Monday, October 31, 2016

Mike Loades, author of "The Composite Bow."

Mike Loades is a British weapons and general historian. He is also an author, presenter, action arranger and director. Loades has appeared as a primary presenter or supporting expert in many documentaries covering historical weapons. Behind the scenes, he has worked as an action arranger in over 100 screen productions. As a television presenter/host he is best known for the BBC series' Time Commanders, Weapons That Made Britain for Channel 4 and Weapon Masters for Discovery Networks.He wrote and presented the two-hour special Going Medieval for H2 channel in 2012. His books include, "Swords and Swordsmen" "The Longbow" and his most recent book, "The Composite Bow."

Before starting our conversation, I acquired Mike Loades latest book "The Composite Bow." And I devoured it. Something I should note, I normally don't do. It is a well written and wonderfully informative work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. My personal lack of education about the subject of Archery and especially Composite Bows, was greatly informed and expanded after reading it.

I think it provides an excellent baseline of information an initiate would want to have as a guide to different types of bows and their usages. For the person or persons who have been interested in archery or practicing archery Loades offers up a lot of what I would call Journeyman level experience tips which the casual practitioner might overlook. 

( I am not an archer.) However that being said, I picked up the odd instance where Loades discusses grip positions, thumb rings, bow conditioning, Etc. As a former gunner (Mortars and Tanks) I can tell you the subtlety of being off slightly at the initial release point for any projectile can translate to a major difference in your targeting at range. Loades brought this out wonderfully, and I hope the readers of the book are able to grasp this subtle set of passages. 

The book starts off with the basic definition and goes forward from there to examples of type and style. There are numerous quotes from Arabic, Turkish and Chinese sources which back up both the distinctive types of bows and their usage. The book is wonderfully illustrated by Peter Dennis which give a historical context to the various cultures using a composite bow, and line drawings by Robert J. Molineaux which helps to clearly and easily understand the various individual components, and different types of bows.The drawings and illustrations coupled with Loades own personal collection of items such a thumb rings, bows and arrows help to bring this book vividly to life.

If I had a personal rating system of stars I would rate this book five out of five stars.

Mike Loades schedule is generally very busy. He has most recently finished filming a documentary for NOVA (PBS) about Chinese chariots, where he test drove a replica over various terrains. Shooting both bow and crossbow from it, as well as attacking it as a horse-archer. Following that appearing in a program for Canadian TV about the history of the horse; doing various sequences, including horse-archery. That was followed by writing, producing and directing NINE x 2-minute films to feature in a forthcoming relaunch of Time Commanders. Also appearing in the studio as on-screen pundit for the new series. Attempting to find a time for us to have a quiet conversation has been daunting. However he was kind enough to set aside time to speak to me, and the following is our conversation. Thank you for your time sir.

MM: What prompted this book?

ML: I wrote an edition on The Longbow for Osprey, which received wide critical acclaim and did very well for them. They then asked me if I would like to do something on the composite bow. Since the subject coincided so much with my obsession for horse-archery, I was happy to accept the commission.

MM: How long did it take for this book to go from idea to press?

ML: Approximately two months.

MM: I wonder though if you have any evidential tales you encountered in your research to back up the prowess of the various Composite bows?

ML: I go to great lengths in the book to make the case that the composite bow was not a universally standard weapon and that it was not employed to face a universal set of challenges. As a chapter sub-title, I coined the phrase “different bows for different blows” in order to try to convey this idea. Some, like the Manchu bow were designed to deliver a heavy arrow with maximum thump, while others, like the Turkish bow were designed to deliver slender, lightweight arrows a great distance. Some bows lend themselves more to rapid shooting techniques, ideal for harassing horse-archers, while others are more suited to the knockout shot from a battlefield sniper. 

Comparisons become difficult because you have to compare like with like – same target, same weight and size of arrow, same conditions etc. For instance, I cite the anecdotal evidence of Joe Gibbs – a highly respected English warbow archer – who shot the same heavy arrow on the same day with first an English longbow and next with a Crimean-Tatar style composite bow. Both bows had a draw-weight of 180 lbs. There was better performance from the composite bow, which shot 320 yards compared to the longbow, which shot 298 yards. 

However, as I note in the book, it is recorded that the Sultan Selim III shot an arrow a distance of 972 yards in 1798. We do not know the draw weight of his bow but we do know that it would have been an altogether different arrow – we have to be very careful not to compare apples and oranges.

