The Power of Old Books


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The reading room of an old library with bookcases along the walls, chandeliers, and wooden tables with leather-covered chairs

The reading room of the library of the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Photo by Sean Manning, March 2012.

For the last few weeks I have been trying to follow a lead on the origin of the idea that the Greeks made armour by gluing layers of linen together. Everyone who believes this theory today seems to have got it from the late Peter Connolly, but some of my American friends have found versions as early as 1869 (if you know of an earlier text linking glue and armour, please say so in the comments!) I think I can link it to Isaac Casaubon and another famous 16th century scholar, and show how between 1868 and 1875 their theory of linen soaked in vinegar until it became like felt turned into Connolly’s theory of linen soaked in glue until it became like a mask of bandages soaked in plaster. But my case for that will appear in a footnoted article not a blog post, and today I want to make a larger point which is useful even if you have never spent 10 minutes ranting about silly theories of armour construction.

Everyone with a browser and an uncensored Internet connection is two clicks away from every book in a great library. And if you chose to learn to use it, you can discover wonderful things know to very few people in this world. There are rooms full of books which which are interesting to some community today which have either been forgotten, or were never brought to the attention of that community because it did not exist in 1881. Armour in Texts might seem impressive, but most of the works there were quoted or summarized in about three books published before I was born. I did not find most of them by reading sources, I found most of them by reading people who had read sources and noted down which were useful for understanding armour. The farther back I dig into scholarly books on armour, the more interesting sources I find which nobody seems to read.

It helps if you can read even a little bit of any major language other than English, and if you know a little bit about 19th and early 20th century culture to spot the Edwardian equivalent of Osprey books and self-published treatises on how mainstream science is totally wrong. But I know plenty of people without a lot of university education or knowledge of other languages who have still found and copied useful things. This work is too big for me: I have a dissertation to finish, and I do not love every kind of learning equally.

Google Books and are the best known collections of digitized books, but even more useful are French projects like Persee and Gallica and German projects by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and the University of Kassel. These projects are run by libraries and universities, and librarians are expert in putting books away in a place where they can be found again, and in warning people about issues like the different forms of letters used before the 20th century. (Google rushed to scan books and refused to listen to librarians, so about a third of their books are mis-catalogued and many have transcriptions which make basic blunders like confusing ʃ and f … and it is much more expensive to correct these mistakes after they have been scanned and processed than it would have been if they had moved more slowly and done it right the first time). But having any of these resources is a treasure, and it gives you powers which were once limited to people living in Vienna or Paris or London.
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2017 Year-Ender


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This picture combines deer, hockey, and a snowless New Year … what could be more Victoria than that?

Another year ends in the manner of the one which ended Xenophon’s Hellenica: after terrible battles and startling results, there is not peace but confusion and disorder. Xenophon’s perplexity lead to a Sacred War, 300 dead lions on the plain of Chaeronea, and the King dead in an abandoned carriage as his conqueror bent down and took his seal with clean white hands. As for me, I am getting to know the local deer and my old library.

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Some Thoughts on “Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia”


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An oblong sealstone showing a horseman stabbing a charging boar with a lance

A stamp seal of chalcedony in a ?modern? silver mount and an example of the impressions which it leaves on clay. British Museum, Museum Number 120325. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013) ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (Oxbow Books)

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia deserves a wide readership because it is brave enough to try to talk about what life was like in Anatolia in the 220 years when it was part of a timeless empire with Persian kings. The only texts which survive come from the far western and southern fringes, where mountain chieftains and coastal cities carved messages into stone and a few writings became part of the classical tradition. But it has been well studied archaeologically, partially because the region is rich in metal and stone, and partially because Turkey is usually a safe and orderly country open to foreigners. For most of the last century, it was easier for foreign archaeologists to work in Turkey than in Turkmenistan or the Sinai.
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How Much Did a Shirt Really Cost in the Middle Ages?


