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GW: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the show. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. And I’m here today with Dr. Eleanor Janega, who none other than Dan Snow refers to as “the most awesome medieval historian in the world”, which is perhaps her greatest claim to fame. She’s also a guest lecturer at LSE in the Department of International History, and she’s published all sorts of articles which you may or may not find interesting, like Suspect Women: Prostitution, Reputation and Gossip in 14th Century Prague; or Lies, Damn Lies and Bohemians in History Today. She has a PhD in history. She has an excellent blog called Going Medieval, and you can find her online at www.patreon.com/goingmedieval. So without further ado, Eleanor, welcome to the show.
EJ: Thanks so much for having me, Guy. It’s such a delight to be here.
GW: Well, thank you. Now, just so we can orient ourselves, whereabouts are you at the moment?
EJ: I am in the great city of London, although I am south of the river. So technically, for medieval purposes, I would not be within the city limits. But things being as they are, I count at this point.
GW: Fair enough. Am I right in thinking you came over here from Chicago?
EJ: Yes. So I am originally from Seattle. I did undergraduate work in Chicago and then I moved over here when it became clear that I was going to become a European medieval historian, because this is where we tend to keep it. So I thought it would make my life easier if I could actually be around the documents.
GW: Yeah. I mean, a lot of the arms and armour and artefacts that we find interesting have been bought by Americans and taken overseas.
EJ: That is unfortunately the case. Yes.
GW: Although actually for us, many of the most important manuscripts for us are actually in America, which is very frustrating.
EJ: Yes. Yes, indeed.
GW: OK. So, as you said, you are a medieval historian. This is a dream job for many of my students. How did that come about? So I was just your average undergraduate history major and I was at Loyola University Chicago, which has an extraordinarily strong medieval program. And I had no idea that this is what I wanted to specialize in. I actually went in a dedicated Sinophile and extremely interested in Chinese history in particular. And then I was swayed. I was swayed and misled, by a number of wonderful medieval historians there, including the great Barbara Rosenwein, who is very celebrated. She came up with the conception of medieval communities, which is something that we use. Teresa Gross-Diaz who is an absolutely fantastic French medieval historian. And basically, when you’re just around a lot of people who are doing incredible work, it’s sort of infectious. And so. Oh, gosh, also, Alan Franzen I have to mention as well, who does a lot of incredible work within the department. So one thing led to another. I moved to Prague for a while, then I got really swung the wrong way, and I basically thought, well, what if I model my entire life around being a giant nerd about 14th century Prague? And that’s how I ended up here.
GW: I visited Prague and it has a certain medieval vibe to it.
EJ: it certainly does. Yes.
GW: So why not Prague? Why London?
EJ: Well, a part of it is just about speaking English. And also part of it is about just being able to have access to a lot of different documents and a lot of different flights to places, to be honest. It’s easier for me at the minute to be in London, although it’s always on the cards. I’m always on the verge of just moving to the Czech Republic again. So it’s one of those things where it really depends. I go over an awful lot for research because a lot of my research hinges on the things that are in the Knihovně or the Czech National Library. But having said that, the British Library is just an absolute trove of manuscripts. So having access to that is amazing.
GW: So what are your main research interests if we found you in the British Library collections? What would you be looking at?
EJ: I am a social historian primarily, and I am a late medievalist. So I’m covering the 13th century up to about the 16th. And I am interested in apocalypticism, sexualities, cities, propaganda and things. I’m really interested in various heretical movements, this sort of thing. Basically, my joke is that I’m interested in sex and death because nothing else really matters. So I work on all of those things. But obviously what I’m trying to do is construct a generalized conception of what society looks like in late medieval Europe generally Holy Roman Empire more specifically, but late medieval Europe generally. And so it helps us to explain our world if we understand how it is that the social fabric was knitted together before we got to the modern period, I think.
GW: Now, I know that quite a few people listening will be doing martial arts from late 14th and 15th century Holy Roman Empire. So would you care to – I know it’s tough on a podcast – summarize your view of how society was working back then? Where swords fitted into that?
EJ: Oh, gosh, all of that. That’s fine. Just do that in a couple minutes, shall I?
GW: Yeah. Ten years work in a five minute soundbite.
EJ: So I know that as most of your listeners are going to know that the Holy Roman Empire is one of these great, great examples of where you get a lot of the fantastic manuscripts in particular that let us know how people were actually fighting. And one of the things that I think is really interesting about the late medieval period, and when we consider martial arts, is that it is actually a time when we get to begin to learn the actual mechanics about fighting, because up until that point we have a lot of things about who went to war with whom. You have a lot of hyperbole, and stories about arrows going through eyes and Clovis chopping off someone’s head with an axe and this sort of thing. But one doesn’t necessarily know how people were individually going about it. So, of course, in and of itself, how people fight, if you really want to know more about that, you have to go to the late medieval period. But one of the things about swords generally and fighting generally that interests me is it is particularly classed to a certain extent obviously. And I’m really interested in differences between classes in the medieval period and how we define various social groups. So obviously, just the opportunity to have a sword tells you a lot about a person. Who is literally allowed to walk around with the sword is a really big deal, because you’ll have, for example, stories from the Hussite Rebellions in Prague in the 15th century and you’ll see city guards and that sort of thing who are defending with stuff like rocks and sticks. They’ll be up on a wall, just being like, I don’t know, throw rocks at them. This is what we’ve got going, which tells you a lot about who’s on the side of the Hussites versus people on horseback who have really nice horses, really nice swords. And that tells you a lot about who thinks what about religion, how these things are defended and fought for physically. And so you can never really get that far from swords and who has them, if one of the things that you want to talk about is the stratification of society, because swords are this definitive symbol of who gets to fight and how. Of course, there’s lots of different ways of fighting and archers are something that I’m always really obsessed with for the same reason, because I love the communal aspects of archery in the late medieval period, how it’s a way of socializing for people in towns and that thing. Archery practice. Oh, big shout out: I’ve spent a bunch of time the other week playing with online, there’s a zoomable map of it’s called the August Map of London. And it’s not actually made by the guy August who I thought it was maybe. But it’s a 17th century map of London. And if you look at all the outskirts of the city, you see a bunch of people practicing archery. So it’s got a map of town, but it shows you what people are doing in their not necessarily spare time, but you see a bunch of people doing laundry, you see people walking dogs and you see people practicing archery. And I think that’s such a great example of how martial arts are this really everyday part of life, but also a really pleasurable part of life for people. You know, I lived in Tokyo for a while as a modern example. And one of the great pleasures was to go to the parks on Sundays and everyone would be out there during Kendo or practicing Kyudo. So they’ve got like their giant bows and they’ve got their swords in there. They’re out there just having a lovely time hitting each other with swords. And it really hammered this home for me that the fact that this is obviously a very practical thing, a way of organizing the world, and it’s a skill, but it’s also a form of pleasure. And I think that’s something that we really overlook because we tend to just say, oh wars are fought in this way. Fighting happens in this way. But there’s also this instinctual hook into the pleasure of really gaining mastery over something. And I’m really interested in that.
