Wednesday, October 29, 2014

We Lost a Rocket Last Night

We lost an Antares rocket and a Cygnus spacecraft, bound for ISS, last night. About twelve seconds off the pad something went wrong. There seems to have been rapid unscheduled disassembly at the aft end of the launcher, and then the rocket fell back to the ground and exploded.

Throwing hardware out of our gravity well is really, really hard, and this is a reminder. The energies required are immense, yet the builder is required to make the rocket as light as possible

But, we know this is hard. So the United States can also reach ISS with completely different hardware: SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and Falcon launcher. Russia, the European Union and Japan all have their own spacecraft and launchers as well. Our bench strength is deep.

To watch the launch I stepped out on the patio with my phone to point the way to due south and my laptop to watch the launch until it climbed above the horizon. Space travel is still hard, but we do live in an age of marvels.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Great Docudramatist of the 16th Century

It is well to remember, in watching any of Shakespeare's histories, that he was always a playwright first. Whenever he had to choose between good drama and good history, drama would win.  And he was working from Holinshed, at least one remove from the primary sources.

Shakespeare was in the business of writing seductive untruths for a living. Remember that when you watch his Henry V, or any of his histories.

Warm Bodies

R and Julie are remarkably less stupid than their Shakespearean prototypes although R is a lot less articulate. Still, the road to true love is not smooth.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reorganization at Harfleur: 1415

Anne Curry has noted that several retinues who lost men from illness during the siege of Harfleur in 1415 managed to find replacements for some of their losses before they marched away to fight at Agincourt. Where did these men come from?

Curry argues that either extra men crossed with the original force or reinforcements arrived later, but I think there is a better explanation.

We know that dysentery killed  some leaders like the earl of Suffolk, and sent the duke of Clarence, the Earl Marshal and the earls of March and Arundel home as invalids.

Suffolk had a son and heir to take command, and the Earl Marshal and earl of March had trustworthy subordinates who preserved their retinues as ongoing units.

What happened to the Clarence and Arundel retinues after their leaders went home as invalids is unclear.

But it seems very plausible that some retinues lost enough of their upper command that they could no longer continue as independent contractors. This was particularly likely when the retinue was small, and some consisted of only a man at arms and three archers. The remaining fighting men would have sought and found employment in continuing units with vacancies.

The Frustrating Documentation of the Agincourt Campaign.

At first glance, it might seem that the English army in during the Agincourt Campaign is quite well documented. The Soldier in later Medieval England has 11,285 records for 1415.

But. In theory, every man at arms that fought at Agincourt should be listed three times: in a pre-departure muster, a post campaign accounting, and the Agincourt Roll copied by heralds in the late 16th and early 17th century. Since the herald weren't interested in common archers, the number per retinue is given but not their names in the Agincourt roll, so archers at the battle should be listed twice. Men invalided home should be listed both in the initial muster and a muster of invalids.

In practice, it is possible for the same man to be listed more often: some post campaign accounting also listed men who died at Harfleur or were sent home as invalids, distinguished in the list but not in the database They could have been on an invalid list as well. In addition, the Agincourt Roll double counts at least one retinue, that of Sir Henry Huse, both as part of a larger retinue and as an independent listing. It also lists the names of some men who died or were still sick at Harfleur, had been sent home, or were killed before the battle.

So there are less than half as many records as we would expect if all the documentation had survived. The Agincourt Roll is clearly incomplete: it conspicuously omits the Duke of York, who died in the battle, and his retinue, and only accounts for 2,496 archers in an army that at the lowest estimate had twice as many.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Iain M. Banks' Inversions is a covert Culture novel. Set on a quasi-medieval world, two of the characters are secretly from the technologically advanced Culture in which most of his other SF novels are set. They conceal their origins, but the clues are there.

The book is both artful and subtle. Like Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking Glass, inversions are a recurring theme. A mirror image is a reversed image. Like Carrol, Banks uses a game very like chess as an extended metaphor. The story is set in two opposed nations, told in alternating chapters. Like the pieces of a game of chess, we see symmetrical but opposite figures on both sides. In Haspidus, a king rules, in Tassesen a republican usurper. In Haspidus the king is assisted by the merciful and skilled Dr. Vossil, in Tassesen, the Protector is protected by an efficient black-clad assassin of assassins, of obscure origins, DeWar. Kindly Dr. Vossil leaves a trail of corpses in her wake, and the grim DeWar reveals a remarkably soft heart.

