others made in rough workshops, others donated, and yet others purchased by the state.

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Female Military Historians

soldiers in pleated kilts and helmets carry a beam, while others stand by chariots with spoked wheels
Detail from a New Kingdom relief of soldiers in the Museo Civico, Bologna. Photo by Sean Manning September 2018.

I have said that the ‘hoplite debate’ from 1989 to 2013 was an argument between people who were very similar to each other. One way they were the same was that they were almost all men. Is that because academic military history in general is male-dominated? That would not be a very good argument because military history is so marginal at universities that most people who do it have another research field. But more importantly, I can think of about two dozen 40 women who have made significant contributions to ancient and medieval military history. From my point of view, a doctoral dissertation, scholarly book, or several influential articles are enough to be significant.

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Longsword Fencing in a Manuscript in Fulda

People who are interested in martial arts from the 14th century onwards can work from books meant to describe those arts. But that does not mean that other types of evidence suddenly become irrelevant. A fundamental principle of historical research is that claims should be backed by multiple kinds of evidence. We can study arms and armour, the culture of violence, and poems about people training. And we can also study pictures of people fighting. The painter of a book of Old Testament stories in Fulda (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda, manuscript Aa 88) shows many things which resemble fencing manuals painted a few decades later. The library in Fulda estimates that it dates around 1350-1375 and that seems about right to me.

a late 14th century painting of two groups of soldiers.  The leader on either side has crossed swords
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Weltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_142r_detail.jpg
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Translating Fiore’s Armour Jargon Correctly

as a man in late medeival armour bends down to pull off his coat of mail, another man in armour stabs him in the flank with a sword
BGE Ms. fr. 190/1 Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes (painted in Paris around the year 1410) https://manuscriptminiatures.com/3991/10007

The self-taught scholars in the historical fencing world do many things well, but their translations of arms-and-armour terms are not always the best. A story from ancient Persia, how Artabanus murdered the king and his older sons and then was killed in turn by the young son he meant to use as a figurehead, helps us improve our translations. This story is available in the original Latin and in French and Italian translations written and illustrated during Fiore’s lifetime, so we can compare the Latin terms to the French or Italian terms to the paintings.

In Fiore’s sword in armour, both Tom Leoni and Colin Hatcher translate lo camaglio as “the mail coif.” It obviously means “camail: drape of mail hanging from a headpiece to protect the throat and the sides of the head.” Warriors in Fiore’s day no longer wore a complete hood of mail, but they often wore a camail to protect their faces and necks. In the picture above, two soldiers in the background have blue steel camails attached to their grey headpieces. Perhaps the blue indicates that the mail has been quenched in water and tempered by reheating to around 650-700 degrees Fahrenheit (Giambattista della Porta describes this in Natural Magic, book 13, chapter 4).

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West versus East, or Primitive versus Modern?

Like me, this European wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis) lives here because its ancestors were brought here and have been living here ever since! According to Thompson Rivers University these are an invasive species on the Saanich Peninsula. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2021

The wars I mean are those fought between two widely separated races accustomed to a different physical environment. Then it may naturally happen that each race or nation has developed an armament and a style of fighting suitable to the nature of the country in which it dwells, and is practically unable to alter its national arms and tactics. …

The best examples which history offers of this are the great struggles in ancient or mediaeval times between East and West. Here as a rule the opposing armies differ entirely in character. The Western nation is apt to rely on solid masses of heavy-armed warriors, the Eastern on cavalry and archers skirmishing in open order. This contrast is nowhere better seen than in the Persian War, but something like the same difference meets us again in later history, in the wars of Rome with Parthia, or in the Crusades, though in them, while the Orientals still trust to light horse and archers, the men of the West rely no longer solely or mainly on infantry, but on heavy-armed horsemen, supported by infantry armed with missiles.

W.W. How, “Arms, Tactics and Strategy in the Persian War” (1923) pp. 117, 118 https://doi.org/10.2307/625800

News of the first strikes against Afghanistan indicate that a tested Western response to Islamic aggression is now well under way. It is not a crusade. The crusades were an episode localised in time and place, in the religious contest between Christianity and Islam. This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals. –

Sir John Keegan, “In this war of civilisations, the West will prevail” (2001) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4266179/In-this-war-of-civilisations-the-West-will-prevail.html

In the latest issue of Desperta Ferro Antigua y Medieval (link if you read Spanish) I wrote about how many people telling the story of Xerxes’ Ionian War want one side to be a lavishly equipped professional army and the other to be a gang of ragged freedom-fighters, but they can’t decide which side should be the Greeks and which side should be the Persians. If the Persians are the mighty imperial army with the latest equipment and training, they are not the peoples overcome by European firepower and drill in recent times. If the ancient Greeks are the quarreling aristocrats and aggressive amateurs which they tell us they were, they are not Mr. Kipling’s army in skirts. People want to identify with the underdog, but they also want to believe that superhuman forces make their side’s victory inevitable. Its hard to reconcile those two wishes.

