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.

http://www.paladin-press.com/

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

November
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
December
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 (master@royaloakarmoury.com) All prices are in CAD.

A Sword is a Two-Edged Gift

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A long, straight, two-edged dagger of solid gold with a hilt cast into ram's heads

A golden akinakes in a private collection. “Said to be from Hamadan” (ancient Ecbatana), first documented in 1956. 41.27 cm long, 817 g. For details, see Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia p. 233 no. 430
Courtesy of Samira Amir https://www.pinterest.com/samiraamir/

A time long ago- maybe in Darius’ Ecbatana, maybe in the bazaars of Tehran around the time Mosaddegh was overthrown- someone made this golden dagger. The classical sources let us see what such gifts could mean.

For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.8

I don’t know whether Xenophon was correct about that last point: lots of Persians in sculptures from court or cemeteries in the provinces wear golden bracelets and silver torcs (and in fact, in the sculptures at Persepolis the subjects are giving the king jewellery rather than the other way around). But he knew that gifts were a serious matter.

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Our Transliterations are Inconsistent

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A photo of a tabbycat sitting on a pathway and staring at a closed door with a white rabbit painted on it

Although a brute beast who does not even know aleph bet gamel, this cat knows exactly what that sign means! A model of clear communication. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2017.

Over on Language Hat, people are arguing about how to pronounce LaTeX, the encoding for mathematical formulas: does it end with <k> like in <tech> or <ks> like in <hex>?

And for me it was worth it just for this footnote: “TeX is pronounced ‘tek’ and is an English representation of the Greek letters τεχ, which is an abbreviation of τέχνη (or technē).” All these years I’ve been saying “tex” (and “latex” for LaTeX) like a doofus!

And LaTeX is pronounced [lɑːtɛk]

If you cast your mind back to “How do you pronounce those accented characters in ancient Near Eastern languages anyways?” two lines on the chart might spring out:

Table 1: Special Characters Used for Transcribing Ancient Languages

Character Name Approximate Pronunciation IPA
n/a
H with breve below
Classical Greek chi, <ch> as in Scots loch, German ich x
x n/a
x
In Old Persian, <ch> as in German auch (not [ks] as in English hex) x

One letter in Latinized Akkadian (ḫ) and one in Latinized Old Persian and the International Phonetic Alphabet (x) have the same pronunciation. But look at which pronunciation it is!

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Change in Plans

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The innsbrucker Stadtlweg at afternoon rush hour in the fall

One of the streets near the Zentrum für alte Kulturen, Innsbruck. Sorry for the rush-hour traffic, but sun waits for no photographer!

This blog is in its fourth year, and I have posted almost every week. But in this fifth year (my years start in September), I have a dissertation to finish and some issues in my private life to deal with. For the past few months, writing a post every week has felt like a burden. So I am moving to an irregular schedule, with probably two or three posts a month. I may let myself post more lighthearted things about whatever inspires my whimsy, and not try so hard to balance different themes every month.

On this blog I try to practice a certain kind of Internet culture: one centred around curiosity, acknowledging other people’s hard work and good ideas, and trying to learn about other communities and share ideas from my community with them. That culture is important to me, but it is not useful to the people who are mangling the Internet so that power and wealth fall into their hands. More and more websites appear blank unless you enable a dozen Javascript libraries and download megabytes of cruft; more and more material is hidden unless you sign up for a service with a gigantic multinational which controls what you can say and what you can search for and makes its money by tracking you and propagandizing you. I have noticed many creative and sensitive people from the UK and USA stop posting to the public Internet in the past year. But while I don’t like slowing down, I hope it is better than stopping completely.

I hope to have some academic publications to announce and pictures of cats to share in the coming months. Thanks to everyone who stops by!

Cross-Post: A New Life of Hypatia

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There is a new life of Hypatia of Alexandria out for a modest price ($30). Hypatia is a figure who has a significant role in modern pop culture (there is even a good film about her!) and polemics about religion, but comes from a place and time which is not as accessible as Socrates’ Athens or Marcus Aurelius’ imperium. But Alexandria in the fourth century CE was a colorful place, full of faction-fights and nations, sects, and languages all jumbled together. So if you want a look at that world by someone who is more interested in the ancient world than scoring points in modern debates, you might want to check it out (you can find a new or used copy on bookfinder).

Edward J. Watts, Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Women in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.. Pp. xii, 205. ISBN 9780190210038. $29.95.

Reviewed by Aistė Čelkytė, Underwood International College, Yonsei University (aiste.celkyte@gmail.com)

This monograph, dedicated to reconstructing the life and career of the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, is part of the Women in Antiquity series. The study has a strong historical focus, so that little is said about Hypatia’s philosophical views, apart from identifying Hypatia as a Plotinian Platonist, that is, one who did not engage in theurgical practices popular among contemporary Platonists. The choice of a historical focus might seem surprising as the evidence for her life is very sparse, but Watts presents a detailed picture of Hypatia’s career by means of innovative use of a large variety of texts. The book is comprised of introduction, ten chapters and concluding remarks.

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