On My Shelves: The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship

One of my favorite games to play in museums is: “If I could steal one thing….” It goes without saying that my friends who actually work in museums do not approve of this game (although I do manage on occasion to cajole them into joining in). It goes further without saying that I have never and would never do such a thing. It’s a game for focusing the senses.

The blame for this morally dubious pastime rests at the base of the pedestal of a fascinating astrolabe in the one of the Vatican Museums. Mmm hmm. Yup. That’s where it all started: an old astrolabe. If you’re thinking that’s an odd choice to make out of the entirety of the Vatican Museum, then all I have to say is, your imagination is free to purloin whatsoever it chooses.

Back in 2011 when visiting the Musée de Cluny-Musée national du Moyen Âge,  my “one thing” policy was seriously tested by their exhibition on the mythology and use of the sword. Finally, I narrowed it down to one manuscript illustrating combat techniques. Did I let myself get distracted by unique pommels? I did not. I’ll just take the manuscript, thank you. Did I fall for decorative incising down various handsome blades? Nope. Just the manuscript, please. In such cases, exhibition catalogues are generally how I reconcile myself to leaving things where they belong. So. the absolute non-existence of such a catalogue compounded my pain and agony a hundredfold. I had to make do with postcards and magnets of the manuscript. MAGNETS. There were not enough Sidecars in the whole of Paris to get me over that heartbreak.

Still nursing my disappointment (and perhaps a slight headache from those Sidecars), I made a pilgrimage to the Higgins Armory Museum in Worchester, MA upon my return, hoping to find solace in wandering the halls of armor, swords, pikestaffs, arquebuses, hauberks, and the like. While the displays included no manuscripts on sword fighting, in the gift shop I found The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: a Facsimile and Translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, Royal Armouries MS.I.33.  I suspect that my calloohs, callays, and chortles of joy were matched by those of the clerk in the gift shop who rang up my purchases that day. My many, many book purchases.

Within the pages of this particular gem are color facsimiles of a late 13th – early 14th-century manuscript on sword fighting wherein a priest in clerical robes (hood down) instructs a male student (hood up) and occasionally a woman, demonstrate a variety of offensive and defensive moves. While transcriber and translator Jeffrey Forgeng’s work is a serious work, worthy of the serious institution at which he and I did our doctorates (although at different times), I am entirely frivolous and will to leave it to readers to pick up the book (well worth it) and read the manuscript details (very interesting indeed) and textual details (cautionary).

Below I share only a few of my favorite “teaching moments”.

msi.332cp17cheeryfighers

Readers, Meet your guide to sword fighting instructor (the priest at left) and his exemplary pupil (right). No matter what move they demonstrate, those happy smiles never waver. (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 17)

ms12c332cp24asphyxia

This is the “Asphyxia” move where you get in close enough to discover if your opponent remembered his deodorant that morning. Since this is the Middle Ages, be warned: he didn’t. (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 24)

ms12c33iamnotleft-handed23

If you look carefully, the student (right) is doing an alternative, less showy version of the “I am not left-handed!” move made famous by Wesley in the Princess Bride. No really. (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 23)

ms12c332cp33pool

Here, the master is demonstrating how to take advantage of distractions like low-flying planes and skewer your opponent while he’s yelling, “De plane! De plane!” (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 33)

msi2c332cp35noseparry

The deeply infantile “I’ve got your nose!” move that no one, NO ONE, finds amusing. (Royal Armouries, MS 1.33, p. 35)

MS I, 33 p 37 moves

The student is about to learn that Matrix moves do not work when dodging swords. Be warned. (Royal Armouries, I.33, p. 37)

msi2c33p57wondertwins

My absolute favorite move, and one which will go over the heads of younger readers: “Wonder Twin powers, ACTIVATE!” (Royal Armouries, MS I.33, p. 57)

 

P.S. The Higgins Armory is no more, at least not as a private institution. The collection was acquired by the Worchester Museum where it is well worth visiting.

Works Cited:  Jeffrey Forgeng, transcriber and translator, The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: : a Facsimile and Translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, Royal Armouries MS.I.33. The Chivalry Bookshelf, CA, 2003.