There is also a simile where Greeks battling Persians are like crusaders battling the Turks. The people who make this analogy know as little of one as the other, but it sounds impressive. And this kind of rhetoric also has some contradictions which you can see if you read the words of an obscure lieutenant of cavalry.

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The Cult of Youth

Soccer players in Victoria, BC. Photo by Sean Manning, 19 August 2021

Reading Sir John Smythe and Harold Lamb and Martin van Creveld, I was struck by the fact that sometime in the 19th or 20th century, armies began to fetishize youth. A friend joined the Canadian Army Reserve at 17 and was carrying a rifle in Kandahar a year or two later, and when Martin van Creveld wants to show how Prussian supply officers were inadequate in 1848, he accuses them of being aged from 55 to 69 (Supplying War p. 78). My colleague Jolene McLeod has listed the modern authors who insist that Plutarch cannot be correct that Eumenes’ Silver Shields were all 60 years and older when they marched up to Antigonus’ phalanx and stabbed it to pieces in a few moments of blood and horror (Life of Eumenes 16.4). An American speaker calling for a reform of the relationship between their regular army and National Guard wanted the former to be “young” and focus on warfighting, while the older National Guard soldiers could focus on rebuilding and garrison duty. (It might have been this TED talk by Thomas Barnett but I don’t have energy to re-watch it).

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Where do Misconceptions About Medieval Swords Come From?

Most misconceptions about ancient Greek and Near Eastern swords come from peer-reviewed books by professional researchers who never opened a site report or spent time really seeing what was behind glass in museums. But the people who really like medieval swords are worried about misinformation too, and they blame some different culprits. Recently, several of them have given talks or written essays where they blame the same three sources. Because their comments are mixed up with other things or scattered across different places, this week I have gathered them together.

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The Nirvana Fallacy in Castle Studies

a keep and church on a foothill over a town in the valley on a foggy day, September 2020
A tower house of unusual size over the old silver-mining town of Schwaz, Tirol.

All kinds of historians commit fallacies, but I often read work in the field of castle studies which commits a specific one. It goes like this: “if a site’s defenses (as visible in the archaeological record) were imperfect, the defenses (which actually existed) were useless and merely for show.” This is related to false dilemmas, the Nirvana Fallacy, and “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is linked to the fashion among some Anglo intellectuals for declaring that human life is really governed by arbitrary social conventions and nothing so coarse as contact with the external physical world.

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Some Thoughts on “Cutting with the Medieval Sword”

The heroine of this Arthurian romance is in trouble, and not the sexy kind! The long. slender longsword is typical for the period when Fiore’s art and the Kunst des Fechtens were created. From BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 5243 Guiron le Courtois folio 90r

Michael Edelson, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application (CreateSpace, 2017) ISBN-13 978-0999290385 (hardcover) 978-1979910972 (softcover)

A sharp sword in a skilled hand is a fearsome cutting weapon. When the sword or the swordsman is inadequate, fighters can find themselves helplessly slapping their opponent’s hat or clothing. There is now a book for the historical fencing movement on how to cut through things effectively. This one is by an instructor who teaches at a school in New York City, competes in cutting and fencing tournaments, and used to be quite active and aggressive on forums. In the historical fencing world, his main interest is the art from Central Europe associated with a poem which circulated under the name of Meister Liechtenauer, the Kunst des Fechtens. This art probably emerged in the late 14th century and flourished until there was a ‘martial arts craze’ for Italian fencing in 17th century Germany.

A practical book on the use of weapons raises three basic questions. Can I understand it? Are its teachings something I want to commit to trying? After a substantial period of training, have these teachings made me more effective? When reconstructing historical and prehistorical martial arts like 18th century backsword play or the use of bronze swords, there is a fourth question: how does the book support its claim to describe how things were done back in the day? My first impression is that this book is clear and that probably 80-90% of the theory describes one good way of doing things. The most controversial teaching is the insistence on stepping into range (measure) and then cutting. How to do this without walking into a cut or thrust is “beyond the scope of this book” (p. 57). I don’t have a sharp longsword with me, or money to spend on things to chop up (and my sharp longsword is the long stiff poky kind not the broad flexible choppy kind). So this review will focus on how this book justifies its claims. I am a professional at analyzing arguments, but only a dabbler at fencing.

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