Friday, December 31, 2010

My Ten Favorite Medieval Commonplace Book Posts of 2010

Room and Board: Living with your Parent in 1383
The Ombrellino, Umbraculum or Pavilion and Medieval Tent Construction
The Proper Length for Lances Used on Foot
Ballade Proclaiming Jousts at Paris the Day After the Feast of the Magdalene
That's Fiore
Landing Ship (Horse)
The Challenge of the Seneschal of Hainault: Pennsic 2010
Inflation and Inequality
Abstract: Outrance and Plaisance

I've limited myself to ten, but if you've got another favorite feel free to note it in the comments.

When Sticks Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Sticks

Huzzah for the plucky shopkeeper and his hammer. Alas he did not have a better weapon, like a duck's-foot flintlock pistol or a Nock volley gun or a better stick and appropriate training.

Because that is a seriously suboptimal stick and stick-wielding technique that the young doodlehum malefactor brought to the scene of the crime. Which is all to the good, because the last thing honest citizens need is criminals who are good at their job.

It Turns Out That Polar Bears Are Not Easily Fooled

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Meteor Reported Over MA, MD, VA, NY, DC and PA, 28 December 2010

Here is what I saw:

December 28th, ca. 6.45 PM EST. Malvern PA, outside Philadelphia. A big fireball passed overhead, roughly east to west, crossing near zenith. Illumination on the ground was like the full moon suddenly coming from behind clouds. The fireball quickly broke up into stream of sparks and went dark perhaps halfway between the zenith and horizon.

More observations here and here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bruce vs. Bohun

One of the most memorable incidents associated with Robert the Bruce and the battle of Bannockburn is his encounter with Henry de Bohun.

Here is the Wikipedia version:

Henry de Bohun, nephew of the Earl of Hereford, was riding ahead of his companions when he caught sight of the Scottish king. De Bohun lowered his lance and began a charge that carried him to lasting fame. King Robert was mounted on a small palfrey and armed only with a battle-axe.[20] He had no armour on. As de Bohun's great war-horse thundered towards him, he stood his ground, watched with mounting anxiety by his own army. With the Englishman only feet away, Bruce turned aside, stood in his stirrups and hit the knight so hard with his axe that he split his helmet and head in two.

This mostly matches John Barbour's account of the encounter, with three significant differences. Barbour never says that the King was unarmored, and explicitly mentions that he wore a bassynet on his head. According to Barbour the king did not stand his ground, but rode straight towards his opponent. Barbour's account makes no mention of the king turning aside, but only says that de Bohun missed. Indeed, it would be difficult to turn aside by much and still reach de Bohun's head with an axe as he passed.

Other sources agree that Henry de Bohun fought Robert the Bruce, who was armed with an axe, and that Bohun died at Bannockburn. All the other details of that encounter come only from Barbour.

Here's the thing. Barbour wrote about 60 years after the battle. He probably wasn't born yet when it happened. He described his work as a romance. His patron was Robert the Bruce's grandson, and the general theme was that Robert the Bruce was Awesome, with Awesome Sauce on the side.

Here's a much more contemporary account, written within a dozen years of the battle:

On Sunday, which was the vigil of St John's day, as they passed by a certain wood and were approaching Stirling Castle, the Scots were seen straggling under the trees as if in flight, and a certain knight, Henry de Boun [Bohun] pursued them with the Welsh to the entrance of the wood. For he had in mind that if he found Robert Bruce there he would either kill him or carry him off captive. But when he had come thither, Robert himself came suddenly out of his hiding-place in the wood, and the said Henry seeing that he could not resist the multitude of Scots, turned his horse with the intention of regaining his companions; but Robert opposed him and struck him on the head with an axe that he carried in his hand. His squire, trying to protect or rescue his lord, was overwhelmed by the Scots. This was the beginning of their troubles! . .

Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. N. Denholm Young, London, 1957.

