Needle Cases and Knowing the Past


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A case for pins and needles consisting of a flat piece of leather lined with felt

A flat leather needle case or ‘housewife.’ The two large flaps covered in felt fold together, then the third smaller flap folds over them to hold it closed.

I sew by hand, and I like to use this needle case. It holds pins better than my pincushion, it is easy to pack away and set up wherever I am working, and I like the feel of the stamped leather in my hand. I bought it from someone at a medieval fair 20 years and several lifetimes ago.

Now, if you ask most people how ancient and medieval people stored pins and needles, they will show you metal or bone cylindrical cases with lids, and maybe speculate about leather or wooden versions. As for the pins and needles themselves, they will usually point out clumsy things suitable for making sails or picking a lock. But there is a problem of evidence. They point to these things because they appear in collections of small finds and are reported by metal detectorists. And wee little fishbone or steel needles don’t survive as well as giant bronze ones, and are not as easy to detect and identify. A folding needlecase is just as hard to spot, especially if it is not of vegetable-tanned leather. Hide which is treated in other ways, with drying, oil, fat, or alum, tends to break down in the ground, and in many cultures these other treatments were much more common than tanning with oak or other sources of tannins. A folding needlecase also suits conditions before the 20th century, because it required few materials or tools: just a scrap of leather and felt, which can be made from the ‘cabbage’ left over from cutting larger items, and a needle and thread to put it together. Before the 20th century, preparing the materials for clothing was usually much more expensive than turning them into a specific product.

So how long have people been using these before someone at the fair sat down at their crafts table to earn some pocket money? I have no idea. But I would expect it to be very long indeed, and much longer than I can prove. In studying ancient history, you have to accept that all kinds of things were done which you can’t prove. And I am OK with that.

Further Reading: Carol van Driel-Murray of the Archaeological Leather Group has been one of the leading figures in laying out the evidence that vegetable tanning was not the dominant way of treating hides in the ancient and medieval world.

Cross-Post: Call for Papers “Fight Books in Comparative Perspective” November 2017



Sixt Wetzler of the Deutsches Klingenmuseum, Solingen, is organizing a conference which some of my readers might be interested in. It will take place in Germany on 9 and 10 November 2017.

St. Martin Conference is the title of a new series of academic conferences held at Deutsches Klingenmuseum (German Blade Museum) in Solingen, Germany. It will be dedicated to topics from the field of edged weapons: their production and cultural history, the schools and traditions of their use, and their reception in modern culture, among others.

The first St. Martin Conference on 9./10. NOV 2017 will be discussing “Fight Books in Comparative Perspective”. From the famous wrestling scenes of the cemetery site of Beni Hasan in Egypt to self-defense manuals of the globalized martial arts world of the 21st century: The depiction and description of body techniques of combat is a phenomenon that can be witnessed throughout history and worldwide. For several hundred years, such techniques have been laid down by image and/or word in a huge number of fight books from (at least) Europe, India, and East Asia, and were largely, but not exclusively concerned with the use of edged weapons.

The books are among the most significant and informative artifacts of martial arts culture, and their interpretation is an important task for martial arts studies.

The conference wants to open a comparative, multidisciplinary approach towards these artifacts. Scholars from all relevant fields (martial arts studies, literary studies, linguistics, art history, cultural studies, Asian studies, history, sports and movement sciences, among others) are invited to discuss topics that could include:

• Materiality: What can the material properties of a fight book reveal about its intended function and actual use?
• Depiction of technique: What visual strategies are applied to render movement into image?
• Textuality: Which terminologies and forms of text are chosen to convey the techniques to the reader?
• Weaponry: For which weapons are the described techniques intended, and what does that reveal about their audience?
• Martial arts context: What do the books tell us about the martial arts world they are part of?
• Wider historical context: Which role do the fight books play in the society they belong to, and how do they reflect it?

In the last years, questions concerning fight books have mainly been discussed on the basis of medieval and early modern European examples. The conference explicitly wants to widen the scope, both geographically and historically. To this purpose, a minimal working definition of “fight book” shall encompass all kinds of media that try to systematize and/or transmit body techniques
for close quarter combat. Contributions are welcome on all types of relevant source ‘texts’, from the abovementioned Egyptian murals to modern, digital media. They can either focus on a single text (or family of texts), or contrast sources from different times and places with each other. The goal of the two days will be to integrate the presented studies into a common perspective. During the conference, the Klingenmuseum will exhibit its rich collection of fight books, the oldest of which date from the mid-16th century.

