Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘European’


Men-at-Arms Would Continue To Fight Despite Wounds

…Armored men were often able to keep fighting, at least for a while, after receiving several minor wounds. Indeed, this was expected: both that fighters would be wounded and that they would continue to fight despite their injuries. One knight, whose own face was “so badly cut that it was disfigured almost all over” was “astonished,” when he met Sir James Douglas, to find that the latter’s face was not scarred. For a man-at-arms to emerge unscathed from combat could be viewed as a sign of laxness or worse: “I know full well that you are a coward: your coat of mail is neither pierced nor torn, and neither your head nor arms are wounded.” It is not unusual to read of a victorious force in which few or no men died but in which many were wounded.

Clifford J. Rogers, Soldiers’ Lives Through History, p. 216

Author’s emphasis.

Few Deaths While Combat Remained Undecided

…The close formations and the dominance of armored warriors in medieval fighting tended to result in relatively many wounds and few deaths for so long as the combat remained undecided. Once the balance tipped, the situation often changed rapidly and dramatically. Two quotations from the chronicler Jean Froissart nicely illustrate the point: “When once an army is broken, those that are defeated are so much frightened, that if one fall, three follow his example, and to these three ten, and to ten thirty; and also, should ten run away, they will be followed by a hundred”; “but in flight there is more danger than in the heat of the battle, for, when any one flies, a pursuit is made, and, if overtaken, he is slain.” When fighting face-to-face, a soldier strikes with some caution, needing to keep his guard up, but blows against a fugitive can be delivered with abandon, lose none of their force to an attempted parry, and are much more likely to be lethal even against an armored man. Even those who refuse to flee can be easily overwhelmed, with little danger to the lives of their opponents, once those around them have fled. The logical implication of this is that battlefield deaths were usually very lopsided, with the defeated suffering sometimes very severe losses and the victors losing only a few men killed. The testimony of eyewitness sources confirms that this was typically the result of medieval combats.

Clifford J. Rogers, Soldiers’ Lives Through History, pp. 214-15

Emphasis mine.

Medieval Battlefield Medicine Was Not Primitive

By the end of a battle, both captives and captors were likely to be wounded. Those who had taken prisoners could not benefit from their acquisitions unless both parties survived, which was more likely if they received some medical care. Basic knowledge of practical wound treatment was widespread among medieval soldiers and indeed among aristocratic women. Arrows and javelins that had not gone in too deep were usually pulled out (or pushed through) as quickly as possible, often by the injured person. Wounds were washed with vinegar or wine—effective antiseptics—to remove any possible source of infection (dirt, cloth, etc.), then covered with moistened lint, plasters, egg, or lard-based ointments, then bandaged, often with strips cut from a shirt. Sometimes herbal poultices would also be used. Later, the wounds would be washed and re-bandaged frequently, with any corrupted flesh being cut away. This was quite effective; in one sample of over 300 skulls dating from the sixth through the eighth centuries, only twelve percent of the wounds showed any evidence of infection.

Armies in the field were usually accompanied by physicians, surgeons, and barbers (who provided basic medical care). Great lords typically brought such men as part of their retinues, and infantry contingents often did the same. Medical personnel doubtless gave first priority to their own employers, but it was normally expected that wounded soldiers would eventually be tended by a physician if necessary: to say someone had been struck with such force that he would have no need of a doctor was to say that he had been killed outright. Despite the common belief to the contrary, western European surgeons of the Middle Ages seem to have been roughly on a par with their Islamic, Byzantine, and Jewish contemporaries. They could stop the bleeding of a cut artery with pressure and cauterization; they were skilled at treating broken skulls using trepanning; they could draw out barbed arrows using metal tubes or goose quills to cover the barbs; they knew how to splint smashed arms or legs. They could even suture intestines or severed jugular veins. They had analgesics and anesthetics made with opium, cannabis, and other less powerful substances….

Clifford J. Rogers, Soldiers’ Lives Through History, pp. 224-25

Hard Bargaining Was the Essence of the Lord-Vassal Relationship

Shortly after [the battle of] Sagrajas [in 1086 C.E.,] Rodrigo [Diaz, called El Cid] and [King Alfonso VI of Castile] were reconciled…. We do not know who took the initiative. What is fairly clear is that Rodrigo could make his own terms. The king was desperate, and was prepared—or could be brought—to pay Rodrigo handsomely for returning to his service. The author of the Historia Roderici tells us that

the king gave him the castle of Duáñez with its dependents, and the castle of Gormaz, and Ibia and Campóo and Eguña and Briviesca, and Langa which is in the western parts, together with all their territories and inhabitants.

