modern

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 van Creveld’s “Supplying War”

Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallerstein to Patton (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007) ISBN 0-521-21730-X

What John Keegan did to the experience of battle in 1979, Martin van Creveld did to the logistics of modern European warfare two years earlier. I finally read this book in May 2021 and am glad that I did, although its perspective is different than mine.

van Creveld lays out a model of logistics which goes like this. Before the late 19th century, armies could easily carry all the ammunition and spare weapons they needed with them, so the main requirements were food and fodder. As long as an army kept moving and was not too large, it could get these things in the area of operations. The main differences between armies were whether they confiscated supplies or purchased them, and whether they got their food from individual villages and farms, hired contractors to collect and deliver it, or obtained it from local towns and governors. So armies could wander around freely but might get in trouble if they had to stop to besiege a town or because enemies had blocked their path. If an army did not want to pay, then it was better to operate in hostile territory than friendly territory, just as Sun Tzu says. In 1870-1871, the Prussian army only consumed 56 rounds of rifle ammunition per infantryman and 199 rounds per gun (p. 102). This was less than the army carried with it when it set out, so there was no need to bring trains of ammunition from Prussia to the army. Outside of North Africa and some Pacific islands, the Axis still relied on local food and fodder in WW II.

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Some Thoughts on “Cutting with the Medieval Sword”

The heroine of this Arthurian romance is in peril, 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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An Old Line of Argument

The commander (imperator) as head of state and father of the fatherland: a statue of Augustus from Prima Porta. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Statue-Augustus.jpg

Military historians often admire professional armies whose members have no trade but war. These armies can learn their art well, carry out clever manoeuvres, and don’t start arguing with each other when their general wants them to be making some decisive attack (before the 1980s, military historians tended to identify with the generals). In Europe this tradition goes back to Xenophon in the 4th century BCE and can be traced through wanna-be army builders like Sir John Smythe of Little Badow or J.F.C. Fuller the British general, tank visionary, fascist, and mystic. This line of argument has its virtues: the history of the past 500 years is dotted with sad tales of keen but untrained and poorly equipped fighters marching into the bullets and shells and being mowed down. But it usually summons a counter-argument about what those young, aggressive, highly trained men will do when there is no war to fight. I can trace this tradition back to Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s Erra Epic, which was composed sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE as the Assyrians were sowing blood and flesh to plant the first world empire. Erra has Seven terrifying weapons, and they are feeling bored:

Warrior Erra, why do you neglect the field for the city?
The very beasts and creatures hold us in contempt!
O warrior Erra, we will tell you, though what we say be offensive to you!
Era the whole land outgrows us,
You must surely hear our words! (80)
Do a kindly deed for the gods of hell, who delight in deathly stillness,
The Annuna-gods cannot fall asleep for thge clamor of mankind.
Beasts are overrunning the meadows, life of the land,
The farmer sobs bitterly for his [field].
Lion and wolf are felling the livestock, (85)
The shepherd, who cannot sleep day or night for the sake of his flocks, is calling upon you.
We too, who know the mountain passes, we have [forgotten] how to go,
Cobwebs are spun over our field gear,
Our fine bow resists and is too strong for us,
The tip of our sharp arrow is bent out of true, (90)
Our blade is corroded for want of a slaughter!

Epic of Erra, tablet I, from Benjanim Foster, Before the Muses, pp. 775, 776
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Against A Noble Lie: “Canadians Under Fire” by Robert Engen

a woman in overalls and a bandana holds a newly completed light machine gun on a table in front of a poster
Gunsmith Veronica Foster of the John Inglis Co. Ltd, Toronto ON 1941. The Canadians say that the National Film Board’s publicity for her as “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” inspired the Americans to create “Rosie the Riveter” the following year. Public domain image c/o https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Veronica_Foster,_ww2_gunsmith,_displays_a_finished_Bren_gun_-c.jpg

Robert Engen, Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON, 2009) ISBN 978-0-7735-3626-5 [Bookfinder] [Biblio]

In this plague time, zombie ideas walk the earth, for all our attempts to call down academic fire on them. One of those is S.L.A. Marshall’s assertion that only 15-25% of American infantry in WW II fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy. Although Marshall’s trustworthiness had been undermined by the 1980s, and he left no records of the interviews where he claimed to have learned this embarrassing truth, the idea gained a new life after it was popularized by writers like columnist Gwynne Dyer and the smooth smiling David Grossman. Engen’s book focuses on another body of evidence which exists today: surveys mailed to Canadian infantry captains, majors, and lieutenant-colonels returning to Britain after fighting on the continent. Anyone can go and read the original documents in Ottawa, and they were filled out within a few weeks of leaving combat for an internal military audience. While Engen dutifully reminds readers that combat is confusing, memories are maleable, and people don’t always say exactly what they remember, these surveys are better sources than anecdotes or the opinions of one amateur historian with a gift for self-publicity.

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