GW: Hello, sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, I’m here today with Daniele Cybulskie, who, amongst other things, she has The Medieval Podcast, which now has 100 episodes out. She has a course called The Medieval Masterclass, aimed at getting people to write better about the Middle Ages. She has several books out, including Life in Medieval Europe, and she’s a featured writer on Medievalists.net. So without further ado, Daniele, welcome to the show.
DC: Hi. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
GW: It’s nice to see you. Whereabouts are you currently?
DC: I live near Toronto, so I live in Canada.
GW: Canadians are very much overrepresented on this show. I don’t know what it is about Canada, but there are so many of you who are interesting and end up on the show.
DC: That’s good to know. It’s good to hear.
GW: Is that where you’re from?
DC: Yeah. I grew up in northern Ontario. I don’t live there now, but that’s just kind of circumstance. But yeah, Canadian all my life. I did live in Scotland for a while before I knew I was a Medievalist at heart. So there was a bit of a missed opportunity.
GW: I can imagine. It’s like, oh I should have gone there and I should have seen that. Well, Scotland’s still there and the covid restrictions will end eventually. And you can go back and wander along Hadrian’s Wall, actually most of that’s in England. But there’s lots of medieval stuff in Scotland, I used to live in Edinburgh for about five years.
DC: Yeah, that’s where I lived too. I wonder if we were there at the same time. But yeah, I mean, I could probably credit it to my being a Medievalist because of all the great stuff there.
GW: So when were you there?
DC: I was there in 2000, 2001.
GW: I left in March 2001 to move to Finland to open my school. So yes, we would have been there at the same time. Perhaps we even passed in the street.
DC: Crazy small world.
GW: It is, isn’t it? OK, now you’re a Medievalist, right? There’s “Medieval” in literally everything that I’ve mentioned in the introduction. So clearly medievalism is your thing. So how did you get into it?
DC: Accidentally. I had started an undergraduate degree in theatre and then I left. I went and lived in Scotland for a while. I came back and I was going to be a secondary school teacher and that didn’t work out. I didn’t get into the school to be a secondary school teacher. And I remember speaking to some of my friends that were going off to do graduate school, and I said to them, you know, if I was to do anything in graduate school, it would be medieval studies. And it just fell out of my mouth. I didn’t realise it was coming. I had taken medieval courses and I didn’t know that you could do that for a living, medieval literature or that kind of history. And so when that came out of my mouth, I realised that was the path that I wanted to take. So I had already graduated. I did kind of a victory lap at university. And then I went and did my master’s degree in English literature, but my specialisation was in the medieval period. So that’s how I kind of fell into it.
GW: So what literature did you study?
DC: I liked Arthurian literature best.
GW: Well, yes, it was knights and jousting.
DC: I mean we talked about being geeks and stuff, but like this is the superhero literature of the time. These are people who are dealing with good and evil and making choices and magic and all of these things. So who wouldn’t love it? So I wasn’t really into Chaucer or the type of stuff that was a satire or social commentary in terms of literature. I like the stories that were stories for story’s sake. And those are the ones that I studied mostly.
GW: So The Avengers movies of the 13th century.
DC: Yeah, absolutely.
GW: Any particular favourites?
DC: Oh, Gawain. Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s the best. And it’s not because it’s popular, it’s because of the tough choices that Gawain has to make. He has to decide how he’s going to live. Is he going to live and make this choice that’s difficult that goes against his code, or is he going to let himself die? Like these are tough choices for a really moral, amazing knight. And so, yeah, that’s probably my favourite.
GW: The hallmark of good stories is it’s interesting people put in impossible situations where they have to make these awful choices. So am I right in thinking that you don’t actually swing swords around?
DC: I don’t.
GW: OK, we have a very kind of broad church here on the show. You don’t have to do swords to be on the show.
DC: I do archery.
GW: That totally counts. Is it longbow archery or is it modern archery?
DC: No, I use a modern recurve bow.
GW: OK, that just about slides in under the wire. If you had said a compound bow, I’d be like, “Nah, sorry that doesn’t count.”
DC: It doesn’t count at all, no no no. Well, let’s be honest. I use a recurve bow because I can’t afford a long bow, or I couldn’t when I started.
GW: Fair enough, but actually they’re not that difficult to make.
DC: Yeah. It would be difficult for me to make though.
GW: You don’t have a woodworking background then. I forget that not everybody does.
DC: There’s a difference between having a woodworking background, like I’ve done some woodworking but I don’t own the tools. I don’t have the space. So there’s that.
