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.


Recreoanacronista said...

believe me, in Spanish (or better said, peninsular) the things are much worse. Lack of proper reseach, three main languages (Arabic, Romanesque and Basque) and too many anglicisms (more resarch, more books) results in a quite complex situation...hard to correct.

STAG said...

Damn. I have been making Spaulders for 21 years and only now discovered that the d comes before the l.

Wow. Mea Culpa. This spelling is backed up by Ewart Oakshott, though of course he states that vambrace and rerebrace are perfectly correct for very early period plate armour, but he sides with you for later period. The correct terms of course are "Avant Bras" and "Arriere Bras", respectively, and naturally Spaulders (oh sorry, Spaudlers) are properly called Espaulier. Except in England where they seem to be called everything except for dinner.
I tend to use the terms interchagably, since if you are a large man, your spaudler will be a smaller man's pauldron. Similarly, there is zero difference between an articulated knee cop (another term I despise but use because people know what I mean!) for a small man, and an articulated elbow cop for a very big man. When the time comes to make something for somebody, and he demands pauldrons, I shrug and make shoulder armour. What do you do? If he likes 'em small, I make rondells for him, if he thinks he needs them to remain in period.

Of course, neither word is in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, so I suspect it is not an English word so if any of these terms is used with antique spelling, that would be as accurate as any.
Here is a quote from Chaucers "A knight's Tale". (found here )

"quote. With Hym ther wenten knyghtes many oon, Som wol ben armed in a haubergeon, in a bristplate and in a light gypoun; and some woln have a paire plates large, and some wold have a Pruce shield or a targe, and some oln bin armed on hir leggs weel, and have an axe and some a mace of steel. Armed were they as I have yow told, everych after his opinion.

I can't find the word spaulder in there anywhere,nor will you find the word pauldron in the entire book either...Chaucer uses the word "shuldres".

STAG said...

(second part)
The real disgrace is the word "sword" is properly spelled (at least according to Chaucer) "swerd".

And here I thought mail came from the French word for a loop of knitting. Chaucer calles it Cheyne when he mentions it at all, however, when he refers to it at all, he calls it by name. He calls it a hauberk, or the smaller haubergeon. He doesn't mention aketons or gambesons at all, but rather "his gipon was made of fustian, and was all besmotter'd by his haubergeon."
You might lose the fight about the spelling of chain. Or should I say chayne...because of the sheer popularity of the world Maille. I don't know who started it, but it seems to have stuck. Though I do agree that "Maille" is a good brand of mustard. As well as a brand of mustard, it is a semi-famous town in France, and a girls name. And apparently the preferred usage for 17 thousand people on google who like it that way. Are these the same people who talk about a pint being twice as small as a quart?

The great Oakshott referes to a stout quilted and padded tunic, which seems to be much the same shape as a byrnie, and may be a (cheaper?) replacement. (page 266 of "The archeology of weapons") and seems to have the alternate name of "wambasium" but is properly called in Englyshe (Chaucer again...grin!) a gambeson.

To get back to broad swords, Oakshott refers to 36 different types of swords (29 up to the end of 1500 alone!), all of which broad, as opposed to rapier type swords. However, the "broadsword" does not exist, nor does the bastard sword, the hand and a half sword , in fact, he states that in actual fact during the last two centuries of the middle ages, there were only four types of swords in general use, and a multitude of hilts and handles which make the subject look more complicated than it is. A broad sword is just that, a broad sword. A galley is a "swan feather'd vessel afloat on the foamy seas. Not all seas are foamy, and not all swords are broad. But it is a general usage which we have sort have got used to. I like the term "double handed sword", or "Sweihander". The folks at the armoury in Leeds like that term as well...but they hate "claymore".

(Plate maille. an abomination to be sure. I shutter at the very sound.)

What you call a short sword, I call a back sword. We may have to differ on that one. I like Silver, his second book at least...the first one is just a rant against the Italians. It was lost for so long that I wonder if the material had any real impact on medieval-renaissance-medieval revival, antique or modern styles of fighting. But, he IS a very good window onto a period of martial history. I believe he refers to an un-organized play combat as a "debate". That is the term I like to use.