MM:Would you be willing to discuss what a world changing tool this type of bow became?

ML: I am probably best known for a television series called Weapons That Made Britain; although made over a decade ago pirated versions are still widely watched on You Tube. I remain mostly happy with the content of these programmes and was given an unusual level of editorial input by the producers but the title was the idea of the commissioning channel. I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity of the series just because I didn’t like the title but it was a bogus premise. The five programmes that form the series each focus on a medieval weapon – that was the core idea presented to us by the channel. 

The first problem with the title is that Britain (as a political entity) is a post-medieval concept. The second problem is that ‘weapons’ don’t make countries – people and ideas do that. So I would reject the idea that the technology of the composite bow in any way changed the world. 

It may be that some armies - The Mongols for instance - for whom it was a primary weapon, had an impact on world history but that impact was not dependent on the composite bow. In the case of the Mongols it was significant that they were horse-borne nomadic pastoralists who could adapt to a fast-moving, rapid deployment campaign tactics but it was incidental that they were especially adept with the composite bow. Yes, the bow suited their equi-centric style of warfare (though it may be argued that their siegecraft was an equally important aspect of their triumphs) but I suspect they would have had an equal impact on the world stage without the bow.

MM: Did your own physical 'experiments' inform your direction in writing this book?

ML: Well I wouldn’t say ‘experiments’ but yes shooting a composite bow is a daily exercise for me and doing so on a horse is something I do several times a week. Such immersion sometimes leads to a direct reporting of one’s experience but, I think more importantly, it prompts the questions one wants to ask when poring through primary sources. Having the physical experience also connects one much more to the historical material and little details, that may otherwise be missed, are automatically highlighted when looking at both the art and the primary source texts.

MM: What was the biggest misconception about composite bows you were able to (dispel?)

ML: Perhaps the notion that composite bows didn’t see widespread service in Western Europe because they were unsuited to the damper climate. The climate argument is plainly untrue. It is hard to envisage a damper climate than the Far East and composite bows thrived in China, being used on the battlefield by the Qing dynasty as late as the 19th century. Furthermore composite bows were used extensively as the prods for crossbows during the middle ages. Yes the materials, especially the all-important glues, of the composite bow are susceptible to damp and temperature – that is why the leather or bark outer layers are sealed with some form of varnish. However with proper care they can function perfectly well in European climes. In fact I allude in the book to the fact that the Bayeux Tapestry shows archers in Duke William’s army using composite bows and that images of composite bows are plentiful in Carolingian art – the Utrecht Psalter, believed to have been created in the 9th century, is a prime example. Norse sagas also refer to horn bows. I wish I had had the space to explore composite bows in Western Europe more but these little Osprey volumes hold the author to a strict pages count.

MM:  Tell us about the modern application of composite bows, and the resurgence of horse archery as a sport?

Mike Loades' Parthian Shot!

ML: Current themes at play in the development of horse-archery as a modern sport are analogous to the way that jousting has developed over the past 50 years. Initially there are so few people doing it that everyone is on the same page. Gradually distinctions arise. As the popularity of horse-archery grows, the fractures are already clear. 

Leading the fray are those who see it purely as a modern competition sport. I see nothing wrong with that per se – why shouldn’t they? – but with a relatively obscure historical skill such as horse-archery those with an interest in its historical provenance need to be especially vigilant to monitor what is authentic historical practice and what is not. Variations from the historical model manifest in the modern sport in numerous ways including; use of modern saddles; use of carbon-fibre arrows with plastic nocks; not using a thumb-ring (even when shooting with the thumb); extra-light bow weights; use of non-traditional quiver designs; use of non-traditional arrow-carriage techniques (for instance some people have developed systems for carrying 12 arrows in the bow hand. The historical sources are very clear that three or four arrows in the bow hand is the maximum without affecting the stability of the grip; thus it is only possible with non-military weight bows and would also be wasteful of ammunition in a battlefield situation if you had to suddenly drop the arrows to draw your sword); the use of modern track designs with rope barriers.

I do not object to any of these practices but merely note they do not follow the historical model and so this is a concern for archery historians; albeit not a concern for regular people who have no interest in history but do have a love of horses and bows. Very often these people are by far the superior practitioners, so ‘historical archery aficionados.' need to be wary of dismissing them. They have much to teach us; our job is simply to remain aware and informed of where contemporary practice diverges from historical practice. 

