Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: Europeans

Commercializing Armed Violence

June 2, 2022

Initially, the decay of primary group solidarity within the leading cities of Italy and of the town militias which were its military expression invited chaos. Armed adventurers, often originating from north of the Alps, coalesced under informally elected leaders and proceeded to live by blackmailing local authorities, or, when suitably large payments were not forthcoming, by plundering the countryside. Such “free companies” of soldiers became more formidable as the fourteenth century [C.E.] advanced. In 1354, the largest of these bands, numbering as many as 10,000 armed men, accompanied by about twice as many camp followers, wended its way across the most fertile parts of central Italy, making a living by sale and resale of whatever plunder the soldiers did not consume directly on the spot. Such a traveling company was, in effect, a migratory city, for cities, too, lived by extracting resources from the countryside through a combination of force or threat of force (rents and taxes) on the one hand and more or less free contractual exchanges (artisan goods for food and raw materials) on the other.

The spectacle of a wealthy countryside ravaged by wandering bands of plundering armed men was as old as organized warfare itself. What was new in this situation was the fact that enough money circulated in the richer Italian towns to make it possible for citizens to tax themselves and use the proceeds to buy the services of armed strangers. Then, simply by spending their pay, the hired soldiers put tax monies back in circulation. Thereby, they intensified the market exchanges that allowed such towns to commercialize armed violence in the first place. The emergent system thus tended to become self-sustaining. The only problem was to invent mutually acceptable contractual forms and practical means for enforcing contract terms.

From a taxpayer’s point of view, the desirability of substituting the certainty of taxes for the uncertainty of plunder depended on what one had to lose and how frequently plundering bands were likely to appear. In the course of the fourteenth century, enough citizens concluded that taxes were preferable to being plundered to make the commercialization of organized violence feasible in the richer and better-governed cities of northern Italy. Professionalized fighting men had precisely parallel motives for preferring a fixed rate of pay to the risks of living wholly on plunder. Moreover, as military contracts (Italian condotta, hence condottiere, contractor) developed, rules were introduced specifying the circumstances under which plundering was permissible. Thus, in becoming salaried, soldiering did not entirely lose its speculative economic dimension.

The Pursuit of Power, pp. 73-74

Emphasis mine.

The Cost To Be a Knight

May 13, 2022

Fighting as a knight involved expense that became greater over time. In the twelfth century [C.E.] the knight’s basic equipment (horse, helmet, hauberk, and sword) required the annual revenue of 150 hectares. Three centuries later it cost the yearly income of 500 hectares. The horses alone of Gerard de Moor, Lord of Wessegem, amounted in 1297 to 1,200 livres tournois….

Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels, p. 177

Odic Shields and Shrouds of Concealment

May 9, 2022

In magical theory and practice, [an odic shield is] a field of etheric energy established around the outer edge of the human aura to protect the user from hostile magic or assaults of spirits. Several different methods have been used to establish and maintain an odic shield. The shroud of concealment, which is used in rituals of invisibility, is a closely related phenomenon….

In Golden Dawn magic, [the Shroud of Concealment is] a shell of etheric substance built up around the magician by intensive ritual work that prevents other people from perceiving the magician. The creation of the Shroud of Concealment is fundamental to the Golden Dawn method of magical invisibility….

The New Encyclopedia of the Occult

The Air of the Town Makes You Free

May 2, 2022

Into [European feudalism’s] backward-looking, ritualistic, rigidly structured life, the growing economic forces at work in the new towns brought stress. As the trade in surplus goods increased, merchants found that the raw materials they needed were controlled by feudal lords who neither understood nor cared about commerce. Transportation of goods through their lands was both dangerous and costly. Alternative sites for commerce had to be found and the towns seemed to offer the best alternative.

Free from the feudal bonds of the countryside, the urban dweller was envied by his peasant counterpart. ‘Stadtluft machtfrei’ (the air of the town makes you free), they said in eleventh-century Germany, because after a statutory period of residence there a serf would automatically become a freedman. Soon enough the townspeople, with their economic strength and their craftsmen supported by the general surplus, began to demand from kings and emperors those statutes which would reinforce their freedom in law. Merchants who had no place in the feudal pyramid of serf, knight, priest and king now had the money to buy social status.

As the aristocrats began to commute their serfs’ dues from service to cash, money began to weaken the old social structure. Ambition began to express itself in outward show. ‘It is too easy to change your station now’ complained the Italian, Thomasin of Zirclaria. ‘Nobody keeps his place!’ The word ‘ambition’ took on common usage for the first time.

The Day the Universe Changed, p. 31

No Rules In Mortal Combat

April 29, 2022

They would fight not only without quarter but also without rules. In mortal combat, unlike a friendly tournament, nothing prevented a man from stabbing his opponent in the back or through the eye-slits of his helmet, or blinding him with sand, or tripping him, or kicking him, or jumping on him if he should slip and fall. In a duel fought in Flanders in 1127 the two exhausted combatants finally threw down their weapons and fell to wrestling on the ground and punching each other with their iron gauntlets, until one reached under the other’s armor and tore away his testicles, killing him on the spot. Chivalry might have been alive and well in jousts of sport, and even in the preliminary ceremonies of the judicial duel, but once the actual combat began, chivalry was dead.

