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?
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.
I encourage you to click on the photo above and see it at full size. This is not a source for how real 16th century armour was made (and an expert tells me that its not a very good replica), but how Daniel Tachaux made a replica during the First World War.
Matthew Amt’s Greek Hoplite Page is pretty well known among people interested in ancient warfare. It might not be as well known that he has been updating it, expanding the bibliography to include some of the new publications on Greek clothing, arms, and armour and addressing the great shoulder-flap-cuirass controversy. As I revise this post, his old glued linen armour is sitting in a bath, being cleansed of its sticky contamination so that the linen can be salvaged and remade into a quilted armour. He has also added a typology of Classical Greek swords based on several archaeological publications after deciding that his old swords and sources did not match the originals, and is working with Deepeka in India to help them make replicas which are closer to the originals (a Labour of Herakles in itself!)
One thing that I admire about his approach is its humanity. One of the problems with reconstructing historical artefacts is that any one depends on a whole system of crafts and industries which are usually missing today. It is very difficult to obtain wide sheets of copper-tin bronze, so would-be bronzesmiths are reduced to salvaging decorative panels on doors and cracked cymbals. Ancient woollens were often woven to shape so that they did not need to be cut, and could have had a density and thinness which we associate with cottons; having something appropriate specially woven and dyed is a long and expensive process. There is not much demand for split or coppiced ash poles today, so modern spear-shafts have to be cut out of sawn logs, with the result that they are probably more fragile and worse balanced than the originals. Rather than give up, or exhaust oneself in the search for the perfect, Matthew suggests choosing “good enough” and making continual small improvements as your skill or knowledge increases. I think that his site succeeds in its goal of giving readers the information to make a “good enough” kit, and enough pointers to sources that they can start digging deeper if they want to.
From Dimicator, the alter ego of Roland Warzecha.
You are welcome to participate in the Historical Sword & Shield Classes 2017 in period costume in the most beautiful venue of the History Park Bärnau in the south-east of Germany [in Bavaria, on the Czech border- ed.] All seminars focus on single combat with shields and hand weapons, but duelling with spears will be covered, too, as a means to convey essential tactical and mechanical concepts. See photos of past classes in these albums here and here.
An info brochure is attached as PDF to this post. This should answer most questions, but do not hesitate to send an email if you need any further information. Registration is open.
These are the weekend seminars offered in 2017:
Viking shield: 17/18 June
Kite and medieval triangle shields: 24/25 June
Small and medium sized triangle shields and bucklers: 22/23 July
Advanced buckler: 29/30 July (requires a medium skill level with historical sword and buckler fencing)
Feel free to ask any questions you might have via email.
See you in the History Park Bärnau in summer 2017!
While I am not completely confident in what Roland is doing from an academic point of view, I can say that he is a very good fencer and a safe teacher. So if you are interested in how later martial arts can be extrapolated backwards to find effective ways of fighting with earlier weapons, these workshops would be as good a place as any.
Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link
A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
Designers of roleplaying games who are interested in learning how the real world works, and not just studying other people’s stories and games, usually put a lot of thought into the combat mechanics. One old argument is about how to handle the performance of armour. Fairly early on (sometime in the 1970s or 1980s?), the idea of a damage roll was combined with the idea that armour could provide a penalty to damage. However, this tends to bother people whose archetypical combat involves modern firearms and armoured vehicles or kevlar body armour.
Bullets and shells have a very predictable ability to penetrate armour, and modern industrialized, standardized-tested armour has a very predictable ability to resist it, and the damage-roll-minus-armour model tends to let some things get through which should be stopped. While sometimes this can be abstracted away (“eh, maybe those few points of damage represent bruising”) other times that is difficult to justify (“did the shell explode inside the tank or outside? Did the Deathly Dagger of Draining touch his flesh or not?”) One solution to this is to treat both penetration and resistance as more or less fixed, then generate the effect of the wound based on their interaction. GURPS fans often refer to this as armour-as-dice, because armour can be treated as reducing the predictable number of damage dice which the attacker rolls instead of the variable results of that roll.
However, models which treat penetration and resistance to penetration as more-or-less fixed tend to make people who are more interested in combat with hand weapons uncomfortable. In this post, I would like to explore what we know about how much the ability of hand-made armour to resist weapons can vary, even within a given piece of a known form and quality. If you want, you can skip to where I sum up.
In December I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A younger self would have used this post to have a good rant about all of the aspects of Jackson’s battles and sieges which just would not work. Tolkien was vague about many things, but he was a combat veteran who knew his classics, and both showed. However, I now realize that if someone with hundreds of millions of dollars at their command can’t be bothered to read a handful of Ospreys, let alone Aeneas Tacticus and Philon of Byzantium and the Old Norse King’s Mirror, or hire an underemployed doctor of ancient history and listen to what they say, there is no point in lecturing to them. Some people just don’t care how they really did it or want to engage with sources (although Jackson did let people who understood material culture and fight direction do their stuff). But watching these films reminds me of one thing which might be right.
The forces of madness have been on an around-the-world tour, but when they got back and slept off the tasty kebabs, weak beer, and very sweet sweets they discovered that their agent in the Alps had over-reached himself. This particular style of clothing was meant to fit very closely in some areas while standing away from the body in others, and in an excess of enthusiasm, their humble servant cut too much away from the opening of the lower sleeve to finish its edges by rolling or folding and stitching down. Fortunately, there are solutions.
In October I got to attend the conference on technical military writing at the University of Winnipeg. Aside from giving me a chance to have some A&W and Timbits (somehow Wienerschnitzel and Quarkbällchen are not the same) and catch up on academic gossip, I got to hear a great set of papers.
The presentations focused on Greek texts from Aeneas Tacticus and Xenophon in the early 4th century BCE to emperor Leo VI around 900 CE, with one group of three papers on Vegetius. Three others focused on Xenophon, leaving six on miscellaneous topics and authors, and one on methodology. Only two of the thirteen focused on tactical writing in any language.