Banks rings the changes on inversion throughout the book: when must you be cruel to be kind? And look for how often a figure in the Haspidus narrative has an inverted counterpart in Tassasen.

Both of the parallel tales are told by unreliable narrators, and I think that is another theme of the book. Neither narrator knows more of the story than what they know from personal knowledge, so they are missing some important information that the reader knows, and they are reticent in sharing what they do know.

The teller of the Tassesen narrative explicitly hides their identity. Consider who could know the story they tell, personally or from reliable informants they would know.

This is one of my favorite Banks.


This as a grim and mordant Iain M. Banks short story in The State of the Art which a man and his sentient spacesuit, both damaged, are forced down on a barren planet. Their best hope is a long forced march towards a base that may already have been destroyed.

It's a good example how the best SF can use speculative hardware and setting to write movingly about the human condition.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Colonial Plantation's Medieval Event: October 2014

Rain on Saturday depressed attendance for Medieval Days, but Sunday's lovely October weather brought a good turnout, although the human living history groups had to compete with the charismatic farm animals for attention. My group, La Belle Compagnie, was winnowed down by schedule conflicts, sickness, logistic issues and weather to one.

I brought the complete harness of an English man-at-arms ca. 1414, with both a grand bascinet and a kettle hat. I love it when the visitors ask "Why would you want to be able to wear more than one helmet?" Why, thank you for asking. And my sword ca 1385, and my grandfather's for comparison. And a rondel dagger, to demonstrate how acute points can curb your enthusiasm, even when you are wearing mail everywhere you don't wear plate.

I like to display my armor on a table, because you can easily pick up any particular piece and show how it works. Also, it's an authentic way to do it: you can see armor laid out in just this way in the 15th c. treatise on How a man schall be armyd. Also, if you have a tablecloth you can conceal less authentic kit below the table.

Ideally, I would have brought a longer table to display more of the armor at table height, but I was grateful for the shorter table borrowed from a friend.

For refreshment, I brought for drink a full pitcher of water and a beaker of water, and a modern bottle of wine decanted into a hand-blown bottle of wine and a pewter costrel. This was sufficient for the five hours ordained.

For meat I brought cold venison,  a portion of a loaf of bread, apples, dried unsulphured apricots and pistachios. This was also sufficient.

Next time I do a tent less presentation, I must remember to bring my broad-brimmed hat to wear between visitors.

My neighbors on one side were portraying Irish in German service about 1521, based on Durer's water color of that year:

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Reproduction Bascinet with a Pomme: 1410-1414

This helmet, seen earlier here, now has a pomme, a ball of gilded wood to hold feathers, just like Hector's. (Yes, that's Hector of Troy). I think it adds a note of style.

Vane for a Pavilion

This vane was made from brass sheet by Robert MacPherson. The wooden knob it rests on is topped with a brass washer so that the vane may turn more easily. The pole below the vane, like the ball, were turned from wood and gilded.

The ball was originally topped with a silk pennoncel. After a total of a little over three weeks cumulative exposure to the weather, the original finish on the top of the ball showed significant wear.  I surmise that the pennon when drooping in a low wind rubbed against the top of the ball. This will avoid that problem and also display much better in a calm.

The vane is based on a surviving weathervane at Etchingham.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Medieval Days at Colonial Plantation, 2014

October 11-12.

I will be doing a one person 1414 presentation, Sunday only.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Highland Dress in 1652

The 1652 state of John Speed's map of Scotland show a Highland man and women that appear to be wrapped in plaid blankets. Not very Mel Gibson Braveheart.

Bruges Back in Transportation News after 500 Years

Bruges was an important port in the 14th and 15th century. The wealth that trade bought allowed the city to afford some lovely art and architecture. Then the channel silted up, and the city couldn't afford to replace those old buildings with something newer. If you have the opportunity it's well worth a visit.

Bruges is back in transportation news with a planned underground beer pipeline.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The No True Muslim Fallacy

The archetype of this is the No True Scotsman fallacy. A blanket claim is made about a certain group, such as saying that no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.  The counterargument that Hamish McDonald from Aberdeen puts sugar on his porridge and likes it just fine is rejected by saying that Hamish is clearly not a true Scotsman.

So, Bill Maher made some extreme claims about Muslim countries:
...if vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.
Reza Aslan pushed back, noting that some Muslim countries have a fairly benign view of what the state can impose on individuals. Of course, there was a response to that.