GW: Yeah, interesting, I’m thinking of Philip of Vadi, who in the 1480s wrote a lovely little book, and he explicitly says that the art is for kings and nobles and knights and not for peasants, who are fit only to carry heavy loads. The fact that he felt it necessary to say that suggests that perhaps there were peasants who were thinking about picking up swords.
EJ: Absolutely. So I think you are referring to De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi.
GW: Well done you knowing that!
EJ: I know things. I know. And, yes, it’s true. It is one of those things where it’s so explicit. Often when you’re speaking to people about the medieval period, they don’t realize how incredibly restricted the ability to fight with a sword is, because the way that we tend to think about the medieval period is in this sort of fantasy way. You know, the major way that most of us relate to it is through what we refer to as medievalisms. So stuff like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, when people say, oh, well, this is what the world was like. And it’s based on these depictions of the knightly class, of nobles, of people who certainly did have swords. And it’s one of those things that we’ll talk to people and they will be like, oh, yeah, well, people were just carrying around swords hacking at each other is something that has been said to me. And it’s like, no. You know, and people sometimes when they get quite romantic about medieval swordplay, they will tend to say, oh, well, it’s this great thing that everyone was involved in. It’s like, well, no, 80 percent of the population of medieval Europe were peasants and they had absolutely no recourse to swords and would get in massive trouble if that was something that they took upon themselves. And you can tell, though, when Philip of Vardi is talking about this, that this seems to be something that’s softening up. So he’s feeling that he needs to underline the fact that peasants aren’t fit to pick up swords tells you that things are changing, because if it’s just a self obvious thing, a lot of the time it’s never mentioned. And it’s when you get hints like that, that’s when it shows us that things are becoming a little bit more mobile. Things are becoming a little bit more shaken up. And there also is a lot of tension going on at the time because of stuff like, Italy, the Italian city states had come through a period of massive war at the end of the 14th century. You know, you have things like the Roman Republic, you had lots of civil wars. And currently when Philip of Vadi is writing, you’ve got the Hussite Wars going on. So there’s a lot of noble tension about peasants getting a little bit uppity and deciding that they can do things using martial arts. And so there is a real tension there that he is directly talking about.
GW: Yes. That was a very interesting and comprehensive answer. Thank you.
GW: Now I need to throw something that is potentially a little triggering at you so brace yourself. OK. In sword circles, we are well aware in the 19th century, the fencing master and historian of fencing called Egerton Castle famously dismissed the “rough, untutored fighting of the Middle Ages”. Well, to be super fair to Castle, he wasn’t probably aware of the manuscripts that we’re working from today. As far as he could probably see, the fencing record began in the 16th century. So he would probably assume that before that there was nothing and then suddenly. Also, he wasn’t a trained historian in the modern sense at all. We now know, of course, that medieval martial arts are sophisticated and elegant. So in your article Lies Damn Lies and Bohemians you call into question, I quote, “The modern belief of the Middle Ages was a time of ignorance and superstition.” So what was it like? And how do you know?
EJ: Yes. So this is one of those things. This gets right to the heart of one of my personal bugbears, so well done on finding the thing that bothers me the most in the world. So there is particularly a modern conception that it’s really tied with the Enlightenment. And there is a specific thing within the Enlightenment and a tendency to say, and I’m afraid Voltaire is to blame for this, that the medieval period in general is a backward time. It’s a time when there was no sophisticated anything happening, whether that be thought or societal cohesion or it can extend to warfare as well. So nothing that happened in the medieval period was interesting or worth your time. And there are a few reasons for this. One of it is a modern tendency to pat ourselves on the back for being so very clever. Everybody really likes to believe that we are standing at the top of a pyramid and that that we know more than everyone else. And the medieval period is sort of looked upon as a time when that was not, in fact, happening. That is fed into by a tendency to look down upon religious people at this juncture. So there is this consideration because especially within medieval Europe, everyone is Christian. Obviously, there are huge Jewish populations. There’s huge Muslim populations in places like Sicily and what is now Spain. But you’re looking at a bunch of very Christian people who are very devout believers in God. And that in and of itself is something that people take to mean that there is no good thinking going on. There’s also end. So you can’t possibly be both a Christian and be doing any thought that’s worthwhile, which is hilarious because there are absolutely stunning geniuses around the shop like Thomas Aquinas or Hildegard of Bingen or I could just throw out names all day long of these people who I’m not fit to carry bathwater for. And they have much more sophisticated ways of looking at the world. But there is this knock-on effect there. So even if it’s not just something like intellectual thought that we’re talking about, it will be things like warfare. Because I’m sure that you’ve heard about the conception of the military revolution as well, which is something that people really like and people really like it because they like the fact that there are certain tactics that are gone back to that are seen as being more Roman because part and parcel with this belief that nothing good is happening in the Middle Ages, is this lionization of and aggrandizement of Romans in particular. We do this for a couple of reasons. In the first place, we like empires because we have empires. And so we like to find them other places. And we say, oh you can tell that a society is good and a society is advanced if they’ve got a standing army, they’re taking over other places hostilely, and they’re extorting wealth out of them. You know, that’s how you can tell that people have really themselves together. And the Romans are doing that. So people like to say, OK, Romans, good, because they’re like us. [Then there are] eleven hundred years of question marks that you just don’t need to look into very deeply. The Renaissance – fantastic. And so part of that is saying, oh, you can buy into the military revolution standpoint where you have going back to Roman tactics and techniques and taxation to have standing armies. And that also tells you that also martial arts are better the minute that you have that and that anything before that that’s happening on a small scale is bad. And that is all just a self-fulfilling prophecy that allows people to be really lazy. It allows us to be self-congratulatory, say, oh, we’re so much smarter than these people and we understand fighting better than these people and we’re more elegant than these people. And it also means that you don’t have to go around learning stuff like Latin and much of other languages, and you don’t have to squint and learn paleography and check out Fechtbuche from the 14th century or anything like that.
