Small Beginner’s Tip: How to Block or Parry a Sword Thrust (LARP & HEMA)

It’s my goal to get so clear an understanding of life in the Middle Ages that one might wonder if I actually traveled back in time. Everyday there are questions I try to answer.

One question on my mind was “how to block a sword thrust?” The answer is more simple than many might expect. Continue reading

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Realism in “Chansons de Geste” – Magic & Myth in the Legends of “Charlemagne” & “Roland the Valiant”

In my quest to paint a perfect image of medieval times for myself, I, with wide eyes, enter such chansons de geste, or “poems of courage,” as that of The Song of Roland and can’t help myself from identifying a few misconceptions about life in the Middle Ages.

stark realism in french chanson de geste poetic medieval legends.png

1902
England

Though they may be filled with fantastical magic and myths, these chansons de geste, taking place in the 9th century, portray a much more realistic picture of medieval times compared to the majority of today’s medieval fantasy fiction. In the epic poems of Charlemagne, you’ll find small groups of courageous knights valiantly defending breaches in their towers with their shields against hordes of javelin-throwing Saracens. Sieges last for months, and knights are careful to arm themselves rightly in real, historical armor. But despite all this awesome realism, authors love to boon their storytelling with another sort of awesomeness–the fantasy trope. Aye, the trope, a cliché or misconception added for entertainment’s sake, is even highly abundant in the French medieval epic poems of Charlemagne!

Here, after having studied Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France by Rev. A.J. Church, MA (Steeley & Co. 1902), the reference for this discussion, I’ll be examining 2 historical tropes that are misconceptions and 1 fascinating highly realistic thing Charlemagne’s knights did in epic romance that doesn’t appear often in today’s fantasy fiction.

Keep in mind I’ll be drawing my information from an English translation of medieval French poems. The author himself, A.J. Church, at the beginning of his preface, tells us, “I have endeavoured to tell in this volume the story of Charlemagne, the Charlemagne, it must be understood, not of history, but of Romance.”


 

But before we begin…

A bonus misconception to debunk!

Here is the cover of our aforementioned book of reference, Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France, printed in 1902:

charlemagne chanson de geste review and analysis.png

1902
England

Our book of Roland the Valiant boasts, “Many a blow did he deal to the enemy with his mighty spear, and when the spear was shivered in his hand, … he seized his good sword Durendal, and smote man after man to the ground (p. 266).”

Indeed, Charlemagne’s knights are often described as having spear, sword and shield, which makes sense considering those golden knights above, who are wearing 14th century armor, should realistically look similar to this 9th century illustration because, you know, Charlemagne died in the 9th century. Just look at that handsome Frenchman!

medieval armor from the 9th century

801-850
Paris, France

From this point on, the images I’ve used to illustrate my discoveries may lead to the same misconception shown above, so it’s a good thing you’re paying attention. Now let us begin!


 

Medieval Trope Misconception 1:

“SWORDS THAT CAN CUT THROUGH ANYTHING!”

Durendal, the trusty sword of Roland the Valiant, is the slayer of countless men, and let us not forget about Oliver, his companion, who wields the sword Hautclere. Aye, Hautclere must be made of the same Valyrian steel from A Game of Thrones, because, as our book says, “he (Oliver) drew the good sword from its scabbard, and smote a heathen knight, Justin of the Iron Valley. A mighty blow it was, cleaving the man in twain down to his saddle–aye, and the saddle itself with its adorning of gold and jewels, and the very backbone also of the steed whereon he rode, so that horse and man fell dead together on the plains. ‘Well done!’ cried Roland; ‘you are a true brother of mine. ‘Tis such strokes as this that makes the Emperor love us (p. 267).'”

medieval swords from legends and myths founded in reality

1399
Paris, France

Aye, the burnished sword of these courageous French warriors, often gilded, baring jewels and holy relics in their pommels, are not to be underestimated. Even Charlemagne himself bears such a sword, as described when “… he dismounted in great wrath, and ran at the giant, and smote him with Joyous so rudely that he fell to the ground nigh cut in twain (p. 219).” Though in some strange context cutting a giant nigh in twain may be plausible, this next quote, I insist, could never on this dear earth come close to being so: “As for the Admiral he escaped most narrowly; for as he leapt from a window Roland dealt a great blow at him with his sword, and the sword made a hole of a foot deep in the marble stone of the window (p. 184).”

