OK, this is just STUPID, assuming one likes their fingers. (If, you are also angry that a guy in vaguely Renaissance clothing is swinging a Roman gladius at a man with a medieval longsword, I salute your attention to detail, but you’re probably watching the wrong show.)
There’s an interesting side-effect to being a researcher and author on historical, European martial arts (HEMA), especially when you also own a large, full-time school for the same in a major city. I wish I could say that side-effect is vast wealth and fame (someone pass a Kleenex to my wife, she always tears up when she laughs), but instead it is that, every time there is a major media event involving something sword-like, a well-meaning reporter wants your take on its authenticity. This happened almost every season during Game of Thrones, until I quipped “the show is so much more exciting when everyone keeps their swords sheathed,” and perhaps the funniest one was when The Force Awakens came out and the interviewer wanted my take on Kylo Ren’s new lightsaber style with its cross-guard/vent thing. I tried to give an honest answer:
Well, that seems a great way to cut your own arms off, but it sure looks neat. As to how they fight with the saber… I have to be honest, I have no idea how a psychic, telekinetic space-wizard uses a very light, edgeless plasma-beam trapped inside a force-field.** But it was fun!
**If I bungled some detail of lightsaber technology in that reply, don’t tell me. Ignorance is bliss, and honestly, it won’t change the point — a lightsaber isn’t a real sword, doesn’t behave like a sword, nor are Jedi normal people. Consequently, the fights can pretty much be whatever the director wants. If you’re looking for “realism” in Star Wars, and have zeroed in on critiquing the lightsaber fights, you’re so far down the rabbit hole, I can’t save you.
A portion of the cemetery of Valentia, from the Roman Republic
Last week, work took me to Valencia, a city on the east coast of Spain. Like many Spanish cities, it is built on layers of history, and luckily for the visitor, archaeologists digging under one of the city squares found a rich collection of remains from various periods. These have been preserved as El Centro Arqueológico de l’Almoina.
With some 2,500 square meters of remains uncovered between 1985 and 2005, it displays numerous buildings from the Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish periods. Some of them date back to the city’s founding in 138 BC during the Roman Republic as a home for retired soldiers. The city, called Valentia, expanded with typical Roman efficiency until it was obliterated, with equal Roman efficiency, by Pompey in 75 BC during the Roman civil war. It remained abandoned for more than 50 years.
The Calahorra tower, on the far side of the Guadalquivir River from Córdoba, protects access to the Roman bridge. It was originally built in the Islamic period and rebuilt in 1369
Last week I wrote about the magnificent mosque/cathedral of Córdoba. While that’s the city’s main draw, there’s plenty else to see in this historic place. In fact, the entire city center, where most of the old buildings are, is one big UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The area, next to the Guadalquivir River, has always been inhabited. Evidence of Neanderthals has been found, as well as all the major phases of prehistory. A small prehistoric settlement became a city under the Carthaginians, who called it Kartuba. When the Romans conquered it in 206 BC, the name morphed into Corduba. Under the Romans, the city thrived, becoming the cultural and administrative center of Hispania Baetica. Seneca the Elder, Seneca the Younger, and Lucan all came from Córdoba. It was briefly under Byzantine rule from 552-572 AD before falling to the Visigoths.
The Alcazaba with the ruins of a Roman theater in the foreground
Last week I had the pleasure of spending five days in Málaga, a historic port on Spain’s south coast. Founded by the Phoenicians around the 8th century BC, it continued to be important during Roman times and well into the modern era. While it was never one of the major ports like Barcelona, it always saw brisk trade.
The main attractions are two museums dedicated to local-boy-done-good Pablo Picasso and a pair of impressive medieval castles. The first is the Alcazaba, which loomed over the town and we’ll talk about today. Next week’s castle is further upslope and is called the Gibralfaro.
In last week’s post about Zaprice Castle, Slovenia, we looked at a well-preserved Renaissance fortification protecting the important crossroads of Kamnik. Two earlier castles can also be visited in this town, is an easy day trip from the capital Ljubljana.