The situation is greatly confused by the matter of dress. As well as having the right tack and tackle, some horse-archers garb themselves in traditional national dress. For natives of lands with horse-archer cultures, this is an easy choice. For Westerners without such a tradition the options are more muddied. Some attempt some re-enactment level of historical dress, some indulge in fantasy/fetishistic role-play costumes, some have a semblance of historical dress that is more carnival than traditional and some wear modern riding clothing. Some wear modern safety helmets; some do not. My own feeling is that if the competition factions wish to be taken seriously by other sporting bodies, they need to ditch the traditional dress and settle for some form of modern attire. 

Another reason to beware the model of ‘dressing up’ for competitions is the potential confusion that arises when someone wears Crimean-Tartar dress and shoots a Turkish style bow, with Hun style arrows and Manchu style quiver, whilst riding in modern Western tack. 

As well as the competition sport, there is the performance art. Here I think anything goes for the way people dress. It all depends on the audience. Some people like the tacky faux-historical glittery costumes of “Medieval Times” type jousting, while others prefer authentic armour, tack, solid lances, the right type of horse and historically sourced rules and customs. Horse-archery will deliver a similar range, notwithstanding how some people would wish it to be.

My own quest is to follow and explore the historical model as closely as possible, aspiring to use historically authentic techniques as deciphered from ancient manuals and art and historically accurate equipment. I want to develop it as a personal martial practice and as a performance art. Having said that, I fall a long way short of perfect. For instance I still currently use carbon-fibre arrows with plastic nocks. This is mostly a budget and convenience issue. I do also shoot with bamboo arrows, though still with plastic nocks. I intend to experiment with historically accurate nocks when I find the time to manufacture them. However arrows get lost and broken and using 100% authentic ones all the time puts a strain on time and budget. I have an authentic saddle but I’m only just getting to the stage where I’m going to fit it to my new horse, who has only just reached his optimal weight. These things take time but it is what we learn on the way that counts. Mostly I do it just for the joy of doing something together with my horse. 

Oh, and by the way – for the history pedant - it is called horse-archery. Horseback archery and mounted archery are incorrect modern terms. Historically, mounted archers rode to battle but dismounted to fight. Horse-archers shot from the saddle. It is a useful distinction for the military historian; those who care about such things should strive to keep the distinction alive.

Once again I would like to thank Mike Loades for the time he spent with this interview, as I know how busy his schedule is.

Links to Osprey Publishing:

Mike Loades Facebook page:

Mike Loades website:

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tobias Capwell PhD. Arms and Armour Curator The Wallace Collection.

Photo courtesy of Tobias Capwell.

Today we have the privilege of speaking to Tobias Capwell PhD. Noted Author, historian, jouster, who has become one of the world's experts on English Arms and Armour, and is a Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection in London.-Thank you sir! 

As point of order for my readership and new readers to this blog, my interviews do not follow a script, nor are they mapped out in advance. I and my subjects set aside a portion of our day(s), and have a conversation. Thus what you see below is a natural progression of questions and answers. All my very best!

I first became aware of Tobias Capwell in 2002, when a friend who spoke of breaking lances with him at joust at the Royal Armoury in Leeds. 

The more we talked the more intrigued I became. I found it very fascinating an American had moved to the UK and was living a life exploring something which is as a rule outside of our (American) cultural history.There are very few castles in the United States. Those interested in this subject in North America must instead choose between museums and seasonal Renaissance/medieval fairs.

Our modern medieval world is actually a growing but still relatively small community, if you compare it to the world's population as a whole. It doesn't take long for a person who is endeavoring to make their mark, through hard work, and diligent research to become known. 

Recently we’ve seen more academic research taking on a practical element, with many researchers building armour, exploring fighting and riding techniques first-hand, and then reapplying the practical back onto traditional scholarly processes. Tobias Capwell was one of the first people in the field of medieval arms and armour do apply such an approach in a serious way. He has done the hard work, the heavy lifting as it were, in his effort to learn more about medieval and Renaissance arms and armour, and their use- their real use, what the truth of the subject is, rather than what it has been assumed to be.

Photo provided by Tobias Capwell

Recently I was able to Skype with Dr. Capwell (Toby to his friends);our conversation follows below.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his time, and efforts to answer my question.-Thank you sir.

MM: My first question is, how did you come to England and become associated with The Royal Armouries and the Institute for Medieval Studies?