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A painting of peasants eating and napping under a tree while others harvest grain

Peter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565: now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession number 19.164). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some people on the Internet are curious about how much a shirt cost in the middle ages. Now you could try to answer that question by trying to calculate how long it would take to spin and weave the linen and sew the shirt, combining your guesses in an elaborate chain of assumptions using your big modern educated brain. A certain Eve Fisher imagined and calculated and came up with the figures $3500 or $4200 for a shirt like those depicted by painters like Peter Brueghel the Elder. This has been re-posted by a number of popular websites, and several weavers and spinners have dropped by her website to comment that they are not so sure about some of her assumptions. But did you know that we can skip all of these guesses and calculations, and the questions which they pose about whether we spin and weave as fast as people in the past, and just ask medieval people how much they paid for a shirt?

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Ctesias Corrects Herodotus


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A view of Innsbruck looking south between trees over the river and town in the valley

What would Ctesias or Herodotus have made of Innsbruck? We do not have many kings or monsters, although I am told that one village once had a problem with giants.

“Ktesias ‘Korrigiert’ Herodot” is an article which is widely cited, but it first appeared in a Festschrift rather than a downloadable journal, and it is written in beautiful academic German and a somewhat associative style which makes it difficult for foreigners to follow. I recently made my way through it and thought I would write down my thoughts.

Bichler is interested in how to evaluate the Persica of Ctesias of Cnidus, who was very influential and disagrees with our other sources on many points. Ctesias’ work is lost except for one scrap of papyrus containing 27 lines, but he seems to have presented himself as a serious historian, interested in seeing things himself or hearing them from witnesses, and eager to criticize earlier writers for errors. He spent 17 years in the Persian empire as a prisoner and court physician, much of that time at court in Babylonia, Media, and Persis, and his presence is explicitly acknowledged by a contemporary (whereas the only evidence for Herodotus’ travels is Herodotus’ own words, and Herodotus never claimed to have travelled east of Sidon). And the problem is that most of what he says contradicts our other major sources like Herodotus and Xenophon. Since we have few ways to check the things which he and Herodotus say, a lot depends on who we decide to believe and what we think they were trying to do.
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Armour of the Month: A St. George from Styria


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A late 14th century statue of St. George and the dragon in smooth stone

The St. George from Großlobming, Styria, in the Belvedere, Wien.

If you make your way to the Belvedere in Vienna, grumble at the steep price for tickets and gawk at the splendid, arrogant promenade sloping down towards the city centre and the lower pavilion, you will find yourself in the marble lobby of the Upper Belvedere. On the upper floors they have the Napoleon Crossing the Alps by David, some colourful paintings by Gustav Klimt, and a lot of softcore nudes for lonely Victorian gentlemen, but the most magnificent work is in a little suite of rooms on the ground floor opposite the gift shop and the cafe: a collection of statues from a little village church in the hills of Styria. I could talk about each of them, but because this blog is what it is, I will focus on the St. George.

Take a few moments to take him in: the expressive arms, the long slender profile with a high narrow waist and a deep rounded chest, the ethereal, emotionless face as he places his lance just right … some of the best things about Latin Christian art at the end of the 14th century in one statue. The little church does not have records of when it was redecorated, so when he was made can only be guessed at: probably sometime within 20 years of 1380.

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Cross-Post: Paladin Press is Shutting Down


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Paladin Press in the USA, republisher of old military and intelligence manuals and publisher of the only handbook for plate armourers, an early interpretation of Sigmund Ringeck’s teachings on the longsword, and many excited books and videos with “combat” “tactical” “street” or “survival” in the title, is going out of business on 30 November 2017. Until the end of November, all of their products are on sale.

They helped a lot of skillful, quirky people get their knowledge into print, and they stood up against censorship for 47 years. Self-publishing companies owned by megacorps don’t provide as much help, and they never, ever censor exactly the things which you want them to censor while letting you read about the things that you want to read about.

Any One Method of Communication Can and Will Fail


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A commentator on the Angry Staff Officer’s blog introduced me to Major Digby Tatham-Warter (d. 1993):

A Company was then chosen by the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Dutton Frost, to lead the 2nd Parachute Battalion in the Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market Garden, because of Digby’s reputation of being an aggressive commander. In preparation Digby, concerned about the unreliability of radios, educated his men on how to use bugle calls that had been used during the Napoleonic Wars for communication in case the radios failed. He also took an umbrella with his kit as a means of identification because he had trouble remembering passwords and felt that anyone who saw him with it would think that “only a bloody fool of an Englishman” would carry an umbrella into battle.