The advanced guard, whereof the Earl of Gloucester had command, entered the road within the Park, where they were immediately received roughly by the Scots who had occupied the passage. Here Peris de Mountforth, knight, was slain with an axe by the hand of Robert de Bruce, as was reported.

Scalacronica: the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward II, as recorded by Sir Thomas Gray, and now translated by Sir Herbert Maxwell, Glasgow, 1907

Gray wrote Scalacronica between 1355 and 1362, and his father fought at Bannockburn and was captured during the battle.

The Chronicle of Lanercost doesn't mention the encounter at all.

The earlier accounts are much less romantic, but far more plausible.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Did Someone in Your House Get Radio Controlled Jousters for Christmas?

If so, seriously consider making a scale tilt and counter-lists for them. Those little guys are seriously hard to steer.

They Call Me Dr. Will

I got my author's copy of the Journal of Medieval Military History Volume VIII. I see from the invoice that Boydell & Brewer assumed that I have a doctorate.

To the tune of Dr. Worm:

My name is Dr. Will.
Good morning. How are you? I'm Dr. Will.
I'm interested in things.
I'm not a real doctor,
But I am a real Will;
I am an actual Will.
I live like a Will.

I like to write my blog.
I think I'm getting good,
But I can handle criticism.
I'll show you what I know,
And you can tell me if you think I'm getting better on my blog.
I'll leave the front un-locked 'cause I can't
Hear the doorbell

When I get into it I can't tell if you are
Watching me writing the text.
When I give the signal, my friend
Rabbi Vole will check the footnotes

Some day somebody else besides me will
Call me by my stage name, they will
Call me Dr Will.
Good Morning how are you, I'm Dr. Will
I'm interested in things.
I'm not a real doctor,
But I am a real Will;
I am an actual Will.
I live like a Will.

I like to write my blog.
I think I'm getting good,
But I can handle criticism.
I'll show you what I know,
And you can tell me if you think I'm writing better on the blog.
I'm not a real doctor,
But they call me Dr. Will.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Nothing Says Christmas Like a Knit Amphisbaena Scarf

Isidore of Seville tells us that alone among snakes, the amphisbaena goes out in the cold, so what could be more appropriate for the season than this charming amphisbaena scarf?

If you're trying to find a gift for someone who already has an amphisbaena scarf, perhaps you could get them a jelly wobbler:

And to be completely prepared for the holidays, you may want to watch this instructional video

Abstract: Outrance and Plaisance

Will McLean “Outrance and Plaisance” in Journal of Medieval Military History 8 (2010): 155-170


Modern writers on medieval deeds of arms often use the term à outrance to describe combats fought “using the normal weapons of war” and à plaisance to describe combats using “specially modified weapons with sharp edges removed or blunted”.

However, during the 15th century, when the terms were most often used to describe contemporary deeds of arms, writers in Burgundy, France, Spain and England used the terms very differently. Sharp weapons of war and blunt weapons could be used in both sorts of combat. Instead, arms à outrance were distinguished by the willingness of the champions to fight until one side or the other was captured or killed, unless the judge or judges stopped the fight. This could happen either in the context of a judicial duel or a high stakes combat by mutual consent.

Arms à plaisance were less extreme, and would typically end as soon as an agreed number of blows were struck, or as soon as a combatant was carried to the ground.

The author quotes contemporary accounts of the extraordinary combats that 15th century writers described as à outrance. They show what happened in the rare cases when they were fought to the finish, as well as the less uncommon fights that were halted or proposed but not accepted. He also quotes 15th century accounts of a more limited combat à plaisance that was nonetheless fought with sharp weapons.

Combats à outrance were extraordinary events and their potential to end in legalized homicide presented the judges with a dilemma. Their response gives a measure of how extraordinary these combats were. In deciding whether and how far to allow deeds of arms to proceed under their control, rulers struck a delicate balance among competing goals: displaying their own power, fairness and authority, gratifying noble subjects, entertaining the populace and maintaining good order in their realm.

