The Importance of Gloss: interpreting historical manuals

Last week I was delighted to have the wonderful Jessica Finley come to stay at Cornwall Ridge.  We spent Wednesday evening geeking out over fightbook plates from the Goliath manuscript.  She brought the Liechtenauer translation and her experience with the German system, and I brought my experience with mounted combat. The results were enlightening and at times comedic (picture us facing each other on chairs with swords and a spare pair of reins, doing our best not to hit the light fixtures or wine bottle).

I was able to give Jess a lot of insight into how the horses might be moving, and what the angles and distances would be like for the fighters.  In return, having her pair up the images with Liechtenauer’s text revealed things about some of the Goliath plays that I had missed.

Two key revelations

Image 22 seems to show a rather boring-looking elbow push. However, the text reveals that the rider performing the technique is also placing his foot under his opponent’s and lifting. If you look at the right side of the plate you’ll see a pair of armoured legs floating in the hedgerow. I had originally ignored these, taking them to be part of the background to go with the broken spears, but they are in fact the riders’ legs, drawn separately so we can see them.

The other ‘aha moment’ was regarding image 20, the rein entanglement.

At first glance it appears as if the rider has simply grabbed his opponent’s hand and is holding it out of the way while he stabs him in the face. However, the text tells us that the rider ‘throws’ his reins around the opponent’s hand, entangling him. I was having a hard time imagining throwing reins with any accuracy, so this was where the swords, dining chairs, and spare reins came into play. With these props in hand I was able to block Jess’s sword arm on the inside with my rein hand (posta longa for the Fiorists), and circle it down to my waist where I could grab my reins again, enclosing her wrist in a loop.

There was much glee. This was incredibly exciting for both of us, since she hadn’t been able to figure out how it would work before this, and I’d never even known there was an entanglement going on. Now we just needed to find out if our interpretations were correct.

Proof of concept

After giving Jess a refresher riding lesson Thursday morning, we tacked up three horses and were joined by Dave Wayne, who spent the afternoon with us putting these plays to work with real horsepower.

The rein entanglement proved surprisingly easy and effective: a cheeky little technique that lets you continue to steer your horse while dragging your opponent along for the ride.

As I’d suspected, horse height was crucial for the leg lift. With Jess on Princess (14.2hh) and me on Winnie (16.1hh) there was no way I could get my foot beneath hers. Dave was on Flavie (15.2hh), but even with only a 3″ difference in horse height, his longer legs still made it hard to get my foot under his.

Jess had the opposite problem. Her foot was under ours, but she had to lift it so high to put any pressure on us that she was more in danger of unbalancing herself. Dave could easily lift either of our feet, but he encountered another problem: we would simply bend our legs and yield to his pressure without losing our seats.

Part of this is due to the saddle type. Without the large thigh blocks of the mediaeval saddles, our legs were free to move, and upward pressure was less effective. However we felt this wasn’t the whole answer. Jess pointed out that ‘fuss’ can sometimes refer to the whole leg, so instead of placing my foot under Jess’s, I simply jammed my knee behind hers and lifted. She tapped out at lightning speed, feeling mightily in danger of going overboard. And indeed, when you look at the drawing of the legs they do appear locked together.

The Takeaway

This is an excellent lesson in interpreting historical manuscripts. Without the text, I’d missed the significance of the leg illustration. Without the illustration the position of the legs is unclear. And only by trying it out on horseback do you understand the importance of that leg position.

Bear this in mind when you do your own interpretations. Images are not just there for decoration, and if the text and words don’t seem to jive, try the play out in person to see what you might be missing, and examine how your own size and equipment may have an impact.

And don’t forget to have fun. If you’re not laughing your head off at some point, you’re doing it wrong.

Jess Finley and Dave Wayne

There were more plays and more discoveries, but that’s fodder for a future blog. Thanks to Jess and Dave for coming out to play, and Jess, hope to see you at the farm again soon!

Want more content like this? Take the Mounted Combat Online Survey and receive notification when material is posted.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *