Saturday, April 28, 2007

Edge vs. Armor

There are a limited number of ways an edge blow can be effective against plate armor, and an account of a deed of arms at Noseroy in 1519, comprising some fifty encounters at the barriers, illustrates them.


It is just barely possible for a sword to cut through a helmet under optimal conditions “…there was given a stroke of the sword on the crest of an armet that opened it to daylight.” This was a single handed sword stroke. Cutting through a helmet, however, won’t necessarily injure the wearer. The edge not only has to penetrate, but create a long enough cut to reach flesh beneath. This is immensely difficult. Modern examples of test cutting with Japanese swords demonstrate that a two handed grip, windup from a position behind the wielder’s back, and a rigidly braced helmet are required to make a record breaking cut 13 cm long. Even an impressive cut like this may not be sufficient to let the blade reach flesh, depending on the shape of the helmet and the amount of space provided by the padding and suspension system within it.

Cutting metal can actually be counterproductive in terms of the damage done to the opponent, since much of the force of the blow is expended in making the cut, leaving less to be transferred to the target as shock and momentum.

Gauntlets are much more vulnerable to cutting. The plates are thinner and there is little air space and padding between them and the hand. Further, some types of gauntlets protect the fingers with overlapping scales riveted to leathers. It is possible for a blade to slip between the scales and cut the fingers even if the scale is not penetrated.

“Jean de Chantrans of the enterprise fought two and did not fight any more, because he was wounded in the hand.” Also, there were many other “gauntlets cut and many wounded in the hands to the effusion of blood.” These injuries were all done with two-handed swords.

Arms are another point of potential vulnerability, although less so than the hands. The plates of a vambrace are often relatively thin compared to the helmet or breast, and a relatively short cut to the forearm could reach flesh. Claude d’Anglure was wounded in the arm “to the effusion of blood” by a single handed sword stroke. It’s possible, however that the stroke was a thrust to the inside of the elbow, and his was the only arm wound reported.

A sword doesn’t have to cut to be effective. During the fighting with two handed swords there were “many basinets and armets driven in.” A deeply dented helmet can be driven into the wearer’s skull, and even if the helmet isn’t dented enough force can be transmitted through the padding to stun or worse. Claude de Vienne was wounded in the head “to the effusion of blood” by a single handed sword stroke. Fighting with a two handed sword the count de Bussy “gave such a stroke to (Jean) de Falletans, on the armet, that he kneeled in the sand.” The prince d’Oranges “gave a stroke of the sword on the crest of the armet of Phillipe de Falletans so that he had to take three steps back from the barrier and was unable to fight any more that day.”

Likewise, a non penetrating blow to the gauntlet can deliver enough force to injure the hand within it. The small plates of gauntlet fingers don’t spread the force of a blow over a very large area, and finger plates and scales don’t seem to have had any padding beyond that provided by the leathers they were riveted to.

Finally, an edge blow can be effective not by injuring an opponent directly, but by damaging his armor. During the combat with two handed swords many guardbraces were “avalez” or “swallowed”. This word is also used in medieval French to describe hose rolled down below the knee. If the lace or strap that supported the top of a guardbrace was cut or broken, it would tend to slide down onto the rest of the armharness, and “avalez” would be an apt term for such a failure. This would not only leave the shoulder vulnerable but seriously impede free movement of the arm.

An edge blow could be effective against an opponent armored in plate if it was properly aimed. At Noseroy, the points of vulnerability were heads, hands, and to a lesser extent arms. Because the combats were fought over waist-high barriers they do not show to what extent legharness might or might not be vulnerable to edge blows.

Friday, April 20, 2007

An Aventail Lining

Some very nice pictures of the effigy of Philip the Bold (d. 1404, but the effigy may be somewhat later) in Dijon are posted on the Schola Gladitoria site. An excellent resource for those interested in medieval martial arts, the site also has a very useful gallery, both of surviving arms and armor and arms armor and combat in medieval and Renaissance art.

Here and here are good close-ups of the lining of the bascinet on Philip's effigy. Note that the helmet depicted is a great bascinet with additional plates protecting the front and back of the neck. Viewed in close-up, the first image appears to show staples, in this case gilt, fixing the short mail aventail to the inside of the neck plates.  This image shows the attachment point for a strap at center rear. Contemporary iconography often shows a strap issuing from under the helmet or aventail and attaching to a buckle in the middle of the back of the harness. It's nice to see at least one depiction of where the strap might end up inside the helmet.

The lining, viewed in close-up, seems to be composed of three different components: the skull, composed of triangular or trapezoidal sections that converge at the top of the skull, a horizontal padded band at or about the bottom of the skull, and a lining of the plate and mail protection of the neck, which seems to be stitched to the mail at the bottom edge, and to the other padding where they met at the bottom of the skull.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ransoming Yourself

Based on this 14th c. record of contributions to ransoms, a decent rule of thumb for a gentleman’s ransom might be one to two year’s income. In that record the contribution to the knight’s ransom was less than that, but it seems likely that, unlike the yeomen and squires, he had sufficient means that he was expected to pay part of the ransom himself. Lord Bourchier's ransom agreed to in 1374, equal to about 1300 pounds sterling not counting his expenses in captivity, seems to have amounted to a bit less than two years of income from his lands.

