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 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 towards the operator using the cranequin. 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 could be permanently installed atop 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?

Estoc: Sir Eveland’s Word of the Night – Dec 24th, 2016

An estoc, used from the 14th to the 17th century, is an edgeless two-handed sword designed specifically for fighting against opponents who are wearing full suits of steel armour. Similar to a rondel dagger, the estoc is meant for finding its way into the niches of armor (armpits, neck, visor, the back of the knee, etc). Being edgeless also means that its wielder can use it like a mace more easily, indeed reverse it so use it like a polehammer.

Fauld vs Tonlet: Sir Eveland’s Word of the Night

Faulds and tonlets are both pieces of armor worn below the breastplate to protect the groin and waist, but some major differences separate them.

FAULD + TASSETS

fauld-armor-for-the-waist

Worn over a skirt of maille, a fauld is a piece of armor attached to the bottom of a breastplate, corresponding to a ‘culet’ which hangs from the bottom of a backplate on the other side (though in early to mid medieval times, culets were rarely worn as maille over the arse was deemed ‘good enough’). A fauld consists of steel lames connected by strips of leather, albeit other less popular methods were sometimes used to connect them. The leather strips allow expansion and contraction, which is absolutely necessary because the fauld needs to contract when the wearer mounts a horse. Oftimes, additional ‘tassets’ were hinged to the bottom of faulds to hang over the ‘cuisses’ and provide additional protection for thighs. In later medieval times, tassets grew to ridiculous lengths, stretching past the knees.

TONLET

what-is-a-tonlet-for

A tonlet is very similar to a fauld, but it’s more difficult to be comfortable on a horse while wearing one. You may need a hand mounting. This is because tonlets are thrice as long and don’t have as much flexibility, though by looking at many images, you can see how they would be able to contract somewhat, making jousting possible. Their purpose is to be rigid, supplying great if not desirable protection against lances or, depending on the century, lead balls. There’s no use attaching tassets to a tonlet because they already reach down close to the knees, depending on the particular size as many were built specially. Tonlets wrap around the entire waist like a skirt, so there’s also no need for a culet. They supply much more protection than faulds, as you can imagine, perfect against the deadlier weapons of the time, like crow’s beaks. Occasionally you would see tonlets on the battlefield, by men who wanted to keep their arses safe.

Faulds, on the other hand, were meant for open battle, meant to allow near-perfect maneuverability for the common knecht. With all that said, I’d much rather wear a tonlet behind a bulwark; thank you very much.

Knecht: Sir Eveland’s Word of the Night – Dec 7th, 2016

Knecht is a modern German word but has origins in Old English. It is cognate to the word knight. A knecht is a male servant, especially a servant of a sovereignty. Of course, ‘knight’ is a well-respected noun these days, meaning mounted soldier, but it’s still easy to see how ‘knight’ could derive from a word that means ‘male servant,’ because, of course, knights are more or less male servants.

Cervelliere: Sir Eveland’s Word of the Night – Dec 6th, 2016

A cervelliere is a close-fitting skull cap of iron or steel, used mainly by footmen in the early medieval period. It was most often worn under or over a maille coif. Of course, gambeson padding was also worn underneath. Only protecting the cranium, the cervelliere was mass produced for the common foot soldier throughout Europe. It became outdated with the rise in archery during the middle of the medieval period, later replaced by helms that protected the whole face.

 

Goedendag: Sir Eveland’s Sexy, Historical Word of Monday, Nov 14th

Used historically by militia in the Franco-Flemish War of the 14th century, the goedendag is the combination of a club and a spear. It’s a medium-ranged, two-handed weapon. The pointy tip is useful for puncturing maille and gambeson, and the heavy base of the head also allows its user to perform blunt chops and bashes. The goedendag was relatively cheap to make in high quantity and therefore was the natural pick for militias at the time.