Potentially more dangerous than any other combats by consent, combats à outrance offered correspondingly greater opportunity for fame, honor and renown. In several cases those offering to do arms à outrance wore devices, conspicuous tokens that signified their willingness to fight in this way, further advertising the courage of the bearer even if no combat transpired.

A more correct understanding of the medieval terms helps us to realize that even in arms à plaisance, the participants could use sharp weapons to create a highly realistic approximation of true mortal combat. Arms à outrance were even more dangerous, and when voluntarily undertaken allowed a small number of the bravest men at arms to win honor and renown by publicly demonstrate their courage and confidence in their own prowess, freely exposing themselves to risks and hazards that were deliberately extraordinary.

De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History

With the launch of our annual The Journal of Medieval Military History, it was decided at our 2002 business meeting to begin an annual membership fee, which would cover the cost of each member’s journal, and to help pay for some of the Society’s other activities. The fee has been set at $35 (U.S.) for individuals, with the first $30 going to cover the cost of each member’s copy of the journal. This price will be significantly lower than the institutional and non-member price. The remaining $5 will go to De Re Militari.

The dues year runs from one Annual Meeting (which takes place at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in May) to the next. Active membership entitles you to receive a copy of the Journal when it is published, usually in the fall (so that, for example, if you pay your membership at the 2009 Annual Meeting, your membership will be valid until May 2010, and Volume 7 of the Journal will be shipped to you in late fall of 2009.) Active members will receive renewal requests about a month before the expiration of their membership.

It is not clear how late in the year you can sign up for membership and still receive the Journal.

You can read a fair amount of my article in preview at Google Books.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Deep

The abyss, populated by metal objects in dreamlike stop-motion animation by PES, who also created the witty short, Moth.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sauron, Cthulhu and Paris Hilton

Who is taking market share from the Great Old Ones? You decide.

Friday, December 17, 2010

King Rene's Tournament Field in LEGO here.

And then there's the Reformation in LEGO.

Journal of Medieval Military History Volume VIII

The Journal of Medieval Military History Volume VIII is now available. It includes my article on Outrance and Plaisance, which corrects "the common misunderstanding of the nature of deeds of arms à outrance in the fifteenth century".

Thursday, December 16, 2010


This is an interesting tool.

Pity that it's a lot less useful before 1800.

Above: Realm (red) compared to Commonwealth (blue)

Alexis Madrigal has a great gallery of Google Ngrams at his post Vampire vs. Zombie: Comparing Word Usage Through Time

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Random Acts of Culture

Antwerp, 3/23/2009

Newcastle 2/24/2010

Miami, 4/14/2010

Philadelphia 4/24/2010

Charlotte, 9/17/2010

Philadelphia, 10/30/2010

San Jose, 11/13/2010
Shock and awe, joy and delight.

Lego Replica of the Antikythera Mechanism, Difference Engine, and Other Devices

A 2000-year-old analog computing device reconstructed out of Lego.

From the same crazed genius that brought you a Babbage Difference Engine Made From Lego.

Speaking of mechanisms, may I mention the Artoo and Threepio swimuits? Oh, those bickering droids.

Mystery Payload Revealed

When Spacex's Dragon, the first privately built pressurized space capsule to return safely from orbit did so on December 8, 2010, there was a top secret mystery cargo on board. .

Cheese, Grommit.

I love this story on so many levels. NASA or any other government space agency would never do something quite like this.

They needed ballast in any case. Why not cheese?

What will they do with the cheese? Serve it at the company picnic? Sell shrink-wrapped slices to the highest bidder? I love the eccentric whimsy of an idea that may well turn a profit.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Retreat Without Reproach

Steve Muhlberger writes about Charny and the ethics of retreat for men-at-arms.
What distinguished dishonorable flight from the "safe and honorable withdrawal" which Charny thought all good men-at-arms needed to learn to execute?