An ordinary squire, then, might expect to pay 18-36 pounds sterling, a simple knight twice that. At 240 silver pennies or sixty silver groats to the pound, that’s an inconveniently large number of silver coins. In late 14th c. England a gold noble was worth a third of a pound and weighed a third of an ounce. 18 pounds sterling would be 54 gold nobles weighing 18 ounces in total. That is also an inconveniently large number of coins for a modern recreator of the middle ages.

A ring, brooch or other piece of jewelry set with a gemstone could cost about that much, depending on the value of the stone. A number of consensual deeds of arms in the 14th and 15th c. specified that the loser could ransom himself with a gem or piece of jewelry. For the participants, not specifying a specific monetary ransom had the additional advantage of making the enterprise feel less crassly commercial. For modern recreators of medieval deeds of arms, reproductions of medieval jewelry are a practical alternative to a heavy purse full of reproductions of medieval coins.

Metallurgy of Noble 14th c. Harness

Earlier, I discussed the metallurgy of 48 pieces of 14th c. armor analyzed by Alan Williams in The Knight and the Blast Furnace. These included both elite armors and more ordinary pieces. I wondered if looking only at elite components would show a higher average level of metallurgy. I considered fourteen pieces that could not have belonged to common soldiers: either they had provenance linking them to specific noble or gentle families, or they were pieces not used by common soldiers, such as great helms or a shaffron, or they featured the rich decoration typical of higher quality harnesses.

Two were iron (14%), six low carbon steel (43%), five were medium carbon steel without full heat treatment (37%) and only one (7%) was fully hardened medium carbon steel. This is a somewhat lower proportion of iron than in the full group of 48 pieces examined by Williams (29%). The proportion of full heat treatment is actually lower in the explicitly elite group, but given the small sample size and the relative rarity of fully hardened steel in armor of the period the difference is probably not significant.

Judging from form and finish the 48 pieces examined by Williams are heavily biased towards the sort of harness that would have been owned by a gentleman or noble. This is plausible since more mundane pieces were more likely to be scrapped over the years. The relatively small margin of metallurgical superiority in the explicitly elite subgroup supports the impression that the 48 pieces were mostly made for gentlemen of nobles.

I also looked at the pieces least unlikely to have been owned by common soldiers: nine bascinets without visors and three lamellae from the Wisby battlefield. The lamellae were almost certainly part of the equipment of common soldiers, the bascinets might have been worn by commoners but they could also have been owned by simpler men-at-arms. Three of the bascinets and two of the lamellae were iron, or 42%.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

How Bad Is It in Iraq?

This is not an easy question to answer. There’s good reason to think the official statistics don’t capture the full death toll: a country that’s gone through invasion, a radical regime change, insurgency and deadly sectarian conflict may have other priorities than rigorously counting all violent deaths and forwarding the information to the central government. Totaling casualties reported in the English-language media can only capture a lower bound: not all casualties are going to be captured in this way.

Polling samples have their own problems. When the misery is unevenly distributed, oversampling the worst or the best regions can badly distort the results. Eliminating this problem requires reasonably accurate regional population estimates. With hundreds of thousands of Iraqis either fleeing abroad or displaced within Iraq and a government struggling to perform its most basic functions, how accurate are such estimates likely to be?

With those caveats, two recent polls give us a clearer picture of conditions in Iraq: one carried out for ABC News, USA Today, the BBC and ARD German TV by D3 Systems, the other by ORB. Both sampled a large number of locations throughout Iraq.

In the ABC poll, 17% reported that a family member living in their household had been physically harmed by the “violence that is occurring in the country at this time”. The ILCS survey indicated an average Iraqi household size of 6.6, so this implies a minimum average casualty rate of 2.6%. Iraq Body Count compiles English–language media reports of violence in Iraq, and says that 37% of reported civilian casualties to date are fatalities.

Media reports are probably more likely to underreport injuries than fatalities. On the other hand, some families may suffer more than one casualty. If casualties were distributed purely randomly this wouldn’t affect the overall rate much, but they aren’t. If one family member is targeted or living in a risky area, there is an increased chance that others are at risk as well. If the two unknowns roughly cancel each other out, that would imply violent deaths that were about 1% of the population: far lower than Burnham et al, but still a terrible human tragedy.

Baghdad is more deadly than the country as a whole: D3 said 77% reported they had had a friend or family member harmed in Baghdad, compared to 52% overall and 29% in Kurdistan. ORB reported that 51% of those surveyed in Baghdad had had a relative, friend or colleague murdered, compared to 38% in Iraq overall

42% told D3 they thought the country was in a civil war. Given a more nuanced range of options in the ORB study, 27% said the country was in a state of civil war, 22% that the country was close to civil war but not there yet.

D3 reported 42% thought they were better off now than before the war, 36% worse. In the ORB survey, 49% thought they were better off now, 26% that they were better off under the previous regime.

D3 said 48% thought the invasion was absolutely or somewhat right, 52% absolutely or somewhat wrong.

They overwhelmingly wanted the US to leave, but only 35% wanted the US to leave immediately