In other occasions arms and armor are described quite realistically, as helmets are damaged and brains are left unharmed. However, for the sake of drama, of exaggerating the great strength of these valiant knights, this trope of inexorable sword blades for the most part still stands strong throughout The Song of Roland and other chansons, as countless helmets are cut in twain. This trope can be directly compared to much 20th century fantasy fiction, where heroes give their swords legendary names and cut through everything with ease.

No armor, even hardened steel breastplates, can possibly stop the hefty strikes of these fantastical swords. In reality, though, a sword could never slice a helmet in twain, could never stab through a breastplate; ’tis exactly why such weapons as the war hammer and mace became popular.

realism in medieval warfare compared to misconceptions in fantasy literature

1375-1400
Paris, France

Another noteworthy trope from the chansons that commonly appears in today’s fantasy fiction is that of the hero slaying scores of men effortlessly: “Thereupon he (Roland) charged at them (Saracens) with such fierceness that the hardiest of them turned to fly; yet they fled not so fast but that Roland killed twenty out of the thirty (p. 195).”


 

Medieval Trope Misconception 2:

“WHEN IN DOUBT, SWOON!”

There are numerous accounts of people swooning throughout the chansons. I’ll say that each swoon occurs for a respectable reason, like finding your son dead, and it’s possible that anyone can swoon unexpectedly at any time for swooning is a natural phenomenon, but with all that said it’s still impossible to ignore how exaggerated the swoons can be in the chansons, as the amount at which they occur would be hard to find in today’s fantasy fiction.

Read this quote from the story of Reynaud and tell me it does not remind you of so many romantic plays in premodern theater: “When the Lady Clare saw him (Reynaud) go she fell again into a swoon, and this so sore that her gentlewomen deemed that she was dead. When she revived she said, ‘O Reynaud, my lord, there was never husband so good as you (p. 105).'”

romance in medieval chansons and epic poems, exaggeration of emotion in literature

1380-1385
Milan, Italy

There could be a whole paper written on trying to prove if medieval people really swooned more frequently than us postmodern-ers, but it’s more likely that we’re dealing with an authentic medieval trope here. Sometimes in medieval stories the theatrical dramatization of emotions becomes so intense, people literally die of broken hearts, like when Queen Branimonde says, “… ‘O Sire, our people are vanquished, and the Emir is dead.’ When King Marsilas heard these words he turned him to the wall, and covered his face and wept. So great was his grief that his heart was broken in his breast, and he died (p. 312).”

theatrical intense dramatic eomtion and swooning in medieval epic peoms, literature and chansons de geste

1244-1254
Paris, France

In other occasions throughout the chansons, characters fall into swooning fits that last for hours, with intervals of brief consciousness, and it’s not uncommon to find a knight swooning on his horse, held in place only by the stirrups around his feet. For instance, our book says of Roland, “And again he swooned where he sat on his horse. But the stirrup held him up that he did not fall to the ground (p. 284).” For a dramatic performance during a certain epic scene of intense emotion, I, while writing my own medieval fantasy, might try to remember this historical trope.


 

Awesome Realism 1:

“THE POWER OF GOD, GLORY, HONOR & KING!”

Concerning the year 1098, during the Christian defense of Antioch in the First Crusade, when the Franks were hard-pressed under the leadership of Bohemond, Zoé Oldenbourg’s The Crusades describes, “When Peter Bartholomew emerged from the hole in the ground clutching the spearhead (Holy Lance) in his arms, all doubts were forgotten and everyone present, beginning with Raymond of Aguilers, … fell upon the poor relic, still caked with earth, and smothered it with tears and kisses (p. 109).”