 

Madness and other infelicities

Days like today make me feel like I bought my brains at a used car lot without digging  through the CARFAX listing carefully enough. Not nearly carefully enough.

I am currently prepping to teach a class on Middle English literature. Consequently, I’ve been happily submerging myself in scholarship that I haven’t touched for ages; lining my proverbial ducks in their tidy, proverbial little rows; and then steadily, albeit proverbially, shooting them dead. I was happily knocking off books when it happened. Let me emend that. It happened again, for the third time in as many days.

It started out perfectly normally. It is, after all, perfectly normal to come across a reference to medieval text or poem and think to oneself, “Self, that sounds interesting. Is that on our shelves?”[1]

“I think so,” answer I, toddling over to my burdened and benighted bookshelves.

img_2842(1)

one of the aforementioned burdened and benighted bookshelves.

In this particular and imperfectly normal instance, the work in question was Chaucer’s House of Fame which was heralded in the essay I was reading as including: “an abusive eagle,” a profusion of poetic wealth from centuries past that “overwhelms even the minimal level of human organization” (just like my bookshelves), and a “forest of rook’s nests” which are both “the nests of scavengers” and the “incubators of new life out of past in decay and putrefaction.”[2]

I was sold. Irony, the macabre, literary irreverence, and an abusive eagle. Who doesn’t want to read that? Of course, I should have read it before now (what kind of medievalist am I?!), but I assured myself that you can’t read everything. Better late than never and all that.

So, I levered the House of Fame off my shelves and opened it–just to bookmark it, mind you. I sure as heck don’t have time to read it now, but when the semester is over…. And that’s when it happened. AGAIN.  There on the page before me were the tiny markings of my own marginalia. It was unmistakably my writing and my writing is unmistakable.

img_2844At least, so I assume from the fact that people always feel an uncontrollable urge to comment upon it. Countless are the times that I have been told that my writing is illegible. It’s not illegible. It’s small. Alright, fine. It’s tiny, but tiny ≠ illegible. This purported illegibility has been hammered home both gently (and un-) by everyone from examiners in grad school to my own sweet kith and kin. Adding insult to injury (hammering hurts, fyi), my writing been compared to everything from Sanskrit to the tracks of panicked field mice. For my part, I do not consider it unreasonable to expect people to have magnifying glasses on hand. Preparation is half the battle in life.

Besides, illegibility is not the point. The point is that I’d very clearly read the damned House of Fame before, thoroughly too by the looks of it, and yet I had no memory of it whatsoever.

Once? “These things happen.”

Twice? “Really, Smith? That’s a bit worrisome.”

Thrice? Thrice in three days? “Clearly, I am going mad. Self, are we going mad?” Self: “You’re on your own, kid.”

Mad or senile. As I’m too young for either, both are equally discombobulating. Time shall, I suppose, tell. In the meantime, I’m going to start shopping around for new brains, and I’m reading the fine print this time before putting my money down. I may be forgetful, but I’m good with fine print.


[1] Of course, I don’t speak to myself in the third person. First person is entirely sufficient. Just humor us. Me. I mean, me.

[2] Larry Scanlon, “Geoffrey Chaucer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Middle English Literature 1100-1500, ed. Larry Scanlon, Cambridge UP 2009, p. 165.

 

 

 

H is for Hero (or G is for Gormless)

Field Notes, Installment IV

Usually when the girl recorded an unusual creature in her field notes, it is was a creature. Four legs. Claws. Snout. That manner of thing. After meeting Robert Schapper, however, the girl decided that restricting her field notes to beasts had been rather narrow-minded of her. As a specimen, Robert was so utterly unremarkable as to be moderately fascinating.

“All field notes should include at least one study in contradictions,” said the girl as she sketched quietly.  So far as she was concerned, the fact that her thoughts had juxtaposed ‘utterly’ and ‘moderately’ together, and then ‘unremarkable’ and ‘fascinating’ meant the Robert qualified nicely as an exemplum contradictionis.

h is for hero 1

Robert Schnapper. “May he prove them all wrong.”

“After all,” observed the girl to a starling which had landed on a nearby branch to observe her progress, “it’s not every day you meet a young man whose ears have migrated to the lowest possible point of his head.”

