Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tapered Rattan Spears

Tapered rattan spears offer several advantages when simulating armored spear combat within the Society for Creative Anachronism. Medieval spears were usually, if not always, tapered in the Middle Ages. A tapered shaft offers an important advantage over a straight section shaft: it uses less material where stresses are lower and more where they are greater, offering greater strength than a constant section shaft of the same weight. It also improves balance.

Pultruded fiberglass is often used for spear shafts in SCA armored combat, but it has some disadvantages. SCA rules require a bulky 3”’ diameter thrusting tip on such shafts, compare to 2’ diameter on rattan weapons. The constant diameter shaft is not tapered like a typical medieval spear.

Spears shafts can also be made from 1 ¼” rattan, but unless they are very short such shafts are excessively flexible. They have poor point control, and when binding against another spear bend much more than the hardwood shaft of a medieval spear would.

There’s a better solution: take heavy rattan and plane it down to create a tapered shaft. I recently completed a pair of these. I started with the heaviest rattan I could find, 2” in diameter. I cut eight foot shafts because that length seemed to be fairly typical for single combat in surviving illustrated medieval combat manuals such as the Codex Wallerstein. After straightening the rattan with the aid of a vice and blowtorch, I used a hand plane to taper it from 2’ at the butt to 1 1/4” near the tip. While somewhat thicker than a typical medieval spear the shaft had a visible taper, and was reasonably stiff. I was very satisfied with the result.

I primed and painted the shafts to within 2” of the tip, because I wanted to seal the shaft and because medieval lances were often gaily painted. I used water based primer and latex paint in a shade called “colonial red’ that looked like it could have been produced with medieval pigments. Oil based paint would have been more authentic and might have been more durable, but I was eager to test the lances in action so the shorter drying time of the water based paint was attractive.

The Head

The thrusting tips were designed to slide on the shaft rather than collapsing as their foam compressed. I purchased a pair of plastic flanged tailpieces for kitchen drains, 1 ½” in outside diameter and 4”’ long. They slid easily on the shaft near the tip, where it was 1 ¼” in outside diameter. I cut away the flanged portion to create a 2 ½” long plastic tube, and painted the end that would be exposed when completed silver. I also purchased a pair of flexible plastic washers for kitchen drains that were a snug press fit on the 1 ¼’ diameter lance tip.

When the paint was dry I slipped the plastic tube onto the tip of the lance, and then coaxed the flexible washer onto the tip, with ¼” of bare rattan between it and the end of the lance. To keep the washer from sliding off the end of the lance I drilled four snugly fitting holes to receive pins cut from bamboo barbecue skewers, and followed these with a lavish bead of epoxy on the tip side of the washer. When the epoxy was dry the plastic tube was free to slide back towards the butt, but was prevented from sliding off the tip of the lance by the washer. I used a grinding wheel to remove any epoxy or washer that extended beyond the outside diameter of the plastic tube.

I then built a 3 ½” tube of 1/8” thick vegetable tanned leather with a 1 ½” inside diameter, to be a snug fit on the plastic tube. I cased the leather first to make it easier to form, and used a skived joint on the side. I wrapped the front half with filament tape and sealed one end with a thin leather disk and more filament tape. I then wrapped another tube of the similar leather around the first and glued it in place with contact cement. The second layer was only 2 ¾” long, since I intended to taper the tube from front to back. I wanted to give the visual impression of a coronal when completed. I used a grinding wheel to taper the tube so that the wall was ¼” thick at the front and less than 1/8’ thick at the back. Vegetable tanned leather is more sympathetic to this sort of shaping than other kinds. I slipped two 1” thick discs of closed cell foam into the leather tube, slipped it onto the plastic tube and taped it on with filament tape. Next, I glued a ½” thick disk of closed cell foam to the front and cut three triangular notches into it with a hacksaw blade to further the coronal impression. Finally, I covered the head with silver duct tape. I eventually plan to recover the heads with thin leather, but as I said earlier I was eager to try them out.

