Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fighting with Thrown Lances in a 15th c. Deed of Arms

Many 15th c. deeds of arms began with thrown lances, and optimal use of this weapon was a delicate set of compromises. To achieve maximum velocity and penetration, the user should throw the lance while running towards the target at high speed, like a modern or classical athlete throwing the javelin. While throws may not have been made at a full run, medieval accounts do describe champions advancing against each other “with vigorous strides”. Throwing when as close as possible to the target would reduce velocity losses from air resistance and give the target minimal time to dodge or parry the blow.

When Alvaro Continge fought Clugnet de Brabant in 1415, Jean Le Févre reported that:

When Sir Clugnet advanced quickly against his man, and sought him near his pavilion, and hastened so near to the Portuguese that he did not have space to throw his lance. And so Sir Clugnet let fall his own, and they came together to fight with axes.

Once the lance was thrown the thrower needed to quickly ready another weapon for attack and defense. If the champions on both sides were trying to throw while advancing as quickly as possible, and trying to throw as late as possible, the time for bringing another weapon into action could be very short indeed, particularly if a champion was also attempting to parry an incoming lance during the approach.

This would explain why 15th c. fighting manuals like Talhoffer so often show different ways the champion could be ready to attack with a thrown lance while already holding a sword in hand ready for use. Or, in the case of the Codex Wallerstein, simultaneously juggle lance, sword and defensive shield.

Merlé vs de Chargny 1435 and Habourdin vs. de Bearn ca. 1449: Thrown Lance vs. Armor

It is perhaps natural for a modern student of medieval combat to assume that a thrown spear would be relatively ineffective against 15th century plate harness. However, when I put the question to a practical test with a reproduction spear, I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I consistently got better penetration against sheet steel with a thrown spear than with a two-handed thrust with the same weapon. Two factors seem to explain the difference. With a thrust, the spear must begin to decelerate before the arm reaches full extension if the wielder is to keep a grip on it. Probably more significantly, the thrown spear can be thrown as the thrower runs forward, for a substantial increase in velocity and kinetic energy.

An Olympic level javelin throw carries about 360 joules of kinetic energy. According to tests by Alan Williams, even half that is sufficient to drive a point 40 mm through 2 mm of mild steel. This would be sufficient to threaten the limbs of many 15th c. harnesses, and Monstrelet gives an account of this happening in a combat between John de Merlé and the lord de Chargny in 1435:

Everything being ready, the king-at-arms, called Golden Fleece, proclaimed in three different parts of the lists that all who had not been otherwise ordered to guard them should quit the lists, and that no one should give any hindrance to the two champions under pain of being punished by the duke of Burgundy with death. Eight armed gentlemen were appointed to take or raise up either of the champions, as the judge of the field should direct. When the proclamation was made, the lord de Chargny issued out of his pavilion with both of his two weapons, holding his axe in his right hand, the iron part toward his adversary, and thus advanced a little forward. The Spanish knight advanced at the same time from his pavilion, armed as aforesaid, having a kerchief thrown over his helmet that covered his visor, which was half raised. And as he came out one of his servants removed the kerchief. They made for each other with vigorous strides, brandishing their lances; but the Spaniard all this time had his visor raised. And as they came together the lord de Chargny threw his lance first without hitting his man. The Spaniard advanced to throw his. He hit him on the bracer near the elbow: with that stroke he was pierced and a little grieved in the arm, so that the lance was lodged within the bracer. But the lord de Chargny shook it off and it fell on the sand. The two champions now vigorously approached near to each other: that is how they nobly began to fight with their lances. But the lord de Chargny was much displeased that his adversary did not close his visor.

From: Monstrelet, Enguerrand de, (La) Chronique d'Enguerran de Monstrelet. Paris 1857 Translation copyright 2007 Will Mclean

A longer but less accurate translation of the encounter is available here.

Also, Olivier de la Marche records how the Lord de Habourdin, bastard of St. Pol, did arms at Bruges against the Bernard de Bearne, bastard of Foix in a continuation of the pas de la Pelerine of 1449:

.. the bastard of Bearne came out of his pavilion with his visor closed, his lance gripped in his right hand, and an axe and small steel targe (targon) in his left, and he was a tall and powerful knight. On the other side the bastard of St. Pol came out completely armed, the coat of arms of Luxembourg on his back, a basinet on his head, without a visor or other cover or protection for his face, and he was armed with lance and axe, and equipped with a small steel targe. The two knights went fiercely against each other, and the Lord de Habourdin threw his lance first. And Sir Bernard stepped aside so that he was not hit, and as he did so he brandished his lance and threw it at his companion who was quickly following up his throw with his small targe in front of him as cover. And it happened with that throw the Lord de Habourdin was struck on the lower edge of his targe, and the blow glanced off and struck him on the left side a little below his waist. It pierced his harness and the point entered deep into the flesh of de Habourdin. When this happened he coolly used his left arm to pull out the bloody lance which was firmly stuck in his harness.