Had any of the Schnapper family seen the girl’s sketch or overheard her meditations on their fifth son, they would have avoided each other’s eyes and talked loudly of the merits of strong beer and axe throwing, for the perilous hanging of Robert’s ears was an embarrassment to one and all. Any lower and they would have resided on his neck, and that position would have once and finally disqualified him from the occupation of hero.

Since it is an established fact that the ears of heroes are well behaved and handsomely situated to either side of the head–and not only-just-barely above the neck–Robert’s family had long ago dismissed the likelihood of his doing anything more heroic than managing not to tread upon his own feet. Had anyone of the Schnappers (particularly Robert’s younger brother Vipper) known that the young man still harbored high hopes of heroism (and wasn’t half bad at alliteration either), they would have laughed themselves silly.h-is-for-hero-2-1.jpg

The Schnappers were the sort of people who believed manliness and facial hair were one in the same,† on account of which remarkable logic, the entire Schnapper clan–from grandparents to third cousins twice removed—had given up on Robert amounting to anything.

It was manifestly unfair, for while the young Robert could have done something to ameliorate the expression of perpetual surprise upon his face, and while he could have taken better care not to step on his own feet,  there was nothing he could do about his beard. Mother Nature had heartlessly condemned him to a life of scruff, and that was that.

After sketching the young man in her field notes, the girl stared at the page. Beneath her sketch of the underestimated Robert, she wrote only, “May he prove them all wrong.”

v is for vipper 2

Vipper Schnapper. “Let that be a lesson to you, girl.”

Before slamming her notebook closed in disgust, the girl added one last, hasty sketch of the mocking Vipper Schnapper with a quick note.

The girl was perhaps a little hard on herself. It wasn’t as if she was the first young woman to be misled by a dramatic head of hair. Moreover (and to her credit), it had only taken a few minutes’ conversation for her to realize that the well-groomed Vipper would never live up to the intensity of his eyebrows. Such disappointments happen all too often.

Still, if she was brutally honest with herself, the chin beard really should have told her e v e r y t h i n g. It really, really should.


† That created some difficulty where Great Aunt Stomp was concerned, but that’s another story.

An Old English Advent Excerpt

 

Eala wifa wynn geond wuldres þrym,
fæmne freolicast ofer ealne foldan sceat
þæs þe æfre sundbuend secgan hyrdon,
arece us þæt geryne þæt þe of roderum cwom,
hu þu eacnunge æfre onfenge
bearnes þurh gebyrde, ond þone gebedscipe
æfter monwisan mod ne cuðes.
Ne we soðlice swylc ne gefrugnan
in ærdagum æfre gelimpan,
þæt ðu in sundurgiefe swylce befenge,
ne we þære wyrde wenan þurfon
toweard in tide. Huru treow in þe
weorðlicu wunade, nu þu wuldres þrym
bosme gebære, ond no gebrosnad wearð
85mægðhad se micla. Swa eal manna bearn
sorgum sawað, swa eft ripað,
cennað to cwealme. Cwæð sio eadge mæg
symle sigores full, sancta Maria:
“Hwæt is þeos wundrung þe ge wafiað,
90ond geomrende gehþum mænað,
sunu Solimę somod his dohtor?
Fricgað þurh fyrwet hu ic fæmnan had,
mund minne geheold, ond eac modor gewearð
mære meotudes suna. Forþan þæt monnum nis
cuð geryne, ac Crist onwrah
in Dauides dyrre mægan
þæt is Euan scyld eal forpynded,
wærgða aworpen, ond gewuldrad is
se heanra had. Hyht is onfangen
þæt nu bletsung mot bæm gemæne,
werum ond wifum, a to worulde forð
in þam uplican engla dreame
mid soðfæder symle wunian.” *

 

Normally, I would provide my own translation, but Christmas is today and all that, so I’m falling upon the grace of Professor Aaron Hofstetter’s translation below (to which I have made a few tweaks).

