Monday, September 27, 2010

Edge or Flat?

While giving a talk on pirate weapons, someone volunteered that parries were always done with the flat of the sword instead of with the edge. This probably came from Mythbusters. They had a segment on trying to cut through one sword with another and they stated that parries were always done with the flat. You can see the segment here. Around 4:30 in they say, "In real life you never block an edge with an edge."

They in turn, probably got it from ARMA (the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts). You can read their essay on the subject here.

The thing is, they are specifically talking about 15th century and earlier techniques. The essay makes this clear in the first two paragraphs.

Many historical fencing enthusiasts do not grasp the concepts of parrying against cuts with cutting swords as described in numerous Medieval and Renaissance fighting manuals.  These texts teach the concept of defending by counter-striking or by receiving blows on the flat portion of the blade. As will become clear, edge-on-edge parrying was not taught as doctrine.  In fact, defense, or warding of cutting blows, is described in many ways in 15th century fencing texts by many masters and never as a direct resistant block of deliberate opposition of sharp edge on sharp edge (so common in stage-combat and sport fencing and derived from 18th and 19th century methods of swordplay). 
There is a tremendous, if not outright complete, lack of any support for doing so that can be found within any of the source literature (at least prior to the 17th century).
Since the GAoP starts in the last quarter of the 17th century, it is clearly outside of ARMA's essay. Fencing manuals from the early 17th century clearly show edge on edge parries. Here are some (rather explicit) examples.

Not only is the edge shown facing the opposing blade but the wrist is straight.

So, combat styles changed between the 15th and the 17th  centuries. This should not come as a surprise. Everything else changed. The 15th century swords were big heavy bars of iron. They were used two-handed, often against an armored enemy. By the 17th century, guns made armor too heavy to wear. Swords got lighter and the steel they were made from got better.

What about marks on surviving swords? A few points here. I have done edge on edge combat with real swords as well as schlager blades which are close to real weight. A tempered steel blade does not show much damage. Blades that have not been tempered do show significant notching. Those are the ones that would not have survived. Remember that only a fraction of swords have survived, mainly dress swords that never got near actual combat.

Even when an edge is notched, it isn't that hard to fix. I have had to take notches out of my pruning shears. You can get rid of most of the damage quickly with a hammer and anvil.

A final note - the Mythbusters declared it a myth that you can cut one sword with another. They did it several times but they disqualified these because the sword broke instead of being cut. I'm not sure I agree with their assessment. If I hit someone's sword and it separates into two pieces, I don't really care if I cut it or broke it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Short Entry on Slops

I have held for some time that pirates and sailors in general did not wear breeches under their slops. While some people insist that slops were worn as an over garment, I have yet to see an example. On the other hand, here is yet one more period picture showing a sailor in his slops with no trace of breeches underneath.

This one is "The Sea Cook" by Thomas Rowlandson, done in 1780. Note the wooden leg. When a sailor lost a limb he was often retained as a ship's cook. In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is signed on as the cook for the voyage.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Pirate's Arsenal

When I am giving a talk on pirate weapons I usually begin with the question, "You just sighted a merchant ship. What item in the pirate's arsenal is most likely to make them surrender without a fight?"

Most people answer "cannons" followed by "guns" and "swords". The correct answer is the pirate's black flag. The most common pirate flags were either black or red and most had some representation of a death's head. This carried a message - "surrender or die" for the black flag and "surrender or we will spill your blood" for the red flag.

The skull and crossbones was a common symbol for death for centuries. You see it on New England headstones and on poison (not so much anymore but it was still there when I was growing up). Flying it from your mast was a promise of death.

For most sailors, that was enough. They were hired hands. It was not their vessel or cargo. At most they might lose some or all of their wages - not enough to die for. If they surrendered they would likely survive. They had a good chance at keeping their ship or at least being put in a longboat with provisions. They might be roughed up a bit or they might be given friendly treatment. They woudl not be fighting for their lives against a larger, better-armed crew.

The cannons, guns, and swords were needed but mainly to make good on that threat.

Talk Like a Pirate Day on the Santa Maria

Actually, it was Talk Like a Pirate Weekend on the Santa Maria.

Some aspects of it were grueling. This was the ship's busiest weekend and several of us were doing presentation for the tours. That was a lot of presentations. Also, so many people were going through that the groups were larger than normal which made it hard to get everyone around. The price of success.

We had fewer pirates than during the May event but not by too many. The pirates who were there were enthusiastic. I've been to a lot of different events and this was the only one I can remember where most people waited until the 5:00 closing to start packing to leave. Usually people start packing around 3:00. This meant that we finally left the ship after 6:30.

Both days had a battle between the boats and the ship. On Saturday we used the Black Sheep and the canoe. On Sunday we had a few more people and added one person in a small boat.

There was an arts festival going on on the other side of the river so several of us spent some time checking it out and publicizing the event.

One woman spent much of the weekend playing "the governor's daughter" being help for ransom (she's the smiling red-head holding the flag). She went through the arts festival with her wrists shackled and, both days after the battle she was captured and hustled into the hold where she was "locked up". A couple of kids took this very seriously. One girl refused to leave the ship until she saw the prisoner rescued. She even stole the keys to her shackles. A boy at the arts festival on Saturday made his parents bring him to the ship Sunday so that he could pay the ransom (I think he offered a penny).

Friday, September 17, 2010

International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Talk Like a Pirate Day (ITLAPD) is 15 years old this year (technically that makes this one the 16th). For something that started as kind of a joke between a couple of guys playing racquetball, this has really taken off. It helps that three of the decade's most successful movies featured pirates but I think that they tapped into a societal need to play at being a pirate. Even before the movies several Renaissance festivals included pirates and some had become full-blown pirate festivals.

Of course, what really got the ball rolling was the Dave Barry column. At the time, Barry was the country's leading comedy columnist. There was even a sit-com based on his books. Barry's column got the word out to the world. I remember reading it in 2003. In 2004 I wore a pirate T-shirt on ITLAPD. I also wore a pirate T-shirt in 2007 and people stopped me on the street (of Charleston, SC) to tell me that it was Talk Like a Pirate Day (Why do you think I'm wearing the T-shirt?).

We are having a pirate weekend on the Santa Maria. The event got mentioned in the local papers because of ITLAPD. Lots of kids show up in pirate hats or wearing an eye patch (usually pushed up to the forehead).

The weather forecast for the weekend is perfect so it should be a good event.