TC: In 1995 I was offered a new post at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds and I joined them as a member of staff 1996-7. By the end of 1996 I had set my heart on becoming an arms and armour curator, so in the autumn of 1997 I went off to graduate school to start collecting some more useful academic qualifications. First an MA (Museum Studies) at the University of Manchester, then a another MA and then a PhD at the Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds.

MM: What subject did you write your doctoral dissertation on?

TC: The title was The English Style: Armour Design in England, 1400-1500, which sums it up!

MM: Which explains a lot about the special time periods I have viewed in various online venues, (websites, and YouTube videos) where you have conducted presentations.

TC: Right; it seems I have become the ‘English Armour Guy’.

MM: During your time at the Royal Armouries did the museum help you with your research and or subsidize the armour you had commissioned?

TC: Yes and no. I certainly received a huge amount of support and encouragement in my studies from members of staff at the museum, and the resources of the RA library were invaluable. But in regard to all the armour I’ve had built and worn, I researched, commissioned and paid for it all myself, I've never been officially sponsored or anything.

MM: Wow! Having paid for my own harness I can appreciate the time and expense You have incurred.

TC: Yeah. It's been hurting. For years.

MM: My wife once told me I could buy a new set of pauldrons or I could eat.-I had to think about that decision for a bit...

TC: Most of my expensive activity occurred before I was married. But my wife has always been surprisingly tolerant.

MM: My experience has been a lot less formal than yours by a long shot. But I am curious about some of the surprising things I discovered when I made the transition from mail and leather defences to plate. ( I have a German Gothic harness.) 
It changed how I did everything. It informed me of my movements, and had a lot of pluses and minuses that I hadn’t anticipated. My question to you is, after having worn your plate, for both foot combats and mounted exercises, has it given you any insights into what a knight really could and couldn't do? And as a second part to this question, can you better understand what the medieval chroniclers were writing about after wearing your own armour?

Image courtesy of The Wallace Collection.

TC: That is a big question...Well the first thing that springs to mind is that I have come to realise how very different the wearer's physical experience can be in different styles of armour. Even ignoring really different types of armour like heavy jousting armours. Taking just field armours of the late fifteenth century for example. A typical German armour of c. 1475 feels and works very differently from an Italian armour of the same period. 

Tobias Capwell on horseback,
Image courtesy of Stephen Moss, (C) Photosm Photography.

Subtle differences in the precise weight and construction of particular elements can lead to really quite radical variations in the physical experience of wearing and fighting in the armour. That's led me to think a lot more about how particular armour designs had to be geared quite carefully according to the specific fighting context. Who are you fighting? How? What weapons will you be using? What are your enemies going to use on you? Are you fighting on foot or on horseback? On open plains in the summer time, or in the mountains in the winter? What personal staff support do you have? There are so many questions which influence what your armour should look like and how it should work.

All that means that different people living in different regions might have radically different armour needs and wants. And that's just the technical side. Then you have to consider the artistic, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of people in a particular area. That plays a big role too. Armour is an expressive and decorative art-form as well let's not forget, not just a functional, utilitarian thing- it’s a hollow, wearable sculpture at the same time as it’s an artificial protective exoskeleton for combat. So... I have started to refer to learning to 'operate' an armour, rather than just to wear it. As you say above, each armour has its own strengths and weaknesses. You need to get used to what you can do, and what you can't do.

MM: As an interjection, knights were very much the fashionistas of their day...

TC: Right! Often they were intensely fashion-conscious. And deeply concerned about their dignity and public image. 

MM: You can correct me on this, as I reserve the right to mangle the historical record, but one of the medieval popes admonished knights for their tournament displays, disdaining their ostentatious display etc.…

TC: They often get criticised for being too much concerned with new fashions... updating their armour and inventing new terms for new armour parts they’d invented for jousts and tournaments when really they should be fighting the infidel.... It's a great misconception that knights were ultra-conservative, behind the times, unable to stay relevant. I blame Cervantes for that. In reality they were always the first people to adopt new military tech, including personal firearms… but I am in danger of digressing.

Getting back to your question - asking for a specific example... I always found Philippe de Commines’ reference to Burgundian knights, after a long period of peace, not being able to properly couch their lances in battle. He says something like fewer than 1 in 10 could do it. Which seems weird at first, because initially you can read that and think- 'how hard can couching a lance be? You stick the thing under your arm and off you go right?
He says something like fewer than 1 in 10 could do it. When I started playing with lance-rests on horseback in the early 2000s, I immediately understood what he meant. Because you can read that and think- 'how hard can it be? You stick the thing under your arm and off you go right?