Having extreme faith in a god, in upholding honor, plays more of role in many medieval wars than gold itself. It’s extremely difficult for postmodern people to understand how the belief in God and saints can effect your actions on a medieval battlefield. Zoé Oldenbourg continues, “The discovery of this dubious relic (Holy Lance) probably aroused more enthusiasm among the rank and file of the Crusaders than the invention of a new nuclear device … would cause in our own day (p. 109).”

god glory and honor in medieval warfare and piety in the middle ages

1400-1425
Paris, France

I’ve been slowly watching History’s new TV series Knightfall and though I laugh at its unrealistic sword-fighting choreography I appreciate its insight into piety among Crusading knights. The love for serving a god has just as much to do with war in medieval times as the making of arms and armor. This stark realism is rarely portrayed in today’s fantasy fiction because it’s hard for us to comprehend. However, the medieval poets of France understood it all too well, which is why in The Song of Roland you can try to understand what a knight fighting for God and the honor of his king might look like.

religious influence on war in medieval times

1400-1425
France

While bleeding to death as the last man alive after a brutal battle in Spain against the heathen, Roland “… made a loud confession of his sins, stretching his hand to the heaven. ‘Forgive me, Lord,’ he cried, ‘my sins, little and great, all that I have committed since the day of my birth to this hour in which I am stricken to death.’ So he prayed; and, as he lay, he thought of many things, of the countries which he had conquered, and of his dear Fatherland France, and of his kinsfolk, and of the good King Charles (p. 296).”

If believing in a god won’t have power over you on the battlefield, than fearing the scrutiny of your overlord certainly will, as vassals and knights go to war merely to uphold their honor by fulfilling an oath of allegiance. This is another concept so hard for today’s writers to understand, the relationship between a vassal and an overlord, as bloody wars suddenly end because one man swore allegiance to another. A realistic example of this is shown in the story of Reynaud.

When Charlemagne wished to end a conflict, he said to his messenger, “Go now to Reynaud and say to him, ‘The King gives you peace on these conditions. You shall go in pilgrim’s garb to the Holy Land, and on foot, begging your bread. You shall leave me your horse Bayard. On the other hand, I will restore your brothers all their lands (p.104).'” The conditions are accepted and Reynaud goes on to fulfill his oath with much honor, for the love of his brothers who will be saved.

oaths pledge of allegience in romantic literature

1300-1325
Saint-Omer, France

For some men, having given a pledge of service to another man means a lifetime of bondage, and they do it right willingly because the greatest shame in all the world would be to lose all honor, because there is glory in honor, glory in serving your lord for the victory of your armies. But this honor dwells in the relationships between nobles, between vassals and overlords, not your typical men, and we must always remember that honor doesn’t dwell in every noble or knight. Sometimes swearing an oath of allegiance is merely a way to save one’s own life only to wreak vengeance on a later date. Clearly, while reading of deception and betrayal throughout the Middle Ages, remembering the honorless use of the longbow, we should never rely on honor alone to keep a man loyal, unless, of course, the man in question is a true man of ideal chivalry like our friend Roland the Valiant, whom so many other knights in later centuries looked up to as a model of perfection.

Mountjoy! Mountjoy!


And there we have it. Please thank Manuscript Miniatures for supplying so many medieval images to the public!

If this subject of realism in literature intrigues you, consider following my newsletter by clicking here:  http://eepurl.com/caJpnH. This year I’ll be beginning the Medieval Studies program at University of Victoria because there’re still so many questions to ask about what life in the Middle Ages was really like.

Until next time, happy daydreaming!