GW: Fair enough. So after your master’s degree in medieval literature, where did you go from there in terms of historical inspiration, what sort of sources, what really gets you about the Middle Ages?
DC: That it’s misunderstood. When I was taking courses in medieval literature, I was struck by things like the fact that they didn’t think the earth was flat. Like this is the first time I’d come across it. And I was in university like, how did we not know this? And so right after I finished my master’s degree, I started to have children. And at that time, I was really looking for ways to stay a part of the world that I love so much, the academic world, or at least the world of the people sharing knowledge. So not necessarily being part of post-secondary system, but like people sharing stuff that they’re passionate about. So I started to write a blog that I called the Five Minute Medievalist, and the idea was that I could make people five minute medievalists – make them medievalists in five minutes. But then people started to call me that. So that’s kind of what I stuck with. But it was through that that Peter from medievalist.net found me and then I started to write professionally for him while I was teaching some college classes. So that’s kind of how I got into that. But it was really all those questions that people have when they’re interacting with medieval fiction. I had some of those answers right just from studying and so that’s kind of where I started that blog and I started that work as a public historian.
GW: We’re faced with a similar problem in the sword world, in that most people seem to think that a medieval sword weighs like 10 kilos and armour is so heavy, you have to be lifted onto your horse with a crane and all that sort of thing. So I’m really familiar with the problem of people misunderstanding and even 19th century fencing historian Egerton Castle famously wrote in his Schools and Masters of Fencing, he describes the “rough, untutored fighting of the Middle Ages”. And it drives me absolutely mental, it’s like one hundred and thirty years ago he did this and it still drives me mad. No, you don’t have these beautiful artefacts and then use them like you were the kind of – cavemen didn’t do this either – but the kind of the modern image of a caveman with a club. It’s just doesn’t compute. OK, so what are your favourite, shall we say, bugbears, about what people get wrong about the Middle Ages?
DC: Well, I think that you’re on to something in that we really underestimate the type of craftsmanship that was going on at that time, like the weapons that you’re talking about, beautifully balanced and they’re ornate or they’re sharpened to perfection. These are amazing artefacts. You can’t have people who are collecting filth, you know, like in Monty Python, and creating these things at the same time. As you say, it doesn’t compute. So the artefacts that we are looking at, they immediately disprove things that people assume about the Middle Ages.
GW: I think a lot of it also, is we have forgotten how to do the things that they did. So like, for example, if we if we don’t have our washing machines and showers and shampoo and what have you in a few days, we really start to smell. But they didn’t have any of those things, so they stayed clean in other ways.
DC: Yeah, exactly. I was going to say that that’s another one that people are always on about, that this is a time where people were unclean, where we know they’re having baths. And we have evidence that says that if you need to quickly freshen your breath, chew some cloves.
GW: They cared.
DC: Well, yeah, obviously. I don’t know where it comes from except for just kind of repetition that people assume that you could go through your life as kind of dull and not have any thoughts and not have any hope and have any dreams. Like I remember reading someone saying that they didn’t really have friends, they had co-workers. And I was thinking, but these are human beings, of course they had friends. But people will question things like, did they love their children or did they use contraception? But of course they did because they’re people.
GW: Yeah, and the contraception may not have been as reliable as what we use now, but they had some approaches.
DC: Well, they certainly had the drive to use it. They had all the same reasons to use it that we do.
GW: This, of course, brings immediately to mind that bit in The Five Minute Medievalist where you’re talking about a red leather strap on.
DC: That’s right. Yeah.
GW: Listeners, you can’t see this, but Daniele’s background is actually these red acoustic tiles. And of course, that just… yeah…
DC: Next time I come into this booth I’ll be thinking of red leather sex toys. Thank you for that.
GW: You’re most welcome. I’m delighted to enhance your life in that way.
DC: All right. But yeah, I mean, things like sex toys and the fact that, and I do say this in The Five Minute Medievalist, is the fact that people are making not only sex toys, but ones that are red leather speaks to an aesthetic that they want. You have to take the time to dye this leather. So it’s not primitive. It’s not a primitive time if there ever was a primitive time. And, yeah, we really need to recognise that, I think.
GW: Sure. You know, I’ve seen people reproducing Stone Age culture things. And clearly we’re talking about a sophisticated culture and they have tracked flints from seventy thousand years ago. There were flints being traded across two or three thousand miles. So people were travelling and communicating. So you have a common theme in some of your work about the global Middle Ages.