Oliver de la Marche, Memories Paris 1884
Translation copyright 2007 Will Mclean

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Medieval Orthography: I-J and U-V

In reading a medieval text, it's helpful to know that the medieval scribe did not distinguish between I and J as separate sounds, and likewise between U and V. J was simply considered an alternate way of writing I, and U as an alternate way of writing V. V or v tended to be used at the beginning of the word and u in the middle. J was slower to catch on, most often as the final in the final stroke in a series of roman numerals, and more occasionally as an initial or terminal letter. Systematic use of U and V to represent different sounds began in Italy in the 16th c., and became general in England around 1630, about the time J came into general use as in English as a separate letter.

So in a medieval text, we would frequently see even as euen, unto as vnto, and just as iust.

When we read that Gawain, preparing to meet the Green Knight, had a helm equiped

Wyth a lyyghtly vrysoun ouer the auentayle,
Enbrawden and bounden wyth the best gemmez

how are we to pronounce "vrysoun"? We could look at alternate spellings of the word in other works, but as far as I know this is the only place it appears. Some other versions of the text transcribe it as "urisoun"

I read it as "urisoun", because it scans and illiterates better. It may be related to the later term Orris, which the OED describes as lace, embroidery or hangings worked with gold.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Wall Street Journal Blames Clinton Again

The Wall Street Journal tells us that "the politician most responsible for the AMT's relentless expansion in recent years is none other than William Jefferson Clinton."

As part of the 1993 tax hike, the alternative minimum tax rate was increased. There was an exemption, which was not indexed for inflation. "From 1992 to 2002, this Clinton stealth tax hike increased sixfold the number of filers paying the AMT, to nearly two million from 300,000."

For years the WSJ editorial board has had something of a mania about Clinton. During his presidency they developed the "Bill Clinton, Threat or Menace?" editorial into a dependable product, like a meal at McDonald's. As soon as his name appeared on the left hand side of the editorial spread, you had a pretty good idea of what you were going to get. So perhaps it's not surprising to read once again that It's All Clinton's Fault, even though he's been out of office for some time.

However, the Republicans took control of Congress in January 1995, and the White House in 2000. The lion's share of the growth in the number of Americans paying the AMT happened on their watch. Their party has been enthusiastic about cutting taxes (if not spending) and indexing the AMT exemptions would in theory fit perfectly with their ideological preference for a simpler and less progressive tax structure. And yet, nothing was done. Why?

Public choice theory explains why. Any change in policy creates winners and losers. An elected official can improve his chances of reelection by making choices where the benefits are obvious but the costs are less obvious, even if that isn't the decision that creates the greatest good for the greatest number.

A self interested politician will prefer when possible to shift costs from current voters to future voters: after all, he may no longer be in the political marketplace when the pain of the future cost is felt. And if he must impose costs on the electorate, he will prefer stealthy mechanisms to transparent ones.

For Republicans, the fact that the AMT falls disproportionately on taxpayers in states that tend to vote Democratic is an extra added bonus.

So most of the growth in the impact of the AMT can be blamed not on a devilishly clever Bill Clinton, but on mostly Republican lawmakers following their political self interest rather than their supposed ideals.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Manuscripts at the National Library of the Netherlands

The National Library of the Netherlands (Koninklijke Bibliotheek) offers an excellent online resource for the study of medieval manuscript illumination. Manuscripts of particular interest to students of arms and armor include:

Livy, Histoire Romaine Paris; c. 1380-1390
The Hague, KB, 71 A 16

Vincent of Beauvais, Le Miroir Historial (Vol. IV) Paris, Master of the Cité des Dames (illuminator); c. 1400- 1410
The Hague, KB, 72 A 24

Jean Froissart, Chroniques (Vol. 1) Paris, Virgil Master (illuminator); c. 1400-1410
The Hague, KB, 72 A 25

The link above will take you to a search page, and you can enter the shelfmark, which follows "KB" above, to reach the particular manuscript."Images and Text" will then give you both thumbnail images from the MS and text describing their context.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Proper Length for a Longsword

What is the proper length for a longsword or two handed sword when recreating medieval combat technique? The answer depends on the size of the user’s body, since the sword should ideally be proportioned to the user. It also depends on the period and fighting school one is trying to replicate. Vadi, writing ca. 1482-1487, says that “the sword should be of the correct measure, with the pommel just under the arm”. That is, the length of the sword should reach from the ground to just below the armpit. Further, the handle and cross of the hilt should both be a span long, that is, the distance between the thumb and tip of the little finger with the fingers spread. This measure of the handle does not include the length of the pommel.