The deadline for proposals (a 300 word abstract plus a 100 word biography) is 31 May 2017. For more information see

Rationalizing Cunaxa


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At the battle of Cunaxa, two claimants to the Persian throne lined up their armies. One of them had a large force of Greek infantry, and both kings had men in their armies who went on to become famous writers. One of those aristocratic camp followers, Xenophon, tells a story which has puzzled many readers (Anabasis 1.8.19 from the Loeb). When the armies were about 600 or 800 yards apart, the Greek mercenaries ran forward:

And before an arrow reached them, the barbarians broke and fled. Thereupon the Greeks pursued with all their might, but shouted meanwhile to one another not to run at a headlong pace, but to keep their ranks in the pursuit.

It was very common in the 5th century BCE for one side to run away as the enemy approached, or after a few moments of fighting hand-to-hand. Combat is terrifying, and most soldiers of the day did not have a lot of practice working as a group. But it is very unusual for an army to run away before the enemy was within bowshot. What happened?

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In Praise of Folly


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A painting of a fool in red and green mi-parti wheeling a man wearing an extravagant plumed hat in a wheelbarrow

A wheelbarrow painted on the ceiling of the Fembohaus, Nürnberg. Photo by Sean Manning, March 2017.

A few half-timbered houses survived the bombing of Nürnberg, and several of them have become museums. The Fembohaus is dedicated to life in Nürnberg from the 15th to the 18th century, and one of its charming decorations is this painting of a fool driving another fool in a barrow.

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New and Not-So-New Publications


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A photo of a busy square with an ornamental column and reflecting pool

Ancient History 9 has an article on the agora of Athens, so how about a picture of Innsbruck’s equivalent? A view towards the Nordkette along Marien-Theresien-Straße. Photo by Sean Manning, April 2017.

While I can’t pull the lid off Ninkasi’s vat to announce some projects which are still fermenting, today I would like to remind my gentle readers about two other new publications.

First, I have a short article on Marduk and Tiamat in issue 9 of Ancient History magazine. The focus of that issue is on Athens in the fourth century BCE, but there are also articles on Sicilian and Egyptian topics. If you like Peter Connolly’s The Ancient City you will like this issue. Check it out!

Second, I have obtained permission to release a pre-print of my paper on the mnemonic techniques employed in the writings of Fiore dei Liberi, a fencing master from Friuli who died some time after February 1410 CE. It was scheduled for a conference proceedings which was intended to appear in 2014 but which has been delayed. I hope it has something useful for fencers who want to learn more about medieval studies, and medievalists who want to learn more about physical culture. You can download the PDF from my website. (It is not beautifully formatted, because I made it from a PDF of the proofs which I had to convert to LibreOffice to edit then back to PDF to post; I am sorry, but going through the file and correcting the formatting would be very time consuming, and I can’t afford to take that many hours away from my other writing projects).

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Responding to an Allegation



Although I wanted to post something short and light, today I feel it necessary to answer an allegation.

Obwohl ich lieber etwas leicht schreiben würde, fühle ich mich heute verpflichtet, einen Vorwurf zu antworten.

A photo of the bare stone keep of a cliff-top castle overlooking a small town

Burg Fragenstein over the town of Zirl in the Inntal, Austria. For more information see Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

As you know, I am in the habit of travelling Tirol and taking photos, notes, and sketches of military installations, like this strategic point overlooking the local tennis court.

Als Sie wissen, ist es für mich üblich, um Tirol zu reisen und Bilder, Zetteln, und Skizzen von militarischen Installierungen zu machen.

A cannon with a barrel made of an iron core inserted into a long and wrapped with iron bands

A cannon with a wood-and-iron barrel made for the Tirolean revolt circa 1810 and captured by the Bavarians after its betrayal. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, object W622.

I also have a professional interest in Austrian military hardware, whether the Landeszeughaus in Graz or this wooden cannon captured by the Bavarians during their temporary rule over Tirol.

Ich habe auch eine Berufsinteresse in den österreichischen Kriegsgeräten, entweder das Landeszeughaus in Graz mit seinem Plattenharnisch aus dem 17. Jahrhundert oder diese Holzkanone, die von der Bayern als Kriegsbeute um 1810 nach München gebracht war.

A meeting in the Hermitage Theatre, St. Petersburg. The reactionary activities of a certain California grape farmer were not on the program, and nobody got tipped into a canal.

And of course I travel on short notice to exciting cities like Isfahan, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Venice, and Glasglow and send cryptically labelled money transfers to publishers and artisans across Europe. Such is the life of an orientalist.

Und natürlich reise ich auch kurtzfristig nach spannenden Städten wie Isfahan, St. Petersburg, Wien, Venedig, Glasgow, und schicke kryprische getitelte Geldüberweisungen nach Herausgeber und HandwerkerInnen in ganzen Europa. Solche ist das Leben eines Altorientalistes.