Well, not really. When I started playing with lance-rests on horseback in the early 2000s, I immediately felt I better understood what he meant. What I think Commines means by the proper couching of the lance is the correct and effective use of the lance-rest quite specifically. A lance-rest allows you to hit your opponent A LOT harder. You can transfer 300-400 joules on impact with your target as opposed to the 80-150 your opponent gets if you don’t have a rest. But a lance-rest is hard to use. You need to train with it, and get good at it. I can see that if the Burgundians hadn't been practising constantly, they wouldn't be good at it any more.

MM: Sounds like a definitive example of 'The harder you train in peacetime the less you bleed in combat.'

TC: Right.

Tobias Capwell-Harewood House-2012
(c) Stephen Moss Photosm.

MM: In regard to your research on English funeral effigies, which one is your favorite? ( As a side note: mine is Sir William Phelip, Lord Bardolf, of Dennington, Suffolk.)

TC: Wow yeah that's a hard question to answer... there are so many.

MM:Which is why I asked. The large number of surviving effigies testifies to the huge size of the knightly class which once existed in England and I know you have done a lot of research on this subject.

TC: Bardolf is my local effigy, ten minutes drive from my house. So I suppose I have a special fondness for that one too. But right now, working on my next book Armour of the English Knight 1450 - 1500, there are some great ones there too. They'll be a lot easier to look up when I publish the dratted book!

MM: When do you think you will have your manuscript ready for publication?

TC: I submit the manuscript in January, proofing and design runs through May, and the book comes out in the autumn of 2017. And I have to stick to that, because I have to deliver a major exhibition on costume armour of the German Renaissance in 2018, so there is no wiggle room in the schedule.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Moss (c) Photosm

MM: There often comes a time when a researcher comes across an interesting fact or rediscovers something which has sort of slipped through the cracks of history. What has been the one thing which has surprised you the most?

TC: Hmm... 

MM: Was it that the arms and armour represented on the funeral effigies you have studied could readily be reproduced as real, functional equipment?

TC: There were really no major surprises when it came to the effigies. I always sort of had an intuitive sense that they were lifelike, highly realistic, and therefore reliable. But I've grown to appreciate them in ways I might never could have expected. The more I learn about them the more extraordinary they show themselves to be, as an art-form and as a sort of spiritual tool...

Most recently it has been the actual surviving pieces of armour that have been surprising me. In the second book a bigger role is played by extant pieces of armour, mostly helmets preserved as funerary achievements in churches.

I found one the other day which is fitted with special 'anti-smash' studs or stops, mounted on the sides of the skull over temples, which prevent the visor from being knocked down too far by a powerful blow. That was a surprise. It’s the sort of thing you sit at home and think- 'now that would be a good idea', but you know of no evidence for it historically. And then pow, there it is.

MM:I think this is a good point to bring up an event in which you played an important part. You were one of the 'knights' who escorted King Richard III's remains to his reinterment in Leicester Cathedral. I would personally like to thank you and your fellow rider, Dominic Sewell, for your efforts. You brought a real sense of history and solemnity to the occasion. Were there any surreal moments for you during the ride?

TC: Yeah, the whole thing from beginning to end! And it was more than a little nerve-wracking. But I think we pulled it off. Nobody died.
MM: LoL-No one died. But what about any sense of weirdness or some hair-raising sense of history? Something like that must have passed through you at some point?

TC: Most the time I was too focused on what I was doing and what was going on immediately around me… I didn’t really have much of a chance to sit back and think about it... But there were a couple moments. When we stopped at Dadlington along the way we had a bit of time where we had to just stop and wait for a while, and in that break I realised what was going on. That was the shiver moment- I realised I'd been interested in this stuff and the fifteenth century and the Wars of the Roses since I was a little kid and now I'm doing this?! It was bonkers, the whole thing. And utterly awesome at the same time.

MM: Besides the Wars of the Roses, one of the subjects you are passionate about is Henry V and his campaigns in France. One of the interesting points you have raised relates to the English archers at the Battle of Agincourt, and how precisely they and their famous longbows were used on the battlefield. In several video presentations you have shown they used their weapons as a point offensive weapon- similar to a rifle, than say an area denial weapon- where a massive arrow storm just saturated large areas of the field. If it is possible, what do you think was the biggest contributing factor to the French defeat?