DC: Yeah, and unfortunately, that’s something that I don’t know enough about, but that’s something that I think we need to know more about. And that’s because, if you go to graduate school, you have to specialise in something. And for me, it was England and France in the 14th century. So that’s really where my knowledge is or that’s where I’ve spent the most time. But there is a whole wide world outside of Medieval Europe. And so I really am trying, at least on the podcast, trying to bring more people on that are speaking to a range of experiences outside of Europe. Still, most of our content is based on Europe because that is where all of the literature is being published. It’s focussed on Europe. But I’m hoping that people recognise that it’s not a bubble. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s happening in it. If you need a place to start. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is eye opening for that. He really gets that fact that we centre Europe as being the middle of the world, but it’s definitely not, especially at this time, it’s not even the most sophisticated place in the in the world when you think of technology or advanced knowledge either.
GW: Are we thinking China for that?
DC: Who’s the best? I don’t know.
GW: It’s just the two countries in the spring immediately to mind would be Constantinople in Turkey, Istanbul now. But Constantinople as it was then, and perhaps China, mainland China, where they have gunpowder and silk.
DC: Yeah, yeah. So technologically, in terms of items, I think you can make the argument that China is ahead of everybody because as you say, they have gunpowder very early. They have paper very early, they are making silk. And a lot of that is taken by Europeans and used later on. But places like Constantinople or places where the continents intersect in terms of trade is where all the knowledge is growing. So there’s a whole lot of knowledge that is growing up through that’s coming to Europe, for example, through India, through the Middle East, especially things like maths and medicine. So, yeah, none of these things are one directional, a singular direction, there’s knowledge and goods being traded back and forth across many continents, if not all continents, we just discovered that there are some Venetian beads that arrived that in Alaska before Columbus arrived in America.
GW: Wow, I wonder how they got there.
DC: That’s the question. And that’s what makes it interesting and why I think that we need to expand our focus to a global Middle Ages, because this stuff is really, really fascinating. That said, I can’t know all that at once, which is why I bring people on to my podcast to talk about that stuff, because I think I need to know more and we all need to know more.
GW: Again, that’s one of the reasons I have this podcast, basically people like you who we’ve never met. But you’ll come and talk to me for an hour because it’s a podcast. Somehow that’s an excuse and it works. It’s great. Also, people talk to me who I would have no way of just politely saying, could we just chat for an hour some time? They’d be like, if they’re polite, they’ll probably say, yeah, sure, maybe, and it would never happen. But with a podcast, you actually get to talk to people. It’s great.
DC: And other people can other people can get something out of it, too, which is great.
GW: Yes, it’s like having like sitting in the pub together and they’re listening while the two geeks go off on each other.
DC: That’s right. Everyone at the pub is listening in.
GW: As someone interested in Arthurian legends, and clearly knights in armour and swords have some appeal. What was really your main attraction to that particular period? Given that you don’t practise swords and armour I’m guessing it’s probably something a little different.
DC: Well, the 14th century I really like because of all the disasters, and it’s not so much that I love seeing suffering and things like that, as much as I always want to know, how did they live through that? What did they do to cope with it? What did they do to express themselves during this time? The 14th century is the one where there’s famine, there is plague, there’s war. There’s everything that you can imagine that will afflict large groups of people. And I want to know more about how they deal with that. And also, the 14th century is interesting to me because of the way that people are expressing themselves. So for me, somebody who studies a lot in English, this is when English is starting to come to the fore as a language. So remember, I studied literature. So language is important. And so what makes this important all of a sudden? How are people expressing themselves in the language of the people, the vernacular instead of Latin? The language of scholarship. So all of those things are interesting to me. I do love, in terms of military stuff, the tournament idea. It’s really cool and fascinating because you have its roots in warfare. And especially practise for warfare. But how it evolves to be a sport, something safer that still has martial elements in it, but it’s made so that people can participate in a way that is safe and that everyone can enjoy. I think that’s really interesting, too. And you find that, of course, tournaments a lot in Arthurian literature.
GW: So I actually interviewed somebody recently, a guy called Callum Forbes, whose episode will already be out by now, who has been recreating these tournaments. And he gets people showing up on horses with armour and jousting with each other pretty much as they used to do it. And it’s stunning to me, firstly, how they don’t all die, because this actually is incredibly dangerous. But of course, it’s one of those things where it’s obviously dangerous and so you take precautions and have all sorts of safety protocols in place, as I’m sure they used to do.