Hail, joy of women through the majesty of glory,
noblest of virgins across every corner of the earth
of which sea-dwelling men have ever heard spoken —
tell us the mysteries which came to you from the heavens;
how you ever took on your increasing, through the birth of a child,
never knowing any kind of union that the minds of men
would understand. Truly, we have never learned
of such a thing like this happening in the days gone by,
that you should take hold of this in your special grace,
nor need we look that event occurring any time ahead.

Indeed, that truth dwelt worthily within you,
now that you have borne that majesty of glory
within your breast, and your mighty virginity
was not corrupted. And as all children of men
have sown in their sorrows, so after shall they reap—
begetting as destruction.

So spoke the blessed maid, holy Mary
filled always with her victory:

“What is this miracle at which you all
stand amazed, and mourning grieve your cares,
O son of Salem and his daughter too?
Yearning, inquire how I kept my virgin state
and my trust and also became the mother
of the sublime Creator’s Son. For this is not
a mystery knowable by men, but Christ revealed
how in David’s dear kinswoman
the guilt of Eve is removed,
her curse cast down, and the lowly glorified.
Hope is received so that a blessing may abide
in both men and women together, now
and always for all time to come in the highest
delight of angels with the True Father.”**

 

Merry Christmas!

*Old English text from http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/aspr/a3.1.html (Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records).

**A. Hofstetter’s translation of the entire cycle known as the Advent Lyrics (Christ A, B, C) can be found at https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu.

 

On My Shelves: La danse éliminatoire

Nestled on my shelves between a collection of Norse poetry and another collection of Ottoman Lyric sits a tiny–and I do mean tiny–little book. It’s so thin that sometimes amid the shoving and re-shelving it gets lost somewhere at the back, which is rather ironic given its subject.

Michael Ondaatje’s Elimination Dance, or for those with the Bilingual Traveller’s Edition, La danse éliminatoire, is a delightful oddity.  In 1991, well before the nightmares of Dancing with the Desperate or whatever is reality atrocity is current at the moment, Ondaatje published his collection of “eliminations.” The form of the collection (which is not really poetry) was inspired by the nature of eliminations dances (which I’d never heard of before) where seemingly random “eliminations” are called out and dancers retire accordingly. Ondaatje’s eliminations are clearly inspired by the generous folly of humanity. They are too oddly specific not to be based upon regrettable reality.

“Gentlemen who have placed a microphone beside a naked woman’s stomach after lunch and later, after slowing down the sound considerably, have sold these noises on the open market as whale songs.” (12)

It the bizarre specificity weren’t enough to convince one of the basis in real life, Ondaatje himself includes the following prefatory disclaimer “All original incidences which inspired the eliminations are the responsibility of the original persons.”

So, as much as anything, Elimination Dance is a catalogue of the stupidity that we humans can get up to, from “unintentially [locking] oneself in a sleeping bag in a camping goods store” (24) to  the dinner guest who has “consumed the host’s missing contact lens along with the dessert” (16). Think of it as the pre-qualifiers for the Darwin Awards.

I offer up a selection of my favorites.

q-tip

Those who, while visiting a foreign country, have lost the end of the Q-tip in their ear and have been unable to explain their problem (12-13)

I would have loved to have heard the original story that inspired this. I mean, how long is your ear canal that you lost your Q-tip in there? Does no one read the box? It clearly says, do not insert into ear.

breaking down at the liquor board

Any person who has burst into tear at the Liquor Control Board. (41-42)

Now, admittedly those LCB taxes are high, but tears? Even I haven’t done that.

accordian pinch

Women who gave up the accordion because of pinched breasts. (28-29)

Some might say the unparalleled delights of the accordion are well worth a little pain. I’m not one of them.

And so they go. Ondaatje includes study questions at the end which beautifully spoof the questions included at the end of both book-club books and student textbooks alike. I cannot quote the best of them here in a “family-friendly” environment, but they are rich.

Several blank pages are left at the end of the book for readers to fill in their additions. The friend who gave it to me included two eliminations of his own:

“The excessively cheerful, particularly those who inflict themselves on others at breakfast.”

“All who drink decaffeinated coffee before noon.”

I have also added a few of my own over the years:

“Former majority whips of the House who go on TV dance shows.”

“Those who cannot live without the TV being on constantly.”

“Any one who upon receiving a scholarship has marched into the office of the granting body and announced that s/he should have been given more money.”