GW: Who would want to do that, right?
EJ: Yeah, exactly. It would be terrible so if you just write it off and say, well, this is all barbaric, you never have to look into it. And it allows you to keep your own idea of how the world is, which is you at the top of it without ever having to do any heavy lifting. So it’s one of these things where it’s a vicious cycle because people like doing it, because it makes themselves feel good and because they feel good about it they never look into it. So a lot of the time when you’re speaking, I’m sure you’re aware of this, when you speak to people about the medieval period, they are sure that it’s five people rolling around in the dirt, praying to God, having the plague and occasionally getting on horseback and they think that’s what eleven hundred years of history is, when in fact, one of the reasons we’re not taught about it and we don’t learn about it is that it’s massively complicated. You can’t really sit down with, say, twelve year olds in school and say, OK, well, here we go, we’re doing medieval Europe because everything is so intricate. Very many different places have very many different cultures, although that’s not necessarily true about late medieval fighting, because we know a lot of it’s coming out of the German lands and that sort of thing. So the Italians would be the first to tell you that. But we do have an actual rich opportunity if we pay more attention to martial arts manuals and things to see where the common and overlying cultures are. And one of those is among the elite who get to do sword fighting because there is this definitive way that they can come together. And so it, in and of itself, ironically, would allow people who don’t really want to do the work of medieval people with medieval history to have a really easy cultural thing to have a look at. So it’s a shame when you see it written off like that, but it comes from our baser wishes to pat ourselves on the back. But it’s also not necessarily our fault because the Enlightenment was a hell of a time. It was very important for a lot of things and gave us a lot of great things. But it also gave us a lot of a lot of excuses to get out of doing the homework, I’m afraid.
GW: So would you say that the knightly classes of late medieval Europe were like a subculture to themselves?
EJ: Yeah, I would certainly say so. I mean, for example, I’m sure that you’re aware of Fiore del Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum?
GW: Are you kidding?
EJ: You’re aware.
GW: Yeah. That’s the one thing I’m most known for being aware of.
EJ: Exactly. It is this wonderful example because we start off right now learning that actually what Fiore is learning, writing down now, he learned from a Swabian master Johannes.
GW: Hang on. He learned from many teachers, both Italian and German. He mentions Johannes the Swabian.
EJ: And so he mentions him by name. That’s not the only one. But this is the one where we’re going to put the name out here. And one of the reasons why you do that, why you put just the one name out when it’s actually a community effort. No one learns from one person. But why you do that is to hook yourself into a really obvious lineage. So he is using that as a way of saying, OK, like I know like here’s a here’s a guy’s name that I’m sure you all know and everyone goes, oh, yeah, Master Johannes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely we know that. So what that has the effect of doing is saying that Fiore knows what he’s talking about. It also means that every other technique that he might have got from anyone else now also gets that seal of approval. And what we’re seeing here is a coalescing where you can learn a lot of different little things from a lot of different people. But a very medieval thing to do is stamp a name on it. You will see this, for example, in lots of philosophical treatises in the medieval period where the ground is absolutely littered with pseudo philosophers. Where people will have pseudo Albertus Magnus or will have pseudo Tertullian and that sort of thing. So it’ll be a whole new philosophy or medical text or that sort of thing. But the way that you get everyone to agree, oh, this is very good, is by putting a name that everyone knows on it. So what Fiore is doing here is just he’s turning on that little neon light, saying, hey, you’ve heard of the guy. And medieval people are like, oh yes. They love authority. That is absolutely the thing that they love. And so I think it’s so great when you see things like that, because it’s very clear that in the first place, they’re taking things from the philosophical community, the intellectuals of the time. And they’re saying these sort of same things can be applied to martial arts. So it’s when you see a light bulb moment where it’s like, actually we should have this on paper. It shouldn’t just be about you have to go and show up at someone’s house and learn how to fight, which we know is a thing that people do.
GW: So this brings up a sidetrack for you. One of the mysteries is why in the 14th century, we begin to see martial arts presented in text, starting with 1.33 maybe in the 1340s, I think that’s the most recent date for it. Fiore is writing at the end of the 14th century. We have at least one German source that might be from 1389ish. And then the German martial arts treatise tradition kicks off in the 15th century. What do you think drove that development?
EJ: I think that one of the things that we’re seeing there is we’re seeing a higher degree of literacy in general. It’s one of these things that I think is quite fun is that you begin to see more literacy in the vernacular as opposed to simply in Latin, which a lot of the time that is obviously you see more things in vernacular languages and not necessarily Latin manuscripts, although there are plenty of Latin manuscripts as well. And there is a traditional medieval thing where when you’re writing things in vernacular languages, it tends to be more about people’s day to day life. So things like courtly love literature a lot of the time is written in French. You’ve got Chaucer writing in English when he wants to tell bawdy stories, so the things that an average person are interested in that you can sort of learn from this is beginning to get into the vernacular and people enjoy reading in the vernacular. I think it’s sort of part and parcel. And so people who are definitely from a background where they have the means to be literate but maybe they don’t want to be a priest and they don’t want to work that hard with their Latin, because they what they want to be outside hitting each other with swords, like all the interesting people. So if you offer people an opportunity to do this in their own language, they go, oh, hey, that’s what’s easier for me.