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PSA: Terrorism 101


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a nightmare attack … a country where 500 counterterrorism investigations are underway at any one time … the resilience that comes with living for years with a severe threat of attack … the attack on democracy was met with defiance … Parliament Buildings all over the democratic world are under threat from those who want to destroy democracy and freedom … “(residents of the city) will never be cowed by terrorism.”

– Some journalistic cliches by someone who should really really know better

As I watch the media cycle repeat itself after the latest assassination, bombing, or mass shooting, I feel compelled to imitate Gwynne Dyer. The modern kind of terrorism did not exist in the ancient world, and I don’t even own a leather jacket. But studying organized violence is my profession, and there are plenty of textbooks for terrorists and counter-terrorists around, as well as books which explain them for beginners. (General Sir Rupert Smith, a retired British general, has published one book for a general audience on the topic and recorded a podcast which summarizes how professionals think about terrorism and insurgency). And I am very concerned that fifteen almost sixteen (!) years after a local tragedy in New York and Pennsylvania, we are still responding in a way which makes further attacks more likely, and still talking about this problem in a way which is not much more sophisticated than it was then.

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The Largest Armies in World History


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A reproduction of a battle between Persians and Macedonians painted on glazed tiles

This battle scene is crowded, but just how many men are supposed to be involved? A detail of the reproduction of the Darius Mosaic from Pompeii in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

The most recent issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (X.6) contains an article on the battle of Chang-Ping in the Warring States period where allegedly several hundred thousand conscripts lost their lives. In western Eurasia, the first reliable evidence that anyone brought a hundred thousand or more combatants to a battle appears around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. (I could talk about what counts as reliable evidence, but suffice it to say that this is an empirical question and that numbers in stories about armies long ago and far away do not count). Occasionally one hears higher figures from India or China. Does any of my gentle readers know if those sizes are based on any real evidence, or just the usual choice between the various numbers given in stories about the battle?

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Announcing Armour in Texts


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An 18th century coloured print of a man in armour from neck to foot wearing a long straight sword and a carbine on a sling

The armour which Maurice de Saxe had made sometime before 1757, from the French edition of Mes Rêveries.

Back in 2014 I began a project to address a problem which I noticed. Amateur students of armour seemed to have trouble finding written sources, and historians specialized in one period sometimes seemed not to notice things which I saw again and again in the world history of armour. For example, my reading in the world history of prices in general, and armour prices specifically, makes me read the statement that Athenian settlers needed to bring arms worth 30 drachmas differently than some other ancient historians do (for a list of sources, see Van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, p. 52, plus the Salamis Decree from the Acropolis at Athens). From watching the traffic on my blog, I noticed that if you give people a link to sources, many of them will follow it. In my view, making sources available is the single most important thing which historians can do: interpretations change and are a product of our culture, but sources are foreign and reading enough of them makes it hard to have any simple interpretation of history, or believe that people in other cultures and other times think just like we do. But often sources on armour are published in out-of-print books in a handful of libraries, or available in old translations by people who were not especially interested in material culture.

Unfortunately, I have had to put this project aside for two years now, so I think it is time to make sure that my gentle readers know about Armour in Texts.

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The Ice-Spitting Dragons of Innsbruck


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A copper rainspout with an icicle hanging from its mouth

The dragon-mouthed waterspout on the former church opposite the Marktplatz, Innsbruck. Photo by Sean Manning, January 2017.

A few weeks ago the Scholarly Skater asked “What beautiful old places are there where you live? Send me some pictures so I can enjoy them, too!” I took some photos in January which sort of qualify.

Dog people know how dogs start to pant when they get too hot. Dragon people know that some species start to drool when they get too cold. While the days when the Tirolers spent all winter huddled in the parlor* or the kitchen are long gone, there is usually snow on the ground in the valley bottoms for a few weeks per year. The dragons sometimes get tetchy as they warm up, and have been known to spit ice at passersby. A former room-mate was injured by one of these spitting dragons. The City of Innsbruck has the street-cleaners keep careful watch on buildings where dragons are nesting, and leans colourful wooden poles against buildings to warn pedestrians not to approach until the cold weather is over.

A copper rainspout with an icicle hanging from it

Another view of the dragon-headed rain gutter on the former church opposite the Marktplatz, Innsbruck. Photo by Sean Manning, January 2017.

* German Stube “a heated room for sitting” … semantically equivalent to English parlour (a Weinstube in Tirol today is more or less a beer parlour in Farley Mowat’s Saskatchewan) but etymologically related to the word which came into English as stove because that was what made it fit for sitting in in winter)