The Last Duel, Chapter 9

Battle-Hardened But Still a Squire

April 25, 2022

Jean [de Carrouges]…held the rank of squire. Rather than the “gallant youth” this term often brings to mind, he was a battle-hardened veteran already in his forties, one of those “mature men of a rather heavy type—knights in all but name.

By 1380 [C.E.], Jean…commanded his own troop of squires, numbering from four to as many as nine, in the campaigns to rid Normandy of the English. In war he sought to burnish his name and enrich himself by seizing booty and capturing prisoners to hold for ransom, a lucrative business in the fourteenth century. He may also have sought a knighthood, which would have doubled his pay on campaign…. [A] knight’s daily pay on campaign was one livre, while a squire received half that.

The Last Duel, Chapter 1

Emphases mine.

A squire would not be knighted if he could not afford to maintain that higher station. Thus the drive for booty and ransoms.

The Wand Is a Symbol of the Will

April 18, 2022

Far and away the most common magical instrument in legend, as well as in actual magical practice, the magical wand was originally one of many devices in the toolkit of the ancient and medieval ceremonial magician. In the Key of Solomon, the most famous of the medieval grimoires, it is one of more than a dozen tools carried by the magus and his five disciples, although its importance is marked by the fact that the magus himself, and not one of the disciples, must carry it…. Many other grimoires give it a lesser place, or omit it altogether.

The writings of French magician Eliphas Levi, who kickstarted the nineteenth-century [C.E.] magical revival, paid much attention to the wand as a symbol of the will, and it was Levi who assigned the wand to the element of fire, still its most common attribution….

The New Encyclopedia of the Occult

Violent Logic of Feudalism

April 1, 2022

So. You live in a world where large-scale political units have collapsed, or might collapse at any moment. Violence and disorder are rampant. Literacy rates are low. “The economy” is or has recently been on life support. No modern communications technology exists; transport infrastructure is in shambles, and whenever we fix it, it also helps diseases spread. Oh, and—by the way—you’re in charge. Please fix this mess and build us a new stable realm, or we’ll ignore/insult/stab you and give the job to somebody else. Cheers!

This is the kind of setting in which something like “feudalism” makes sense.

It’s how you govern and exploit a large territorial claim when you don’t have a sophisticated-enough bureaucracy to administer lands directly: you delegate the job to local managers. It’s also how you ensure that you get the violent men on your side, and harness their pool of violence when you need it. The local conditions varied considerably, but something like this response explains everything from the iqta system in Muslim polities to some power-relations in Byzantium to, of course, the lord-and-vassal bonds of western Europe. Whether what was delegated remained within a tax-proceeds system (as in the Islamic iqta arrangements) or dealt more with rights to agricultural lands (as in the west), the core logic is this: look, I’m pretending to be in charge of ALL THIS but I can’t actually administer it. If you promise to fight for me faithfully and send me goodies, I’ll let you take charge of a chunk of “my territory,” and enjoy its fruits in peaceful legitimacy. Once this deal is arranged, the vassal discovers that his own slice of the pie is still too big to administer directly, and beside he needs some way to feed and motivate his troops, so he makes a parallel deal, carving up “his territory” for his own vassals. On and on it goes, like a giant game of sub-leasing to biker gangs, until the whole territory is delegated to violent men or those able to feed and command violent men. The system allows those at the top to govern, indirectly, what they never could administer on their own. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, since the system only works if people keep their promises. If one vassal rebels, the others can be called upon to squash him. If they all rebel…the lord at the top is out of options. This problem ripped apart 10th-century France, and it continually destabilized the iqta systems in the Middle East…. “Feudalism” was a logical response to desperately inadequate governing infrastructures, but it contained within itself the seeds of further political crisis and decentralization.

If you have a setting suffering from these social tensions, then what one might call “feudalism” makes a very coherent in-setting response—though it might take a million different forms….

The Logic of Feudalism – Gundobad Games

Author’s emphases are in italic. Mine are in bold.

Retinue of Retinues

January 25, 2022

The phrase I drill into my student’s heads about the structure of medieval armies is that they are a retinue of retinues. What I mean by this is that the way a medieval king raises his armies is that he has a bunch of military aristocrats (read: nobles) who owe him military service (they are his ‘vassals’) – his retinue. When he goes to war, the king calls on all of his vassals to show up. But each of those vassals also have their own bunch of military aristocrats who are their vassals – their retinue. And this repeats down the line, even down to an individual knight, who likely has a handful of non-nobles as his retinue (perhaps a few of his peasants, or maybe he’s hired a mercenary or two on retainer).

…The average retinue…was five men although significant lords (like earls) might have hundreds of men in their retinues (which were in turn comprised of the retinues of their own retainers). So the noble’s retinue is the combined retinues of all of his retainers, and the king’s army is the combined total of everyone’s retainer’s retainers, if that make sense. Thus: a retinue of retinues.

How It Wasn’t: Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages, Part I – A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry

Author’s emphases.

Men-at-Arms Would Continue To Fight Despite Wounds

January 10, 2022

…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

January 10, 2022

…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

January 10, 2022

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

December 28, 2021

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

November 28, 2021

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

November 28, 2021

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

October 22, 2021

…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

June 18, 2021

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.

The Book of Swords, pp. 97-99

Armor and Swords Did Not Change Overnight

June 14, 2021

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!

The Book of Swords, pp. 98-99

Equipment of an Aristocratic Soldier

May 24, 2021

[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

April 18, 2021

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