Technical military literature before the 19th century is always worth reading, and one of the technical writers I often return to is Sir John Smythe who died at Little Badow in England in 1607. Smythe was a diletante and a crank who believed that the military art had been perfected on the day he turned 18, but he followed the wars and had thoughts on different ways of doing things. One of the things he talks about is militia recruits who are left-handed. The history of left-handedness is kind of like the history of queerness, in that some societies loved to talk and theorize about it, while left-handers (or queer people) got on with their lives, found solutions that worked for them, and did not leave many traces or worry too much about those talkers and theorists.
At the moment, many archery enthusiasts are telling anyone who will listen that soldiers’ bows usually had draw weights of 100 lbs and more (Deer hunters today usually use bows with a draw weight on the order of 50 lbs, casual or target archers often use bows about half as heavy, and even hunters of larger game rarely use a bow with a draw weight of 100 lbs or more). In other words, you could draw the bow to its full draw length by hanging it string-down and suspending 100 lbs or more from the middle of the string. If this idea is correct, many men in the ancient world did something which is much more physically demanding than is commonly thought. This week, I would like to post some of the evidence which I know which might be relevant to the strength of bows used in the eastern Mediterranean around the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. I hope that some of my readers can suggest more sources.
Experience making and using low-tech kit is very valuable, but our experience is usually limited. Most of us have experience either using our weapons on foot or on horseback, but rarely equal experience with both. Most of us have experience in friendly or competitive play, but not in murdering or defending our lives. And Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung (not to mention Alexander Pope) teach us that someone who has survived one assault or won one championship tends to proclaim themself an expert and pronounce that everyone should do what worked for them. So we always have to question what of our experience does not apply as widely as we think it does. I like to fill in the gaps of my own experience by listening to others, such as the grandfather of all English blowhards, Sir John Smythe of Little Badow.
In September and October, I came across several projects in archaeology which help us understand early warfare. This week’s post will take us from China to Germany, Italy, and England and from the Bronze Age to the 18th century CE.
I will start with the Bronze Age (best age!) then move on to ages of other metals. A German-UK-Chinese team published the latest project trying to understand how Bronze Age swords were used. They examined damage to the edges of originals and then compared it to damage on replica swords by Neil Burridge after performing Andre Lignitzer’s six sword-and-buckler plays. I’d like to see more studies like this borrowing ideas from other martial arts like Shastar Vidiya to see which seem to work best with Bronze Age weapons from Europe. Fifteenth-century German fencing such as Andre Lignitzer’s plays has a lot of blade-on-blade contact and twisty actions while the blades are crossed, whereas other martial arts rely on the shield to defend or prefer simpler weapon-on-weapon actions. But I think that the evidence that swords from some periods often have marks characteristic of controlled parrying, whereas in other periods the edge damage is more random, is valuable. I am also glad that they experimented with common matchups like sword against spear, and not just the rare occasions when a sword was used against another warrior with a sword who was ready for the attack.
As it became clear in 1587 and 1588 that the Spanish were really going to send a fleet to collect the Army of Flanders and carry it across the channel to Kent or Essex, the English alternated between panic and self-delusion. No town in England had modern fortifications so the English put their trust in garrisons in temporary earthworks or “sconces” along threatened sections of coast. The Dutch had great success with sconces, and the militia was replacing its old bills and longbows with modern pikes, arquebuses, and muskets and surely that would be enough? Sir John Smythe of Little Badow, a crusty old veteran who had served in the wars on the continent, tells us what he thought of the English plan after spending the summer in Elizabeth’s camp at Tilbury:
I say, that if anie such as doo hold that won∣derfull opinion of the effects of Mosquettiers (how good soldiers soeuer they thinke themselues) were at anie Hauen in England with fiue or sixe thousand of the best Mosquettiers that they euer saw of our Eng∣lish nation, without 〈…〉 of horsemen and foot∣men of other weapons to backe them, I thinke they would worke verie small effect against the Enemie landing, although they had ensconsed themselues (as they terme it) in such Sconses as they and their Engi∣ners formed this last sommer 1588. vppon the Sea coasts of Suffolke, and in Essex and Kent, on both sides of the riuer of Thames. For if they should see a Nauie with an Armie of thirtie or fortie thousand men (be∣sides seamen, and such as should be left for the gard of the shipps) vnder some notable and sufficient General enter into anie capable Hauen of England, with wind and weather fit for their purpose, with intention to inuade (which God forbid) they should finde them∣selues in their opinions wonderfullie deceiued.
And Smythe is having a good rant, so he tells us exactly what would happen:
Today Schloss Ambras is the sort of castle where lizards scamper across the stones in the sun and wedding parties wander across the lawns looking for the perfect place for some photos. After all, it was converted to a living and hunting castle for Philippine Welser in the sixteenth century, with a beautiful sloped park full of trees, a scenic view down onto a gorge and the Inntal, and plenty of space for hunting. But like some other places, it has a few secrets. Read more
Trying to interpret armour in art is not a new project. By the beginning of the sixteenth century at the latest, Italian armourers were looking at Roman coins and sculpture and paintings (and perhaps the odd scrap of bronze pulled from a tomb) and trying to decide how to give their customers their own Roman armour. In this case, the armourer looked at one of the statues of a Roman emperor wearing a form-fitting breastplate of scales with embossed decoration, and tried to imitate it with a few nods to the taste of their own day. But not all is as it seems.