Saturday, September 20, 2014

Recreating Medieval Combat

Recreating medieval combat is hard, and there are a lot of ways to skin that particular cat.

It's a three dimensional trade space. Authenticity, affordability and safety are competing goods. Actually, it's even more complex, because even it authenticity is your primary goal, different aspects of authenticity also compete. The more realistic you make your pollaxe simulator in mass and materials, the less you can use it with the full force blows used in actual combat.

There are a lot of different ways to do it, all better in some ways and worse in others. I would say that the whole "My dojo can beat up your dojo" impulse is pretty unproductive, except that there are actually a very few schools where the founder is wallowing in "I AM YOUR SENSEI" narcissism, and should be mocked and scorned.

Mostly, I think, there are just a lot of different approaches with different tradeoffs.

And remember this: any simulation rules you select will be an imperfect model of a real fight. Once you start using the simulation as a game with winners and losers, the players will be tempted to game the system.

The late great Kurosawa illustrated this brilliantly in two duels at the beginning of Seven Samurai, embedded above.

The master swordsman Kyuzo first fights a weaker opponent with bamboo weapons. The final blows land almost at once and the opponent proudly claims a tie.

Kyuzo responds: "No. I won. If we had fought seriously, you'd have been cut and dead."

His opponent unwisely insists on a replay with sharp blades, but it turns out just as Kyuzo said.

Kurosawa does a good job in the second fight of illustrating that once you start fighting with real swords that will kill you dead, the dynamic of the fight changes a lot.

That said, not all simulation rules are equal. Some do a better job reflecting the dynamics of a fight in earnest than others. If you want to understand real combat, the closer your rules come to a real fight the better.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Political Ignorance and a Partial Solution

Political ignorance is a real problem with democracy as it is currently practiced. Unfortunately, it is entirely rational for a voter to spend little effort educating himself on the issues, since his individual vote has only a tiny influence on the outcome.

I have a cunning plan.

Revert to indirect election of senators. They would not be elected by the state legislatures, the method used before the 17th Amendment, since this created problems of corruption and deadlock. Instead, they would be selected by a jury randomly selected from all the citizens of the state.

This would have two advantages. First, each juror would have a lot of influence on the choice, and would have much more incentive to understand the candidates and issues.

Second the candidates wouldn't have to spend so much time raising funds for expensive general election advertising, and the influence of concentrated interests would be reduced.

If the system worked reasonably well for the Senate it could then be extended to the House of Representatives.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The World Fantasy Award Trophy: A Suggestion

There is a movement to replace the current design of the World Fantasy Award trophy, a bust of H. P. Lovecraft by Gahan Wilson. Understandably, a number of the award recipients have been made quite uncomfortable having their achievement memorialized by the image of a venomous racist.

And make no mistake, he was, even by the low standards of the early 20th century, an odious and extreme racist.

And he was influential, but a lot of his best work was presented as science fiction. Much of his pure fantasy was an inferior derivative of Dunsany. To the extent that he did write fantasy, his was only one of the streams that fed the modern genre.

The Hugo, of course, commemorates Hugo Gernsbach, who really did have such a critical role in science fiction as a commercial genre that he has a serious claim to be called the Father of Science Fiction. But they don't use his bust for the trophy, understandably, since he was, as Barry Malzberg has said, "pretty much a crook."

There is a petition to replace Lovecraft's bust with one of Octavia Butler. This is poorly considered.  Picking a single individual to represent the entire genre is probably a mistake, especially since she mostly wrote science fiction, and could plausibly described  as chosen because she was everything Lovecraft despised.

You could say with a straight face that Verne, Wells or Gernsbach was "The Father of Science Fiction".  You can't do that for fantasy. There are too many fathers. And mothers.

I say we replace Lovecraft with the Doors of Durin. It would certainly be an esthetic improvement.  I mean, racism aside, that is one ugly statue. Gahan Wilson is a gifted cartoonist with a taste for the grotesque, but as a sculptor he's a gifted cartoonist with a taste for the grotesque.

Or a chimera. A chimera works for me.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pitfalls in Understanding the Middle Ages: Archaicism

As a general rule, medieval artists portrayed the past as their own present. The Virgin Mary as a very respectable craftsman's wife of the year painted, the soldiers at the crucifixion in the armor of the year painted, and so on.

Except when they didn't.

The past is a different country. Things changed more slowly then, but still some artists noticed that the armor on the old effigies in the churches was different from the current state of the art, and likewise for old manuscripts and pattern books and so on.

For example, consider BNF Français 343 Queste del Saint Graal/Tristan de Léonois, a beautiful Milanese manuscript of 1380-1385. At first glance, it seems like a detailed depiction of contemporary fashion, arms and armor.

Yet the artist has actually taken steps to evoke an earlier age, since the text is of Arthurian legend. The knights are repeatedly shown in crested helms that have, by the 1380s, been abandoned except for jousts and tournaments. The pollaxes that were popular weapons for  men at arms in the actual 1380s are absent. The knights consistently wear sleeveless tightly fitted coat-armors and jupons over there armor, although artwork done at the same time that wasn't so deliberately aimed at evoking the past often show knights in looser garments with full or partial sleeves.

This sort of  deliberate archaicism was not uncommon in art of the 14th and 15th centuries and later. It is well to know what content the artist was depicting, and whether it was far enough in the past to perhaps justify archaic elements. It is also helpful to know of contemporary art where the artist was trying to depict the present or recent past, as a point of comparison

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Our Wile Y. Coyote Constitution

In oral argument before the Supreme Court on March 26, 2013, the following exchange occurred:
JUSTICE SCALIA: I’m curious, when -­ when did — when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted? Sometimes — some time after Baker, where we said it didn’t even raise a substantial Federal question? When — when — when did the law become this?

