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?
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.
Quite a few people seem to be finding their way to my post about why I drifted away from the historical fencing movement. While I think it needed to be said, it might leave someone wondering what I found attractive about that world in the first place. Some of the reasons seemed obvious: the historical fencing movement gives people the chance to learn horse archery in Vancouver and a reason to get happy and sweaty with a group of friends (sometimes leading to to other more private happy-sweaty times). Those are wonderful things! And while I am not sure how much we can know about how ancient Greeks or Viking Age Norwegians used their shields, I think that someone who wants to know would be wise to get one and spend time moving it (because Thucydides and Snorri Stirluson wrote for an audience who had all used spear and shield). So this week, I would like to talk about some good things which the community does in 2017.
In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).
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.
Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.
– The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 389-402 (ETCSL 2.2.3)
More than 140 civilians have been killed in less than a week while trying to flee western Mosul, according to military sources [among the besiegers], as the Iraqi army seeks to close in on fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the armed group’s last stronghold in Iraq.
According to the [besieging] military on Thursday, most of the fatalities were women and children.
– “Mosul battle: At least 142 civilians killed in six days” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/mosul-battle-120-civilians-killed-days-170601113018034.html
Blindfolded, tied up men with dislocated shoulders dangling painfully from ceilings. Teenage boys, hands tied behind their backs screaming for mercy, only for a soldier to execute them in cold blood. Ashen-faced women clutching onto their terrified children after they had just been raped. These are just some of the scenes taking place in Iraq.
Ali Arkady, the Kurdish photojournalist who documented the abuses of Iraqi government troops, said he had originally set out to cover the soldiers’ heroism in the fight against ISIL. But after witnessing their crimes, his conclusion was that these men were “not heroes, but monsters”.
Arkady said he witnessed Iraqi soldiers – not Shia militias – perpetrating a wide array of abuses including abductions, torture, and rape. Not only did Shia soldiers rape one of their Sunni allied tribal fighters, but in one particularly horrifying instance, interior ministry fighters were gloating about raping a particularly beautiful girl. Their comrades, apparently jealous, vowed to pay the already violated and scarred girl a visit themselves.
– “Iraq Deserves Heroes, but Has Only Monsters,” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/iraq-deserves-heroes-monsters-170601083337240.html
But those who were blockaded at Alesia , the day being past, on which they had expected auxiliaries from their countrymen, and all their corn being consumed …, convened an assembly and deliberated on the exigency of their situation. … When different opinions were expressed, they determined that those who, owing to age or ill health, were unserviceable for war, should depart from the town … The Mandubii, who had admitted them into the town, are compelled to go forth with their wives and children. When these came to the Roman fortifications, weeping, they begged of the soldiers by every entreaty to receive them as slaves and relieve them with food. But Caesar, placing guards on the rampart, forbade them to be admitted.
I believe that Richard the Lion Heart responded the same way to this gambit, but my books on medieval history are still in the old country.
Further Reading: Steve Muhlberger, “The Toronto Morality Play”
One of the big problems facing anyone studying ancient economies is that it’s very difficult to tell how much things cost at any given time. Records of market prices are sparse at the best of times and often nonexistent, and even where such records exist, they’re usually exceptional or represent only a single transaction. But sometimes historians get lucky …
– Matthew Riggsby, GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road p. 34 http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-hot-spots-the-silk-road
Gamers and novelists often want to know something which historians are not eager to answer: how much did practical things cost in the past? Historians of older periods tend to be very aware of the limits of a source which just says “five pounds of iron nails worth thus-and-such,” and admire the work of specialists in recent times who construct methodical serieses and statistics and turn them into charts with lines and inflection points. But characters in a short story or an adventure game are much more likely to buy a drink or a sword than ten bushels of barley. The writers of roleplaying games almost never have time to do the research, unless the game is set in very recent times and they can mine their collection of old Sears Catalogues and Baedekers. (Also, their customers tend to become just as attached to “a longsword costs 15 gold pieces” as they are to “magic missile always hits,” and in our decadent and decimalized age they sometimes revolt against something as simple as pounds/shillings/pence). So this week, I thought I would honour the release of Matthew Riggsby’s GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road with a list of some resources which I have found.
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: http://larsdatter.com/sewingkits.htm 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.
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 http://www.klingenmuseum.de/assets/files/CfP_Fight_Book_Conference_RZ.pdf
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.