DC: Yeah, yeah, exactly, and I’ve said this many times, but A Knight’s Tale is my favourite medieval movie and it is for so many Medievalists. When I first said this kind of out loud on Medievalists.net and I think it was 2014, maybe 2015, and I thought it was going to be laughed out of the field. But everybody loves this movie and it’s because it gets that excitement of the event. Where people are showing up and they’re getting to see a spectacle and they’re getting to have that stadium food and to show themselves off and that kind of stuff, too. But it’s very similar to the type of sporting events that we have now where, like, American football is very rough. I don’t watch it, but I’ve got to say that it’s pretty rough. And so we have all this equipment to mitigate the danger, but we still watch it or people still watch it because of the fact that it is dangerous, but also it’s full of pageantry and things like that. We still love that. So, yeah, these are dangerous sports, but they’re also super fun, I think.
GW: Sure. And I watched A Knight’s Tale when it came out and I went with two friends and one of them is a guy called JT Pälikkö who makes unbelievably good swords and is something of a specialist in early Medieval and Viking era swords. And he’s ridiculously well versed in how they really used to do these things. And the other guy who was sat next to me was called Lasse Mattila, who is an arms and armour conservator and knows literally all there is to know. He wouldn’t agree with that statement, of course, because he actually does know what he’s talking about, but he knows all there is to know about arms and armour and how they work and how they fit together and how they function as artefacts. And we were just sat there and after about maybe four or five minutes in, we had to make a decision. Are we are we trying to hold it to a standard of accuracy of period gear? Or do we just enjoy the film as the romp that it is? Fuck it. We’ll just enjoy the romp that it is. And it is an absolute romp. And the jousting is fantastic.
DC: Yeah, it’s so much fun.
GW: And then there’s one bit where there’s a closed helm which flies across the crowd, it’s like no, no, no, if that happened, there’s a head inside that. But the guy survived. So clearly there were details that, from what we know of medieval culture, there are an awful lot of liberties taken, but they get the heart of it right.
DC: That’s exactly right. That’s what happens in Arthurian literature. Much of that is written in the 14th century. It’s supposed to be about the 12th century or earlier or a time when they didn’t have tournaments. So it’s exactly the same type of thing in the Middle Ages that’s happening where people are like, this is a fun experience. Let’s have our heroes experience this as well. So, yeah, it’s a tradition of just suspending your disbelief and enjoying something.
GW: OK, so many of the listeners are interested in studying medieval martial arts from medieval sources, as I do. Most of us are not trained historians, so whenever I get a historian on the show, I like to ask them for advice to the untrained historians out there who really want to recreate medieval martial arts from the sources. How would you advise us?
DC: Well, I was thinking about this question, I’m really glad you sent it to me beforehand, and that is because you can learn a lot from these source books. But at the same time, those are only representing the people that wrote them and the people that read them. And there are a whole lot more people who are learning how to fight in the Middle Ages that don’t have access to these books or the same masters, the same sword master, that kind of stuff. So it gives you a snapshot into how some people are doing that. But from there, you can’t necessarily extrapolate that everybody is doing that or they’re doing it the same way because it’s very highly individualistic, I don’t do swords, but I do do Krav Maga. And, you know, as a martial artist, that who you have training you affects how your fighting style is. So you might be learning in a totally different way from someone else. It’s like someone from your same country, your same town, the same county might be learning it in a different way. And so I think that these fight books are super, super important because they do give us a snapshot. We wouldn’t have one otherwise because it’s such a physical thing. But they’re not necessarily representative of how everybody’s doing this. So watching re-enactors fight, you do see things like improvisation that you don’t see in fight books. And you see things that will happen that look more like Jiu Jitsu. You’re like, wow, this doesn’t look like two people who are clashing swords. It looks like two people who are grappling in a Jiu Jitsu tournament.
GW: But the grappling is there in the books, too. So we have we have abundant kind of grappling information.
DC: Yeah, I’m not saying that it’s not in the books, but sometimes you see stuff that is improvised because no fight is going to go in a way that is choreographed or nice looking. It’s always going to fall apart. You do find people improvising. And from that they learn things that worked. It’s kind of Darwinism, right? If you survive this battle, maybe you learn something that works and you’re going to teach that to the next generation. They might teach that or they might not. So, yeah, these books are really important. But I guess what I’m trying to say is there has to be an open-mindedness when you’re studying this stuff to allow for the fact that there is going to be a difference in how people are fighting at the time. So you can’t really say with any absolute certainty people were not fighting in this way because probably somebody was fighting in a way that’s not covered in the book.