A Company were dropped away from the target of Arnhem Bridge and had to go through Arnhem where the streets were blocked by German forces. Digby led his men through the back gardens of nearby houses instead of attempting to advance through the streets and thus avoided the Germans. Digby and A Company managed to travel 8 miles in 7 hours while also taking prisoner 150 German soldiers including members of the SS. … Digby was later injured by shrapnel, which also cut open the rear of his trousers but continued to fight until A Company had run out of ammunition. Despite the radios being unreliable as Digby had predicted and the bugle calls being used most in the battle, the message “out of ammo, God save The King” was radioed out before Digby was captured.

Wikipedia s.v. Digby Tatham-Warter

Now, that story makes me think of lots of things, but one of them was another piece of soporific prose about an exciting subject:

[We shall, furthermore, train the army to distinguish sharply the commands] given sometimes by the voice, sometimes by visible signals, and sometimes by the bugle. The most distinct commands are those given by the voice, but they may not carry at all times because of the clash of arms or heavy gusts of wind; less affected by uproar are the commands given by signals; but even these may be interfered with now and then by the sun’s glare, thick fog and dust, or heavy rain. One cannot, therefore, find signals, to which the phalanx has been accustomed, suitable for every circumstance that arises, but now and then new signals must be found to meet the situation; but it is hardly likely that all the difficulties appear at the same time, so that a command will be indistinguishable both by bugle, voice, and signal.

Asclepiodotus, Tactica 12.10 (very similar passages appear in Aelian and Arrian but tracking them down is too much work for a blog post)

Some scholars are indignant that although we have three surviving manuals on Hellenistic tactics, they are all concise, academic paraphrases of one or two common sources, sources which were probably also written by armchair scholars who had read the works of fighting soldiers like Pyrrhus of Epirus and Polybius. It is true that these manuals describe an ideal army, not an army which actually existed at a particular place and time: their purpose is to give a general idea of how a Macedonian phalanx worked. But they also contain plenty of excellent practical advice, which can be learned painfully and dangerously through experience or safely and comfortably from books and adventurous friends.

In this case, the lesson is “any one method of communications can and will fail, so prepare several and be ready to improvise.” You can phrase it like that, or more colourfully in Murphy’s Laws of Combat, or in business-speak in warnings about the danger of showing up to a presentation with your slides in a format which the local computer can’t read, but it is a very useful principle.

As Asclepioditus also says: “These are in brief the principles of the tactician; they mean safety to those who follow them and danger to those who disobey.” Being caught unprepared in combat when your communications fail is much more dangerous than being caught unprepared when your one alarm fails to go off before an early-morning flight.

Cross-Post: Historical Metalworking Courses in Saskatchewan


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The cheekguard of a bronze Chalcidian helmet, in repoussé, by Jeffrey Hildebrandt. Horsey!

Jeffrey Hildebrandt is offering several courses on historical metalworking techniques in Saskatoon, Sakatchewan this winter.

Schedule for 2017

4 – Repoussé. Learn the basics of this venerable art form, creating fine relief work over pitch. $150 + tax
18/19 – Spangenhelm. Build your own Viking helmet using historical armouring processes. $250 + tax
2 – Jewellery Pendants. Learn techniques in etching, stamping and pierce-work while making several pendants. $150 + tax
9 – Victorian Christmas Ornaments. Have some festive fun crafting Christmas ornaments as gifts and decorations, while picking up some traditional tinsmithing skills. $150 + tax

Additional Information

No previous experience required
4-5 students per course. Spillover interest may lead to additional courses.
Course fees can be paid digitally to register – contact me by email.
Register early to secure your spot; free cancellation up to a week before the class.
All tools and materials are supplied, and you keep what you make.

To register before the classes fill write to Jeffrey Hildebrandt ( All prices are in CAD.