Medieval Mythbusters: 9 YouTube Channels To Make You Never Look At Medieval Fantasy The Same Way Again

There are hundreds of wonderful channels on YouTube devoted to history and medieval studies. You’ll see the channels here have earned their followers rightly for your academic pleasure. Even though these channels and many others have been branded together as “The Community of the Sword,” each one is very unique. Some channels provide a more in-depth look at traditional fantasy compared to historical reality by commentating on popular movies. Others ignore modern popular culture and teach HEMA and medieval armor at highly professional levels. For your convenience and mine I’ve simply taken the liberty of giving each one a reward.


#1.

Roland Warzecha

Highly Interesting Sword Techniques 


#2.

Scholagladiatoria

World’s Best Sword Debater


#3.

Lindybeige

Best Thought-provoking Rambles and History Lessons


#4.

Skallagrim

Extremely Interesting Medieval Weapon Reviews and Testing


#5.

ThegnThrand

Whoppingly Insightful Medieval Weapon Testing


#6.

Shadiversity

Best Production Quality and Analyses of Misconceptions in Medieval Fantasy 


#7.

Knyght Errant

Best In-depth Analyses of Real Medieval Armor


#8.

Pursuing the Knightly Arts

Most Knowledgeable Armored HEMA Lessons


#9.

Blood and Iron HEMA

Best In-depth Unarmored HEMA Lessons

 

I hope this list served you well. Expect a part 2 because there are hundreds of others worth mentioning.

Happy daydreaming.

A Different Way to Study History: Do Dates and Names even Matter?

Here I am going to recommend a unique way of studying history and ask the question, why, in schools, do we put so much importance on having students of history remember the names of people, places and things, the dates of events?

Firstly, ask yourself, “Knowing that time focused on one thing takes away from time focused on another, why do we tell ourselves not to repeat the tragedies of history, to learn from history’s mistakes, before we then force our students to take tests emphasizing the importance of names and dates?” Keep that frame of thought to contain this: we should be testing our students on the lessons history has to teach us, as well as the significance behind events. Why waste time remembering boring trivia when instead you could be delving into the awesomeness of history? And by the word awesome I don’t mean the synonyms amazing and spectacular. I mean the dissected version of the word.


Awe-some.


history for fantasy writers

Many things from history can make a man awe. For instance when mariners from the Old World would sail toward the New, they would awe at the amount of birds that could live many leagues from the shore. The birds would take advantage of the midocean ships, rooking in the rigging, resting on the crosstrees, as if the ships were mere floating rocks, until scurvy dogs with innovated traps would find ways to snag them from the sails. Today, occurrences like this, like many other occurrences in history, while considering culture, can only be replicated by reenactment. Isn’t that awesome?

Crusading to bring “Truth” to Medieval Fantasy Movies, Books & Games

I chose the title for this paper very carefully. A few months ago I might have said “time to begin the Great Crusade against Misconceptions in the Medieval Fantasy Genre,” but I’ve learned that in order to win this holy war we must not fight against what we hate–lies and misconceptions–but rather save what we love–truth!

the crusade against medieval misconceptions

Like the great Latin barons of the first military Crusade, not the People’s Crusade, I’m not warring for myself or for any material gains; I’m warring because I truly believe it’s wrong to pump misconceptions into young people’s minds so that they then go on to take it all as truth! Like Peter the Hermit, I’m appealing to a subconscious need, one inherent in many of us, that may take several decades to ripen into material life, and as things like HEMA and Lindybeige become more popular my quest will become easier. I see Lindybeige as one of the great Crusader barons bringing truth to the Holy Land, and each and every HEMA practitioner, every Matt Easton fan, as one of the many knights, footmen, auxiliaries and camp-followers who are making this Crusade possible. Go ahead and laugh because I did too after reading this again!

How many people do you know believe that knights in plate armor were walking tin cans that could barely run and jump? How many people do you know believe that you can hold back the drawstring of a war bow at full draw for as long as you want in order to threaten someone with dialogue? How many people do you know believe that cannons weren’t around in the Middle Ages? These people have been lied to, arguably unintentionally, and they don’t even know it yet. It’s our duty to “wake them up” so to speak. I’m exaggerating this to make it sound somewhat like a pompous speech one would here from a priest as he’s riling some archers to fight for their god during a siege, though I’m sure it still gets the point across, or at least I hope it does. I must be that man who can be laughed at as he follows his dream through the purple haze, toward epic reenactment of medieval culture.