He may have been quoting from a royal charter. The word ‘gave’ (dedit) is probably to be taken as meaning ‘entrusted the defence and/or administration of’ to Rodrigo. The king was not alienating chunks of territory but giving his vassal responsible and lucrative employment. Duáñez, Gormaz and Langa were important strong-points in the network of defences which guarded the Duero valley. Ibia, Campóo and Eguña were districts in the extreme north of Castile. Briviesca, to the north-east of Burgos, was contiguous to the Riojan territories of Count Garcia Ordóñez. This was not all. His biographer goes on thus:

Furthermore, King Alfonso gave him this concession and privilege in his kingdom, written and confirmed under seal, by which all the land or castles which he himself might acquire from the Saracens in the land of the Saracens should be absolutely his in full ownership, not only his but also his sons’ and daughters’ and all his descendants.

This remarkable concession has caused much perplexity to commentators…. [The author does] not see why the passage should not be accepted at its face value, as a summary of—possibly a quotation from—a royal charter granting to the Cid a very unusual gift. We should remember that the circumstances were unusual. Alfonso needed skilled commanders, and in the hard bargaining which was the essence of the lord-vassal relationship he held a weak hand. It was a vassal’s market. Rodrigo could call the tune.

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, chapter 10

Emphasis mine.

Trial by Combat Was a Legal Privilege

Trial by combat was…a legal privilege, the privilege of oathworthy persons to refuse to submit to the ordinary process in a court. The duel over the point of honor was fundamentally different….

The two forms of noble combat certainly did bear some resemblances…. Trial by combat rested on two assumptions…: high-status persons were persons whose word had to be accepted as true, and they had the privilege of settling their disputes through violence. Dueling rested on the same two assumptions, at least to some extent. The starting point for a duel might well be some form of the insult “you lie.” Just as the honorable truthfulness of an oathworthy person was theoretically proved by victory in trial by combat, the honorable truthfulness of the challenger could be proved by a duel. In that sense the purpose of dueling, in its early history, was close to the purpose of trial by combat.

Yet at their core the two institutions were deeply different. Dueling, unlike trial by combat, was not a proof procedure, and it did not symbolize the lawful nonservile privilege of settling one’s disputes without going to court. Trial by combat was an alternative to ordinary trial, used by privileged oathworthy persons to resolve a legal question.… Dueling, by contrast, was purely a contest over the honorability of the duelists…, and apart from the possible criminal liability of the participants, it had no legal consequences whatsoever.

James Q. Whitman, The Verdict of Battle, pp. 150-51

Castle Life in Winter

For a thirteenth-century [C.E.] baron life indoors was always a poor substitute for outdoor activity. Despite the great fireplace and the screens blocking the draughts, the hall was frequently damp, dark, and cheerless during the long winter. The high cost of candles and the inefficiency of rush-lights drove most to bed soon after nightfall. Life in winter was only enjoyable when a crowd gathered for a great feast, or when a minstrel’s song, and the welcome warmth of the fire, added to the pleasure of supper on a cold evening. Under the prevailing harsh and uncomfortable conditions it is little wonder that the medieval poets, and even the sober chroniclers, sang the joys of spring with such lyric intensity. It gave them back light, warmth, and their freedom of movement.

Margaret Wade Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, p. 36

A Rough, Stark World

…The country [of tenth century Castile] is high and bare, though it may have been more thickly wooded in the early Middle Ages than it is today….

…Large tracts of land were still untamed, roamed by wild pigs and cattle, wolves and probably bears…. They were roamed also by voluntary or involuntary drop-outs from human society such as hermits or outlaws….

It was a rough, stark world where status mattered, justice was uncomplicated, and war never far away.

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, chapter 5

This sounds like a great setting for a fantasy roleplaying game.

About European Shields

Probably the most important item of defensive armor was the shield. You could be in real trouble if you were caught without one. But a shield is also a nuisance to carry, so a lot of people were caught without one. It is obvious from the sagas that the thickness varied a great deal. You can read of thin shields and some that are described as thick and strong.

Vikings shields were generally round, and varied in width from 20 to 42 inches. They were made of boards glued together on the ends. The center of the shield was cut out for the hand, and the hand was then covered by a bowl shaped piece of metal called a boss. Often the rim of the shield would be covered by a strip of rawhide that was laced, or even glued to the edges.

