I Blog of Arms and the Knight…

My specialty is medieval literature, not history per se, but occasionally Mondoville kids (and a few adults) will approach me with questions about anything connected to the Middle Ages, and a large proportion of those questions relate to combat in the Age of Chivalry. Now I’m reasonably good at talking about the troubadours and the rise of the courtly romance, but nutsy-boltsy (or swordsy-helmsy) stuff? Not so much. And I certainly can’t demonstrate it — folks who have met me and know how awkward I am realize it would be like expecting a wooly mammoth to do the Macarena.

I do try to explain that knights were professional soldiers, in serious physical condition and capable of remarkable physical feats. Likewise, their weapons and armor were tools of survival. However, in future I may refer them to this nice little layman’s article that puts the medieval knight’s gear in the context of his Japanese counterpart. Pretty neat.

A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to the ONT at Ace of Spades.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Medievalia. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to I Blog of Arms and the Knight…

  1. jamestobrien says:

    Warren, I found this statement in the article to which you linked: “We know their behavior wasn’t as courteous and chivalrous as the more romanticized tales of King Arthur would have you believe,” That raised a question. If memory serves, in the Arthurian tales I’ve read the knights were often murderous and the stories gory. If my memory serves, how does that square with the assertion about ‘courteous and chivalrous’ knights?

    • profmondo says:

      Well, I think for some of the answer, we need to look at the intended audience for chivalric romances. These tales were written for a courtly audience. On the one hand, the tellers had to appeal to a feminine audience (Eleanor of Aquitaine was a big backer of these tales, as was Marie de Champagne, to offer a couple of examples.) Hence the courtly love elements — which elevate the woman from the Vanna White role of the Germanic heroic poems to an exalted status of domina and inspiration for achievement. This is the part most folks remember. OTOH, a courtly audience is also going to include the professional fighters who are lords, knights, etc. — and we must remember it was a less sanitized era as well. Finally, we have to remember that courtesy/chivalry isn’t necessarily extended to folks outside the nobility (We have the word court in there, after all.) One could be a courteous knight by the standards of the day and still be brutal to peasants, Saracens, or other outsider groups. I could go on, but I have to deal with my freshpeeps in a moment or six. Thanks for dropping by, and don’t be a stranger!

  2. Javahead says:

    Back in my high school and college days I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

    SCA fighting has – at most – the same relationship to actual medieval combat styles that modern sport Kendo does to actual Japanese combat styles. Weapons are essentially sword-shaped-and-weighted clubs, armor doesn’t need to protect against a cut, just a blunt blow (my “armor” back in the day was a padded suit and a helmet made from an old freon can), fights are typically short (though SCA wars can be all-day events, very few individual fights in a tournament last more than a handful of minutes).

    But even as a testosterone-and-glory addled teen, I noticed two things:

    1) The fighters who treated it as a martial art, trained regularly, and paid attention to what worked and what didn’t were far, far, more successful than the casual duffers. Many also studied other martial arts. The best I ever fought personally was a legendary figure in the Kingdom of the West, Duke Paul of Belletrix. A very courteous gentleman, winner of multiple Crown Tournaments, and (as I recall) a karate black belt. He invited two of us (both eager teens) to face him at once. We’d had some training, and were both young and fit. He still had us both flat on the ground (in my case, with a new crease on my helmet’s temple) in less than a minute. Would he have done well on the battlefield in the 14th century? I don’t know – but he had the right mindset. And the level-of-skills difference he demonstrated to us felt very much like free-sparring with my karated sensei did a decade or so later.

    2) As the articles you pointed out mention, movie sword fights have almost nothing in common with the real thing. Even with my limited SCA training I’d be able to cut a swath through a small mob if they actually tried to use movie-swordfight techniques. Not to mention the abomination that is movie “armor”, designed to look interesting (and show off the actors faces) rather than actually, you know, *protect* the wearer. Even movies I really love (multiple versions of “Robin Hood”, The Princess Bride, the LoTR trilogy, both Coleman versions of The Prisoner of Zenda) require lots of extra willing suspension of disbelief during the sword fights. (Granted, many are fantasys, well-out-of-period, or both). Of course, Hollywood makes the same sort of wild bloopers for martial arts, car chases, and gun fights – the Hollywood versions of all of them are most believable if you know absolutely nothing about the real thing.

    Neither of these points directly bears on European vs Japanese chivalry. But I would point out that most people’s idea of medieval European combat draws far more on movies than actual knowledge. And most European knights and men-at-arms spent as large a proportion of their time in training as did samurai.

  3. Javahead says:

    Sigh “karate” and “fantasies” – any other typos? And I *had* given it a quick review before posting. My apologies.

  4. mike shupp says:

    An intriguing thought: Could a decent movie be made of some medieval[era classics (IVANHOE, for instance? THE SONG OF ROLAND? EL CID? THE SARACEN BLADE?) with realistic sword fights? Perhaps sudden bloody mayhem would work as well for modern audiences as the drawn out sabre dances of the 1930s did in their day.

    Wonder how rthe notion might fly at Kickstarter….

    • Javahead says:

      Mike, I suspect your big problem wouldn’t be the actors – it would be the directors. They’ll *always* go for spectacle over accuracy. I’m told that back in the old Hollywood days that many big-name actors were pretty lousy swordsmen, and the one or two who actually knew how to fence (and used that knowledge) were not well-received by directors because they “didn’t look good” (or made the big-name-duffers look bad).

      I’d love to be proven wrong on this one. Ditto for firearms, cars, fistfights . . .

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