An enterprising craftsman could cast these out of hard rubber. Historic Enterprises makes some nice rubber heads for jousting. Unfortunately, they don't have enough inside diameter for this purpose as is, and the points are probably too agressive for the SCA marshalate. I also suspect they don't have enough internal volume for the necessary foam, but something similar could be done.

In Action

The lances are reasonably stiff, and strike with authority, but without, I believe, excessive harshness. They balance well, and the 2” diameter head is significantly more insidious than the 3” diameter head I used in the past. Two of my sparring partners, who both have small hands, felt that it was difficult to maintain a good grip on the thicker butt. I have large hands and didn’t feel that the same problem. I should note that a grip with one hand on the butt is rare in medieval spear manuals: typically the point midway between the hands is either near the middle of the lance, or about 2/3 of the way back from the point. The paint is vulnerable to scrapes and scratches, either from gauntlets or from opponent’s harness at close quarters. The primer and paint I used were from two different manufactures, which may have added to the problem, and oil paint might have been more durable. Also, the glossy finish isn’t ideal for gripping. Simple linseed oil is another medieval finish that would be less gay, but show scratches less. I've used it with succcess on planed rattan shafts in the past.

As far as I know, coronals were not used in foot combats in the 14th c., although they were so used in the 16th. However, I had a choice between a shape evocative of a coronal, a shape evocative of a pencil eraser, or a shape evocative of a grossly oversized and very blunt spearhead. I chose what I thought was the lesser of evils.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stabbing Your Companion: Permitted Violence in Consensual Deeds of Arms

When two men at arms consented to face each other in a limited and controlled deed of arms on foot in the 14th or 15th century, how far were they allowed to go? As it turns out, they were allowed to go pretty far.

That definition excludes the most extreme form of chivalric combat, the judicial duel or gage of battle, in which the defendant was compelled to either fight or be killed as a criminal. It also excludes other combats to the utterance or uttermost, that might be fought by consent, but would at least in theory continue until one side or the other was defeated, dead or fled. That leaves the most common form of chivalric foot combat by consent during the period, a limited combat that would end as soon as a specified number of blows had been struck by one side or the other. Such combats include the challenges at Vannes in 1380 described by Froissart, and the 15th c. passages of arms of Charlemagne’s Tree, the Pass of the Pilgrim, and the Fountain of Tears.

Perhaps the best modern parallel is heavyweight boxing, where the rules are intended to prevent death or permanent serious injury, but the contestants are expected to risk a great deal of punishment short of that. 19th c. prizefighting was probably closer to the medieval norm.

There seems to have been less restriction on where and how an opponent could be struck in foot combat than when mounted. This was probably both because rapidly moving horses added considerable force to a blow, and because low blows were also likely to endanger a valuable mount. The challenge issued by Michel d’Oris in 1400 specified that blows with the lance on horseback would only be struck above the waist, but set no similar restriction for combat on foot.

As far as edge blows on foot were concerned, or strokes with the hammerheads or backspikes of pollaxes, there seems to generally have been no limits on where a properly equipped opponent could be struck. Against a fully armored opponent such blows could stun, or injure a man’s hands so that he could no longer fight that day, but had little chance of killing or causing permanent injury unless the attacker wound up with his pollaxe behind his back like a pickaxe. However, such blows were slow and in single combat against an opponent capable of defending himself they risked being forestalled by a quicker counterstroke.

Froissart claims that limbs were not a legitimate target at Vannes, but there is no evidence that he was present, and he seems to have misunderstood his sources. Cabaret d’Orville presents an alternative account that more plausibly reports that legs were not to be struck in only one combat, and that because an English knight was unable to wear legharness because of an injury, and asked his opponent to fight him on equal terms.

The only other explicit restriction I have found on target area in foot combats of the period was in a challenge issued by the seneschal of Hainault in 1402, that specified that “all the blows of the deed of arms will be struck from the bottom of the plates (i.e. the body armor) upwards.” This restriction may have been included because the deed of arms included both foot and mounted combat, and he wanted a single standard for both, or because he was concerned about blows to the groin through or up from beneath a mail skirt.

