source

Like Experts against Ignorants

the stone-walled citadal of Aleppo on its steep hill
The citadel of Aleppo in 2010 care of Wikipedia Commons. Someone removed the moat. During the Syrian Civil War, the citadel of Aleppo fell again to a tyrant.

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

Apropos of Nothing

Early in the pandemic, British History Online was free to access. And I remember reading an Anglo-Norman proclamation from Edward II or Edward III forbidding anyone whatsoever from bringing any daggers, swords, hatchets, bows and arrows, long knives, aketons, plates, steel caps, or other offensive or defensive arms into sight of the palace at Westminister... Continue reading: Apropos of Nothing

Twelve Early European Fencing Manuals

reprints of four early European fencing manuals on an ironing board covered with a colourful cotton print

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.
Read more


Sword and Buckler Fencing in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven

two monsters with serpentine lower bodies fighting with clubs and bucklers
I don’t know of any mermen fencing so how about these marginalia monsters? Fighting with clubs instead of swords was popular as a way of managing danger, some of the legislators trying to take control of duelling proposed to allow clubs but ban sharp weapons (Ariella Elema, “Tradition, Innovation, Re-Enactment: Hans Talhoffer’s Unusual Weapons.” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 7.1 (2019) https://doi.org/10.2478/apd-2019-0001). From Besançon BM MS.551 Miracles de Notre Dame folio 87r c/o Manuscript Miniatures

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:
Read more


Well Struck!

a group of seated people silhouetted against the sky of a cave mouth with an Iranian flag in the background
This is a cave above a valley in Iran. Those who have been there will know what it is, those who have not don’t need to know. Photo copyright D. Dolnig 2016.

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.
Read more


Two Dresses a Year

Three women in dressnding on bicycles with straight handlebars
Vivie Warren was more of a hiker and target shooter than a cyclist but this photo will do! Female cyclists from the end of the 19th century c/o the Victoria and Albert Museum http://media.vam.ac.uk/feature/lightbox/v1/album_images/59473-large.jpg

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.
Read more


Good King Robert’s Testament

A group of soldiers in full suits of mail with bascinets and kettle hats and lances or axes and shields in their hands are standing in water on the left. A group of men in pseuydo-antique robes, one of them with a Jewish hat and the rest bare-headed, hold swords and axes and stand on land on the right
Soldiers and civilians in the age of Bannockburn (pharaoh’s soldiers drowning in the sea?) on folio 24v of the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library BL Royal 2 B VII, painted in London c. 1310-1320). A good general doesn’t plan for miracles!

Throughout the long five hundred years of war between Scottish and English kings, the Scots tended to win the wars but lose the big battles. Scotland was a smaller and poorer kingdom, and the way of fighting battles that the Scots were good at (lining up big masses of spearmen and axemen with jacks and steel caps) was not very effective against the way that the English were good at (dismounting their armed men and galling the enemy with arrows until they charged, breaking formation as they came because no prince in Europe could keep a large army together long enough to drill it). A fourteen-line gem of a poem describes the way of fighting which proved most successful in campaign after campaign:

On fur suld be all Scottis weire, // weire = Wehr, defense
By hyll and mosse themself to reare. // reare: roar? an earlier edition has weire “defend”
Lat woods for wallis be bow and speire,
That innymeis do them na deire.
In strait placis gar keep all store,
And byrnen ye planeland thaim before.
Thane sall thai pass away in haist
Wenn that thai find na thing but waist.
With wykes and waykings of the nyght // wyke: wake
And mekill noyis maid on hytht, // mekill: big, large
Thaime sall ye turnen with gret affrai, // affray: fright, alarm
As thai ware chassit with swerd away.
This is the counsall and intent
Of gud King Robert’s testiment.

– After Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War: The Middle Ages from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century. New and Cheaper Issue (Meuthen & Co.: London, 1905) p. 579 https://archive.org/details/historyofartofw00oman/

Now roll that around in your mouth a bit and savour it. Enjoy the language and the rhythm and the joy with which it describes something horrible in ways that poor crofters and shepherds can understand. Think about how rare it is to have something like this from the side which was wise to avoid battle. And then if you really must, go on where I ask my annoying academic question, namely where does this poem come from?
Read more


Bow Estates Already Under Nebuchadnezzar

Sometimes the tablet-gods smile on us. Over the last hundred years, scholars have worked to establish when the properties known as bow, horse, and chariot estates first appeared in Mesopotamia. Earlier writers often saw them as examples of Iranian feudalism, imposed on Babylonia by the Medes or Persians, but there were a few examples under Nabonidus. Then in 1998 Michael Jursa reread a text from Uruk from the 35th year of Nebuchadnezzar with the following lines:

(15) 1 GUR 2 PI ŠE.NUMUN E2 GIŠ.BAN ša2 {m}Dan-/e-<>\-a
ša2 {m}{d}U.GUR-da-a-nu a-na er-ru-šu-tu2
i-ir-ši maš-ka-a-nu ša2 {m}Gi-mil-lu
a-di {m}G-mil-lu ŠE.NUMUN i-šal-lim

Vocabulary
rašû i/i “to get, acquire”
erušutu > erēşu “to seed
maškanu “security, pledge”

1 kur 2 pi of seed (ie. field which is sown with 7 bushels of barley), the bow estate of Dannēa, which Nergal-dān acquired to sow, is pledged to Gimillu, until Gimillu received the barley.

Read more


A Lombard Silver Bowl

A plate wrought with a horseman in a shirt of mail riding down a man on foot with a two-handed thrust of a lance.  Another infantryman has already fallen atop his large round shield.
Detail from a wrought silver plate in the Castelvecchio, Verona. Said to come from northern Italy and date to the sixth century CE. Photo by Sean Manning.

One of the treasures housed in the Castelvecchio of Verona is an extraordinary silver plate. It dates a bit later than the Sasanid silverwork which I have blogged about before, to the age which gave us Maurice’s Strategikon when East Romans, Goths, and Lombards were struggling for control in Italy and destroying what was left of the wealth and learning built up in the centuries when Rome ruled the world.
Read more