Tournament of the Phoenix, Tobias Capwell receiving a blow
from Dmitry Savchenko
Photo courtesy (c) J Camacho Photography.

TC:How to be brief on that one... Basically, Henry V had very strong force cohesion, motivation, high morale, and a very clear command structure. The French had none of those things, except perhaps the motivation. Henry V made the French fight on his terms, and the French allowed themselves to be pushed into fighting on their enemy's terms. That's a Sun Tzu 101 fail right there.

Then of course Henry made sure the field conditions and circumstances of the field of battle favoured him, and placed the French at a terrible disadvantage, working against them and nullifying their numerical superiority. Henry also had force diversity (lots of archers plus a good number of men-at-arms), so the different elements of his army could complement each other, benefitting from each other's strengths and compensating for each other's weaknesses.

The French, or at least the ones who did the fighting, were all men-at-arms. Some good advantages there, but no way to balance the weaknesses. And ultimately Henry had a good plan, and implemented it to the letter. He'd worked out the odds, and they were all in his favour. All that stuff about him being ‘up against the odds’ is just not true. The French had a plan, but Henry captured it days before and knew what they were up to. And the French were not able to implement their plan in any case. They tried, and echoes of the original French plan can be found in what actually happened on the day, but ultimately it didn't work out very well for them.

MM:I think that is one of the better assessments of what happened I have been privileged to hear in a long while, thank you for your answer. What does the future hold for Tobias Capwell? I have heard rumours you are working on the Funerary Achievement of Henry V… Or better put: What is it about his equipment or the collection of equipment purported to be his that you find fascinating?

TC: Well it’s a hugely important group of objects, and yet almost nothing has ever been written about them. Certainly nothing recent, and nothing that works out what they really are. I'm working as part of a research team on that, and I'm responsible for the helm and the saddle. The work will be published next year.

Tournament of the Phoenix
Photograph courtesy of  (c) J. Camacho Photography.

MM: I have read that The Wallace Collection will be putting together an exhibition and display of Asian arms and armour. Will this display showcase the major cultures of Asia, such as the Indian/Moghul period? Persian? Korean, Japanese and Chinese examples? Will there also be the odd piece from the Pacific Island groups? I am thinking of some of the examples I have seen of shark tooth- edged weapons.

TC: Well, yes and no. Yes, we have been working hard on the catalogue of Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Asian Arms and Armour since 2005. I’ve been in charge of the project since 2012. Along with the catalogue project we are planning major new print and online publications, and a complete refurbishment and redisplay of the Oriental Armoury at the Wallace Collection. This is a diverse collection, with its own particular strengths and weaknesses. We don’t have any Korean objects, sorry. Also there are very few Japanese and Chinese things. This collection is for the most part Indo-Persian, with a good amount of Balkan and otherwise Ottoman pieces. There are smaller groups of weapons made in Sri-Lanka, Bhutan, and Indonesia. But we don’t have any of those shark-tooth swords from Kiribati, apologies! 
MM: So there will be a tighter more narrower focus? 

TC: The focus is always led by the collection and its strengths. And those don’t change, since we are a closed collection- no acquisitions, no loans, no disposals allowed.

MM: I am also interested to know if the museum owns any examples of what I have heard described as "wootz" or "crucible steel?" Will the importance of this type of high-quality steel be touched upon?

TC: Yes, we have a large number of swords, daggers and even armour made out of ‘watered’ wootz, that is, crucible steel of the type which gives you a wavy pattern when you polish and lightly etch it with a mild acid. Many of our blades have been over-cleaned over the years, so it can be very hard to see the pattern on some of them, but others are still quite clear. We’ve done a lot of research on crucible steel and its use on weapons in India and Persia, and I’m sure that subject will play a role in just about anything we do with this part of the collection.

MM: Will you and the museum produce a video or digital offering of your upcoming display? I think this is an important strategy. You and I both know one of the most restricting issue museums face, is the lack of space. Large collections such as the Wallace must have warehouses full of amazing pieces they have no room to display.

TC: Certainly, we are steadily developing our digital elements at the museum. But the Wallace doesn’t really have a very large collection of arms and armour, at least not in comparison to the other great world collections. We’re actually quite small- around 3000 objects, as opposed to tens if not hundreds of thousands. So we have almost everything on display. 

