review

What Reproductions Can and Can’t Teach You

A hand gripping a dagger with a wooden hilt
The classic ‘icepick’ grip, by far the most common in late medieval paintings of assaults and fencing manuals

In the past year I succumbed to the allure of two of Leo “Tod” Todeschini’s products: a table knife and a baselard. In the late middle ages baselards were big knives with H-shaped hilt hung from the belt between the legs (in barbarous northern countries) or at the right hip (by polite and civilized Italians who had other ways to show they had something long and hard between their legs). He offers two standard models, one which was popular in the Alps and another which was more common in northern Italy and England.

Tod is a brilliant cutler. He captures the essence of knives as objects of lust which you buy and carry against your better judgement. (People in the fourteenth and fifteenth century were not idiots, their coroner’s reports and city statutes show that they knew that when young men start carrying big knives some of them will stab each other with them- and Chaucer always tells you what kinds of knives people are wearing, and whether they are mounted with silver or brass). Tod includes scabbards and suspensions which let you understand knives as accessories not just as something to hang on your wall or leave in your kitchen or your travel chest. The scabbards are painted in a single colour like many originals and lightly tooled like finds from the Thames and the Low Countries. The brass chape is brazed so well that it is hard to see the join (whereas most of the originals Mark Shier has handled are just overlapped or stapled closed). The baselard is beautifully finished, with the nails evenly peened and the wood smoothly set onto the iron core, and has a pleasant substance in the hand thanks to the thick, heavy forte of the blade. The 44 cm length of this baselard is pretty typical (there were a few smaller examples, and many the size of a sword). (Parenthically, his working, table, and kitchen knives would make excellent gifts for a chef or camper in your life). But there is one thing about this knife which is not ideal for me.

Six chapes of folded copper-alloy sheet
Some typical late medieval or early modern knife chapes of folded copperalloy sheet in the Gaukler collection. 10487 in the upper right is most typical of the ones he has handled.

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Some thoughts on Guy Windsor’s “The Medieval Longsword”

Book cover with series title up the left, volume title across the top, and two fencers with crossed swords in the centre

Guy Windsor, Mastering the Art of Arms, Volume 2: The Medieval Longsword (School of European Swordsmanship: Helsinki, 2014) (link to author’s online store)

Sometimes reviewers are tempted to review the book which they wish was sitting in front of them, rather than the book which actually is there. This is not a discussion of possible interpretations, their strengths and weaknesses, and why the author prefers the one which he does. Instead, it is an experienced teacher’s best attempt to teach Fiore’s art to people today from scratch, and it does that very well if somewhat narrowly.

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Some Thoughts on Guy Windsor’s “Italian Longsword Guards”

Ancient martial arts are dead and beyond recovery. Anyone who wishes to learn a method for using ancient weapons effectively must study an art originating within the last thousand years before looking at the scraps of literature and painting and sculpture which give us some hint to how Assyrians or Romans fought. We are extraordinarily lucky to have a series of European fencing manuals running back to circa 1300, and over the past decades these sources have attracted researchers willing to face the formidable scholarly, epistemological, and physical challenges of interpreting them. In Italian Longsword Guards: Comparing Vadi’s Guards with Fiore and Marozzo Guy Windsor makes a first attempt at one of these problems: the relationship between guards for the sword in two hands in the oldest known Italian writers who describe that weapon, namely Fiore dei Liberi (wrote circa 1404-1410), Philippo Vadi (wrote circa 1482-1485), and Achille Marozzo (first edition printed 1536). Vadi’s verse manual contains many names and phrases which resemble Fiore’s words, but also significant differences.
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Some thoughts on Brouwers’ “Henchmen of Ares”

Josho Brouwers, Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Karwansaray Publishers: Rotterdam, 2013.

I can enthusiastically recommend Henchmen of Ares to anyone interested in ancient Greek warfare. It is beautifully made, backed by serious research, and clearly written, but its greatest value is that it comes from the perspective of an archaeologist. Most work on early Greek warfare is written by historians or literary scholars, so Brouwers provides an interesting alternative. While Brouwers clearly knows early Greek poetry, he also gives a prominent place to art, architecture, and funerary practice and puts Greek warfare in an East Mediterranean context. In particular, he emphasizes that the development of Classical warfare was bound up with practices in Lydia, Caria, Phoenecia, and Egypt. Not all hoplites were Greek, just as not all early Greek warriors were hoplites. He also makes a serious attempt to cover the period between the collapse of the Mycenaean palace kingdoms and the revival of cities which has left very little evidence (so little, in fact, that a minority of scholars think that it was much shorter than the 400 years allowed in most chronologies). And he explains his methodology, rather than simply telling a plausible story based on sources with a few brief remarks on the literary evidence.

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