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”.


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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.


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.


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

On my shelves: The Babees Book

However much that title sounds like a board book introducing infants to bath time, numbers, or some such, The Babees Book in question is a collection of late Medieval and early Renaissance texts on manners, mores, courtesy, and edifying whatnot. I am drawn to courtesy manuals for their peculiar and particular representation of ideals. The tone of such manuals varies widely. Some are stridently (sometimes violently) moralizing, others benevolently instructive. Along the way, readers encounter authors driven by everything from cloying paternalism to disinterested superiority. Shifting through the wheat and the chaff of ideal and reality (I leave it to you to assign wheat and chaff as you see fit) makes for some interesting reading.

Aside from the two major texts of The Babees Book–different versions of The Boke of Nurture–editor Frederick J. Furnivall collects a florilegium of instructive little gems. Need to know how to prepare a serve a fest for a bryde? Look no further. Moreover, not only are the elements of the various courses laid out,you also find a sample welcome with which to greet guests.  Latin grace blessings, how-to’s on carving meat, and gems like William Vaughan’s Fifteen Directions to preserve Health (Directive 3. “Euacuate your selfe.”) and “Extracts about Fish” from The noble lyfe & natures of man.

Herein lies treasure trove of information you did not know that you needed until now. But wait–there’s more. There are footnotes.

Now, if you do not share my gleeful delight in footnotes, stay the course a moment longer. Admittedly there are any number of writers who have no idea how to wield a footnote properly. Yet, no reader can justly hold the footnote responsible for such clumsiness. That would be like holding the form of an essay responsible for an undergraduate’s inability to craft an interesting thesis statement. Like holding the concept of fermentation responsible for the pungent, reeking disaster that was my first attempted at fermented beets. Nevermind that. The joy of footnotes lies in their revelation of writers’ idiosyncrasies. Footnotes are the place for scholarly winks, nudges, jabs, and the buried reference to martinis in an otherwise entirely scholarly work on hagiography.

If you are one of the dubious, or worse yet one of those people who considers the bottom of the page the domain of page numbers alone (like an acquaintance of mine who reads neither prefaces nor footnotes), don’t listen to me.[1]  Listen to Mr. Furnivall, editor of The Babees Book.

boring prefaces

Furnivall, in4

I don’t know whether I’m more taken by Furnivall’s honesty about the grunt work of such details, or his wagging his finger at lazy readers who don’t sufficietnly appreciate that grunt work. In any case, what coats and trowsers the precise Mr. Furnivall provides.

In discussing the behavior laid down for Henxman as dictated by the booke of urbanitie (who doesn’t want that book?), he adds an explanatory footnote for Henxman:

“Sir H. Nicholas, in his Glossary to his Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII…, says, “No word has been more commented upon than ‘Henchmen’ or Henxman.[2] Without entering into the controversy, it may be sufficient to state, that in the reign of Henry the Eighth  it meant the pages of honour.”[3]

If you’re like me, right now you’re thinking, “Wait! What? There’s an etymological controversy and you’re not going to share? SHARE!!!!” Be comforted, dear reader,[4] Mr. Furnivall is not so parsimonious with his information as is the aforementioned Sir Nicholas. The footnote continues with Furnivall’s own summation:


For those of you worried about the unfortunate thurde son, panic not. A sewer (or seuer/seuere) was the attendant who either performed the job of food taster or who carved for his lord. There was no sewage involved.

Setting aside the delights of henxman with all its variant spellings and the etymological implications thereof (and I do encourage you to check out the entries for hengest-man on the Middle English Compendium), look at Mr. Furnivall’s reference to Mr. Way: “He is a most provokingly careful editor. If ever you hit on a plum in your wanderings through other books you are sure to find it afterwards in one of Mr. Way’s notes when you bethink yourself of turning to the Promptorium.”