Because out there in the market I like options and one option should be a genre of fantasy that gives you an understanding of what life in the Middle Ages was really like. If I don’t do something about it in the next few decades, someone else will.

If you live in Victoria BC, Canada and are interested in custom leather book binding or collecting rare vintage books I highly recommend Period Fine Bindings in Oak Bay. There I recently got my hands on a A New Dictionary of Heraldry printed in 1739 and will soon be using it to design the coats of arms for many characters in the Medieverse.

 

The Three Rules of LitHEMA (Literature about Historical European Martial Arts)

Rule 1. SHOW HEMA IN ACTION: Grappling! Rondel daggers! Poleaxes! Niches in armor! LitHEMA, although some authors may or may not choose to use Old German or Old English, takes pride in showing historical action for what it is! As all of you will one day come to agree, many fantasy stories, whether they be movies, games or books, repetitively fall for the same myths and misconceptions. Type “drawing swords from the back” into YouTube and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Don’t forget to subscribe!

LitHEMA separates itself from most fantasy by dutifully straying from misconceptions. A lot of the history we know as true is, of course, speculation made by experts and archaeologists and likewise LitHEMA writers must rely on creativity to fill certain gaps, allowing us to create the most awesome and realistic sword fights ever! It’s reenactment for the mind, baby! Yeah!

Imagine a lord in his prime, a master with a sword in the Late Middle Ages. He’s been using the same lifesaving techniques with his one-handed sword for many years and must suddenly duel an angry levy who’d picked up a deadman’s zweihander! The sparks! The grunts! The parries! It’s experience and swiftness versus revenge and strength. And you can’t deny it’s beautiful because, as Shad from Shadiversity says, swords are awesome!

historical fiction with historical European martial arts

1150-1200, Austria 

Rule 2. PRESENT TRUTH, SAVE THE ODD EXAGGERATION: Gobs of HEMA practitioners admit that fantasy is what got them interested in swords in the first place. And so in that sense LitHEMA respects its roots in more ways than one. LitHEMA respects fantasy as much as it respects historical combat treatises because we all must rely on creativity and fascination to assume certain things about history. Indeed, all we can do about certain things is make assumptions, about certain unprovable things which almost always rely on context like ‘why did falchions become popular?’ or ‘how easy is it to shoot a moving target with a crossbow from a tower?’.

It is impossible to be perfectly accurate, but that wouldn’t stop a LitHEMA writer from replying ‘well, what period are we talking about? What type of crossbow is it?’ LitHEMA distinguishes itself from most fantasy subgenres by being as realistic as possible and the writer must present, after much studying and research, what she thinks is realistic. She decides, “The moving target below the tower is wearing a gambeson and the crossbowman’s quarrel glances off the sturdy textile because it was a low-poundage crossbow and the quarrel didn’t hit plumb.”

Some historians may say that scene should have happened a different way, but our author dug down into her heart, did her research and presented what she thought would really happen in her fictional universe. Even if she has magic and elves and dragons in her universe, which is more than possible in LitHEMA, she has to ask herself ‘would the dragon’s flame really burn down a castle made of stone? And would elves really use war bows if they had flimsy little arms?’

Thanks to the internet and many hard working enthusiasts around the world, authentic historical artwork is slowly and steadily putting a burdensome responsibility on the shoulders of writers! We feel guilt when we realize our heroes were wearing unriveted mail when they should have been wearing riveted mail. Trust me, as a passionate LitHEMA writer I know that guilt all too well. My stories have many things that are unrealistic, like a disposable diamond-tipped throwing knife. At least I state the blade had to go through mail and gambeson.