Against the plate harness of the era, the point offered a much greater risk of causing death or mayhem than the edge. In spite of this, there seems to have been little formal restriction on where one could thrust. In Cabaret d’Orville’s account of Vannes one Englishman was stabbed in the shoulder through his mail between breastplate and rerebrace and another between his rerebrace and vambrace. Ordinarily, good mail in good condition might be expected to withstand a thrust on foot without breaking a link. If it held, an acute point could still be expected to penetrate some ways into a ring, but the wound would be relatively shallow

Thrusts against an exposed face or within a visor’s eyeslot would seem to offer an extreme risk of injury. However, Jaques de Lalaing, fighting by consent against opponents in open helmets, stabbed at least two in the face. Fighting against Diego de Guzman, he managed to penetrate the sight of his visor three times, wounding him each time on the brow or cheek. There is no indication in the records of these combats that there was anything illicit about any of these blows.

There is, however a world of difference between stabbing someone in the cheek or brow and stabbing him in the eye. That Lalaing stabbed Guzman three times through his eyeslots without hitting his eyes once suggests that he was making a deliberate effort to avoid that target. Limited deeds of arms were freely undertaken to test the courage and skill on both sides. Those that undertook them also thought of their opponents as companions: brothers in arms with whom they would share their bread. Putting out your companion’s eyes in a test of skill and courage was excessive even for a hard age that considered bearbaiting good clean fun. I suspect there was at least a gentleman’s agreement for contestants in combats for a set number of blows to avoid stabbing each other’s eyes, although I know of no explicit prohibition.

It also seems likely that there was some variation in just how aggressive judges and opponents expected these contests to be. In a combat between John de Merlé and the lord de Chargny in 1435, Merlé fought with his visor raised, and “the like had not been before seen”. Although Merlé was praised for his bravery, “de Chargny was much displeased that his adversary did not close his visor” De Chargny may have felt that his opponent was imposing an improper risk of serious injury on the contest, or alternatively, that it was improper for him to stab his opponent in the exposed face, and Merlé was both imposing on his forbearance and gaining the advantage of greater visibility by doing something he would not do in an actual mortal combat.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

No Touch of Harry in Iraq?

It’s been reported that Prince Harry will not be going to Iraq. I can appreciate the reasons for that, particularly the risk the presence of such a high value target will create for his immediate comrades. But I think the British army is missing an opportunity.

There’s a time honored tactic used by the British monarchy to deal with just this sort of problem, going back at least to the battle of Shrewsbury: scatter a number of doubles about the battlefield in copies of the royal armor. In 1403 that was plate harness and coat armor bearing Quarterly France Ancient and England rather than a Scimitar light tank with “Windsor Rules!” painted on the turret, but the principle is the same. A dozen doubles could be pre-deployed in widely scattered locations, and then revealed and concealed to give the illusion of rapid movement about the theatre of operations. For added entertainment value, his theoretical itinerary from A to B to C and back to A could be leaked, with doubles making appearances at the destination points only to confirm the illusion and bait traps. The intervening roads would be populated only by ordinary traffic, frustrated insurgents, and over-flying hellfire-armed drones and helicopter gunships.

They seek him here, they seek him there
Jihadis seek him everywhere
Is he in Basra or in Baghdad?
That damned elusive Windsor lad

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

300 Humanoids vs. the Mutants

The best way to deal with the Frank Miller graphic novel 300 and the movie based on it is to forget about historical Greece. Instead suppose that the story was actually drawn from a forgotten pulp SF novella, possibly by the same author that wrote The Iron Dream. Set on the harsh planet Apollo-Phoebus III, it features the epic struggle of the Humanoid Brotherhood, fighting to maintain their Spartan eugenic purity against the oncoming mutant hordes. The double star Apollo-Phoebus has a very different spectral type than our own yellow sun, and bathes the grim landscape in muted hues of red, bronze, black, bronze, grey, bronze, bronze and bronze. The mutant hordes bend to the will of their Very Tall Shaved Androgynous Overlord, richly bejeweled and liberally pierced. Surrounded by girl-on-girl mutant writhing, he sends forth his servants, who are masked, disfigured, hunchbacked or sometimes marked by a skin color other than bronze.