GW: Do you think that, for example, if Il Fior di Battaglia was actually written for people just to read? I am a little suspicious of that because he explicitly says in the introduction that his art is taught in secret and people who he teaches the art to are sworn to secrecy.
EJ: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing. He’s such a complicated person. I think there, to a certain extent, is that things are taught in secrecy, and one of the things about doing things like this, manuals like this that you can hand person to person, is it’s like, OK, well this is the expansion of knowledge. This is in one way recording what it is that you’re doing. It’s a way of passing things through things, but it still does have that secret thing. So this is going to keep the commons out, isn’t it? Anything written down that you have to read is automatically going to be aimed at a higher class of people. So you have the secrecy there. It’s just, it’s so, I wish that I had an answer for this. I wish I was the person who is going to crack this thing wide open.
GW: The best questions are the ones that don’t have simple answers.
EJ: I could talk about this for hours and I’ll just say, “On the one hand…” and “But on the other hand.” It is one of those things where I see that we’re simultaneously seeing an opening up of these things, but we have to also keep in mind that while you and I say, and I just did say that when things are in the vernacular, it reaches a wider group of people – yeah, what do we mean by that?
GW: It’s still not a very wide group of people. And it’s instructive that 1.33 is actually written in Latin. So the earliest manuscript we have on sword fighting is written in Latin. It comes from somewhere in Germany, southern Germany.
EJ: This is the Walpurgis manuscript?
GW: That’s right.
EJ: And that makes perfect sense. Because it’s so early that you would sort of expect to see it more in Latin. And then we get out of that as we move further along, which makes sense. You know, I will never be done extolling the virtues of Latin as a language. I think it’s great that it’s nobody’s. I like the fact that it’s just this language that existed for communicating ideas when no one spoke it.
GW: A lingua franca.
EJ: Yeah. And I think that that’s really great. You know, although as an English speaker, I’m doing just fine now with exactly what it is that we’re using. But it still is an impediment to a certain extent. Most people are going to have at least church Latin. They’re going to know how to say the Our Father in Latin and that sort of thing. But it isn’t necessarily what you’re going to want to sit down and crack when you’re actually trying to learn a practical method about anything, because practicality and Latin don’t necessarily go hand in hand in a lot of people’s imaginations within the medieval period. So it depends on what you’re trying to do, it depends on what sort of audience you’re trying to reach with the words that you use in the language that you use. And I do think that the explosion there is tied to that. But I also do think that it’s tied with the fact that people have a little bit more leisure time, often in the later medieval period. The 14th century was a particularly hard one. There were a lot of harvest failures and that sort of thing. We come back from that a bit in the 15th century, although that’s not always true. People in the Italian city states have a hell of a time in the late medieval period as well. But you do see an interest specifically in bibliographic culture, people being more interested in stuff like guidebooks, more in be that for travel or for practical things like medicine or martial arts. You do see an expansion of books about more general interest things.
GW: Many of these German sources, we find them in compilations which include things like medicine and fireworks and all sorts of other things.
EJ: Exactly. So it’s like: Here is this. Do you find this interesting? Are you interested in fireworks? I am. Are you interested in medicine? And so you see these great compendia. And that’s one of the things that I actually really love about medieval manuscripts, is you see people just put things in as and when they find them interesting. So it’s a really great way of saying, oh, OK, well, what are people’s interests? How are they feeling about things day to day? What are they, if they could put together a book about anything that they were interested in? What do they do? Because they literally do that. And it’s one of the downsides a lot of the time – our surviving martial manuscripts are these beautiful things, you know? Absolutely gorgeous. You’ll see wonderful decorations. They’re extremely lavish. And obviously, I love those. I’m an absolute mess for anyone who has an illuminated manuscript of anything. But that’s also not necessarily the average manuscript in the medieval period. The average one is tiny and little and people are carrying it around. And so a lot of time we have to keep in mind that the manuscripts that we are left with, we are left with because they were so remarkable. And people go, oh, well, that’s really that’s precious.
GW: The same is true of a lot of the swords.
EJ: Yeah, exactly. So it’s like you have the most remarkable sword. You have the most remarkable manuscript because people say, oh, well, don’t burn that. They get rid of that. We’re going to want that one.
GW: Or don’t scrape the ink off and write something about herbalism or something either.
EJ: Yeah, exactly. Don’t reuse that. Don’t turn that into a book binding for another book. When the monasteries are dissolved or the libraries consolidated like they are in the 17th century, don’t get rid of those ones. Move those out of the monastery and into the state library as those are very beautiful, you know. So there are numbers of reasons why we lose medieval texts all the time. I don’t necessarily keep all my phone bills, for example. If things are dull, you don’t necessarily keep good records of them and when things are beautiful and extravagant, you do. And so we know more about martial arts from those texts. But that’s true of almost anything that you’re talking about in medieval period. It’s going to be the special things that survive, which can be a shame if you’re looking for evidence of ordinary people. But when we’re talking about sword fighting, we’re never really talking about ordinary people, are we? So it’s fine.
GW: Fair enough. Now, many of the listeners interested in studying medieval martial arts from medieval sources, and they don’t often get access to a professional medieval historian. So can I bug you for some advice for someone who has bought a copy of one of these books and they want to start figuring out how the martial arts work from them. From your perspective as a historian, what would you tell them to do?
