Friday, February 27, 2015

The Arbalest

Of all the bowmen quite the best
Are those that span the arbalest
Strong and brave, upright and moral
And not in haste to pick a quarrel

Thursday, February 26, 2015

How Islamic is ISIL?

Suppose there was a group doing a remake of the Albigensian Crusade, justified by medieval Catholic doctrine, seizing territory, murdering civilians and burning people they considered heretics. Would it be useful for Netanyahu and Modi to describe them as Christian terrrorists?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why History Should Be Studied More

Clark had an interesting blog post at Popehat that make some good points about tribalism in politics, but it argues from a pretty defective understanding of history.
For at least a thousand years there have been two factions in The West. The magnetic poles drift slowly, and no one compass points with perfect precision, but there is no denying the reality of the poles. 
One pole tends (and note that word "tends") to be Protestant, centralized, "scientific", pushing for "the greater good", and "Blue" (as we say in the American language). 
The other pole other tends (second disclaimer, same as the first) to be Catholic, decentralized, "traditional", tolerant of inequality, and "Red" (again, in Americanese).
Now, it is true that political conflicts in the Anglosphere in the past thousand years have been between rival coalitions, and there is good reason for the coalition leaders to make whatever compromises are needed in their alliances to reach rough parity with the other side or better, but the idea that the bipolar coalitions can be meaningfully described as "Red" or "Blue" before the recent past is absurd.

A thousand years ago, one of the culture war coalitions was about immigration, speaking Norse, and practicing paganism. In 1640, one was composed of opponents to absolute monarchy, (not to centralization as such, the issue was who ran the central government) and those opposed to more tolerance for Catholics, maypoles, or theater. In the antebellum United States, one coalition was in favor of slavery, lower tariffs, slavery, state's rights, slavery, slavery and slavery. The New Deal coalition for "the greater good" had strong support from Catholics and Southern Democrats. In the civil rights era, white Southern Democrats allied with conservative Republicans.

I can and do deny that there has been some meaningful polar division in Western politics for the past thousand years that can usefully defined for the entire period, and probably not the last 50 years either.

It's not just that the political poles drift. It's that the entire political compass wanders over the map, as some political bones of contention slip out of the Overton Window entirely, and others are warmly embraced by both sides.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Before Ascham: Early Works on Archery

Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Racioa mid 14th century book on hunting, contains a brief section on archery. The advice is specific to hunting: the author advises "his bow should be very weak and gentle, so that he may hold it drawn a reasonable space".

Le livre de la chasse was written by Gaston Phoebus, count of Foix, between 1387 and 1388. It discusses archery briefly, closely following Modus.  George Agar Hansard offered a translation in his The book of archery.

"The sportsman's bow should be of yew, and measure twenty palms (five feet) from one notch to the other, and, when braced, have a hand's breadth between string and wood. The string must ever be of silk. The bow should be weak, because an archer over-bowed cannot take aim freely and with address; besides, such a bow may be held half-drawn a long time without fatigue, whilst the hunter stands in wait for the deer.

"The wood of a well-formed arrow measures eight handsful in length from the end of the nock to the barbs of the head, which will be exactly four fingers broad, from the point of one barb to the point of the other. It must be duly proportioned in every part, well filed and sharpened, and five fingers in length. 
"When a deer is discovered approaching the archers, as soon as they hear the hounds are slipped, they ought to set their arrows on their bows, bringing the two arms into such a position as to be prepared to shoot. For, should the animal espy the men in motion whilst nocking their shafts, he will assuredly escape in another direction. Thus, a keen sportsman is ever cautiously on the alert, ready to let his arrow fly without the slightest motion, except that of drawing with the arms." 
He then goes on to describe the different modes of shooting at game in every possible position, somewhat after the fashion of the text; and gives a remarkable reason why an archer should point his shaft in a rather slanting direction when the aim is at the stag's broadside, in preference to straight forwards. He says,-- "There is peril to him who shoots directly at the side, independently of great uncertainty of killing when the arrow does prove fatal, it sometimes passes through and through the beast, and may thus wound a companion on the opposite side. Such an accident I did myself see once happen to Messire Godfrey de Harcourt, who was pierced through one of his arms."
L’Art d’archerie was printed around 1515. In 1901 Henri Gallice published the text of a manuscript of the work in his possession that he believed dated somewhat earlier, to the end of the 15th century. Henry Walrond published an English translation in 1903.

Walrond''s translation contains several errors. What Walrond translates as "target shooting" is some variant of "au chapperon" in the original French, and shot at ranges of 300 or even 400 paces (about 240 or 330 yards). It is better translated as clout shooting in English. "Arrows are likewise made hollow, like balista arrows" should be "Arrows are likewise made hollow, like crossbow bolts".

He explains waxed arrows, trait cyre in the original, as where the feathers are "fastened with waxed silk". This probably an oversimplification.

Our best candidates for waxed arrows are the many arrows recovered from the Mary Rose, sunk in 1545. At the shaftment, where the fletchings would be attached, archaeologists have identified traces of wax, tallow, copper, and the imprints of thread that they believe to be silk.

I think that that a plausible reconstruction is that the fletchings were first tacked down with hot wax and then secured more permanently with thread wound first about the trimmed spine of the feather, spiral wound for the rest of the untrimmed fletching, and then wound about the trimmed spine at the rear of of the fletching.

