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
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The Scale Armour from Yanghai

a leather scale armour from an archaeological excavation, and a pattern drawing
The Yanghai armour. Figure 6 from

Some comments on Patrick Wertmann et al., “No borders for innovations: A ca. 2700-year-old Assyrian-style leather scale armour in Northwest China.” Quaternary International, It has been discussed on Sci Newswww.spektrum.de DailyHeritagedaily among others.

The cemetery at Yanghai in Uighur territory continues to give. This week, an article about hide scale armour in a grave there has been circulating on the Internet and corporate social media. The grave had other cool things, like a wooden bedstead and a wooden fire drill, but most of the attention has focused on the authors’ claims that the armour was made within the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Unfortunately, that claim is the weakest part of a strong article.

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Debunkers Beware, All Publicity is Good Publicity

if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you. The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business. [When I announced my plans to build a huge new real estate development to the press], not all of them liked the idea of the world’s tallest building. But the point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.

Tony Schwartz (under the name of a failed businessman with a gift for self-promotion), The Art of the Deal (1987) c/o

As my gentle readers have probably noticed, I like factual, cautious things. So its frustrating to read or hear things which spend more time rebutting some hurting wrong opinion than presenting facts. I never heard this opinion, and I am reading this book or listening to this talk because I want to see what the author thinks about the topic. They only have so much time to reach me, so why do they waste most of it telling me not to think something I don’t think?

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Asteroids, Tall el-Hamman, and Multidisciplinary Research

a pewter brooch of a comet with a faceted glass stone
Shiny! This is a medieval comet not an ancient comet but close enough! Copy of a pewter brooch from Salisbury by Billy and Charlie.

In late September, the world was excited by a Nature Science Reports article arguing that Tall el-Hamman, a city on the Jordan River, was destroyed by an interstellar body bursting overhead around 3650 years ago. This paper was published by a team of natural scientists based in the USA, particularly geologists, remote sensor scientists, and earth scientists. Because it is multidisciplinary, very few people are qualified to assess the argument as a whole. There seems to be some pushback from archaeologists on corporate social media. Those threads are far less useful than a footnoted essay would be, and some of the ones by highly educated posters make claims which anyone who reads the article can see are false. One of the better threads is by a Dr. Megan A. Perry, a bioarchaeologist at East Carolina University in the USA:

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Rationalists, Empiricists, Rhetoricians

since I am cranky on the Internet this week, how about this picture of a cat in an excavation? Just look at those eyes and that curly tail! Photo by Sean Manning, 19 August 2021.

natural-science types and engineers have completely different intellectual worldviews: the first are empiricists while the second are rationalists. As a biochemist, reading Less Wrong or Slate Star Codex has me screaming at my laptop; not a pretty sight.

rms, comment on “Lawyers Guns and Money” blog, 8 July 2020

C.P. Snow’s two cultures are very English and a bit old-fashioned. I come from a country where most people learn physics and chemistry for 10 to 12 years, and I know both calculus and Latin. This is not so unusual in North America, L. Sprague de Camp was an amateur classicist, a poet, and an aeronatical engineer. So this week, I would like to describe three intellectual cultures which I see.

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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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Why Digitizing Sources is Important

As human beings and as scientists in the early 21st century, we have a crisis of epistemology and misinformation. Science is a system for distributed, verified trust and as the rate of publications increases, and new discoveries lead to conclusions which threaten more and more wealthy actors, that system has been breaking down. There is lots of talk about blame, but I don’t find that is helpful. Often, what seem to be two opposed factions lean on each other like tired wrestlers, and use the commotion of their fighting to keep their supporters too busy to ask awkward questions about the gap between the policies that their representatives say they support and the policies they enact. Instead of laying blame, I would like to talk about one of the things we are doing to solve this.

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