EJ: So if you’re going to learn from these manuals, which is certainly a thing that can be done, one of the things you want to get your head around is the way that medieval people introduce things. So when we think of a guidebook, we think of things being like, step one, step two, step three. A good way of putting this is when you read 19th century or 18th century novels, you know how something like Moby Dick will be like: Here’s a chapter of plot. Here’s an essay. Here’s a chapter. Here’s an essay. It’s helpful if you think of medieval works like that where you’ll have some real practical advice and then you will have a philosophical way of bringing this together. And then they will tell you how this fits in with Christianity and that sort of thing. Don’t let that put you off. But also, you need to decide what it is that you’re trying to do when you read these books. So do you want to read it all in order and get an overall idea of what they’re saying? Or are you looking for practical step by step things, there’s absolutely no shame if you’re using this as a manual and you just want the step by step, feel free to skip ahead. You don’t need to read every philosophical idea. You don’t need to get really bogged down to the fact that they love etymology and you will have these huge digressions about how you get a particular word and they will work back and they’ll say, “And that is why the manacle is called this.” And you’re like, great. I’ve just lost 20 minutes of my life. You don’t necessarily need to be interested in that. But one thing that I tend to do with manuscripts, if I’m really trying to come to terms with them, I will often commit myself to at least two readings of something. And I’ll say, OK, I’m going to read the whole thing as it’s meant to be read, taking notes of the things that I actually find useful. And then I will go back and then read the useful bits again. Once I got the gist of it, once I’ve got an idea of what it is the author is trying to get across to me, I can then go in and pick out the things that are useful to me. And there’s absolutely no shame in that. And honest to God, most historians when we are presented with a document, we’re going in and looking for the thing that proves us right.
GW: That is a very refreshingly honest take on it.
EJ: Well, we’ll go in and we’ll go skim, skim, skim. Oh, there’s a word that I’m looking for. Great. What does that have to say? Skim, skim, skim. You are allowed to do that. You are someone who wants to use a sword manual to learn how to sword fight. So go do that. Don’t worry about becoming the world’s foremost expert on this particular manuscript or this particular book. What you want to do is learn how to apply that to your life. And it’s not the way that we think about books now. So don’t burden yourself by bringing a 21st century understanding of books into it. Allow yourself to skip around, allow yourself to not read, allow yourself to skim, and you’ll actually have a more comprehensive idea of it as a manual if you do that, I think.
GW: Interesting. OK. I have a couple of colleagues who I know are going to be jumping up and down, going “Grrr.”
EJ: Well I think it’s really interesting because as a historian, I wouldn’t do that. But I think that if what you want to do is fight, then fight, baby. Go on!
GW: OK, well, you’ve heard it from the authority herself, chaps. You can just fight. You don’t have to worry about all this book learning nonsense. Excellent. OK. Now I have experienced second-hand your glorious rant about the notion of the Dark Ages. And the thing is, what we think of as the Dark Ages or what is commonly called the Dark Ages, there isn’t anything in the way of actual sword fighting sources. But I do have many friends and colleagues who are nonetheless trying to recreate the fighting arts, given the equipment that they’ve got and given that they know what the armor was like, they know what the swords were like, to figure out how they would kill each other wearing this armor and using these weapons. But we have been indoctrinated at school with this notion of the dark ages. And I would like an inoculation, if that’s all right.
EJ: Absolutely. This is an educated audience who is interested in the medieval period. So I think that everyone listening would probably know this. But it bears repeating that the Dark Ages only refers to the early medieval period. And when we began using the term Dark Ages as historians, we don’t mean “dark” as in a pejorative. We don’t mean dark as in bad. We mean dark as an occluded. We mean dark as in there’s not a whole lot of sources. We mean dark as like OK, well here’s the sword – what do you think we do with it? You know, we have to do a lot more work in order to illuminate what was happening.
GW: So it wasn’t just because it was cloudy all the time.
EJ: I know. And you know, the problem with the conception of the Dark Ages that people have a lot of time, is in the first place they think of the Dark Ages means the medieval period writ large. And in the second place, they think that it means Bad Time. And so you’ll see things like, for my sins I am on Twitter, and I did have to get into it with an individual this week who was trying to refer to the 17th century as the Dark Ages the other day because some stuff happened that she didn’t like, and therefore, it was the “Dark Ages”. And I’m like, honey, that’s not even the medieval period. Pull yourself together. So it’s one of these things where people use it in this offhand way to mean Bad Time. And it’s like, babe, all those modern things that you’re complaining about that you don’t like are modern. There’s a lot of really sophisticated, interesting things happening in the early medieval period. And actually I’m obsessed with it. It’s not what I study by any means of the imagination because I’m very lazy and don’t want to do all the work that my fine colleagues do.
GW: I’ve always said martial arts are for lazy people. If I wanted to work hard, I’d go and do boxing or something. Just poke them with a sword.
EJ: Oh yeah. It’s a great step in the right direction I think. And you know, I get really interested when, for example, you’ll have tales of a particular king. So you know, the French king Clovis, for example, you have these great stories about how, oh, everyone is supposed to be lining up for a military inspection and someone comes in and his armor is all rusty and he took a vase that Clovis wanted, so Clovis cut his head off with an axe. Just great. Wow. OK. Interesting. So what that does show you is that there are things like military inspections, that there’s this idea that you’re supposed to keep your armour up to a certain standard. You’re supposed to keep your weapons up to a particular degree. And you get these little clues about what it is that people are expecting. And all of this is actually evidence of this really rich world that has a whole ton of stuff going on. But fundamentally, man, it was just a really long time ago with the early medieval period. It’s over a thousand years ago. And so, yeah, you’ve got to expect along the way we lost some books. We lost some things that were written down because where were you going to keep it? What’s the building that has been going since 476 that we’re going to keep all of these texts in. Explain that to me. There’s a lot of things that happen, and especially with something like martial arts, where it’s a very live thing in the medieval period. It’s very much about the way that society is organized, it’s very much about the way particular groups of people orient themselves in the world. That’s something that’s happening constantly. So you might not need a manual like that when you’ve got an actual teacher standing in your yard. You know, that sort of thing. So unfortunately it’s to our detriment that we don’t know anything about this time. It’s not that this time was bad so that we don’t know anything about it. We began using the term “Dark Ages”. What we meant was that this is a lament. This is what we could have had if we knew more about it. Not, well that time period was awful, I guess that we could all just fast forward this bit, you know? And unfortunately, because of the fact that we don’t teach medieval history, because we do have a fetishization of the Roman Empire for all sorts of colonial and imperial reasons, it has allowed us once again to pat ourselves on the back about the people that we are better than and say, oh well, you don’t need to know about those Dark Ages when everyone was being stupid and not being good like Roman Centurions.