GW: That’s something you see in literally every historical statement, like Vikings didn’t have two handed swords. And then six months later, somebody finds a Viking sword that has a long grip for two hands, right? Other than the massive technological anachronisms, you’re not going to find people wearing wristwatches in 1200, but there’s a massive variety to how people will actually fight, obviously. And I think that the way the books tend to be written, take Fiore, for example, are you familiar with Il Fior di Battaglia?
DC: Yeah. OK, well enough, I’m not an expert.
GW: Right. He calls his sort of technical expositions “plays”. And there’s an implication there that this is, if you like, the platonic ideal of this particular action. Now go play with it and make it work. And sometimes it’s quite prescriptive about, you know, have this foot forward or there’s a weight like this or you stand like this or whatever. Generally speaking, there’s quite a lot of slippage.
DC: Yeah, exactly. I think that what you’re saying is absolutely correct in that you should put your feet a certain way if you want this particular move to work. But then there’s a variety in how people are doing that. They may have an injury. They may be the wrong height. They might have a different weight. It depends on all sorts of factors. And so you see this in martial arts, people will make an exception that works for their own bodies. And so when you magnify that that movement over hundreds of practises, repetitions, it’s going to look different by the end. So someone who’s performed something that they learn from Fiore as a young person might perform it differently as an older person, if they’ve lived that long through that many battles.
GW: Yeah, I mean, I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of students pass through my doors at various times and not one of them fences like any other one of them. Because height and weight and aptitude also just like personality. Yeah, that’s a huge one.
DC: It’s more about being flexible in the way we look at it. So if we know now that there is a flexibility in how people are doing the same move, then we should assume that there is at least that much of a range of difference in how people are doing it back in the day.
GW: It’s also I think, worth remembering that these treatises are not, generally speaking, military manuals for training squads of soldiers who all have to do the same for the squad to work as a unit. They are teaching a people from a very individualistic culture how to win fights. A knight, in a tournament or a single combat or whatever, holding the field or something, doing some kind of feat of arms, he’s not there to do it by the book. He’s there to get people to write the book about him because he’s so cool.
DC: That’s right. Exactly. Might come up with a new thing. And something else that you said I think is really important is that up until probably the 16th century really or maybe the late 15th century, people didn’t have standing armies. So we don’t actually have much information at all about how the vast majority of soldiers were trained because they weren’t soldiers on a normal day. They were farmers. They were conscripted to fight in an army. And we don’t know a lot about how they fought. So we have to kind of allow for that fact that we don’t know anything about that one when we’re looking at that time as well.
GW: Yeah, there are some very interesting gaps. And I have several colleagues who are working on trying to figure out, well, because a lot of these fencing sources talk about “the common method”. So common fencers do this, but the scholars do that. And from hints like that, they’re trying to recreate this “common method”. What would it be like? How would it have been? And of course, unless we find some authoritative manuscript describing the current method, we’re never going to know for sure how close we’re getting. But it’s an interesting problem because it has to be simple. And it has to fit the culture. Any ideas where we could go looking for insights into that?
DC: No. I really don’t. Just keep digging, though, because, I mean, most of the sources that we have from the Middle Ages, many of them are still untranslated. So just keep digging. Something will come up.
GW: Although possibly not about the common method, because why would you write a book about a common thing? Although some people did.
DC: Yeah, well, and then the question is as well, if it’s a common method, how common is it if we don’t have any evidence of it, besides the fact people saying, “Don’t do it like this”? If nobody’s written it down, how common is it, and where have they seen this before? Have they seen it only in their own country? Have they seen it somewhere else? So, yeah, I don’t know where you would find more about that, but there’s definitely a lot of questions you need to ask as you reconstruct that to accommodate for that.
GW: And that’s actually one of the reasons why I tend to stick to the styles for which we have abundant documentation. It’s just so much easier. Let’s do some Fiore longsword stuff. OK, here’s the book. Right, there are the fifty four plays of the longsword. Let’s do those. It makes life a lot easier. Now tell us about your book, Life in Medieval Europe. Obviously, I think it’d be a great idea if the listeners went out and bought it and then read it and studied it, but to help persuade them to do that, maybe we should tell them what’s in it and then they’ll go, oh, I’d like to know more about that thing.