Reader, are you bethinking what I’m bethinking? Why do we no longer write in this manner? Who doesn’t want to go wandering through the Promptorium, hoping to hit upon a plum? Still, the lure of the Promptorium with its promised plums is ultimately not the point. In wandering through Furnivall’s comprehensively entitled The Babees Book: Aristotle’s A B C, Urbanitas, Stans Puer ad Mensam, The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, The Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Kervynge, The Booke of Demeanor, The Boke of Curtasye, Seager’s Schoole of Vertue, &c. &c., with some French & Latin Poems on like Subjects and some Forewords on Education in Early England, I have made a discovery: it is possible to fall in love with a man for his footnotes alone. Forget Jonathan Frantzen and his 10 tips for writers.[5]  Furnivall is the man to emulate. Any writer who combines devil-may care irony with detailed scholarship is worth his weight in EETS volumes;[6]

a few notes to fill the page

Furnivall, 113

especially when one of those filler notes, rather randomly takes up the history of toothpicks, as follows:


Furnivall, 114

Texts with trowsers on, plums, Promptoriums, and Toothpicks. Frederick J. Furnivall, I love you.

[1] If the preface in question is as whoppingly self-indulgent preface as Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Grammatology, a preface which feels nearly as long as Derrida’s book, I’m not going to throw stones at you for not reading it.

[2] Did you know that? I did not know that. Clearly, I’m having all the wrong water-cooler conversations!

[3] Furnivall, Frederick, ed., The Babees Book: Aristotle’s A B C, Urbanitas, Stans Puer ad Mensam, The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, The Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Kervynge, The Booke of Demeanor, The Boke of Curtasye, Seager’s Schoole of Vertue, &c. &c., with some French & Latin Poems on like Subjects and some Forewords on Education in Early England. [And yes, that is the complete title.] Greenwood Press, New York, 1969, iin2.

[4] Sorry, too much Jane Eyre. Just bear with me.

[5] No really, forget them. If this controversy means nothing to you, and you want to know, go here.

[6] EETS=Early English Text Society for those of you who don’t hoard up your pennies for these things.

On My Shelves: the fugitive and ubiquitous

I expect that for many people, libraries serve as a favorite ‘second home.’ For some, that home may be the tried and true library of one’s academic institution. For others, it will be the library that houses the particular book or item that is the current object of desire. [Scribal rant: For crying out loud Northshore Interlibrary Loan, you told me I was third in the queue for series one of The Good Place in January. January! It’s June!] And yes, dear reader, that momentary rant means that I do not “do” Netflix, Hulu, or any such. I’ll pay for books, but I will not pay for TV, and that brings us back to the subject at hand. Books, books, books, and the purchase thereof.

Being generally curious as well as thoroughly acquisitive where books are concerned, I have a fairly eclectic personal library. From books on the medieval and renaissance spice trade to guides on the flora and fauna of the Alps, from Ottoman poetry to the geology of caves, from books on the history of the peony to histories of typefaces, my natural profligacy is contained by two things alone: budget and space. I’m currently working on insulating my bedroom with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I’ll let everyone know how it works out next winter.

Some of my favorites books are catalogues from museum exhibitions.  The best catalogues distill a remarkable amount of scholarship about the objects’ or artists’ period and importance, and they do it with pictures! Or more correctly, for the pedants among you, plates. There are a few museums that I cannot seem to visit without leaving loaded down by new treasures (all legally acquired from the bookstore). The Musée de Cluny in Paris, for example, has dented my wallet repeatedly.  Another is the Cloisters in New York City.

Timothy B Husband’s catalogue The World in Play: Luxury Cards 1430-1540 from a 2-15-15 exhibition at the Cloisters is one such treasure from the Cloisters. Did I need a book examining the evolution of playing cards as the late middle ages slipped toward the early modern? Mmmm-yeeeees. When I purchased this catalogue, I was thinking it would give me the lay of the land regarding the style and production of cards of this time and maybe some of the games.

Style? Check.

Production methods? Check.

Games? Alack and alas, no.