LitHEMA, if it is solely written as a subgenre of fantasy, can combine creativity with truth to show an exaggerated version of reality. On the other hand, if LitHEMA is solely written as a subgenre of historical fiction, it should focus more on action and stress the techniques used in historical combat treatises.

LitHEMA

1255-1260, England

Rule 3. SUGGEST CONTEXT: Medieval combat treatises teach us many tricks and techniques, guards and attacks, but they tell us very little about the context in which these tricks and techniques could have been used throughout history. To understand context we must coalesce our HEMA knowledge with other sources like written accounts and paintings. LitHEMA is just one medium that enables us to use our historical research and creativity to suggest certain scenarios.

Now imagine a small peasant revolt, an entire village raging against sixteen knights trained in the combat techniques of a master. Written with HEMA in mind, this imaginary scene could allow us a special viewpoint, a viewpoint very unlike a battle in a 1970s fantasy book. Of course, it is inevitable that creativity will fill many gaps, but after studying the artwork left by ancient, medieval and pre-modern cultures around the world we can create a reenactment-like image in the reader’s mind. While suggesting a context, LitHEMA can indeed show the world what mortal combat may have looked like in the past. Frankly, a movie based on a such a novel is exactly what Hollywood needs.

Images from http://manuscriptminiatures.com, a fabulous website!

Shot out to http://wiktenauer.com and all you HEMA enthusiasts out there!

Springalds versus Ballistae – What is the Mechanical Difference?

This is not a historical lesson with dates and events, but a mechanical lesson to explain the physical differences between these two magnificent ancient artillery weapons.

Springalds and ballistae are both “catapults” that loose either spear-like bolts, Greek fire or round stones. The major difference between them is in how they hold the power necessary to launch these projectiles. I would like to start by clarifying the definition of the word “catapult” because many people confound that word with “mangonel.” A catapult is any stationary device that uses built-up tension to fire or, in more accurate terms, loose or shoot a projectile. Like ballistae and springalds, a mangonel is a certain kind of catapult. So do not picture a mangonel every time you hear the word catapult like I did for many years 🙂

Springalds (also known as espringals)

ballista compared with espringal

how do springalds operate

Like many arbalests or heavy crossbows, springalds use devices known as windlasses to build-up tension in skeins, bow arms and draw cords. However, springalds have inward-facing bow arms and ballistae have outward-facing bow arms. A springald, at first glance, may look odd because they are not as common in movies and video games as ballistae are. Some springalds look very similar to ballistae (their only difference being in which direction the bow arms face) but other springalds, like the example below, look like bizarre wooden cages.

the difference between a ballista and a springald or espringal

Whatever the design, a springald can always be differentiated from a ballista by gandering at the bow arms. Ballistae have outward-facing bow arms that are always facing outwards even when they are not bearing tension; they simply look like over-sized crossbows on mounts. Springalds, on the other hand, when they are not bearing tension, have smaller arms that face forwards and they do not face inwards until accumulated tension bends them inwards and towards the operator using the windlass. It is easy to see how these rectangular springalds on wheels would be better for besieging whereas the mounted ones that look like ballistae would be better for defending because they can aim down from turrets and bastions.

Ballistae

ballista vs springald

We’ve already done a sufficient comparison for there is not much difference between these two famed weapons of ancient war, but it may be good to cap off what we’ve learned by briefly comparing a ballista to an arbalest. An arbalest is either a cranequin crossbow or a windlass crossbow. Below I will show a picture of a cranequin crossbow so you can see just how similar it is to a ballista and also how different it is from a springald.

similarities between crossbows and ballistae and springalds

See how the bow arms of the crossbow and ballista face outwards while the springald has bow arms that face forwards until tension brings them inwards? If you see the difference, you now know what separates a springald from a ballista! Yay! Now let’s do a little test: what type of catapult is the bolt thrower in the scene of the Greek siege at the top of this article? Is it a springald or a ballista?