So, consider the dance floor full.  Eliminations may now be posted.

 

Michael Ondaatje, Elimination Dance/La danse éliminatoire, trans. Lola Lemire Tostevin, Brick Books, 1997

A Bouquet of Dragons

This post is for a young reader who shares my deep and abiding affection for the malicious and maladroit creature known as the dragon. There will be a forthcoming installment of Field Notes with a dragon. Since, however, that’s a few drawings down the line, I thought I’d offer up florilegium draconum, or…er… bouquet of dragons, from medieval manuscripts to hold over all those who want more dragons.

The medieval bestiary seems the most sensible place to begin, and one of my favorites is the Aberdeen Bestiary which is as good as Thanksgiving for the eyes. In the nature of bestiaries, the Aberdeen provides practical (in a manner of speaking) insight into the species.

aberdeen 65 v dragon eating elephant

Aberdeen University Library, MS 24 f. 65v, c. 1200

Thus, we learn not only that dragons are the largest of both serpents and animals upon earth, but also that their emergence from the caves makes the ether tremble. If you ever wondered where dragons come from, they apparently originated in Ethiopia and India. Regrettably, the  bestiary does not say whether there is a distinction–as with elephants–between the Indian and the African species. Instead, the text provides instructive details like which end to be more afraid of, and perhaps that is more important than which branch of the family has the bigger ears. Fun fact for your next dragoning venture (like birding only far, far more perilous): a dragon’s strength lies in its tail not its teeth. (That seems rather contradicted by those fangs in the illumination but never mind.) Apparently, the strangling strength of those tails makes them fearsome threats to even great creatures like elephants. As with any good bestiary, the point is not natural history but spiritual illumination and so the text continues with an explication of how the devil is like the dragon. To be edified, go to the Aberdeen MS.

That connection between dragons and evil plays out in hagiography (writings on the lives of the saints) as well as in bestiaries. For example, dragon (demon) plays an important role in demonstrating St. Margaret’s authority and sanctity. In short, when our gal Margaret refuses to dally, marry, or have anything in any way tawdry to do with the pagan Olibrius, she is tortured not only by oily Olibrius, but also the devil.

In what can only be utter frustration at Margaret’s seeming immunity to temptation and torment alike, a demon appears in the form of a dragon and swallows her whole, thinking that’ll settle her hash. Unfortunately for the dragon, Margaret turns out to be as indigestible as she is invulnerable.  Lunch gets the better of the dragon-coming and going as we see here. (Of course, anyone could have told him that dress is way, way too much roughage.)

Returning to the earlier theme of natural history, we find this fellow in the Liber acerbe etatis from the second half of the 14th century. Personally, I do not believe that heresy was what got Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Pluteo 40.52, f. 46rFrancesco Stabili, the composer of the Liber’s “encyclopedic [vernacular] poem dealing with the natural sciences, physics and religious philosophy” burnt at the stake (Imaginary Creatures, p 32). My money is on the dragon portrayed here hunting him down and crisping him for writing a poem that inspired such a spectacularly unflattering and spotty portrait.

Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Pluteo 89 superiore 43, f. 43r

Just to show how cosmically important dragons are, the next example comes from a manuscript that deals with astronomy. If you’re wondering what about those things that look like shuriken are all over the hindquarters of this dandy with a chin-beard are, wonder no more. They are not ninja weapons but stars. This particular section of the manuscript treats the constellation Cetus. While we today know this constellation as “the Whale,” it was better known to as a sea monster to the Greeks. Ergo, a starry-bummed dragon.

gorleson d is for dragon

If ever a dragon was cute as a button…. BL, Add MS 49622,  Gorleston Psalter 133v

While bestiaries, natural histories, and astronomical miscellanies are all excellent places for finding representations dragons, some of the most delightful dragons–in my opinion–are the wholly decorative dragons one trips over in margins and lettering.

Admittedly, in real life, the only ones who think that dragons are decorative are dragons themselves, vain creatures that they are. Moreover the thought of tripping over an unexpected dragon should make anyone with any instinct for self-preservation watch their footing. In manuscripts, however, anything goes. So, a few dragons from medieval marginalia.