I don't like the term Fechtmeister, since nobody I know or teach has a clue on what that means. I used "sensei" for awhile (hey....perfectly good word from a non-english least as valid as Fechtmeister, means much the same, but you know...its not kenjuitsu we are learning here...grin!) and for a couple of years, called myself "teacher". But I settled on "Marshall". Named for the fellow who gathered in the war horses, and later, gathered in the war horses with the knights on board, and later still, just gathered in the knights to "debate". That is the term I use for myself since there is no way I could, or would ever call myself a master!

Anyway, just had to respond to your rant.


Hugh Knight said...

Hello Stag,

Your only source for all your criticisms is Oakeshott. Unfortunately, Oakshott is not really a very knowledgeable scholar of arms and armor. We all love his sword classification system (and even that is flawed, as he himself admitted), however, his comments about armor are mere recitations of Victorian antiquarians, for the most part.

For more accurate and knowledgeable sources, I recommend Claude Blair’s “European Armor” or Edge and Paddock’s “Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight.” Both use the spelling “spaudler,” and both use the term “vambrace” for the articulated arm harnesses to which I referred. Other terms are, occasionally, used to refer to arm armor which is not articulated, however, if you read my blog entry, you’ll see I specifically referred to the articulated type. Also, spaudlers are not pauldrons: Again, read Edge and Paddock. The size of the customer isn’t the issue, the degree of protection is. Regardless, my point was not to introduce all the varying terms for arm and shoulder armor, merely to correct the most grossly incorrect usages.

Mail is mail. I can’t even follow your argument there, but the term comes from the Latin for mesh. As for the popularity of the spelling “maille,” I couldn’t possibly care less what a bunch of dungeon-bunny reenactors decide looks cool to them, usage does not create definition. The correct word is “mail,” and it is thus spelled in all scholarly works.

As for gambesons et. al., go back to Blair. Chaucer wrote poetry, not lexicological studies.

Regarding the various sword types, here you have more justice; sword terminology varies considerably among even the best scholars. You will find, in general, however, that a broadsword is a double-edged sword with a basket hilt, and a backsword is a single-edged sword with a basket hilt. I find these terms convenient as well as widely accepted by scholarly sources, and so will continue using them.

Finally, as for Fechtmeister, anyone can tell you what that means—it means someone who teaches fighting. The term “marshal” has nothing whatsoever to do with martial instruction, and is therefore useless as a term for a fighting instructor. As for not calling yourself a fight master, that merely demonstrates you have a very modern, highly inaccurate understanding of the term as it was used in the Middle Ages. A master was someone who had just gotten through his journeyman period and had demonstrated he was ready to go off on his own, not a perfect master of his art at the end of a long life of study and practice. If, in fact, you are teaching HEMA, then you have, by definition, gone off on your own, and should use the term Fechtmeister (or Schirmeister). For more, read this:
It is perfectly correct for all of us to say that we have not completely mastered our art, however, that is a different use of the term.


STAG said...

No critisism intended...just commenting. Not engaging in debate. I have to admit it takes balls to dismiss Ewart Oakshott as "not a very knowledgeable scholar..." even when he backs up your statements! Hats off all around. And yeah, the D comes before the L. Sure enough. All those years. Never too old to learn...grin!

I don't read medieval German. Even if I did, my students don't. I don't speak in medieval German or for that matter, medieval Englyshe, so I feel that there is little point to my using medieval titles, particularly when the words have altered their meaning so much since then. The medieval term "Janitor" means a different and much more honourable thing than the modern term. If I went looking for a Master Carpenter, I would expect somebody who really knows their stuff. Well, at least more than a standard everyday carpenter anyway. And I would expect a sword training "master" to be not just better than average, but to have met some fairly strict and tough standards.
I think the term "master" when applied to any antique trade implies some variant on the guild system, the "apprentice", "Journeyman" and "master" which is still used in some places. We still regard, say, a great sculpture as a "master work".
I fell to using "Marshal" as a nice, neutral term, one that implies, say, one in charge, or perhaps "proprietor", with overtones of "referee". The Concise Oxford Dictionary refers to a "Marshal" as an officer of the court, an arranger of ceremonies, and as the literate one who accompanies a judge on his rounds. As a marshal, I would organize tournaments, supervise lesson plans, pay the rent, keep the fighting area safe. Hire mechanics, carpenters, plumbers and fight masters as required. And in the absence of a fight master, run them through the drills, guide them in their study as best as I can, supply moral support and guidance. Perhaps "chapter head" or "dean" might be a better term but I settled on Marshal. No false modesty here. Insofar as fighting is concerned, I regard myself as a journeyman, in the medieval sense of a person who has left his apprenticeship, and struck out on their own, learning from others with the passion.