A final application of hot wax and tallow to the shaftment would have further secured the thread and ensured that the thread was not disturbed as it slid down the bow. Copper acetate would have discouraged vermin from eating the tallow.

Walrond translates tacles in the original as sheaf arrows, but it seems more likely that he is simply using takel, a Middle English word for arrows as well as archery equipment more generally.

L’Art d’archerie gives us insight into European archery at least a generation before Ascham, and it shows how the author thought three different sorts of sports archery, butts, clout and flight, had different optimal gear, which were in turn distinguished from what was best for war. And the earlier texts show that optimal hunting gear differed from all of these.

Interestingly, the author of L’Art d’archerie claims the the English found glued fletchings truer than waxed. Perhaps eagerness to base all reconstructions of longbow arrows entirely on the Mary Rose is misplaced.

Friday, February 06, 2015

An Archery Peerage

The London Archers continued to hold their yearly contests in. the month of September, in spite of the fact that henceforth there would be no use for the longbow in warfare. They formed a very fine corps, had they been of any use; meantime, the City has always loved a show, and a very fine show the Archers provided. Their captain was called the Duke of Shoreditch; the captains of the different Companies were called the Marquesses of Clerkenwell, Islington, Hoxton, and the Earl of Pancras, etc.; in the year 1583 they assembled at Merchant Taylors Hall to the number of 3000 all sumptuously apparelled, “nine hundred and forty-two having chains of gold about their necks.” They were escorted by whifflers and bowmen to the number of 4000, besides pages and footmen; and so marching through Broad Street, where the Duke of Shoreditch lived, they proceeded by Moorfields and Finsbury to Smithfield, where, after performing their evolutions, they shot at the target for glory.

Besant, Walter. 1904. London in the time of the Tudors. London: A. & C. Black p. 355

Here is a fuller account of the 1583 event from a contemporary. Besant has erred in describing the escorts as bowmen rather than bill-men.

I read this as the Elizabethan equivalent of a 21st century Superbowl halftime show. Behold the gaudy expensive excess, which we can well afford. The fact that we can afford it is part of the point. Are you not entertained?

Monday, February 02, 2015

A Chaucerian Bookshelf

The following works were written by authors who were adults when Chaucer was alive.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. Shares Chaucer’s diversity; indeed, Chaucer retells many of Boccaccio’s tales.

Bonet, Honoré. The Tree of Battles of Honoré Bonet. Transl. G. W. Coopland. Liverpool: University Press of Liverpool 1949. A learned clerk writes about law, justice, morality and violence, legitimate and otherwise.

Charny, Geoffroi de. The Book of Chivalry. Transl. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. A knight writes about the ideals and obligations of knighthood.

Charny, Geoffroi de and Muhlberger, Steven. Charny's Men-at-Arms: Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments, and War. , Wheaton; Freelance Academy Press, 2014. Revealing questions from the famous knight about what does and does not conform to the law of arms, as seen by contemporary men at arms.

Froissart, Jean. Chronicles. Transl. Geoffrey Brereton. New York: Penguin 1978. A vivid and detailed contemporary chronicle; Froissart writes like an eyewitness even when he wasn’t, providing details that may not always be accurate but are always true to the author’s view of chivalric culture.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Transl. Barry Windeatt. New York: Penguin 1988. Written after Chaucer’s lifetime by a woman who grew up during the late 1300s—this account of the author’s lifetime of spiritual exploration is one of few substantial medieval works to come from us from an English laywoman.

Langland, William. Piers the Plowman. Transl. J. F. Goodridge. New York: Penguin 1987. An allegorical exploration of contemporary society and morals, this was one of the most popular works in English during Chaucer’s lifetime.

Mandeville, John. Travels. Trans, C. W. R. D. Moseley. New York: Penguin 1983. Purporting to be the account of a fourteenth-century Englishman’s journeys, this book was also very popular in Chaucer’s day; it incorporates both fact and fantasy, and reflects popular ideas about the nature of the world.

Pizan, Christine de. The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry. Ed. and transl. Sumner and Charity Cannon Willard. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 1999. Christine updates the late Roman military manual of Vegetius and Bonet’s Tree of Battles with a great deal of practical contemporary advice such as the number of bowstrings and wheelbarrows to bring to a siege.
Christine de Pizan was probably the first woman to make her living as a professional writer.

Pizan, Christine de and Rosalind Brown-Grant. 2005. The book of the city of ladies. Penguin Books. 2005. Christine gives advice on good conduct to women of all ranks, from women of high rank to prostitutes and the wives of laborers.

Pizan, Christine de. The Book of the Duke of True Lovers Transl.Thelma S Feinster and Nadia Margolis New York, Persea Books 1991  A profoundly unromantic and subversive romance presenting the argument that most of what male courtly lovers say about serving their ladies is self serving "since the honor and profit remains with them and not at all with the lady!"

Power, Eileen, transl. The Goodman of Paris. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1928. A wealthy and aged Parisian writes moral and practical advice to his young wife regarding the management of her household.

Tolkien, J. R. R., transl. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975. Dating to the late fourteenth century, Sir Gawain is one of the finest examples of Middle English romance; it offers both chivalric adventure and sophisticated humor.

Wright, Thomas, transl. The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. A late fourteenth-century knight dispenses moral advice to his daughters illustrated by many anecdotes, some learned and classical, some lively and contemporary.

A shorter version of this list appears in:

Forgeng, Jeffrey L, and Will McLean. Daily Life in Chaucer's England. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2009. Print.