This was good protection, and also helped hold the boards together. On rare occasions the rim of the shield might be reinforced with iron. The shield was gripped in the center where there was a grip, usually of iron. There may, or may not, depending on personal preference, be a strap to secure the left forearm to the shield. While primarily a defensive tool, it could be used offensively, too. A punch to the side of the head with a ten-pound shield can easily break someone’s neck. The shield can also be used to drive an opponent’s shield in a direction that will open him up for a sword cut.

Although round predominated, it was not the only shape. You can have oval ones, and square ones, and later you will have the typical kite shaped shield that is referred to as “Norman.” There is very strong evidence that suggests that the kite shaped shield originated in the Near East, and was brought back to Europe by returning members of the Varangian Guard in Byzantium. Nevertheless, there was a lot of individual preference….

The kite shield began to dominate Europe by the 11th century [C.E]. It was ideal on horseback, as it protected most of your left side, and on foot it gave good protection to the left leg. True, it wasn’t quite as effective a weapon as a good round shield, but it could be used that way. As coverage of the body in armor increased, the shield became somewhat smaller, soon ending up in the classic flatiron shape so beloved by all. After all, it is a great way to display your arms, and looks really cool hanging in back of your high seat.

The kite shield was fairly thick, being close to an average of one-half inch in thickness. These were generally covered in leather and decorated in gesso, with a weight of ten to twelve pounds. They were very sturdy, and their primary purpose was to divert the lance of the opponent. Foot soldiers at this time carried all types of shields, but as armor improved and became more accessible, it was more important that they carry a weapon that could defeat the armor, a two-hand weapon, and so the shield began to lose favor. It never fully went out of use but its popularity did dwindle considerably starting about 1400.

Hank Reinhardt, The Book of Swords, pp. 97-99

Armor and Swords Did Not Change Overnight

For someone living in our standardized age it is frequently confusing and even difficult to grasp that nothing was consistent or standardized. Uniforms were still several hundred years in the future. The Viking Age didn’t end at 12 midnight October 14, 1066, with everybody jumping around shouting “We’re now in the Middle Ages.’ Armor and swords didn’t change overnight, and a blade could be in use for well over a hundred years, and a mail shirt that belonged to grandad might just fit you.

One of the hardest things in discussing this subject with someone who is just getting started, is that there are no hard and fast rules. If someone doesn’t have a helmet, and gets hold of one that is two hundred years old, he’ll wear it. Better to be old fashioned than to have your skull split!

Hank Reinhardt, The Book of Swords, pp. 98-99

Equipment of an Aristocratic Soldier

[In 1062 C.E.] a certain Pedro Rúiz, of whom we know little save that he was a courtier of [King] Fernando I…, granted some land to the Castilian monastery of Arlanza, and threw in with it

my equipment, that is my gold-embossed saddle with its bridle, my sword and sword-belt, my spurs, my shield with its spear, my other decorated swords, my coats of mail and my helmets, the other swords which are not decorated, and my shields and horses and mules, and my clothes, and my other spurs, and the other bridle chased with silver.

This is as good a description as any of the equipment of an aristocratic soldier in the middle years of the eleventh century. Pedro Rúiz was approaching the end of a successful career and had amassed great riches…. Swords were often richly decorated about the hilt and pommel, and this is presumably the meaning of the word ‘decorated’ (labratas) in Pedro Rúiz’s list; though it could alternatively indicate that the swords in question were damascene, a technique originating in Damascus by which the metal was worked into wavy patterns. Sword-belts too were often decorated….

…Saddle, bridle, and spurs offered further opportunities for display….

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, pp. 110-12

To Shed Human Blood and Think Nothing of It

The rise of knighthood did not produce a submissive, nonviolent peasantry in [Medieval] Europe. Habits of bloodshed were deep-seated, perennially fed by the fact that Europeans raised both pigs and cattle in considerable numbers but had to slaughter all but a small breeding stock each autumn for lack of sufficient winter fodder. Other agricultural regimes, e.g., among the rice-growing farmers of China and India, did not involve annual slaughter of large animals. By contrast, Europeans living north of the Alps learned to take such bloodshed as a normal part of the routine of the year. This may have had a good deal to do with their remarkable readiness to shed human blood and think nothing of it.

