Shiny…

I’m always interested in these demonstrations, having grown up with so many incorrect myths about plate armour proliferating, from knights being hoisted onto their horses with mini-cranes to them not being able to get up if they fell over. This demo is quite a good one, and well worth a look if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

They look a little clumsy at times, but are able to move pretty well, and it’s important to remember that actual knights would have spent years training in this gear, so would have been able to perform even more effectively than the guys in the video.

The video, I believe, was put together by people at the University of Geneva.

Swords and Honour

Number 3 in the inspiring areas of history series of blogs. Usual caveat found here applies!

Plagues aside, the Renaissance period generally saw a substantial growth in the size of cities, Venice, Florence and Genoa begin good examples in Northern Italy. As people began to spend more time in cities and with the explosion in commerce that came around the same time, social mobility was high. In a society with strong social stratification, it became more difficult to tell who came from what rank and those who wished to stand out had to find new ways to do so. Simply looking well fed and clothed was no longer enough. For gentlemen, one method was to carry a sword.

While there are other factors at play in explaining the fashion for carrying swords, one was certainly that it was a statement of social rank. Carrying, and being able to use a sword was a statement that you could afford to own it, and you had the free time to learn how to use it, i.e. that you didn’t need a day job to earn a living!

In terms of the shape and style of swords, this period takes us from the plain cruciform shape that had dominated the medieval period to long bladed rapiers with complex hilt designs. As an accessory to a gentleman, they became something of a fashion statement and there are many particularly impressive examples to be found in museums around the world. In some respects they can be seen in the way flashy jewellery is today as their design was often as dictated to by style as practicality.

With lots of ‘honourable’ gentlemen wandering about with swords and too much free time, duelling among civilians over matters of honour became more common. This brings us to an area that I think is particularly suited to interesting fiction of both the historical and fantasy varieties and is the reason behind this blog post. With people being quite sensitive to any perceived slight on their character, there is a huge amount of potential for conflict development in stories. Instead of going home and being angry about an insult for a few days and then forgetting about it, it was quite likely that a gentleman in this era would draw, or at least attempt to draw blood over it!

Gunpowder

This is blog number 2 in my ‘inspiring areas of history’ theme. The same disclaimer in the first one applies here!

I’m sure most of you have seen the diagrams from da Vinci’s notebooks of flying machines, tanks and other ahead of their time ideas. For me however, the factor that had the biggest impact on the development of technology during the Renaissance period was gunpowder.

It first appeared in Western Europe at some point in the latter half of the thirteenth century. By the battle of Crécy in 1346, canon were appearing on the battlefield. Gunpowder was yet to take centre stage; at Agincourt in 1415 it was the longbow that drew fame in contributing to the English defeat over the French, due to its success against the French cavalry.

The drawback with the longbow was that it required considerable training to use effectively, not to mention a huge amount of strength to draw. The firearm on the other hand required far less time to train someone in its use. In defining the move from the feudal age, perhaps the most significant aspect is the effect that canon had on siege warfare; they essentially rendered the medieval castle obsolete.

Similarly, by the latter half of the 16th century, with the development of the musket, it was virtually impossible to make a suit of armour that could withstand a bullet. Indeed, handguns were so effective that cavalry forces dropped the lance in their favour, which also aided in the decline of the use of armour, as mobility was favoured over heavy protection. Armour was gradually reduced, piece by piece until all that was left were the helmets and breastplates that were still in use at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

As with all great change, it is rarely possible to attribute it to any one single factor; most often there are many, but the introduction and ever greater use of gunpowder must be seen as significant among them.

In terms of inspiration for writing, I think the aspect of change discussed here is very fertile ground. This period marks a shift in military culture, from feudal knights in ever more elaborate armour and their levies, to standing forces that were taking on the first characteristics of modern armies. This means certain individuals would find themselves and their way of thinking obsolete, while for others, more receptive to change and perhaps less heavily invested in what had come before, there were great opportunities to be had. The dynamic of the clash between old and new ideas is always a very interesting concept to explore and this period, 1400-1600 or so, provides a great many examples.

Additionally, if you write fantasy, there is also the clash between technology and magic. Would the presence of magic stifle the need for technological development? Would proponents of the two different concepts come into conflict? Plenty of inspiration to work with here I think!

The Condottieri

This is the first of my blogs on historical subjects that interest me and influence my writing. They are not intended to be a authoritative exposition on the subject area, just a general discussion on things that interest me. If the topic catches your imagination, a peer reviewed academic work is the place to go for the definitive story! Feel free to point out if you think there is anything blatantly wrong, but I hope to keep it all as accurate as I can!

Today’s subject is the condottieri. To me, even the word is quite eye catching. Simply put, it derives from the Italian word for ‘contract’, and it was used to refer to the mercenary troops that were prevalent in Northern Italy from roughly the middle of the 14th century.

A large proportion of these troops, particularly in the early days, came from other parts of the world, many being English troops looking for work during the lulls in fighting during the Hundred Years War in France. The Germanic mercenary Landsknechts are another example, but there were men from many parts of Europe present.

Around this time, Northern Italy was becoming very wealthy, with several towns and cities growing and seeking to assert both their independence and authority. As these cities and the personalities behind them started to come into contact with each other, violence often ensued. This created a vibrant market for the services of mercenaries.

There are a number of very colourful characters in the story of the condottieri, such as Sir John Hawkwood, an Englishman who had fought in France and later was in the service of Florence, where he would ultimately be granted citizenship and become something of a hero. He is also notable for leading one of the great mercenary bands, The White Company.

The stories of the condotierri make for very interesting reading; they were heroes and villains and they lived lives of adventure and violence and there is so much inspiration to be drawn from them that a 500-ish word blog post can’t even begin to scratch the surface. While there were many larger than life characters, most were just ordinary soldiers who passed in and out of this world unnoticed, but they too had stories, even if they’ve never been told.

The condottieri were just one element in the society of early Renaissance Italy, and there were many factors that contributed to their existence, some of which will form the topics for later posts in this series. It was a particularly conflicted era, with so much beauty being created by famous artists like da Vinci and Michaelangelo on the one hand, and a huge amount of violence on the other. As such it is a very rich and vibrant period and it represents one of my favourite in history. There was so much change as the old feudal order of the medieval world began to give way to the concept of early modern Europe. It’s an incredibly interesting and inspirational area for both fantasy and historical fiction writers.