Against them stand the Humanoid Brotherhood, striding forth to do battle clad only in bronze helmets, red cloaks and leather glandbags. They scorn the protection of bronze breastplates which might conceal signs of mutant infestation, such as an unfortunate skin condition or imperfectly formed six-packs. Likewise they scorn love between men and youths: rather they love nothing better than heterosexual sex, outdoor exercise, and hazing raw recruits by marching over their semi-naked bodies.

Human vocal chords are ill equipped to reproduce the local language, and so the author has chosen to replace the actual proper names with others drawn from Earth’s classical history. Ephor, the local term for corrupt inbred mystics with a disfiguring skin condition, is one of the few words of that language that human tongues can pronounce. Purely by coincidence, the same word appeared in classical Greek, describing popularly elected Spartan officials with strict term limits.

Any resemblance to classical Greece during the Persian invasion is also purely coincidental. It’s a big universe, and if you visit enough planets these parallels are inevitable. Remember how in the original Star Trek the Enterprise would stumble across planets whose architecture bore an uncanny resemblance to the studio lot for a Terran 20th c. urban street scene? Like that.

This sort of work can be an exotic, visually imaginative spectacle. However, it misses just how weird and different ancient Greece in general and Sparta in particular was: iron money, the boy-scout death squads of the Crypteia, institutionalized love between men and youths that nonetheless rejected sexual relations between them (if we can believe Xenophon and Plutarch), and a state that managed to blend democracy, oligarchy and redundant dual monarchy into a constitution of remarkable stability. And more than this, a culture that believed in the reality of the Olympian gods and their omens like we believe in Australia.

The last is perhaps the toughest to make credible to a modern audience. At the battle of Plataea, the Spartan King Pausanias made sacrifice after sacrifice while the Spartans patiently endured a rain of Persian arrows, rapidly running through the supply of available livestock until he finally got a victim with the propitious entrails that allowed him to launch an attack. It’s very hard for the modern reader to see this not as daft superstition, but the admirable piety that it appeared to be to contemporary eyes.

Gene Wolfe uses an approach that’s the exact opposite of Frank Miller’s to pull off this difficult challenge in Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Arete and Soldier of Sidon. Rather than using historical names and (mostly) invented culture, he does the reverse. His protagonist, Latro, a brain damaged foreign mercenary, encounters the rival cities he calls Thought and Rope, his translation or mistranslation of places that are more familiar to us as Athens and Sparta. The fantastic place names help cut the reader loose from our modern view of the historical Greece of purely mythical pagan gods. We soon discover that one symptom of Latro’s injury is the blessing or curse of being able to see and speak to gods and other supernatural beings who are as real to him as anything else he encounters. His head injury is an aid to the reader in suspending disbelief: perhaps Latro is only hallucinating. But over time the narrative builds the view that the ancient gods are more than a delusion: that they are as real within the story as they were to Pausanias. The scenario and setting allow Wolfe to create a rich narrative that provides a window into the psychology of the ancient world, while being as true to the known details of daily life as 300 is false.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fitted Mail

In recent years a number of merchants have outsourced the tedious manual labor of building riveted mail to India, where wages are low, and can now offer hauberks, aventails and other mail components at prices that are quite reasonable considering the amount of handwork involved. However, the products offered to date do have significant drawbacks for customers that want a truly accurate reproduction of medieval armor.

The greatest flaw is oversimplified tailoring. Currently, off the rack hauberks are generally simple “T” shapes, with straight tubes of mail for the body and the arms. Historic Enterprises offers a superior product by these standards, with expansion providing a flair to the hem that allows a tighter fitting chest without restricting leg movement. 14th and 15th c. hauberks and habergeons, however, were considerably more sophisticated in fit, generally woven with a distinct waist. Arms were often carefully tailored to closely follow the shape of the arms and shoulders, allowing them to be worn beneath armharness without excessive bunching or constriction. Looser and shorter mail sleeves designed to be worn over plate armharness, as on the Historic Enterprises habergeon, was one period approach. However, it wasn’t necessarily the most common design, nor is it appropriate to all portrayals.

