It seems like I have been making a lot of long, wordy, academic posts in the past few months. This week, I would like to focus on pictures of one of the artifacts I have seen in my travels, a Japanese armour imported into Europe at the end of the 19th century. The museum estimates that it was made between 1820 and 1840.
In the national archaeological musuem in Tehran were a cluster of a dozen or so clay bullae: hanging attachments to a skin or papyrus document which could take a seal. The name is medieval, but the technique is much older. These ones come from the Sasanid period (6th or 7th century CE), and I suspect that they turned up on the art market or in a private collection and the Iranian government was able to show that they had left the country without permission. Several of them show armed men riding armoured horses.
Unfortunately, I had very limited time to take photos of the whole museum, and I do not have a polarizing filter for my camera to reduce glare from the case. The photo above is my best, but I have include several other legible photos below the fold. All are of the same bulla, but there were one or two others with armed men on them which I was not successful in photographing.
Some of my hobbies are making me think about fabric. I used to think that fabric containing both cotton and linen was a product of the last thousand years, as cotton production spread west from India into areas with a strong tradition of weaving linen. In the second half of the middle ages, cities in Italy began importing cotton from Egypt and Turkey and Syria and weaving it themselves, and the trade slowly spread north across the Alps. The basic idea was that cotton was cheap and absorbed dye well, while linen was strong but hard to colour. Some weavers found that if they used cotton for the warp threads, they tended to snap. So a mixed cloth with a linen warp and cotton weft was both strong and colourful. In the middle ages these cloths were known by names such as English fustian, Italian fustagno (from the suburb of Fustat in Egypt) or German Barchent. Today weavers are comfortable with a cotton warp, and artificial dyes can colour pure linen any imaginable colour, but cloth with cotton running one way and linen threads the other is still used for shirts and other items. I did not think that these mixed cloths existed before the middle ages. But now read this!
The finds of archaeological linen textiles display a wide range of qualities in ancient Greece. However, they are primarily burial finds and thus no adequate source for the topic of clothing practice. Nothing, however, suggests that linen textiles were rare, or associated only with female burials or those of foreigners. Linen textiles occur much more frequently than wool textiles in the archaeological record in Greece, as Moulherat and Spantidaki have observed, but this only reflects the preservation conditions in Greece, and does not denote a choice of fibre. A linen textile of impressive size came to light in Eleusis: it measures 220 cm × 50 cm. It was found in a bronze vessel dating to the mid-5th century BC. Preserved linen textiles with 100 threads per cm are not unknown in classical Greece. From the 5th century BC such a linen textile was found in a tomb at Kerameikos; another 5th century linen fabric of similar quality comes from Kalyvia Thorikos. In another 5th century Kerameikos grave, linen textiles with remains of stitch holes from embroidery and fabrics decorated with purple were recovered. The original assumption of silk fabrics has now been proven wrong in new analyses by Christina Margariti and colleagues who demonstrated that there are four different fabrics of which two are of made of linen, while another fabric is probably made of cotton, and the last is woven of linen warp and cotton weft.
That quote comes from an article by Marie-Louise Nosch where she argues that scholars have been too hasty in following a passage in Herodotus and dismissing the use of linen in classical Greece (Hdt. 2.105 tr. A.D. Godley):
Although many scholars grumble about reviews of academic books in academic journals, those reviews can still be valuable. In a review of that valuable but frustrating book from the Midwest, Raimon Graells i Fabregat mentioned some relevant evidence which the authors did not discuss:
In chapters 3 and 4, the author’s experiment is described, with a commentary on the materials and techniques used to reconstruct linen body armor. What is surprising is the absence of an analysis of the two iron cuirasses designed in the same way as linothorakes, one from Tumulus II of Vergina and the other from Burial III of Aghios Athanasios or even the complete linothorax from the Golyamata Mogila near Malomirovo and Zlanitsa. These metal cuirasses would doubtless have provided useful support and verification for technical aspects of the reconstruction.
The third armour was excavated a few years ago in modern Bulgaria (ancient Thrace), and pictures have been floating around on the Internet for some time. Fabregat cites the book in which it has been published with parallel Bulgarian and English text. It is made of one layer of medium-weight leather covered with iron scales. The collar should remind readers of the Alexander historians of a certain passage, and the difference between the right and left shoulders should make readers of Xenophon on horsemanship 12.6 ponder. The author has posted her book on academia.edu where it is available for free download (link). Download both files with the Roman numeral III in the title, and start at page 72.
Lately I have been trying to spend less time online and more working with my hands. For another project I wanted to practice my stab stitch and see how organic thread compares to the cotton-coated synthetic which I usually use. While I was doing that, I thought I would take a few hours to learn some things about a type of armour which many people today find difficult to understand, namely layered cloth. This post has many photos; don’t forget that you can click on them to see a larger version.
I am sick again this week and have not been able to finish a craft project which I wanted to talk about, so I thought I would post half a thought about armour instead. The vase painting above is one of the most famous. Pottery geeks try to assign it to a group of paintings from the same workshop, students of mythology appreciate that Akhilles and Patroklos are labeled, and students of material culture enjoy the details of military equipment. The view of the shoulder-piece springing upwards as soon as it is untied, and of the skirt of ‘feathers’ stopping above the genitals, have shaped many modern ideas about Greek armour. Long ago Peter Connolly repainted it for his Greek Armies.
