Long ago I heard the story of the South Italian prince who interrupted a discussion about the army’s new uniforms with “dress them in red, blue, or yellow, they will run away all the same.” The story embodies a truth that there is a big difference between looking like an army and being an army (and that some types of reform have more of an impact than others). But where does it come from? Twentieth-century British writers like Bernard Cornwell love telling stories about European foreigners and their national deficiencies, and I grew up reading a lot of twentieth-century British and US writers.Read more
An article by Roel Konijnendijk and Paul Bardunias reminded me of one of the passages which made researchers rethink early Greek warfare. Plato’s dialogue Laches discusses the nature of courage and the value of education or training. Laches, a gruff soldier, has just defined courage or manhood in the way Athenians in Plato’s day usually defined it: as the ability to stay in the place assigned to you and defend yourself. Plato’s Socrates can think of some counter-examples:Read more
Greek and Roman literature is certainly an important collection of evidence for clothing in the Achaemenid empire. Most of these passages describe the clothing of the king and satraps, or simply say that such-and-such is the Persian equivalent of a Greek garment. Herodotus and Strabo provide information about the garments of other people. Herodotus says that Babylonian men dress as follows:Read more
Unless you have the right kind of experience, its hard to understand what it was like for most people to go up against a really good army. Most soldiers before the 19th century did their first training as a group when they were gathered together with thousands of other soldiers to fight someone, and nobody could afford to keep that army together for long in friendly territory, so a lot of battles looked like a university soccer team versus Real Madrid. If team sports are not your thing, one of the chronicles of Timur the Lame gives us an idea of what coming up against one of these few good armies was like. The Syrians had left Aleppo to fight Timur in the open, and when the terrified remains of their army returned to the city some of the Mongols entered with them. At first the governors of Syria did not think that all was lost:Read more
Today anyone who wants to can download photos of almost all the European fencing manuals written before the 20th century, and often buy a convenient reprint or translation. But this makes it difficult to get a sense of the genre as a whole. Which manuals should someone who is just getting interested in the subject read first? How can we decide which texts our readers or listeners are likely to know, so that when we mention them it helps them understand? The last academic monograph on the subject, Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (2000) is organized by themes so information on any one manual or tradition is scattered across different chapters.
So this week, I would like to give a short list of books which is representative of European fencing manuals before the middle of the 17th century.
For at least 15 or 20 years, people who attend the right events and drink with the right people have known that much of the fencing jargon in later fencing manuals first appears in French chivalric literature of the 12th and 13th century. In 2015 Olivier Dupuis published an article in Acta Periodica Duellatorum so the evidence is available to everyone. But he overlooked one important source, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet. This was written in German but inspired by a “welsh (Romance-language) book” brought to Austria by one of the hostages for Richard the Lion-Heart named Hugh de Morville. Ulrich was so impressed by it that he translated it into German. We don’t have any one manuscript in French or Norman or Occitan which tells the exact same story. Translating a romance could be a creative process in the middle ages, and ancient and medieval writers loved to disguise fiction as “a translation of a manuscript in a foreign language which I discovered.” But in terms of content Lanzelet is very much a romance of the late 12th century, with strong parallels to Welsh and Irish stories. Fencing appears in three or four stories in this romance.
The first story comes from Lancelot’s education by his guardians in the Otherworld. There were no soldiers or horsemen there and he was still a child so he learned other skills:
At the youth’s request the lady did a wise thing, for he seemed to her a lively boy: she sent for mermen (merwunder) and had them teach him to fence (lêren schirmen: 279). In this exercise he would never give up before he had to. He had also to play prisoners’ base, to jump extraordinary distances, to wrestle strenuously (starclîche ringen: 284), to hurl stones, both big and little, a good distance, to throw darts (he was never wearied by any of his instruction), to still-hunt, to hawk, to chase with the full pack, and to shoot with the bow. The men who came from the sea gave him skill. In all ways was he wise and manly, but about knightly horsemanship (ritterschaft) he knew nothing whatsoever, for he never mounted a horse, and he was ignorant of armour (harnasch). And so he grew to be fifteen years old in that land.
– lines 275-301 of the Bibliotheca Augusta transcription based on W. Spiewok’s edition from 1997. I have adapted the translation in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, Lanzelet: A Romance of Lancelot, tr. Kenneth G. T. Webster, ann. Roger Sherman Loomis (Columbia University Press: New York, 1951) pp. 28-29
Ulrich makes fun of his hero when he first gets on a horse and takes a spear in his hand.
The second story comes from one of Lancelot’s indiscretions with his host’s daughter or wife (this time it is his daughter, there are signs that she was his wife in an earlier version of the story like in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). They take great pleasure in each other for the night, but dawn is coming:
For one of my projects on linen armour, I had to quickly check a reference to the memoirs of Usāmah Ibn-Munqidh, a garrulous old pirate with lots of tall tales about fighting and hunting and the barbarous customs of the Franks. As I was flipping through it, I discovered another story which I want to share.
The Ismāˁīlites … attacked the Castle of Shayzar (in 1109 or 1114 CE) … On that day I had an encounter with an Ismāˁīlite, who had a dagger in his hand, while I had my sword. He rushed on me with a dagger, and I hit him in the middle of his forearm as he was grasping the handle of the dagger in his hand and holding the blade close to his forearm. My blow cut off about four inches of the blade and cut his forearm in two in the middle. The mark of the edge of the dagger was left on the edge of my sword. An artisan in our town, seeing it, said, “I can remove this dent from it.” But I said, “Leave it as it is. This is the best thing in my sword.” The trace is there to the present day. Whenever one sees it he knows it is the trace of a knife.
– Philip K. Hitti, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usāmah Ibn-Munqidh (Columbia University Press: New York, 1929) pp. 146, 147 https://archive.org/details/AnArab-SyrianGentlemanAndWarriorInThePeriodOfTheCrusadesMemoirsOfUsamaIbn-Munqidh-PhilipK.Hitti/page/n155/
Foreigners who are not up on the details of Islamic theology call the Ismāˁīlites the Assassins after the hashish which they were said to consume. Shaizar is at a ford of the Orontes River in Syria.
For 10,000 years or so, clothing was so expensive that most people could only afford a few outfits. Then over the past lifetime they suddenly became so cheap that for people in a rich country, storage space is the main concern. We see traces of this in inventories of family property during divorces outside the Valley of the Kings, in Babylonian invoices for one suit of clothing per soldier per year, and then in medieval post-mortem inventories and sumptuary laws, but it continued later than we like to remember. A snatch of old verse was stuck in Robert Heinlein’s head:
There’s a pawn shop on the corner
Where I usually keep my overcoat.
Now, today a synthetic winter coat would hardly be worth pawning (a day’s minimum wage?), but a woollen one of 2-5 yards of fulled cloth could last decades and cost accordingly. A passage by George Bernard Shaw touches on this from another angle.