Friday, June 1, 2012

Swords and Armor - History You Can Hold

by Scott Higginbotham

For the uninitiated, the subject of history can be a bleak undertaking filled with endless battles, lofty titles, dramatic events, and names you would blanch at being called - Percival and Hedwise are no longer as popular as they once were, though they are beautiful names. However, historical fiction fills a unique niche, which has the power to draw readers into a love of the past.

An historical fiction author adds seasoning to the characters and the places, thus enlivening a time period in a fashion that transcends the span of time. This takes time and research to ensure that the tenor of that period is maintained. Additionally, real life experience combined with the factors that ail humanity can set an author’s novel apart from the others – from great to something to crave.

Have you ever tried boiled oats? By itself, a bowl of this concoction is maddeningly bland. But as you add spices, sugar, or butter an otherwise unpalatable meal can undergo a dramatic transformation to “great”.

Recently, I visited Museum Replicas annual open house sale, as is my yearly custom, which does relate to oats, butter, sugar, spices, and historical fiction. Three years ago, I summoned the courage to enter their building for the first time, complete with crenellated walls and lancet windows. To my great surprise, a well-planned showroom stoked my fascination, for it was filled with medieval armor, helmets, clothing, and swords all pleading for some human interaction.

I did not disappoint them.

Their Norman helm, complete with a nasal bar, would offer dubious protection as much of the face is uncovered. I would think twice before making a sally or charging headlong into the fray with such exposure. The flat-topped Great Helm afforded much better protection, but the heat and echo of your own voice inside that metal shell would help you very little, especially when there was no peripheral vision and when the frontal vision was limited to two small vision slits. The ventilation holes dotting the front would cool any wearer’s head, but only in winter and at a full gallop atop a destrier. God bless those men of iron who pushed through these limitations.

As I moved into the fifteenth century, I placed a fully enclosed jousting helm on my head after locking the hinged, lower faces into place and securing them with a clasp. I snapped the visor down smartly and found that the range of vision and ventilation was better, but that the fit was incredibly tight. An armor-denting blow from a mace would render any wearer senseless. And so, it was then that I decided that the middle ages were perhaps best left to books and helmet removal was the forte of squires, owing to the embarrassing fact that I had forgotten the donning sequence. Thirty seconds of sweating and frantic breathing, without asking for assistance, amazingly clarified my thoughts to the point where I could remove it unaided.

No one noticed my fumbling or the gasps of breath echoing from inside my steel shell.

God bless those men of iron. And their squires.

Over the last three years, I have amassed seven swords and two daggers from open houses and Saturday visits. Doesn’t everyone have at least a few lying around? Not all swords are created equal; however, there are commonalities that exist across the spectrum. Each of the pieces shown here has a pommel, grip, crossguard, leather scabbard, and blade. The one on the right is a functional, two-handed longsword with a 34” fullered blade and leather grip. Its partner is more ornate, boasting a wire and leather grip, a pommel with a lion rampant device, a set of fullers on each side of the blade versus the middle, and 4” of the 36” blade is an unsharpened length of steel (ricasso) to assist in either plunging it into an opponent or pulling it free. It was also useful for “choking up” on the sword in close quarters.

While writing this post I took a break and cycled each sword up and down – one in the left hand and the other in the right. Then I alternated the swords from one hand to the other and continued the process. The hand with the ornate sword began to wobble and weaken, while the hand with the functional sword was going strong. The difference can be chiefly traced to size of its pommel and the absence of the ricasso. For Richard the Lionheart and the depictions of his strength, I can guess that his choice would be the longer and heavier sword. For myself, I would trade beauty for function.

Is there a point in all of this?

I believe there is.

As writers of historical fiction, who are our characters? If they are knights or soldiers, then they have years of training, strength, and endurance under their belts, but they are still imperfect.

Does your character have poor eyesight? Did your protagonist have a sleepless night in a siege camp only to be awakened by shouts of a rout? How is his sword arm? Was he awakened on the wrong side of the ground with kinks to work out? Is there smoke that would further restrict his vision from the inside a Great Helm? Has it been raining? How about the heat?

I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone else.

Experience can buttress primary and secondary research in dramatic ways. It’s one thing to describe donning armor, a helm, strapping on a swordbelt, and then dashing down the field. Few would gainsay what you had written. It’s another to have actually experienced some of the annoying and restrictive nuances, coupled with human limitations, and wonder how anyone fictitious or real pushed through.

But these features create the novels that we crave. This is not a barb pointed at anyone in particular, who has not benefited from real life experience. Moreover, it’s a standard that I have noticed in some exceptional authors who have been blessed with experience or have listened and applied these types of word pictures from others.

Katherine Ashe depicts Simon de Montfort as having nearsighted vision and this makes for some interesting segues that colors some of his challenges. The first chapter of Montfort: The Early Years begins with a description of his youthfulness, his poor eyesight, and a challenge with another knight; he wasn’t afforded the time to put on his helmet, but imagine how much worse it could have been. Concerning young Simon, she writes, “At this distance the novice could see no more of his adversary than a dark shape melting at the edges into the gray rain.” Did Simon push through? You’ll have to read Montfort: The Early Years for the answer.