Trying to interpret armour in art is not a new project. By the beginning of the sixteenth century at the latest, Italian armourers were looking at Roman coins and sculpture and paintings (and perhaps the odd scrap of bronze pulled from a tomb) and trying to decide how to give their customers their own Roman armour. In this case, the armourer looked at one of the statues of a Roman emperor wearing a form-fitting breastplate of scales with embossed decoration, and tried to imitate it with a few nods to the taste of their own day. But not all is as it seems.
Sometime in the sixteenth year of Xerxes great king (circa 468/7 BCE in our calendar), someone at Persepolis turned a tablet with Elamite writing on end and rolled his seal along it. A conversation with Josho Brouwers of Karwansaray BV recalled it to memory. Because this seems to show the style of body armour with a tall neck-guard and flaps over the shoulders which is often understood as distinctively Greek and said to have been invented about a hundred years before Xerxes based on its appearance in Greek vase paintings. But there is no hint of the Aegean in this scene, and this armour is missing the skirt of pteryges around the waist which usually appear in depictions of armour with this cut from the Aegean.
Tobias Capwell, Armour of the English Knight, 1400-1450 (Thomas Del Mar: London, 2015)
308 pages, 24 x 30 cm
All glossy paper, most pages contain at least one line drawing or colour photo
GBP 54 (UK, France, Germany, Italy), 64 (other countries) including shipping and handling; I don’t see any reason to believe that it will ever be available from other sellers or in softcover.
Link to publisher’s online store
After five years of anticipation, the first volume of the results of the inquiries of Toby Capwell into English armour began to arrive at customers’ doors in the middle of October. For reasons which seem good to them, the publisher and author have made very little information about the book available on their website. For quite a few buyers, “a book on English armour by Toby Capwell with drawings by Mac and Jeff Wasson” was all they needed to know. But for those who are on the fence, or waiting for their copy to arrive, I thought it would be helpful to sketch out the sort of things which this volume contains.
This book has a diverse audience. I will do my best to say things which I think armourers and armoured fighters would like to know, then give my own academic thoughts. But this is definitely not a review, and I refuse to find something to quibble about. Since I do not even dabble in fifteenth-century history, there would not be much point. I also refuse to give a summary since this book is newly published.
This is a study of full harnesses in a distinctive style worn by extremely rich men in England and Wales in the early fifteenth century. The main source is effigy sculptures, but documents, literature, funerary brasses, manuscript illuminations, and other kinds of medieval evidence are used to supplement them. The author’s experience as a jouster, and his helpers’ experience making plate armour, are also used to help interpret the sources.
The contents are divided into four parts. First is an introduction which sets the effigies in context in fifteenth-century England and discusses the problems of studying a style of armour which has all been destroyed (52 pages long). Then there are two sections on armour in the periods 1400-1430 (136 pages long) and 1430-1450 (75 pages long), each broken down by part of the body (helmets, cuirasses, shoulder defenses, vambraces, gauntlets, leg armour, sabatons). Last comes a miscellaneous section with a conclusion, the author’s experiences wearing armour in the English style, a bibliography, a list of effigies divided into six styles, a glossary, and two short indices (total 45 pages).
This miscellaneous section contains 25 pages on the famous blackened and gilt harness which he commissioned from Mac, and his experiences planning it, having it built, jousting in it, and having it modified.
All pages are glossy, and some contain double-page spreads of important manuscripts, effigies, paintings, etc. Many of these images are not available online, and all the photos are printed in higher resolution than normal computer screens can display.
There are a series of line drawings by Mac of six typical harnesses representing six styles of English armour. Each is sketched from front, side, and rear for maximum clarity, and each of these views fills half a page.
There are a number of comments by Mac on specific technical problems which armourers in the fifteenth century faced, and how this might have affected the armour that they built.
There are pages of pencil sketches by Jeff Wasson with structural diagrams of different styles of armour and details of motifs, borders, etc. Individual sketches are scattered throughout the book alongside the closeup photos of details.
So for armourers, this is 300 pages on the development of armour in England with photos and sketches of details and suggestions of how to reconstruct it. For armoured fighters, this is 300 pages on the development of armour in England with suggestions of the advantages and disadvantages of different choices. And for academics, this is 300 pages of analysis of armour in England as a social tool and as a martial tool. While the publishers could make it easier and cheaper to buy and quicker and cheaper to deliver, and while this is a specialized book, I think it does what it tries to do very well. Although the shipping is a bit slow and expensive, the basic book is quite cheap for its size and complexity, especially considering that it will not sell thousands of copies. And everything about the physical book is professional.
Now I will put my academic hat back on and say why I think this book is important. Even though I can’t really afford it, and even though my dabblings in medieval history focus on late 14th century Italy rather than early 15th century England, I pre-ordered a copy. This was because I knew two things about this book.
Tobias Capwell, The Real Fighting Stuff: Arms and Armour at the Glasgow Museums (Glasgow City Council: Glasgow, 2007) ISBN 978-0-902752-82-5
Dr. Tobias “Toby” Capwell, jouster and curator with a PhD in fifteenth-century armour, is taking preorders for his forthcoming book on knightly armour in late medieval England. In honour of that, I thought I would post on the only one of his publications which I have been able to read, a book for beginners on arms and armour at the Glasgow museums.