Joinville, writing of events about a century earlier, gives a concrete example of the tension between tactical prudence and fear of dishonor, when Joinville and his companions found themselves heavily outnumbered:

I and my knights clapped spurs to the rescue of Lord Ralph of Wanon, who was with me, whom they had pulled to earth; and whilst I was on my way back, the Turks pinned me down with their spears. My horse, feeling the weight, fell on his knees, and I passed on between his ears, and picked myself up with my shield round my neck and my sword in my hand. Lord Erard of Syverey,—God rest his soul!—who was of my company, came up to me, and said, that we had best draw off to a ruined house, and wait there until the King should come. And as we were going along on foot and horseback, a great horde of Turks broke upon us, and bore me down, and passed over me, and snatched my shield from my neck; and when they were gone by, Lord Erard of Syverey came back to me, and led me along, till we reached the walls of the ruined house; and there Lord Hugh of Scots rejoined us, with Lord Frederick of Loupey, and Lord Reynold of Menoncourt.

There the Turks attacked us on all sides. Part of them got into the ruins, and thrust at us with their spears from above. Then my knights desired me to take hold of their horses' bridles, which I did, to prevent the horses from stampeding; and they warded off the Turks so vigorously, that they were praised by all the champions of the army, both by those who saw the deed, and those who only heard it told.

There Lord Hugh of Scots was wounded with three spear-wounds in his face, and Lord Ralph too; and Lord Frederick of Loupey was wounded with a spear between his shoulders, and the gash was so wide, that the blood spurted out of his body as through the tap of a cask. Lord Erard of Syverey got such a sword-cut across his face that his nose hung down onto his lip.

Then I bethought me of Our Lord Saint James: "Fair Lord Saint James,"—I prayed, "Help and save me in this need!" No sooner had I made my prayer, than Lord Erard said to me:—"Sir, if you thought it would be no reproach to me and my heirs, I would go and fetch you help from the Count of Anjou, whom I see yonder in the fields." And I said to him:—"Sir Erard, methinks it would be greatly to your honour, if you were to fetch us aid to save our lives, for truly your own life is in danger." (And indeed I spoke the truth, for he died of that wound.) He asked the opinion of all my knights who were there, and they took the same view as I did; and thereupon he asked me to let go his horse whom I was holding by the bridle along with the rest, and I did so. He came to the Count of Anjou, and begged him to come to the assistance of me and my knights. A rich man who was with him would have dissuaded him, but the Count of Anjou said he should do what my knight asked him; and he turned rein to come and help us, and several of his serjeants spurred on ahead; and when the Saracens saw them coming they let us be. In front of these serjeants rode Lord Peter of Alberive, sword in hand, and when he saw that the Saracens had left us, he charged a whole heap of Saracens who had got hold of Lord Ralph of Wanon, and rescued him, sorely wounded.

This account also gives a sense of why retreat was such a serious issue for men-at-arms: Joinville, dismounted, had to hold the horses' bridles to keep them from running. There must have been many times in battle when a horse began to carry a rider away from the enemy despite the best efforts of the man: how tempting it must have been to just keep going.

Joinville, J., & Bowen-Wedgwood, E. K. (1906). The memoirs of the Lord of Joinville: A new English version. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Epic Fail of Julian Assange

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

That's how Assange said WikiLeaks was supposed to work. How does it work in practice? Leaving aside corporations and individual political candidates, WikiLeaks has released leaks from the governments of Kenya, The US, US, Peru, Iran, Great Britain, the US, US, Germany, the US and the US.

If the United States pegged Secretive Injustice at 11, then Assange would have a pretty good argument. If you believe that there are some countries that are actually rather more secretive and unjust than the US who have yet to be troubled by even a single WikiLeak, you are led to question the thesis.

200 Countries, 200 Years. The Joy of Stats.

Hans Rosling shows the benefits of living in the future. A splendid display of the power of visualization, and how lucky we are to be living today rather than any time in the past.

Mr. Rosling seems pretty tickled at finding a better way to show the data. "Pretty neat, huh?" Yes indeed. Thank you, Mr. Rosling. And thank you, our parents and ancestors, who did so much to push as towards the healthy and wealthy corner of the graph.