DC: Yes. I think everyone should read it, too. Basically, it’s a book that I wrote based on the type of questions that I get asked a lot, especially when people are looking at fiction. So questions about religion, questions about family life, questions about violence, or myths that people bring up to me about that stuff. And I wrote this book in a way that maybe is not all that conventional in that I wrote it as a series of answers to questions, which is actually a very medieval way of teaching. But in a modern sense, you can read it front to back and read it all in a consecutive fashion. Or you can go to the table of contents and you can look up the questions and you can kind of dip into the question that you want answered and then put it on the shelf. And so it’s kind of a historical book that you can just read and enjoy. And it’s kind of a reference book that you can come back to. So say you read it. You forgot about some things. You’re watching Game of Thrones and you have a question. You can come back to it and just look up the stuff that you want pretty easily. That’s the way I wrote it. But it really is addressing a lot of the daily life stuff that people ask me about, like, you know, did people love their children? Well, how do we know? Here’s how we know.
GW: How do we know?
DC: Well, we know because they grieved a lot. Grief is probably the easiest way to access that in that people wrote poems about their children that they had lost, and this includes children that had died before they were baptised or if they were young or if they died later on. So the guy who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, wrote a really moving poem about his daughter who died young. So we know from that. And we also know from things like, and I do have this in the book, where there is one cathedral that asked for permission to put a fence around their graveyard because people were sneaking in to bury their unbaptised children in the churchyard.
GW: That’s heartbreaking.
DC: I cried when I wrote that sentence, many times, actually revising that sentence. People were risking their own souls by burying their children in the hopes that their children would reach heaven. And if that is not a sign that people love their children, I don’t know what is. So that’s one of the ways that we can tell. And obviously, I mean, they bought them toys, right? They loved them. Of course they loved them. It’s surprising to me that it’s a question.
GW: And I often get asked questions that I could not possibly have anticipated that anybody would ever ask. Like the classic, were swords sharp?
DC: That’s a new one.
GW: Did armour work?
GW: And yes, of course, it is technically possible these days to get a slightly better edge on a piece of steel than they could do back then, because you’ve got better control over how the steel is made, and armour isn’t perfect. You can shoot through it. You can go through the gaps. You can break someone’s arm when they are wearing it. You can drown them in it. But it certainly is an awful lot better to get hit over the head with a sword if you’re wearing armour than if you’re not. And I have experience of both. So I can actually say that from personal experience.
DC: Was the sword sharp? I hope it wasn’t sharp.
GW: Well, I have done lots of sharp-on-sharp stuff, but no, when I got hit in the head and split my head open, fortunately it was a blunt sword. But having a proper helmet on, a proper reproduction of a medieval helmet, I’ve never had that problem. But people don’t know. And actually I would much rather that they asked.
DC: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I hope that this is not coming across as being like you should never ask a question, of course you should ask questions, but it’s kind of a surprise that we are not educated to know these things already, I think. That’s kind of what I’m getting at. It’s not our fault if we’re educated that everyone thought the earth was flat, if that’s what we’re taught then that’s what we know. But it’s surprising to me that we’re not taught differently because the evidence is obvious.
GW: I mean, to be fair, I guess many history teachers are working off books that were put together by people who didn’t really know what they were doing some time in the 1950s. We’ve learnt quite a bit since then.
DC: Although the flat earth thing, they should have known that in the fifties, but I know what you’re saying. And that’s exactly it. I don’t trade on making people feel bad about what they don’t know, because what’s the point.
GW: And it’s good that they ask. Feel free to skip this question if you like. But it just occurred to me. Is there a question you wish people wouldn’t ask you?
DC: That I wish people wouldn’t ask me? I can’t think of one. I think that the only things that get my back up, I think, are when people imply that there was racial superiority in the Middle Ages. That obviously is irritating for all sorts of reasons.
GW: It’s just like the pinnacle of arts, sciences and culture, it wasn’t necessarily Europe then. It was like China and Persia mostly. The same people who are like, OK, keep those nasty foreigners out. But no, where do we get our maths from?
DC: So I mean again, I prefer that people would ask the question. But I guess I would prefer that they accept the answer, which is that obviously there is no racial superiority then or now. It depends on how you ask that question. But I would prefer people ask the question and then understood the answer and accepted the answer that Europe is not the be all and end all and especially not that there is one race above the others. That’s never been the case.
GW: Very true. So you have a course called The Medieval Masterclass. And this is aimed at writers. Am I right?