Another Gorleston Psalter beauty, which is worth going to the British Library site for in full, takes up the ubiquitous knight-dragon motif below. As with saints, knights generally get the better of dragons (as opposed to snails who tend to beat knights hollow. Go figure.)

 

Here, in an image which must deeply wound dragonly pride, the artist has reduced dragons to mere architectural filler. The upside for the beasts is that they can nod off, make lunch dates, or whatever while Merlin (on the left) drones on about the world’s longest prophecy to Vortigern.

No one will ever know.

Speaking of lunches, in this lovely marginalia from the late thirteenth-century Alphonso Psalter below, it’s hard to tell whether these two are sharing a salt lick or facing off. Whatever they are doing, I have to say this is one of the hodgepodgier dragons I’ve seen with his bird-like wings, ivy-leaf claws, stripes, and spots. It’s really no wonder it doesn’t know whether to kiss the stag or attack it. It’s probably having an identity crisis.

Some other post, I’ll devote attention to dragons in other manuscript traditions.

For now, I’ll just  pop in this crick-necked cutie. The late fifteenth-century manuscript from Northern Italy contains a collection of Minhagim (“religious customs”).  The illustrator has included this little fellow to spice up a passage treating with the seventh day of the Sukkot festival, Hoshanah Rabba.

We’ll wrap up in good, oxymoronic style with a selection of initials, specifically with a variety of zoomorphic capitals rather than inhabited capitals like the “D” with St. Margaret above.

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R is for Regrettable

Field Notes, Installment III

“Oooh!” exclaimed the creature excitedly. “If it’s odd bits of the animal kingdom you’re interested in, then your best bet is to find the Master of the Menagerie.”

“The what?” asked the girl, edging a bit further away as the creature opened a second can of kippers.

The oh-so-delicate Toggler

“The Master of the Menagerie,” returned the creature. For a moment, it munched blissfully away on a kipper–bones and all. “He’s an odd one by all reports. They say his collection is the last word in collection, so if you’re the last of your kind, it is best to avoid him. I’m safe, I am. We togglers are yoooo-bik-kweee-tuss in these parts.”

Another kipper followed its predecessor.

“Ah!! I thee that thurpritheth you!”

“It’s only that you are the first of your kind that I’ve seen. In fact, I took you for a dachshund of sorts at first,” she offered. To herself, she added, “the very, very, very fat sort.”

A large blatting noise filled the air and the girl had to fight the desire to shield her nose. The toggler blinked confusedly and looked about it. Then, with a shrug, it dug a fork into the jar of sauerkraut beside it to eat lustily for a moment.

“We togglers are prolific breeders. There were seven in my litter and my parents have had four litters, all about that size. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but we’re delicate creatures. Have to eat a great deal to keep up our strength.” The round little beast gave its belly rolls an affectionate pat. “Most togglers prefer to sustain themselves in their dens. Me, I like picnic. Always be prepared to enjoy a good view to the full. That’s my motto.”

Here the toggler waved an unopened can of kippers at the girl. “Happy to share!”

Before she could answer, another heraldic toot trumpeted through the air. Once more, the creature looked suspiciously about it for the culprit.

“Nothing for me. Thank you! Most kind!” returned the girl as she feigned blowing her nose. “You were saying about this Master of the Menagerie—”

The creature shrugged, a move that regrettably brought forth further eructation, saying, “That’s all I know really. No! Wait a minute. They say when you hear the bells you’ll know you’re nearly there.”

“The bells? What kind of bells?”

“B e l l s. The bells kind of bells, I expect. The kind that go ding.”

The opening of the third can of kippers defeated the girl and she fled. After rounding a bend a bit down the dusty road, the girl pulled out her field notes and quickly sketched a picture of the creature. She was pretty certain the creature was fatter than she’d depicted, but it already looked preposterous. With a sigh, the girl jotted a few notes about the Master of the Menagerie, concluding:

The toggler seemed oddly surprised by its own flatulence, which was indeed  remarkable both for its volume and rapidity. The flatulence, that is. Frankly, I can’t imagine how it could be surprised. What else is one to expect if one consumes of a steady diet of sauerkraut and kippers?