I mention that not to change your mind, but to explain better what I was getting at, and why I tend to restrict the term master being used on my list floor.

hmmm...too many words. Shouldn't have to use so many words to explain myself. Will do better in future....

(Oh, my point about Chaucer...medieval and renaissance spellings are not set in stone. Even Shakespere spelled his name three different ways. I don't like the term maille, it is a french word, like Espauliere. I use mail. Or occasionally, chain. Just a preference. I have to pick a language and it is modern English. That may have been an error since most of the armour terms are French, and have come into English imperfectly at best.)

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Stag,

Oakeshott was a great man, and did a lot to popularize the study of arms and armor. But he was just that: A populizer, in much the same way that Francis and Joseph Gies were. They wrote a lot of books about life in the Middle Ages that were accessible to hoi polloi, and are to be praised for trying to reach the ignorant masses. Their books, however, were laced with flaws. Oakeshott’s research apparently involved a lot of reading of books by Victorian Antiquarians—themselves mere amateurs, and often severely mistaken.

A master carpenter *should* be better than a mere journeyman, but we needn’t attach any mystic sense to that term to imply he’s a wizened little old man who can do everything better than everyone else. And you persist in demonstrating that you don’t understand this argument when you talk about a “master work”—you should have read the blog entry for which I gave you the link. A “master work” is the work a journeyman craftsman would present to the masters of his guild to prove he was ready to be a master. So it’s not an example of a lifetime of work and study as you imply, but rather the work of a fairly inexperienced craftsman who wants a promotion.

As for Fechtmeister, it’s a job title, not a claim to perfection. There are 22 year-old choir masters; this is no different. Americans are so caught up in the word “master” due to ridiculous TV fantasies of Asian martial arts. Is a “master of ceremonies” necessarily a gifted individual with 50 years of mystical practice on a mountaintop? Of course not. If you’re teaching the KdF, then you’re a Fechtmeister, regardless of whether you have attained the rank of master or not.

And you’re right about medieval spellings being variable. That’s not an excuse for using variable spellings today—we’ve advanced since then.


STAG said...

Ahh. Like a "head master" of a school. How very like Hogwarts!

Perfectly acceptable albeit antique, but the school across the road calls the "head master" a "principle", and the College I teach at calls it a "dean". Perhaps an antique term to teach an antique art. Hmmm.

The word "master" sticks in my craw. It has accretions of baggage which can be ignored only at one's peril. It is not so much the wizened old "master" who taught the bride in Kill Bill the "one inch punch", but rather the concept of where there is a master, there is a slave. I don't teach slaves.

Now if only I can get people to spell armour correctly. My feelings towards Webster's handling of the English language resemble your professed and published feelings towards Gary Gigax's non-research.

anyway, very pleasant to chat with you. I feel we agree far more than not, but of course disagreements are what make horse races.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Stag,

Very much like "headmaster." That word has been used by many respectable schools, not merely fictional ones.

And don't let your 20th-century notions of master and slave connotations effect you. Throughout history, the term master also had very positive connotations, with many a great and powerful lord talking quite happily about the next man up on the feudal ladder being his "lord and master." Only an illiterate people, such as most Westerners have become, alas, can forget that a word can have multiple connotations, some positive, some negative. The word master doesn't imply the word slave any more than the word "hot" implies the word "dog"--it can just as easily imply "shot" or others.