sixteenth century

Insights from Experience, Excavation, and Reconstruction

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.

Figure 7 from Hermann et al. 2020 (see below). Left is a replica sword which has delivered a strike to the socket of a bronze spearhead, right is an original bronze sword

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.

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What if the Armada Had Landed?

A parade with men in full armour on armoured horses and a thick cluster of pikes in the background
A good Protestant Englishman’s worst nightmare: Ermanni and Jacopo Ligozzi, fresco with a Cavalcade of Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII into Bologna, 1570s, from the Casa Fumanelli a Santa Maria in Organo, Verona, now in the Museo degli Affreschi, Verona, no. 1466

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:
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A Famous Couplet

Self at Naqš-e Rostam, May 2016. Is it not passing brave to study this, And stroll in triumph through Persepolis? With apologies to Christopher Marlowe.


Fortification Report: Schloss Ambras, Part 1

A field of ashphault leading up to an impressive stone gateway in a large, plastered wall.
The gate to the lower court, Schloss Ambras. Photo by Sean Manning, July 2013.

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.
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Tromp l’oeil

Armour consisting of a crested burgonet with beak and small cheek-pieces and a breastplate with an upper breast embossed with a mask and floral patterns and a middle and lower chest embossed with scales
A burgonet and cuirass alla antica in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. No information from label available. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

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.

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