GW: I should introduce you to some smith friends of mine who reproduce migration era swords with modern forges and heat control technology and access to steel of a purity undreamt of. They struggle deeply to come close to the level of execution that some of these blades have.
EJ: These are people with immense skill, undreamt of in our time. And it just it bothers me so much to see over a millennium of humanity just written off as stupid and then patting yourself on the back and saying, “But I’m not like them, I’m very smart.” It’s like, how can you possibly say that there’s a thousand years’ worth of people that your better than? It just doesn’t make any sense. And you know, to a certain extent, although, like yourself, I’m doing much more early modern, like late medieval, early modern work, I think that there’s absolutely no reason for us to speak about people who are doing immensely complicated things under conditions that we could never deal with either. I’m not trying to be living on a two field system without a heavy plough, get enough food going and make the sword. Are you joking? There’s all these obstacles in their way and yet they’re able to create these amazing things. And it just bothers me so much when we denigrate them.
GW: There’s one reason why I don’t do 9th, 10th, 11th century martial arts. Ain’t got no sources. I just go where the books are. To me, that’s the only reason.
EJ: That’s my approach to history. The reason why I’m a late medievalist is it’s the same thing. It’s simply easier. There are just many more documents. They survive in much higher numbers. Sometimes I say, oh, I should have been a Carolingianist just because a Carolingian minuscule is really easy to read as a text.
GW: That’s not a bad reason to take up a period. Being able to read the sources really does help.
EJ: I’ve got to say, every time I’m struggling over yet another Batard script. I’m just like, my God! But there are a lot of wonderful things that you get just from being able to have the sources. And I am not afraid to admit that I’m simply lazy and I don’t want to dig around that hard for sources, thank you very much.
GW: Yeah. OK. Now the word “Medieval” is often used pejoratively, as in get medieval on him. And I know you have feelings about this. I’m also aware that many of my listeners may not have… we have overlapping fields of influence I think. There’s a whole bunch of people who do the sword stuff and do the medieval stuff and don’t really do the medieval history stuff. So one of the reasons I wanted to get you one here is so that they could be exposed to this other huge area of expertise and places to go for information and that sort of thing. So what’s wrong with the word “medieval”?
EJ: So the word “medieval” in the first place. A lot of people don’t even take the time to understand what it means. “Medieval” literally means “the between times”. So what it’s saying is that it’s in between the ancient world and our own and in and of itself I think that that term is problematic because when you say that a lot of the time the modern world looks more like the medieval world than you would think, in the 16th/17th century, for example, there are a lot of things where there’s huge overlap. And I also think that one of the problems with it is, is that it really keeps the medieval world at arm’s length. It says, OK, well, we’re done with that now. And I even really struggle. It’s easy to say when the medieval period starts. We all say, oh, 476 when Rome falls. But even that’s problematic because if you asked people who were living in 476 they don’t look out their window and say, oh, it’s a whole new time now. Everything has changed. Oh, this is different. For all intents and purposes, sure, maybe government is run out of a different city. It’s no longer in Rome. But does that necessarily mean everything has changed? Or, if you talk to people, for example, in Constantinople, they will be the first to tell you that they’re the eastern Roman Empire and that absolutely nothing has fallen. And they’re confused about what you’re talking about. Same thing at the end, the same.
GW: I mean, the sesterces was used for another 500 years, wasn’t it? As a store of value, a way of indicating value?
EJ: Absolutely. And I mean, if you go over to Constantinople and you see things like, the Nika Riots that happen, because everyone was so deeply into chariot racing, you’d be incredibly pressed. The Nika Riots are a series of riots, which happen because some members of a particular chariot team were sentenced to death. It’s very complicated. Go look it up. You’re going to love it.
GW: Could you just spell that for us then.
EJ: So it’s N I K A riots. It means “victory” in Greek. And it’s something that people used to shout at chariot races. And so, Constantinople has enough people that it’s still running huge chariot races. It’s still got riots where thousands of people can be killed. For all intents of purposes, you go there and it’s very clear that the Roman Empire hasn’t fallen and that time doesn’t work like that. Same thing with the end of the medieval period. I don’t even know what that means. So certain people call it different times. So, no, you can say 1492. That’s a useful date, with the beginning of the Columbian exchange is one thing that you can say, OK, well, here it’s a new time. I often say 1519, so Martin Luther. But also, I think that that’s a really difficult one because as someone who does a lot of work on Czech history, the Hussites had already done it. They’d already made a form of Protestantism. They have a whole kingdom going with a Hussite religion.
GW: It’s conveniently forgotten.
EJ: Yeah, no one wants to learn Czech is what that comes down to. So, again, historians being lazy, we just skip over that because it’s, “Oh, all the documents are in Czech? Never mind. You know, let’s wait till it’s in German.” And when Germans do it, it’s like, “Oh, yes. Great. Fantastic. Here you go.” So it’s difficult to say when does the medieval period end. We just have a general vibe.
GW: It varies from place to place. I mean, in England, the Battle of Tewksbury is considered the last properly medieval battle. That’s what I was told once. That’s like 1473, I think, something like that.
EJ: I think that’s a perfectly good way of doing it.
GW: You couldn’t say that in Finland. In Finland, medieval culture didn’t really change much into the 17th century. So maybe you’d put it in Finland as maybe 1650 as a ballpark figure.
EJ: Exactly. So every single place you go and again, this is one of the reasons why medieval history is so complicated, is that all the cultures are so different that it’s simply the same things aren’t true everywhere. And so one of the problems that happens with this complicated thing, with the fact that all the edges are blurry. Time periods are something that historians have made up to make our lives easier. It’s an easy shorthand to say, oh, I’m a medieval historian. And everyone’s just, “Gotcha.” I understand what that is.
GW: Yes. That’s knights and horses and peasants.
