Friday, October 16, 2009

Misguided Terminology

To quote a great scholar and patriot who is a hero of mine, “I’ve had alls I can stand, and I can’t stands no more!” Well, me too: There are just so many mistakes in common usage among students of medieval combat that I, too, have had all I can stand, and I can stand no more; it is time for some corrections.

First, there is no such thing as “chainmail.” None. That term was coined by misguided Victorian antiquarians because of a complete misunderstanding of medieval artistic conventions. When they looked at depictions of mail in medieval artwork they found several different ways of representing it, and because of ignorance and a too-credulous belief in the accuracy of artistic representation (a lesson that should be taken to heart by all students of WMA!), they believed each style of representation was literally accurate and represented a different type of defense: chainmail, banded mail, etc. In reality, different artists simply had different ways of depicting mail, and there is only one form (in Europe; the Japanese had a different style) of mail. There was such a thing as “double mail,” but that term refers to mail of a normal construction but with thicker rings intended to reinforce specific parts of a hauberk. The word “mail” comes from the Latin word for “mesh.”

I should not even have to say it, but the term “plate mail” is also completely meaningless. That term was invented by the makers of a particularly unfortunate role-playing game that has inculcated a large number of children with an incredible amount of ridiculously inaccurate information about medieval combat. The use of this term smacks of an adult living in his mother’s basement.

Further on that line, the word “maille” should never be used in modern sources. Granted, the word was spelled that way in medieval books, but it was a *misspelling* then. This smacks of the abomination “Ye Olde Shoppe” which is *never* correct, and, in fact, has never *been* correct—the “Y” is a poor attempt to capture the “thorn” diphthong symbol often used in Middle English, and we have long since abandoned the extra Es used in suffixes. I have even occasionally seen—heaven forefend—“chainmaille,” a mixed-message abomination I hope to never see again.

Simple shoulder armor is called a “spaudler,” not “spaulder.” Spaudlers are not pauldrons, and the terms are not interchangeable.

When speaking of the typical articulated arm defense of the 14th and 15th centuries, the term “vambrace” should be used to refer to the entire arm harness proper, not to the portion covering the forearm only. These vambraces consisted of the lower cannon (which protected the forearm), the couter (which protected the elbow), and the upper cannon (which protected the upper arm).

The garment worn under armor is referred to by different terms depending on the type of harness worn over it. The knee-length, (often) long-sleeved, padded garment worn under the great hauberks of the 13th century was called an “aketon” (from the Arabic word for cotton), *not* a gambeson. Gambesons were quilted garments, often of rich fabric, worn *over* or in lieu of mail in that period (many of these can be seen in the Mac bible). The best term for the fitted, usually unpadded, garments worn under the tight-fitting plate armor of the later Middle Ages is “arming doublet.” While not universal, the term doublet was most often used in the sources I have seen, and is used in the document “How A Man Shall Be Armed to Fight on Foot” (Hastings MS. [f.122b]). So please, let us not see the term “gambeson” misused any longer.

“Sparring” is a term reserved for pugilism; it has no meaning when applied to free-play bouting with swords. And free-play bouting with swords has no place in what we do, so I do not understand why it keeps coming up.

The term “broadsword” is somewhat problematic. It should *never* be used to refer to the one-handed swords of the middle ages, still less to bastard swords or longswords or swords of war. The term was frequently used to refer to the late-period basket-hilted English sword (often considered Scottish today, but I assure you, the Scots got it from the English) characterized by a double-edged, pointed blade of the sort George Silver referred to as a “short sword.” I, myself, use the term broadsword for this weapon in order to clearly distinguish between it and the backsword, an almost identical weapon with only one sharp edge which Silver includes in the term “short sword.” I do not use the term short sword because it was also used in the High Middle Ages to refer to arming swords, and I wish to avoid confusion between this earlier meaning and Silver’s usage.

Next, the term Fechtmeister: A Fechtmeister is a teacher of medieval combat, not an all-powerful being with 50 years of experience in the art and the ability to leap tall list fences in a single bound who has killed fifty men in *real* fights. Anyone who teaches WMA should call himself a Fechtmeister, just as anyone in the middle ages who taught dancing would call himself a “dance master.” The word master, itself, has come to have far too exalted a meaning in this day and age, causing people to shy away from it. Consider the Krumphau text in Ringeck: He tells us that to “weaken a master” we should strike his flat with the Krumphau (fol. 25v). Can he really mean this technique should only be used against the top experts in the art? Or is he simply using the term to refer to a skilled, well-trained student? The latter is far more likely. Please, avoid the chest-thumping false modesty of decrying the use of accurate medieval terminology; most who do it only do so as a way to put down those whom they dislike, and they demonstrate gross ignorance when they do so.

Finally, lest it seem I only criticize others, let me share my current shame: When I translated the Gladiatoria Fechtbuch, I translated the word “thartschin” or “tartschin” (spelled various ways in the MS) as “ecranche.” This term refers to a small shield used in jousting with a small corner cut out (called the “bouche” in French) to make room for the lance. A literal translation of the word would have been “target,” but that term is often used to refer to a small round shield today, and since most modern authorities I had read used the term ecranche for this kind of shield, I followed their lead. A friend of mine, Will McClean, who is one of the premier experts in the field of medieval deeds of arms, pointed out that the term ecranche is a very modern one, and that the word target was used in period. I should have used the word target, and will do so when I make an updated edition of my book.