Iconography and surviving weapons suggest that a shorter length was more typical ca. 1380-1400. Swords with two handed grips shown on effigies from that period might have a length that reached from the ground to perhaps a handbreadth (or four inches). higher than the owner’s navel, and a grip perhaps an inch or so less than a span. This is the era when Liechtenauer was writing. The longswords in Talhoffer seem to be intermediate between this length and what Vadi recommends.

Later masters such as Marozzo, di Grassi and Meyer seem to prefer a weapon that is longer than Vadi’s ideal length, both overall and in the grip. George Silver, on the other hand, recommends that a two handed sword have a blade that is shorter than Vadi’s ideal length, and more like those of 1400 or so.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

An Early Illustration of Halfswording in Morgan Library MS 804, ca. 1410

In Chaucer’s World, Edith Rickert reproduces an illumination showing halfswording in fol. 128 of Morgan Library, New York, MS 804: a copy of Froissart’s Chronicles attributed to Guillaume de Bailly. In A Mirror of Chaucer’s World, Roger Sherman Loomis dates this manuscript to ca. 1410. Millard Meiss, in The Limbourgs and Their Contemporaries, gives a slighter later estimate. He dates the manuscript to ca. 1412, but ascribes much of the illumination to the Boethius Illuminator, who was most active between approximately 1414 and 1420. Given what is known of his career, the manuscript is more likely to date after 1412 than before.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Halfsword ca. 1380-1390

Halfsword is a technique that involves holding the hilt of one’s sword in one hand while the other grasps the blade for a more effective thrust. It appears frequently in 15th c. combat manuals. It is difficult to say when the technique first appeared, but there is at least one example in a manuscript illumination ca. 1380-1390, fol. 209r of Livy, Histoire Romaine, KB 71 A 16 in the National Library of the Netherlands.(Koninklijke Bibliotheek: Shelfmark 71 A 16) This is the earliest unequivocal example that I have been able to identify

A Timeline of Armored Effigies 1277-1407

A timeline of armored effigies is posted on the site of the Medieval Combat Society. It will take a while to load. As with all effigies, there may sometimes be a disconnect between the death date and the creation of the effigy.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Two 14th c. German Effigies

Some very nice close up photos are available here.

Gunther Von Schwarzburg (1304-1349) and Burkhard von Steinberg (d. 1376). It looks like Burkhard's mail does not entirely cover the inside of his elbows. His greaves would be an interesting project.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Glancing Blows and Armor Penetration

An arrow or other projectile that strikes armor plate at an angle other than perpendicular is less likely to penetrate. Alan Williams’ The Knight and the Blast Furnace gives the following values as a first approximation, and found them to agree reasonably well with tests on 1, 1.5, and 2 mm mild steel.

If the energy required to penetrate the plate equals 1, then the energy required at the following deviations from the perpendicular are:

20 degrees: 1.1
30 degrees: 1.2
40 degrees: 1.3
45 degrees: 1.4
50 degrees: 1.6
60 degrees: 2

This, however, assumes the arrow remains intact. At a sufficiently oblique angle either the point or shaft of the arrow may snap if the arrow does not ricochet. The angle at which this occurs will depend on the thickness of the arrow, the thickness and shape of the head, the strength of the bow and the thickness of the armor plate struck. If the thicker plate is penetrated at all it will not be penetrated as deeply as a thinner plate, and deceleration will be more violent.

Hardy includes a report by Peter Jones on tests with a long bodkin headed arrow against 1.5mm mild steel. At 60 degrees the point penetrated perhaps 2 mm beyond the inner surface of the plate and then broke while the rest of the arrow ricocheted. At 70 degrees the arrow ricocheted.

Mark Stretton in Soar et al found that heavy lozenge shaped bodkin was defeated by a 2mm plate at 40 degrees. Stretton didn’t specify the bow weight for that particular test, but he habitually shoots with heavy bows of 140 lbs in draw weight or more.

For a curved plate like a cuisse, roughly circular in cross section, striking halfway between the centerline and side of the plate would be similar to striking a flat plate at 45 degrees. In the simplest case, with the limbs vertical, about half the frontal area of the limbs would be stuck at effective angles of 45 degrees or more. In practice as a man at arms moved forward with a weapon at the ready his limbs would generally be at various angles to the vertical at any given moment, and so the oblique angle of impact would be increased.

Hardy, Robert Longbow: A Social and Military History New York 1992 ISBN: 0-685-62481-1

Soar, D. H. Hugh, with Joseph Gibbs, Christopher Jury, Mark Stretton Secrets of the English War Bow Yardley, PA 2006 ISBN 1-56416-025-2

Williams, Alan The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period History of Warfare, 12. Leiden: Brill, 2003 ISBN 90-04-12498-5.