Still, the catalogue more than made up for that infelicity. Perhaps this is common knowledge for others, but I did not know that playing cards (like so much else) were a legacy of cultural intersection from this age of exploration. They were introduced to the West, Husband writes, “about the middle of the fourteenth century, probably from the Near East via Venice or from the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt, through southern Italy, Sicily or even Spain” (p. 13). Since one of the foci of the novels upon which I’m working is the intersection of Christian West and Muslim East, I felt that little tidbit more than made up for the fact that, apparently, the games of the day are a mystery.

That mystery becomes apparent when one scans the richness and diversity of the few extant decks from the period. Admittedly, the variety of suits is not so important as their number, and there are consistently four.  Early variety gives way to certain norms. Where the French would eventually settle upon cups, batons, swords, and coins for their suits, the Germans had Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells, but that was the mid-fifteenth century.  Before that, you’ll get falcons, deer, hounds, and herons like the elegant bird below.

Scan 8.jpeg

1 of Herons, the Courtly Hunt Cards (fig. 37, p.39)

Of course, you and I will “get” nothing of the sort as such elegant, hand-painted cards as these have mostly gone the way of all things fragile and well used. As Husband writes, “Inevitably, cards are lost, torn, worn out, and the entire deck thrown out. Cards are fundamentally fugitive. But they are also ubiquitous” (ibid). The remains from that fugitive lot that Husband analyzes are certainly tantalizing. But where the suits can be made sense of, the multiplicity and variation of the face cards utterly confounds me. Where we today have limited face cards in our decks, the decks that Husband analyzes don’t stop at kings and queens, jacks and so on.  Take, for example, this potter who might be the inspiration for Demi Moore’s character in Ghost.

Scan 6

2 of Bohemia, the Courtly Household Cards (fig. 67a, p. 60)

The suits of what is referred to as the Courtly Household cards are the countries of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, and France. This sample from the colored woodblock prints is rather remarkable in its details. (The tile floor!) The above female potter is an example of one of the many functionaries who populate the deck in addition to the king and queen. Additionally, one finds ladies-in-waiting, marshals, chamberlains, chancellors, messengers, heralds, knights, crossbowmen (below), hunters, trumpeters, masters of the households, barbers, fishmongers, and fools. Maybe people who play complex card games can see their way through this and imagine possibilities, but as Canasta is the most complex thing I ever mastered (and promptly forgot), I’m stumped.

Scan 7

5 of Hungary, Crossbowman, the Courtly Household (fig. 76, p. 66)

Where the charming Courtly Household cards above, illustrate the various functionaries found within the world of the elites, a century later, we see another artist reflecting quite differently, even critically upon the world before him. The kings of the deck in particular reflect the reality of an expanding world, as with the King of Bells card below.

Scan 9

King of Bells, The playing cards of Peter Flötner (fig. 136, p. 106)

The kings of this deck by Peter Flötner are not solitary, posed men, but men of action. As with the non-European King of Bells who towers over the tiny (exotic) elephant and the instrument of exploration ship at his feet, the other kings tower over their landscapes. Another, dressed a bit like an Ottoman, raises his scepter over prone infants (looking, as Husband points out, uncomfortably like Herod surveying the slaughter of the innocents); yet another, this time very European king stands before a pikeman, clearly directing the actions of a great empire.

From the kings, the deck runs down the social scale. Yet, interestinly repulsive as an Under Knave with a conspicuously dripping nose may be, it’s the thematic representations on the pip cards that are the real innovation here. The acorn suit is bedecked with greedy boars; the leaf by peasants occupied variously; hearts by lovers in scenes from the tender to the profane; and bells by scenes of folly in all its various forms. In a move that joins together entertainment and commentary, the artist portrays what he saw and knew from a world stage where great men toyed with the lives of others to humbler scenes of courtship, from greedy consumption to the unmasking of deceit.

Now all I need is for someone to reproduce one of these decks and invent the games to go with it. Surely, that’s not asking too much.