EJ: Exactly. And I’m like, you’re not wrong. So that’s really easy and useful for me. But the problem with it becomes when you want more definitive answers. And the problem becomes when, again, we’ve got this post-enlightenment idea of the way that we tend to think of the medieval period is, again, shorthand for “bad”, that’s pejorative. So people will say, well, something’s so medieval when it’s particularly violent and which is, I’m sure this must drive you up a wall as someone who works on martial arts, because it’s like, well of course, things are violent, but as opposed to what? As opposed to now.
GW: As opposed to crucifying slaves who rebelled.
EJ: Oh, yeah. Which was perfectly fine and very civilized because everybody loved that, you know. Or if we look at the body count of wars that we have now and it’s much higher. We have a lot more actual innocent bystander deaths now.
EJ: Yeah. I would say right now there’s knock ons. I’m not saying that every time a field gets burnt down a bunch of people are going to starve to death. But look at the body count of World War Two.
GW: Yeah, right. If you say now and you mean World War Two, then I’m with you. If you say now, as in 2020 then…
EJ: Oh no, no, no. But you know, I’m also a historian so I’m like World War Two just happened. Sorry, it’s still on TV. And so these things in the modern era can actually be argued as being much more violent, much more tribal than ever. Every time someone gives me an example of something that I will agree is bad about the medieval period so, for example, like the rabid anti-Semitism in the medieval period that leads to things like pogroms where communities of Jewish people are killed. That’s awful. So is the Holocaust.
GW: It’s not like we forgot how to be horrible.
EJ: Yeah, exactly. And a lot of times we’re just being horrible more efficiently, you know? And so there will be this abhorrence of medieval violence because it is a lot more sort of person on person, like one person looking another one in the eyes and sticking them with some pointy, as opposed to, oh, well, it’s all happening over there. There was a bomb, that sort of thing. So actually, the way that we organize the violence in our world now, a lot of times it’s a lot more deadly and it’s a lot more wide ranging, but we just accept that because it’s the air we breathe, we’re saying, oh, well, that’s fine. And what’s bad is man on horse with the sword. It isn’t that it isn’t scary and I’m not saying that medieval society was nonviolent, but I mean, according to whom and compared to what? I don’t think that we’ve got to a point in time where we’re in a nonviolent society. So let’s not go throwing medieval people off a bridge because we don’t want to think about what it is that we’re doing. And this is the problem with “medieval” as a pejorative, is that you see it consistently used any time something happens that people don’t like. I see it over and over again. You know, people will refer to, for example, whatever Donald Trump has done now, I don’t know. And people say, oh, this attitude is so medieval. And I’m like, well, what do you mean? This is the most modern thing I’ve ever seen. What are you talking about? I think that it’s actually really dangerous when we use “medieval” to describe things that we don’t like, because what it does is it keeps things that we’re doing at arm’s length. And we say, oh, well, this isn’t a reflection of us. This is a reflection of an earlier society. It’s not a reflection of how things are now. And it keeps us from actually seeing the commonalities that we have with medieval society, of which there are many. We still have a lot of things going on from medieval society which are perfectly fine and great and nice and we overlook them because we say, oh, no, these are bad, violent people and you don’t want to be associated with them. And it also gets us off the hook for our own problems and the things that we’ve actually done. Because if we say, oh, this is medieval, then you don’t have to fix it. You just have to say, oh, this is not a reflection of who we are and move on.
GW: Here’s a really common misconception I come across all the time is that somehow in medieval times, violence was a lot more unstructured. Anything goes and no consequences. And OK, we didn’t have a police force, but you couldn’t just go around murdering people and get away with it all the time unless you actually were somebody extremely high up in rank.
EJ: Absolutely, a lot of the time even though there is no police force, what actually happens is that societies and communities are a lot more involved in making sure that violence is kept in check. So you have a much more systemic way of looking at violence within the community is that you tend to look at the community and you tend to look at it less like, OK, well, this is necessarily like a legal issue. It’s more of a communal issue. And yeah, it’s illegal, obviously. But that’s not the problem with going around killing people – probably going around killing people, that’s the problem. It’s a bad thing to do. So you see various ways of policing that or it’ll be people are responsible for things where you’ll have, for example, communities organised so that there’ll be 10 men and you’re all responsible for each other. So if one of you commits a crime, the other nine have to go hunt him down and be like, hey, get back here and this sort of thing. So you’re also watching each other all the time, being like, “You’re not going to hurt anyone, are you? Because if you do, then I have to..” There are all these really great and interesting ways of that. The medieval people related to violence, related to each other and related to their communities. It’s not a random, chaotic sea of violence, actually. It’s a community where certainly violent stuff did happen. But violent stuff’s happening now. So, you know what do we mean by that?
GW: You do have a book coming out called A Short Graphic Guide to the Medieval Period. Now graphic can mean many things. Can you tell us something about the book?
EJ: Yes. So it is not a comic book or graphic novel, but it’s in that vein of things. So essentially it’s just a cheeky run through of the medieval period for people who are interested in getting the basic building blocks of it. And it’s got fabulous art, is what it comes down to. So it’s part of the Icon Graphic Guide series, which oftentimes is more aimed at philosophical conceptions and that sort of thing. You’ll have a graphic guide to Buddhism or a graphic guide to Foucault are things that exist. But I got to do the medieval period, which is great. So it is one of these things where I think if you’re interested in getting a more comprehensive overview of medieval history, but you don’t want to commit too much time – I won’t be offended – this is a nice introduction. So it’s about one hundred and seventy six pages. As I say, gorgeous pictures. So it allows a good overview. It’ll get a solid place to start. It’s got a really comprehensive reading list as well.
GW: So I was going to say the bibliography might be pretty useful.
EJ: The bibliography is a is a good place to go. But if what you want to say is, here’s this gap in my knowledge, because, again, it’s gap in most of our knowledge, because of the way that we relate to medieval history, it’s a really good starting point. It’s aimed at an adult audience. It will be out early 2021. My illustrator, who is so incredibly talented, is still working on it. Which is a trophy for me because I get to see his updates. But I’m really excited for everyone else to see it. And if you are interested in broadening your knowledge but don’t want to dive right into a full book, then I think this is a great way of doing it.