DC: Yeah. So the whole title is The Medieval Masterclass for Creators. And I made it so that people who are creating, whether it’s fiction, many of the people who have taken it so far have been novelists, but fiction, graphic novels, film, anyone who needs to look at it in terms of three dimensions can take this course. And they don’t have to worry about getting an undergraduate degree. So this is where the people who are instructors and I have a few people who are in it right now who are instructing, Beth Rogers does food, Ken Mondschein, who you know, does warfare and swordsmanship, Tom Timbrell, who does blacksmithing demonstrations all over the UK. He does blacksmithing, and Katrin Kania does textiles. And then I do daily objects and also architecture. So this is also that people who are creating fiction can see what these things look like so they can describe it for others. Because you can read a history book and say, you know, Henry took a drink. But what does that look like? What does that cup look like? What is it made of? And with some of the objects I can actually show you, I lift them up and you can see what the weight is of those things. Or with Katrin’s textiles. She shows you how this is made so you can see the texture. And so this is really created for people who are not in it for book learning. There are other places you can go for book learning. And I do give bibliographies as well. But this is more for people who need to be able to describe a motion or to describe a physical object. And so that’s what I show them in this class. It’s very specific. But I think audiences, especially now, are looking for that kind of detail when they’re accessing that work. So the people who are creating that work also need to access that detail. So that’s what that offers.
GW: I have a suspicion though that it should come with a warning, though, that it might very well impair enjoyment of certain TV shows.
DC: Yes, but, you know, I’ve said this before. I remember doing an interview with Dan Jones and he said to me, we don’t need to be the fun police. And I think that’s true. Like, there’s a certain point at which we don’t need to be the fun police. Let people enjoy their stories about the Holy Grail as long as you also have the history accessible to them. There is a point at which people should be able to enjoy things as long as they are not touted as real history.
GW: Well, that’s the thing. I have no problems with a story that has magic or whatever, you know, Lord of the Rings. And it’s not it’s not trying to be, this is what happened in 1347. This is how this happened in Middle Earth at some point. Is it even this planet? Probably not. But it’s when something is presented as this is how things actually were, and it is demonstrably obviously wrong. That actually is happening more rarely these days, I think.
DC: Yeah, exactly. And that’s what I mean. That’s one of the reasons I created this course, is that people don’t want to see things that are done improperly any more. They want to see what it was really like. And so let’s do that. Let’s give it to them. I mean, that’s why we study, isn’t it? It’s not so we just keep trading books in the ivory tower. It’s so that we can share this information. And I think most people come to the Middle Ages through fiction, so let’s make it better fiction.
GW: Is it mostly pre-recorded stuff or is it live?
DC: I do two live classes and those live classes are with me because I run the class and that frees up my other experts to do their own thing. So theirs are pre-recorded, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that like Katrin can’t recreate a linen thread every week.
GW: Yeah, well, that wouldn’t work.
DC: So it makes sense that it’s pre-recorded and it gives you the opportunity to see things close up that you can’t really do with a zoom call. So I do two live classes because the other part of the masterclass I think is important is building a community of people who are also creating. So I do that as a webinar so people can get to know each other and then they can rely on each other and use each other for motivation, especially now, when we’re all kind of stuck and isolated. So, yeah, I do two live classes and the others are prerecordings.
GW: I do something pretty similar with my own online courses. They are primarily pre-recorded and then I have occasional live classes or AMA sessions or whatever where people can show up and ask questions. We actually have a discord group for the online school already so they can actually interact with each other directly. And it’s great because some of the people there have really interesting specialisations and professions and they get into discussions with each other so that I’m just sitting back going, oh, this is cool and just taking notes. So it also frees me from being The Teacher. I can just watch them interact with each other.
DC: That’s the thing. The class has a community board where people can do that and then after they’ve finished there’s a Facebook group. So all of the alumni, as soon as you finish, you can you can join that group and speak with other people that are creating
GW: That’s a great idea.
GW: Now obviously you’ve done a lot of things. But I do have a couple of questions I ask every guest. And the first is, what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
DC: I don’t know, because I always act on them.
GW: About a quarter of the guests say something like that. So you’re in good company.
DC: Oh, good, OK. Yeah, because I’m always acting on them. I’m always trying new things to keep myself interested. And I mean, part of the gig economy, you do need to keep trying new things as well. So there are some things that I’m going to try in the next six months, but I’m not going to spoil those now. But I don’t hold on to ideas and never do them. I guess I just always find a way to make it happen.