Elizabeth Chadwick has mentioned hands-on experience as a useful tool; she knows what it is like to walk up a spiral staircase to the battlements in medieval shoes, what it’s like to gaze across a field through a 12th century helm, or cook with period cookware. And I believe her. Reading her books is akin to stepping into the past.

If you do not have the good fortune to have had hands-on familiarity, ask questions, seek those opportunities to get it, and read what others have learned firsthand and apply. This could be that small, missing ingredient that makes your sugared, buttered, and spiced bowl of boiled oats go from great to something to crave.

And ask a squire for assistance.

Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s capture and escape tests his mettle and forges his future, and For A Thousand Generations, where Edward Leaver navigates a fourteenth century world where he finds a purpose that the generations cannot contain. Both novels complement one another without detracting.


  1. Barbara Gaskell DenvilJune 2, 2012 at 1:31 AM

    A fascinating and beautifully written article. These are the details and experiences I avidly collect - but with all too few opportunities. Oh, the glories I am missing by living in Australia!

  2. Thank you, Barbara! I would love to live or take an extended visit to the UK to get a better feel sometimes.

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  4. Kudos, Scott. Did you catch the TV reality show, Full Metal Jousting when it aired? Although it's a modern interpretation of the sport, the series really opened my eyes to the sheer strength required and the brutality of riding pell mell toward an opponent with the objective of knocking him into the dirt. The jousters of FMJ likened the impact to that of a head-on collision in an auto.

  5. Thank you for such an enjoyable article!

  6. Scott, I thoroughly enjoyed your wit here. ( I actually felt slightly claustrophobic, reading about the struggle with the helmet.) Being both a historical fiction reader and writer myself I really appreciate the main thrust of this post; it is the small details that make all the difference between a bland telling, or a medieval feast of a tale. Excellent, fun post to wake up to this morning. Thanks for the chuckles.

  7. Joanna, I have never seen FMJ, but I can only wonder how it would feel. I always imagine a splinter coming into the eye slit. Gasp!

    Cynthia, every time I see that helmet I have to remind myself that it's not going to best me again! And yes, little details add color. I wish the US had a castle or two!

    Wanda,I am glad you enjoyed it. I am glad that I have such great responses!

  8. Scott, there are some castles here. I've been to one in Napa Valley- granted, it is only 7 years old :/ but it is built from European stone and in every way seems realistic to me. It could be grittier and more worn, but oh well. That comes with time.

    And of course there is the Hearst Castle and the one in Disneyland. :D

    I haven't been to the older castles in the east. But a search brings some up!

    1. Debbie, I had no idea there were some replica castles out west. I would love to crawl around in some of those. When I was in the Navy some friends and I crawled around a couple old fortresses on Corfu, Greece. I got to see Jerusalem also and admire the walls. The best was in Rhodes, Greece as much of the old town is walled and so much is still standing. We crawled into some old sapper tunnels that we could access from the dry moat - pitch dark, many offshoots, narrow (gasp), candle niches on the walls. It was a dream doing that!

  9. I just loved this post! Everything about the medieval era interests me. Like you, I own some swords, and each time I pick one up it amazes me at the strength one had to of had to wield one knowing it could mean all the difference between life and death if you gave an inch during battle and the brute strength one had to have to wield it. I have such an inner pull to that time and feel like my soul is an old one living now. We can look back and think of how hard it must have been to live then but for the people who did, it was just life. Like us now, not knowing what the future holds, they lived the only way they knew. I can't help but admire the women, men, and children who forged paths for us today. I can't help but think they must have been much stronger as individuals than we are now in our lives of ease. Even with the daily struggles they each faced, disease, political and religious upheavals, I would jump at the chance to time travel back and experience first hand the medieval period. Ah, to dream. :)

    1. Thanks Leah! I am so glad you liked the article. Cycling a sword 30 times can wear you out and I can only imagine the endurance and strength, coupled with crippling fear of death, that it would take to not give that inch.
      I do admire the men and women of old that forged those paths too. The peasants had such a rough life and 40 was considered old. If I could go back, I would have to bring a few creature comforts, but I do believe I would take it if offered!

    2. This might be a reason why it annoys me when Medieval aristocrats are regarded or presented as having been lazy and pampered and not having done 'any work'. Er excuse me? I would think that wielding one of thees things was no easy task!

    3. I had the honour of holding a replica sword one time (borrowed from a church of all places) and an production me an another member of my church did. It was a big crowd attraction afterwards if I recall and one clever chap was able to swing it around over his head- I think he was a balcksmith or some such talented profession.

      Then there's the photo of me with the Norman sword and helm......

  10. Actually boiled oats — or porridge — is something you can crave without spices etc, if you were raised on it. For many years, porridge was my usual childhood breakfast — it's a Scottish thing, probably, even though my scottish ancestors are several generations away.
    What most people forget to add when cooking porridge is salt. That turns something bland to something tasty. Yes a little sugar or other sweetener adds to it, as does dried fruits, etc, but plain old porridge is still something I occasionally crave.


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