GW: Excellent. So when it comes out, be sure to drop me a line and I’ll let everybody know.
EJ: Thanks so much, Guy.
GW: Or maybe we’ll get you back on here to tell us all about it.
EJ: Yes, please, that would be fantastic.
GW: OK. Now, I have a couple of questions to wrap up with. I ask these of pretty much everyone, because we always get some interesting answers. What is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
EJ: God. That’s such a good question. I suppose that I have so many, as someone who is an academic, but my friend and I wanted to do another, we were thinking about having it as a graphic guide, but we don’t know how we do it now. We’re currently wondering if we can do it as a zine. My friend and I want to do a guide to medieval art history, teaching people how to read art in the medieval period.
GW: Do it! Yeah. Yeah, do it now.
EJ: Because, there’s a whole vernacular, a whole language that is present in medieval art.
GW: It would be super helpful for interpreting how these type of books might actually be trying to represent information.
EJ: Yes, and it’s one of those things where, it’s so funny, as a medieval historian, obviously I spend all day hanging out with these things that I know about, like, well, I can look at a painting and say, oh, this is that saint, he’s doing this, we’re indicating here that this person is higher than that person. OK, well, obviously this has been done at this time because of the way the art looks. And I just know that because of years and years and years and years and years of work, but people who don’t have the benefit of over a decade of research, oftentimes there’s a whole medium, there’s a whole thing that they’re missing here because we’ve lost that ability to read pictures. So what I want to do, my friend, Dr Sara Öberg Strådal and I want to somehow get something out in the world where it’s just a quick guide of how to read paintings.
GW: That’s a great idea. We still know how to read pictures, but we know how to read, like, a meme. When my children show me a meme, very often they have to explain what it means because I’m missing all of context. But then I show them a meme from like 10 years ago and they don’t know what it is because they don’t know the context either. But once you explain the context. Oh, that’s really funny.
EJ: Yeah, exactly. And it’s one of these things, too, where I always argue that one of the reasons why, for some reason, the place where medieval history historians are popular is online. We’ve got a lot of love. And I think it’s because medieval people are meme masters, like medieval people are memeing all over the shop. And so because we spend a bunch of time looking at what medieval people do, we understand how to bring medieval things into meme culture. And so, yeah, I think that’s the hook that all I’m going to do. I’m going to figure out how to do it, but I just have to figure out how. We’re going to get there. And I think that once everyone can come along on the journey of understanding what it is that medieval people mean when they draw something, then it’ll illuminate a lot for people.
GW: So you’re going to have to come back on a third time then.
EJ: Yeah, obviously, it’s never ending.
GW: Excellent. OK. Now, my last question. Somebody gives you a million pounds to spend improving medieval history studies worldwide. What do you do with the money?
EJ: Oh, my God. Imagine. I think that one of the things that I would do with it is that I would have bursaries for people who were interested and needed to do more immersive work. And one of the big things that I would love to do is more outreach with regular people. I’m a big, big believer in actually just talking to the wider public and not a bunch of academics. I think there’s no real point in doing history if you’re talking to the same seven people altogether. So, what I’d love to do is something where you could have more adult learning classes, for example, and pay people to say, OK, well, one night a week, come learn about X about the medieval period and how that might be that some something that people could come to. The teacher is paid, but they don’t have to pay. They could just come hang out, it’d be great.
GW: I’m all in favour of paying teachers.
EJ: Pay teachers, baby. Unfortunately, they’re not paid enough. And I think that I would like to see also more digitised manuscripts. If we could digitise a bunch of manuscripts just so that they are something that we can all access online. Oh my God. Every time I find out that a manuscript is digitised, it’s like an angel gets its wings because not having to get on a plane, not having to get on a train, to go somewhere to have a look at something, and granted, there are still times when you do actually need to go. But a lot of initial work or knowing that something, for example, is just a dead end or knowing that you can learn more from it because you could see it online first: huge game changer. So I would just absolutely pour money into the digitization of manuscripts. And for people who don’t already have it, because places like the Biblioteque Nationale in France, they’ve got endless resources for this and they’re doing it and they’re doing a great job. But what about smaller libraries? What about the smaller collections? And it’s those smaller collections that I think we could really use having online.
GW: You must be familiar with the Wiktenauer.
EJ: Yes. Yes. I get so excited every time I see these things because I just really do believe that access is one of the biggest issues that we have.
GW: I remember when it used to be that the only people who got to see any of these books we were working from are the ones who owned a photocopy and it was a shitty photocopy at that.
EJ: Yeah. And you can’t read it because it’s been like a photocopy that’s gone through four different times.
GW: And that was the best we had and we were grateful we had even that. And now you can get 800dpi scans and you can see the pores in the skin in the vellum.
EJ: Being able to zoom in when you can’t figure out what that word says and just being able to zoom in and out until you, ah, I love it.
GW: And you can see where the ink’s been scraped away and the line has been redrawn,
EJ: I just wish we can have more of it. So I would say adult education courses that people can just come to, and I want those manuscripts online. That’s where the money’s gone.
GW: Excellent choices. Well, thank you very much. And it’s been a delight talking to you.
EJ: Thank you so much for having me, Guy. It’s just such a pleasure.
GW: Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Eleanor Janega. And remember to go along to www.guywindsor.net/podcast-2 for the episode show notes and for your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. If you’ve enjoyed the show, as I hope you have, then subscribe wherever you get your podcasts from and consider wiggling along to www.patreon.com/theswordguy and supporting the show. Thanks this week go to new patrons who have chosen to remain anonymous. But I know who you are and I am very grateful. And I should mention that patrons have the opportunity to suggest questions for future guests. So I let them know who I am about to interview and they tell me what they want to know. So if that sounds like your sort of thing, the address is www.patreon.com/theswordguy. Tune in next week when I’ll be talking to Tony Wolf, author, Bartitsu exponent, fighting style designer on Lord of the Rings, where we answer a thorny list of thorny problems. Can an ork bench press a motorcycle? If you want to know the answer to that question, you’re going to have to tune in next week. I’ll see you then.