GW: And again, I think there’s probably something about people who act on their ideas and get stuff done and out the door are more likely to pop up so I can see them, because they have done these things. I came across you through the Medievalist.net. And then I saw your medieval course and then I realised you knew Ken, and so I got Ken to introduce us and here we are. Yeah, but if you hadn’t been producing all this stuff, I would never know who you were. Maybe the question is maybe not the best question, maybe I should change the question.
DC: It’s a really good question.
GW: It does bring up some interesting things sometimes.
DC: Yeah, just not really for me, because I’m always doing something new. That’s just how it is.
GW: OK. Obviously you care about people finding out the latest understanding of the medieval period, right? So if somebody gave you a million dollars or a big chest of money and it’s imaginary money, so you can pretty much have as much as you want, to spend improving medieval history studies worldwide, what would you do?
DC: I would expand the masterclass and I would open it up to more people. So, again, there are so many people writing such a great history and we need to keep reading their books. People need to keep writing the books, but we also need to see these artefacts. And right now, you can really only see them in museums. So I would expand this masterclass and make it so that people are able to share more of the objects that we don’t get to see very often. And I think that might start happening in general, now that people are starting to be more online with things, people are starting to think more in terms of online and how we can share these things across the globe. It’s difficult because I know museums, they depend on people actually coming in to see exhibits. But if I had millions of pounds or dollars, I would try and make it so that people could see that three-dimensional world more often and more people could access it. That would be that would be my dream.
GW: I don’t think that the museums would mind, because if you go to the Louvre, the one painting that has this ridiculous crowd around it all the time is the Mona Lisa. And the reason for that is because everybody’s already seen it. It is super famous. And so they go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, to see the original of the thing that they’ve already seen on a hundred mugs and posters and whatever else. So I think when museums do put their exhibits online with really high quality pictures and notes about where it comes from, that sort of stuff, I think people don’t go, oh, “I’ve seen a picture of that sword. I’m not going to go to the museum.” They’re going to go, oh, “That sword’s in that museum. I’m going.”
DC: Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, because we were talking about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But when I actually saw it at the British Library…
GW: You’ve seen the original manuscript? Oh God.
DC: Yeah, but I did not touch it. It was on display. But one of the good things about that manuscript that you might not see, because many of the pictures of it are in black and white, is how grimy it is. It’s really grimy from people just loving it and reading it over and over. But there is a tactile quality to these objects that you can’t really get at from just photographs. And this is kind of what I’m getting at where something like parchment, it has a sound and it has a texture. I’ve just written a book. I’m doing the revisions on it right now, about monks. And one of the things is the monks are saying when we’re reading, you can’t disturb your fellow brothers from their reading, even if you turn your pages too loudly. So what does that sound like? And I would love for other people to be able to see things like the weight of an object or what it sounds like or how it moves. So things like when people are doing reconstructions of armour, seeing that in motion is a completely different thing from seeing it on display. So that would be something I’d like to, if I could invest in things, I’d want to invest in
GW: Some museums are pretty good about actually getting people to handle objects like Craig Johnson, who I mentioned earlier, I think. He works with the Higgins Armories Trust, which has Ewart Oakeshott’s collection of swords. And I have been there when Craig shows up with these two enormous cases and it’s got swords in them. The oldest one is about three thousand years old. Maybe that particular weekend there might have been something as new as, say, 1800. And he put on gloves and he gives them to you to play with.
DC: Yeah. There’s nothing like that.
GW: There’s nothing like it. It is absolutely amazing. There one I remember best, there were other swords that were just as beautiful and pretty, but there was this Scottish back sword, mid 18th century, and the basket was really small and when you put your hand in it, it sort of did that Terminator 2 thing where the metal just kind of melts around and takes the form. That didn’t actually happen, but it felt sort of like that. And I realised that if somebody hit me over the arm with a stick or whatever so I lost all feeling in my hand, I wouldn’t drop the sword. My fingers were going to stay around the grip because the guard would keep them there. And so I would actually have to deliberately open my hand to get it out. Some of these battles would keep going for a while, you’ve been swinging your sword for a few hours. Your hand is tired, you don’t have any fine motor control. But with that sword, if you can just keep swinging your arm, you can keep hitting people. Oh my God, it was amazing. So, yeah. I totally approve of your use of the money. If I had it, I would give it to you.
DC: Well, I don’t think you get rich in podcasting.
GW: Sadly not. Maybe one of our books will do a Harry Potter on us and we’ll all be millionaires.
DC: That would be great.
GW: All right. Well, thank you very much indeed for joining me today, Daniele. It’s been a delight talking to you.
DC: Oh, you’re welcome. It was fun. Thank you.