A more tailored mail garment is lighter, moves better, distributes its weight better, and interferes less with plate harness worn over it. It’s also more like actual armor of the 14th and 15th century.

While the amount of datable mail from earlier periods is limited, it’s questionable how accurate simple “T” shaped hauberks are even for earlier periods. The Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250, for example, seems to show mail sleeves that are neatly tailored to provide a snug fit over the entire arm and protect the hand with a well fitted integral mail mitten.

If you are a scrupulous reenactor you have the option of buying one of these hauberks or other mail pieces, and either paying a skilled armorer to tailor it properly, or tailoring it yourself. I took the first option, paying Robert MacPherson to fashion a purchased hauberk into a fitted habergeon, and even though the alterations cost more than the purchase price of the hauberk I believe I got a good value. Paying a craftsman to make a fitted habergeon from scratch would have cost even more.

The current state of affairs offers an opportunity to the enterprising mail merchant. Given a proper exemplar to work from, I believe that Indian craftsmen can make an acceptable copy of a habergeon that’s much more like the 14th and 15th c. originals. Properly shaped habergeons in small, medium, large and extra large would be enough to offer a most customers a much more authentic product than is available off the rack at present, and the premium for a more authentic product would quickly repay the initial investment.

In the meantime, those seeking accurate reproductions of mail garments from that period should expect to make a significant investment in post purchase alterations of the simplified off the rack mail now on the market, either in their own time or in payments to an armorer. You can improve your choices by telling your favorite merchant that you’d pay more for a product that's more like the medieval original.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Recreating Halfsword and the Mortschlag in Rattan Combat

The Halfswording and Mortschlag rules I suggest are similar to but more restrictive in how blows may be struck than current SCA experimental halfsword rules. They would also allow limited grasping of an opponent’s blade.

Halfsword: A combatant can grasp the blade of his own sword with one hand and use it in all ways as though it were a short spear. He can parry, lever aside his opponent’s weapon and thrust if his sword is equipped with a tip legal for two-handed thrusting. He cannot cut against with the edge of his blade as though it were a glaive.

If an opponent’s blade is being used in this way, you can briefly grasp it if the blade is not in motion. Prolonged wrestling with an opponent’s blade is unrealistic and discouraged. If an opponent would be able to yank an actual blade back through the grip in spite of it being grasped, this could result in an incapacitating wound, and judges may rule that this has occurred.

Mortschlag: A blow struck using either the pommel or cross of the hilt as a striking surface, effectively using it as a mace or hammer. This is only allowed if the hilt meets the standards for a polearm or hafted weapon. The blow was also written as mordtschlag, or called tunrschlag or schlachenden ort (literally, murderstroke, thunderstroke, or battering point.) More simply, medieval manuals also called this blow “striking with the pommel”.

Argument: Halfswording and Mortschlag are well attested medieval combat techniques, and the above rules are both realistic and as safe as other SCA rules for rattan combat. However, grasping the blade and using it to make edge blows against armored opponents does not appear in medieval fighting manuals, and practical experiments with reproduction swords suggest that it is not practical to make efficient edge blows capable of doing damage through armor in with a sword held in this way. A sword blade is a profoundly uncomfortable tool handle for this sort of work. Slices against unarmored flesh are a different matter, and at least one such technique appears in Fiore’s Flos Duellatorum, but it is not relevant to attacks against armor.

Grasping an opponent’s sword is a frequent technique in medieval fighting manuals. Purely from the standpoint of a modern recreation, this is no more unsafe than grasping the haft of a polearm, a tactic allowed in SCA combat. However, since the combat rules are intended to simulate the use of a steel sword that was at least partially sharpened, the grasping rules recognize that you can’t simply hold onto it indefinitely as though it was a rattan shaft. Pre 17th c. combat manuals recognize that if one swordsman is grabbing another’s blade, if the second swordsman is able to yank his blade out through the other’s grip the results are likely to be very unpleasant. Techniques to take advantage of a grabbed blade are usually designed to take quick advantage of a momentary opportunity, and when possible twisting the grasped blade at an angle that makes it difficult for the owner to pull it back sharply.