Friday, December 29, 2017

Some Thoughts On Using Medieval Art to Document Medieval Combat

Recently, I had a discussion with a gentleman about an aspect of medieval combat, viz., using a buckler in full plate.  Rather than engaging in well-reasoned discourse, the gentleman chose to simply post a handful of manuscript pictures, believing that a picture being worth a thousand words, he could thus make his point without having to lower himself to debate me.  Perhaps he thought it an excellent way to express his lofty disdain.  In any case, we will use that “discussion,” along with several other examples, to examine the bigger picture of using medieval art to document our understanding of medieval combat.

Unfortunately for him, his pictures didn’t prove his point at all.  Consider this picture of St. Michael:
It would seem to prove that bucklers were not at odds with full plate all by itself.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  St. Michael is almost always depicted with a shield, usually a buckler, regardless of the period or the kind of armor he’s wearing:
This is because of the superstitious symbols associated with St. Michael in church myths, not because anyone ever saw him using a shield or buckler—he was not, after all, real.

This picture depicts a scene from the Battle of Battle of Otterburn from a very late edition of Froissart’s Chronicles:
Looking at the figures in the foreground, we can see several fully armored figures using bucklers; again, my friend’s point made, right?  Alas, not so.  The battle took place in 1388, but the painting clearly depicts late-fifteenth century harness of a sort from long after 1388.

Or consider the Battle of Crecy, fought in 1346.  To look at this picture from the Arsenal Library in Paris, one would assume that the men at arms on both sides fought ahorse:
Yet we know very well that most of the English men at arms fought on foot.  Looking at the picture, we would also assume that the men at arms of both sides fought in full plate harnesses of the middle fifteenth century, and yet we know the battle occurred almost 100 years before that.  This is a frequent problem in the study of armor; for example we see an effigy of a famous person, not realizing the armor depicted thereon is typical of a much later period, when the family finally got around to having the effigy made.

Sadly, not even all Fechtbücher can be trusted.  This plate from Paul Hector Mair shows two figures practicing Langenschilt combat in full plate:
Sadly, Mair seems to have been less of a practitioner than a collector; he copied older Fechtbücher, often embellishing them to make them more appealing.  When we look at the original page that was copied for the above, we see that it depicted the combatants in the leather “cat suits” which were universally shown in other manuscripts; Mair just put them in armor because he thought it looked cooler; here’s the same technique from Mair’s source, Codex Wallerstein:

Likewise, Mair showed sword and buckler fighting with the combatants wearing plate gauntlets:
None of the sources he copied showed the models wearing gauntlets; indeed, if you understand how bucklers were actually used in combat, you’ll realize that bucklers were used as gauntlets; never to block, but primarily to protect the sword hand (see:  “What’s a Buckler For” here:  <>)
Thus, wearing gauntlets while using a buckler was pointless.

In a previous discussion, that same gentleman expressed the notion that a poll weapon with an axe blade on one side and a spike on the back should be termed a pollaxe.  I do not blame him for this; indeed, in my book on pollaxe combat I called this kind of weapon a pollaxe.  When we see fully armored men at arms using a poll weapon, especially a non-utilitarian one, we assume it to be a pollaxe, since halberds were typically used by lightly armored common troops and pollaxes by men at arms.    When Peter Falkner’s Fechtbuch became available, however, everything changed.  Falkner points to this exact sort of  weapon, and calls it a halberd, and subsequent research on my part confirmed that to be typical:
Again, the art led many of us (me included at first) astray, and we were set to rights only when we got more information about the art we were seeing (indeed, I believe my acquaintance still considers this a pollaxe in spite of the detailed evidence to the contrary I presented).  In fact, the defining characteristic of a pollaxe is the hammer head, as hard as that might be to believe.  Without the hammer, it’s not an axe at all.

What led me to even question the use of bucklers by fully armored men at arms?  Studying how they were used, of course, and ignoring the art.  A buckler is never used to block in any source I have ever seen from the Middle Ages (see my article cited above).  George Silver talks about a buckler being used (out of armor) with a broadsword, and talks about blocks with it (very vaguely, only saying to use it like a dagger), but the weapon he depicts is much larger than the medieval buckler (or even most Renaissance ones—look at diGrassi for example), and is obviously different in use.  This might be because  the closed hilts on the broad- and backswords Silver favored obviated the need for a “gauntlet” for the sword hand.

And, of course, partly armored troops might have a real need for a buckler, so we see that in a lot of cases, as in this example:
Yet someone might say: “But it’s armored combat!”  Yes, but remember I stipulated “fully armored in plate.”  Indeed, one of the paintings presented to me as proof of armored buckler use was a depictions of some of Charles the Bold’s elite guards; Englishmen billmen who were issued significant plate armor, but who carried swords and bucklers as backup weapons.

The simple fact is that you don’t need to block cuts from one-handed swords when you are fully armored in plate, because arming swords are useless against plate.  Look at depictions of armored sword and shield combat during the age of plate, and you will usually see the shield dependent from a guige strap which would prevent the shield from being used to do anything but to block the face by lifting it, as in this picture from BNF Français 120 Lancelot du Lac, but nothing else:
That’s because an arming sword can’t do much to someone in plate.  And if you’re wearing gauntlets (“fully armored”), then you have nothing for which to use the buckler; there is no sense in carrying one at all.

So we can find lots of reasons a medieval painting might show armored men, even fully armored men at arms, using a buckler:  Anachronism on the part of the painter, or an attempt to depict foreigners he has never seen, a mistake by the painter (or patron in the case of Mair), artistic or religious rules for certain characters, a depiction of partly or lightly armored troops, etc.  But there’s no reason for a fully armored man at arms to use a buckler, and when we weed out the problematic sources, we almost never see it.

In conclusion, using medieval art to document aspects of medieval combat is problematic at best, and entirely misleading at worst.  If you don’t know the exact circumstances and context of the artwork you will almost certainly misunderstand it.  If you aren’t exactly sure what you’re seeing, you might believe the English men at arms fought on horseback at Crecy (or Agincourt, for that matter, since many paintings show that, too), or that a poll weapon without a hammer head is a pollaxe, or that fully armored men at arms used bucklers in combat, or that the Langenschilt was used in full plate.  You must not simply google whatever you want to prove and then demand everyone accept random medieval art as documentation for whatever odd kind of argument you believe to be true.  If you haven’t documented the art itself, in context, then the art has no value whatsoever as documentation, and even then it can still be wrong.  At best, random bits of medieval art can be used as a suggestion for a hypothesis, which must then be subjected to careful, educated, rigorous research in order to determine its validity or lack thereof.  It can never be an argument itself.