MR. OLSON: When — may I answer this in the form of a rhetorical question? When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools.

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s an easy question, I think, for that one. At — at the time that the Equal Protection Clause was adopted. That’s absolutely true. But don’t give me a question to my question. When do you think it became unconstitutional? Has it always been unconstitutional? . . .
It struck me that Scalia thinks that it is an "easy question" that bans on interracial marriage became unconstitutional in 1868. The Supreme Court failed to affirm this was so until Loving vs. Virginia in 1937, and ruled the other way in Pace vs. Alabama in 1883.  It seems to me that our Supreme Court can spend an inordinately long time before noticing that their current interpretation of the law is hanging in thin air without visible means of support.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Seven Amazing Listicles that Will Totally Blow You Away, According to the Publisher with a Vested Interest in Harvesting Your Clicks

1: 7 highly attractive celebrities that fall into some arbitrary category and are easy to find photographs of.

2: 7 highly attractive less famous people that are married to celebrities that fall into some arbitrary category and are easy to find photographs of.

3: 7 people who were well known young television personalities 40 years ago that, surprisingly, look different 40 years later, and are easy to find photographs of.

4: 7 female celebrities who wore revealing clothing at a recent event where female celebrities are expected to wear revealing clothing and pose for photographs.

5: #1 but with a different arbitrary category.

6 #2, as above.

7: 7 humanitarian crises you should care about. Just kidding, that's too much work. 7 celebrity sideboobs.

Clickety clickety clickety.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Rectangular Tents in Swiss Illuminations: 1478-1513

Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.1 Diebold Schilling Sr.: Amtliche Berner Chronik, vol 1 f. 84,  1478-83 Unidentified Swiss illumination, probably from the same family of chronicles, Diebold Schilling Jr. Luzerner Schilling f. 107v and f. f. 108r (details)  1507-1513

Several of these tents are open at at least one end, revealing some of their internal structure. At least the first two are set up as mess tents. The first image has at least one vertical pole concealed by canvas, and probably two or more. The third image shows one of the background pavilions set up as a roof without walls to shelter a horse. The last two images both show camps of the Burgundian opponents of the Swiss. Note that they both show the gaps you might expect if if the tent walls were connected to the roof by toggles and the tent owner loosened some of them for ventilation. Click on the images to enlarge.

Here is another image of f. 92 from the Amtliche Berner Chronik, and here is f. 116.

Three of the images above and the two links give us significant information about the internal structure of a rectangular ten, and all five show a different approach.

Reconstructions of 13th Century Breeches

Two interesting reconstructions of breeches as rolled loincloths by Finnish reenactors.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Rectangular Medieval Tents

Agnolo Gaddi: The Dream of Emperor Heraclius ca. 1385-87. A rectangular tent with a vertical end wall is visible behind the emperor's pavilion. 

Master of the Cite des Dames: Livre du Chevalier Errant by Thomas de Saluces. c.1404 Bibliotheque Nationale MS. Fr. 12559

Detail .BNF Français 261 Titus Livius Ab Urbe Condita f. 25 1400-1410

L'Épître Othéa in The Book of the Queen BL Harley 4431 1410-1414 f. 133

The Encampment of Henry at Marquison 18th c. copy of a 16th c. painting of Henry VIII's Boulogne campaign of 1544.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

When May Medieval Gentlemen Display Their Breeches?

Not often, actually.

The lower orders may do so more often.  Laborers in the fields in hot weather may strip to shirt and breeches without reproach. They need to sweat to do their duty. Likewise workers in a bakery serving a hot oven, or those burning heretics, or executioners. Huntsmen on foot pushing through damp underbrush might also strip down to their shirt, shoes and breeches.

Gentlemen rarely have good cause to be so underdressed under ordinary circumstances. The most benign exception might be young gentlemen exercising themselves with sword and buckler with their hose rolled down for limberness, but this was probably done in a somewhat private setting.

Special circumstances present exceptions, of course. A gentleman might be taken prisoner and stripped to his shirt, perhaps to prevent escape, or delivered up for execution,  or required to surrender a town under his authority to a victor eager to humiliate the defender.  Or be visiting a public bathhouse.

Most of the time a gentleman had little reason to walk about with his breeches exposed. Those of us attempting to recreate a medieval gentleman should dress accordingly.

A problem arises when individuals recreating the Middle Ages combine hose attached at a single point with a short outer garment.

The inevitable result is exposed breeches. This is neither authentic, fashionably medieval, nor flattering.

And a lot of the cases of "diaper look" I saw this Pennsic could have been avoided by properly fitted single-point hose worn at the right height. The coat wasn't so very short that the breeches would have been exposed if the hose was long enough. There's no need for the back of your hose to hang lower than your gluteal fold. Except that if off-the-rack hose is sized so that it's wearable by almost everyone in that shoe size, it's shorter than it should be for most wearers. Unless you always wear a long coat, it's worth paying extra for hose that's the right length.

Also, a belt will do a better job of keeping them up than a drawstring. I favor a belt within the breeches casing when wearing long single point hose.

Further, it's important to wear the right kind of breeches. The long and baggy breeches of the Morgan Bible were very poorly suited the shorter hemlines of the late 14th century. Tighter fitted and shorter breeches were increasingly favored by the fashionable, and by the last decades of the century the Tacuinum Sanitatis shows even peasant laborers wearing short, tightly fitted breeches.

Suppliers are not technically being deceptive when they sell as 14th century breeches garments that would have been quite acceptable in 1330. You, as a buyer, need to understand how obsolete such a garment would have been for a fashionable gentleman in 1390. A century is a long time.