William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power, p. 64

An Art of War Was Needed

[By the thirteenth century C.E.,] crossbows and pikes had to be supplemented by cavalry for flank protection and the pursuit of a vanquished foe. This obviously made war far more complicated than it had been when a headlong charge by a group of knights dominated the battlefields of Europe. Simple personal prowess, replicated within knightly families across the generations, was no longer enough to win battles or maintain social dominion. Instead, an art of war was needed. Someone had to be able to coordinate pikes, crossbows, and cavalry. Infantrymen needed training to assure steadiness in the ranks, for, were their formation to break apart, individual pikemen would find themselves at the mercy of charging knights; and the time required to cock a crossbow meant that archers, too, became vulnerable each time they discharged their weapons, unless some field fortification or an unbroken array of friendly pikes could protect them until they were ready to shoot again.

William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power, p. 68

Horsemanship: Prerequisite for a Military Career

Horsemanship was the first prerequisite for a military career. [A boy] would have had his first riding lessons almost as soon as he could walk. Under the strict gaze of his father’s grooms he would have progressed from donkey to pony, from pony to horse, learning by practice how to keep his seat, how to govern a fractious beast or calm a nervous one, how to ride for long hours over rough country without tiring, and all the other skills that would go to preserve his life in the melee of combat. Hunting and hawking, the nobleman’s pastimes, developed further skills: an eye for country—surface and slope, vantage point and dead ground; the habit of moving on horseback in company, if necessary swiftly and silently; the difficult art of shooting from horseback with bow and arrow at a moving quarry; the courage needed to dismount and face the charge of a boar with only a spear to protect the hunter from its tusks; endurance of heat and cold, hunger and thirst; care of weapons and tack, where a loose knife-haft or girth worn to breaking could cost limb or even life.

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, pp. 109-10

Inside the Great Keep of a Castle

Inside the great keep of the castle was the required minimum of living-space: a great hall; provision in the basement for supplies; a private chamber, and perhaps a solar, for the lord and lady; a chapel; a well; and privies. In large castles, the number of chambers and guardrooms would of course be multiplied to provide for a larger garrison, as well as for the household. The great hall was the centre of all social activity and the common meeting place. It usually occupied almost the full expanse of the main floor, with a dais at one end, a fireplace in one wall, and screens or “spurs” to block the draughts of cold air from the entry doors. The bed-chamber of the lord of the castle and his wife was normally on the floor above the great hall and provided a relatively private spot.

Margaret Wade Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, p. 24

Hunting Served Several Social Functions

Hunting animals was the absolute passion of the medieval upper class, and the only activity recognized as a real recreation. It served several social functions. It confirmed power, wealth, status, and prestige as the king or aristocrat went out with his retainers, horses, dogs, and, sometimes, trained falcons. It brought men of similar social background together and was good training for medieval warfare, keeping men and horses fit. It developed strategic thinking as the men hunted elusive and often dangerous quarries, such as wild boar, bears, wolves, and red deer. Late summer and, especially, autumn were the usual times for hunting, which was often dangerous. Accidents were common, especially among immature, testosterone-driven, risk-taking young men. The Annals of Saint-Bertin reports that in 864 [C.E.] the sixteen-year-old Charles of Aquitaine, the son of King (later Emperor) Charles the Bald

whom his father had recently received from Aquitaine and taken with him to Compiegne, was returning one night from hunting in the forest of Guise [nowadays Cuise-la-Motte near Compiegne]. While he meant only to enjoy some horseplay with some other young men of his own age, by the devil’s action he was struck in the head with a sword by a youth called Albuin. The blow penetrated almost as far as the brain, reaching from his left temple to his right cheekbone and jaw…. He suffered from epileptic fits for a long time, and then on 29 September [866] he died.

Hunting accidents were also convenient ways of eliminating rivals and were sometimes used as plausible covers for assassinations.

Paul Collins, The Birth of the West, pp. 19-20

Medieval People Were Particularly Vulnerable to Weather

Medieval people were particularly vulnerable to weather. They depended on a subsistence economy, had limited storage facilities, and lacked the infrastructure to move food staples around quickly. Severe, destructive weather events could mean the difference between eating and starving, and severe winters, such as those of 873-874 or 939-940 [C.E.], caused high mortality among both humans and animals and resulted in widespread famine.