The response seems to be saying that whenever a Muslim majority country accepts a mostly secular structure of governance, like Turkey, Albania or Kosovo, it doesn't count, because No True Scotsman.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Boucicaut's Training Regime

Jean le Maingre, called Boucicaut, (1366-1421) was known for his rigorous physical training.
And now he began to test himself by jumping onto a courser in full armor. At other times he would run or hike for a long way on foot, to train himself not to get out of breath and to endure long efforts. At other times he would strike with an axe or hammer for a long time to be able to hold out well in armor, and so his arms and hands would endure striking for a long time, and train himself to nimbly lift his arms. By these means he trained himself so well that at that time you couldn't find another gentleman in equal physical condition. He would do a somersault armed in all his armor except his bascinet, and dance armed in a mail shirt... 
When he was at his lodgings he would never ceased to test himself with the other squires at throwing the lance or other tests of war.
Froissart, Jean, Jean Alexandre C. Buchon, and Jean Froissart. Vol. 3 1812. Les chroniques de Sire Jean Froissart... / [Et du] Livre des faits du bon Messire Jean le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut. Paris: Soc. du Panthéon litt. Tr. Will McLean 2014

I should point out that Boucicaut's training was exemplary rather than typical.

I was reminded of Boucicaut when I read this.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Scabbard Making in Diderot's Encyclopedia

The wood used for scabbards comes from Villers-Coterets; hardly anything but beechwood is employed, it is bought in boards four pouces wide and two or three lines thick. After having been dressed with rasps it is cut with a knife along a steel rule in order to reduce it and also to divide it into strips suitable for the blade which is to be closed in it. These beechwood veneers are sold by the hundred.  
No other mandril for making scabbards is used except the actual blade, upon which the wood is fitted as a preliminary operation, after which it is covered with linen, and finally with well pasted leather which is sewn on. After the whole assembly is well fastened together a metal end is put on the bottom and a hook on the top. 
Later, the process is described in greater detail:
They are made of beech wood, which comes to us in veneers from the environs of Villers-Coterets and a few other places, and are covered first of all with linen and afterwards with leather, shagreen, fish skin, shark skin, or some other material, in black, yellow, white, green, and other colors, well glued down. 
Article by Jacques-Raymond Lucotte, translated by J.D Aylward

The pouce was the French inch, about 6.6% longer than the English inch, the line 1/12 of that.

The 18th century technology of that article is a better starting for understanding medieval scabbard making than trying to deduce how they were made from first principles using our 21st century knowledge and intellects.

If you are trying to recreate the technology of, say, 1380, Diderot is closer chronologically than Sutton Hoo.  And also closer than today.

Some excavated Anglo-Saxon scabbards used poplar or willow. The scabbard of so called Sword of St. Maurice in Vienna, probably from the last quarter of the 11th century, had an olive wood sheath.

Friday, October 03, 2014

How Many Knights in England: 1324-1436?

The number of knights in England between 1324 and 1436 turns out to be a difficult question to answer, because it changed greatly over time.

In 1324, there was a major effort to determine how many knights were available for military service in England. Unfortunately, some county reports have been lost, and some knights with holdings in more than one county were counted more than once. About 1,200 knights seems to be a fair estimate based on that evidence.

In 1436 there was a lay subsidy that attempted to count lay land holders with lands with more than five pounds a year in rental value. This should have captured most of the individuals wealthy enough to be a knight.  The number of knights recorded were about  a seventh of the 1324 number when like counties can be compared.

In the army that Edward III sent to besiege Calais in 1346-47, about a fifth of the men-at-arms were knights. When Henry V sent an army to besiege Harfleur in 1415, the knights had shrunk to about 7% of the total number of men-at-arms.

Knights in 14th and 15th c. England were expected to perform burdensome unpaid duties in local government.  In the early 14th c., the crown worked to provide positive incentives to counteract that burden. In 1306 at the Feast of the Swans, Edward I offered to provide all the necessary military and ceremonial equipment to all presenting themselves to be knighted.  Later, the government apparently concluded that the rank of knighthood was a less important measure of military strength than the number of men having the equipment required to serve as a man-at-arms. With reduced incentives to serve, the number of knights shrank.

The numbers of named knights cited above could  be high or low. A father and son that served in the same decade could be counted  as two different names, even though the number of knights who served in any given year could  have been one or less. And some knights must have been uncaptured by any historical record.