Mali Grad (“Little Castle”) is an obvious landmark visible from most of Kamnik. It’s situated atop a small hill overlooking the town. All that remains today is a reconstructed tower, a few foundations of walls, and a medieval chapel.
Mali Grad is first mentioned in 1202 but dates to perhaps a generation or two before then.
Minster Lovell Hall with St. Kenelm’s Church to the left
As usual in the summer, my family and I are in Oxford, where I ensconce myself in the Bodleian Library and research my books. It’s been a rainy summer, in stark contrast to last month’s frying heat of Lanzarote, and so we haven’t been able to get out and about much. Good for my wordcount, bad for my travel addiction.
So when the clouds finally broke last weekend we rushed out onto an easy six-mile country ramble along the River Windrush to visit Minster Lovell Hall, a 15th century manor house set in the lovely English countryside.
A stained glass window using small bits of colored glass in a plaster
framework. Mosques and private houses also use this style of
decoration, although the mosques don’t include crosses, of course
While Egypt’s ancient civilization is the main draw for visiting the country, I find its medieval and modern history equally fascinating. Cairo is full of historic monuments. Minarets built a thousand years ago rise above the honking traffic, old houses from the Ottoman period are nestled in quiet back alleys, and a medieval citadel looks out over the city.
Many of Cairo’s most interesting historic sites are Christian. Early in Christian history, Egypt started a distinct tradition of worship that developed into what is now known as Coptic Christianity. The Coptic church traces its origins back to 50 AD, when Saint Mark visited the country and established the Church of Alexandria. The word “Copt” comes from the ancient Greek word for Egypt, “Aigyptos.”
The first thing that Conan — or Locke Lamora, or Grey Mouser, or Vimes, or a D&D party — would notice about a real medieval city would be the almost total absence of an Ankh Morpork-style town watch.
It’s a stock trope: here come a dozen Keystone Cops town watch in their funny armour, to arrest the drunken barbarian or catch the thief. Only it’s not like that in reality, or at least not quite like that in Later Medieval and Early Modern England, France, and Germany.
That’s not a criticism. Fantasy writers must write what they will. Dickensian thief takers are plausible, and raise themes to do with policing and justice. However, if, like me, you write Historical Adventure Fiction , then you need to know how policing worked because integrity, and because somebody else will know and will gleefully correct you in reviews. (It’s funny when your research is better than theirs though — and the one time I ever answered a review.)
It’s actually quite hard to drill down to D&D level details about the medieval past. Scholars are usually more interested in the development of legal systems and local authority than what happens when Conan gets into a brawl. However, there are a few useful sources: This PhD thesis on trial by battle; The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (link); The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (link); plus various more antiquarian tomes on my research shelf.
And, there are some surprises beneath the crust of sometimes dry text. Let’s kick off with what every aspiring thief and rogue needs to know…
Oxford is one of the most popular day trips for visitors to London thanks to its beautiful university and world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers. It’s also worth staying overnight so that you can take advantage to the surrounding area, which offers some pleasant country walks.
One of the more enjoyable is a two-mile stroll along the Thames (locally called the Isis) that takes you to the hamlet of Binsey and the medieval church of St. Margaret’s. Set amid trees in the peaceful English countryside, the church makes for a relaxing stop and you can visit an Anglo-Saxon holy well that’s been an object of pilgrimage for centuries.
Spring has finally sprung here in Madrid. The sidewalk cafes are full, and those who can’t find a seat have set off to the countryside to go hiking. It’s a good time to leave the museums and galleries behind and take a look at what the surrounding area has to offer.
This past weekend my family and I visited Alcalá de Henares, a small city 40 minutes on the suburban train outside of Madrid. Its main claim to fame is being the birthplace of Cervantes, who has been in the news recently because Spanish archaeologists discovered his tomb.
Like many Spanish cities, it has its roots in prehistory and came to prominence in Roman times, when it was called Complutum. After the fall of the empire it was a Visigothic settlement and was later taken over by the Moors, who built a citadel (“al-qal’a” in Arabic, a common place name in Spain). During the Moorish period it was a thriving town with large Christian and Jewish quarters.