Paul Collins, The Birth of the West, p. 14

Care And Feeding Of Swords

Corrosion from perspiration, skin oils, blood, and exposure to the elements are the problems we need to know well. In the case of carbon steel, these culprits can cause severe discoloration and rust very rapidly if neglected. I own swords that literally will rust before your eyes if left un-oiled. During a take giri (bamboo cutting) demonstration my students and I were performing, I had a drop of my perspiration land, unnoticed, on one of my Rapier (thrusting sword) blades. In just a few minutes, I was shocked to see a bright orange spot of rust on my hand-polished sword. This is a very serious problem the martial arts student must know how to combat. Even breathing on an un-oiled sword blade can begin the dreaded process of corrosion. The edge is the thinnest part of a cutting implement and the most vulnerable to neglect. If allowed to rust, a razor-sharp weapon will become dull in a short period of time. Genuine katana [are] famous for their polish and [mirror-like] finish. This is not for merely cosmetic appearance. Steel has microscopic surface irregularities that can collect moisture and corrosive elements. A finely polished blade has smaller irregularities and sheds blood much more easily than an unpolished one. Hence, the more corrosive agents that collect in the pores, the more tarnish and rust will accumulate.

Care And Feeding Of Swords – Austin Bujinkan Tanemaki Dojo

Thank the gods for the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, else I could not have linked to the source blogpost.

The Act of Sacrifice

The act of sacrifice occupies an important position in every religion, but our present day conception of it appears to be a modification of its original meaning which has gradually altered over the centuries.

For the word sacrifice actually derives from sacrum facere which means “to make sacred” and was used to describe any act of self-transcending through which the individual sought to attain the divine. It has now come to denote very little more than the killing of an animal or a man as an offering to the divinity either by way of supplication or thanksgiving; and Christianity has further devalued the word by associating it with notions of austerity and self-denial.

To regard sacrifice as a synonym for mortification is a serious error, since it totally alters the nature of that spiritual process by which the Ancients sought to fulfil their destiny. Ritual sacrifice was never intended to deprive creation for the sake of the creator. The Gallic chief Brennus gave a lucid and accurate account of its real meaning during the Celtic expedition to Delphi when he uttered the supposedly impious comment that “The gods had no need of treasures since they showered them upon men.”

Sacrifice was first and foremost a psychic procedure in which the sacrificial “victim” threw off the burden of earthly dross and rose through a series of stages in his attempt to reach the divinity. This divinity might be the Perfect Being, the Great Mother, an objective god or some concept of the ideal which was inherent in the individual….

The original act of sacrifice…was a process of self-identification with the divinity. It is this act which the Catholic priest performs during the mass. As Plutarch points out in his treatise on the E of Delphi, however, wise men seek to hide the truths from the masses and resort to fable as a means of preserving a tradition accessible only to the initiate. For the truths are not always to be lavished upon the common herd, and the means used can be both positive and negative in their effect. They may lead those who use them thoughtlessly and clumsily to unforseeable disasters. The way to hell is paved with good intentions….

Jean Markale, The Celts, p. 224

Emphasis mine.

The Principles of War

Philip [of Macedon], Alexander [the Great]'s father, said that it is better to have an army of deer commanded by a lion than an army of lions commanded by a deer; Alexander himself told his men that their greatest advantage was that their leader was Alexander. Alexander lived and practiced what modern (Western) military theorists teach to their pupils as the principles of war. The principles were developed out of an analysis of Napoleon's campaigns and today are supposed to guide military officers in the practice of their profession and to guide historians in their analysis of campaigns and leadership. The principles are (in order of importance): the objective, the offensive, surprise, mass and economy of force, security, unity of command, maneuver, and simplicity.

Alfred S. Bradford, With Arrow, Sword, and Spear, Afterword, p. 273

Emphasis mine.

The number and order of the principles varies across countries and cultures. For a sample, see the Wikipedia entry for the Principles of War.

Space Was Severely Limited Within a Keep

Space was severely limited within the great stone keep [of a thirteenth century, C.E., English castle], so accommodation for most of the household activities was provided in numerous wooden buildings erected within the inner courtyard. The kitchen might be an elaborate separate structure or merely a shed protecting the cook and the fires from the weather. Frequently the animals and poultry awaiting their turn for the pot were kept in the courtyard, near the kitchen, till the cook required them. In the bailey was a farriery where the smith shod the many horses needed by the household. A pigeon-loft, often a large and elaborate structure, or a dairy might add yet other varieties of animal life to the courtyard. The bailey might also contain a large chapel for the benefit of all the household, since the small chapel in the keep was normally reserved for the lord and lady of the castle and their immediate retinue. Occasionally another separate building existed to house the bells for the chapel. The general impression is one of a confusing hodgepodge of structures designed for many different uses, but all dominated by the solid masonry of the keep and enclosed by a thick wall.

Margaret Wade Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, p. 20