MM: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is making so many of their pieces available on their websites, and on their Facebook page. That has been a real boon to those with financial restrictions and/or a lack of free time. I have heard that they are going to publish their photographic records. That would have a really positive effect on both the dissemination of knowledge and as a way of promoting the museum. Has there been a positive reaction to what the Met is doing? I know the Wallace has begun the process themselves. Will they continue to do so?

TC: We offer more and more of the collection online all the time. It just takes a lot of work and time. But it’s happening.

MM: Lastly what do you want your legacy as a historian to be?

TC: That’s not really up to me, and I don’t really think about it. I just try to work and to publish as thoroughly, consistently, quickly, and with as much attention to detail and quality as I can. Thanks for your interest in my work!

MM: I would like to again express my thanks to Dr. Tobias Capwell and the generous gift of his time today, and his willingness to answer a great number of questions which meandered all over the historical map. Thank you sir.

TC: It’s my pleasure!

(c) Richard Pearn.

Here are a selection of video links to Dr. Capwell's efforts:

Matt Easton from Scholagladatoria's YouTube channel-

From the Wallace Collection-'Agincourt: Myths and Misconceptions'-

The BBC documentary on the Greenwich Armoury-

A link to Tobias Capwell's published work 'Armour of the English Knight 1400 to 1450'-

Tobias Capwell on Olympic Jousting-

Video Link, with Dominic Sewell and Tobias Capwell concerning the viability of Richard III's martial ability-

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Author Toby Venables

Today here at Modern Medievalist we have a new and interesting subject for our blog. We are speaking with Toby Venables, British writer, journalist, and screenwriter. He has a very interesting series of medieval books he has published, with what we consider a unique take on both medieval and familial history. -(He turns Robin Hood into a villain!)

Toby Venables' author's page at Amazon:

MM:Welcome Toby!

TV:Thank you sir for having me.

MM: Let's start off with a real basic question for our American readership who might not be familiar with your writing career shall we?

Where is Toby Venables from? Because I have a feeling your familial history influences your medieval fiction.

TV: Well, I was born and grew up in Hertfordshire in the UK, and then studied in Cambridge (at Anglia Ruskin University, not the other place) before spending most of my working life there - with quite a bit of traveling thrown in. But you're right about ancestry... I don't often congratulate people who question my heritage, but I'm glad you did! Going back to the first person who had the name Venables, named Gilbert, you find he was a son of the Count of Blois, and related to the Norman Dukes. He was a younger son, though, and inherited nothing.

His uncle Roger gave him a village in Normandy, though - called Venables - which seems to have involved some service to Duke William (later King William I of England) as this was a favorite hunting ground of his. From there, Gilbert de Venables, as he now was, served as a knight under William and after the Conquest was made Baron of Kinderton, in Cheshire. Hopefully, I will write his story one day...

There was also a later Venables in the area – Sir Thomas, whose dates are a bit vague – who slew a dragon. Apparently there's a medieval wooden screen in a local church commemorating this victory.

MM:Now that is something one doesn't get to say usually about an ancestor... Dragon Slayer! And it is also one of the aspects of the Modern Medievalist world as I call it, where there are still ties to the medieval world all around us, as there are extant and thriving Norman families alive and well in England today.

TV: Many in fact.

MM:Since you are in fact descended from Norman ancestors, did this impact your writing at an overt or subconscious level?

TV: I think that research fired my imagination and made me think about the realities of that time. Also, the gaps in the history - and there are more gaps than history when you go back that far - frustrated me, but the effect of that was positive. I realized some things could not be pinned down with any certainty, but as a novelist I can fill those gaps with stuff that makes sense, and is very likely true, if unverifiable. Some details from that research have snuck into the Gisburne stories. The hero's mentor is called Gilbert, and Gisburne's training takes place within a stone's throw of Venables (the village). But really the influence isn't about specifics so much as about inspiration, and a sense of connectedness.

MM: One of the hardest things for a writer of fiction to create is an understandable world. And I realize having to recreate a world which only exists in obscure library shelves and in museums had to be hard. Which was harder? Recreating the medieval world or making a likable protagonist out of Gisburne?

TV: I'm not even sure I can track the development of the character of Gisburne. It just kind of happened. With that, the key thing is that it grows out of his reality and makes sense within it, so setting those initial parameters is the crucial part – which really comes down to the world building. The two are – or should be – intimately connected. There was a kind of 'concept' stage with him at the very start, because a) he's a character who already exists and b) this was to be an inversion of the traditional dynamic, and that had to make sense. 

There had to be real reasons why Gisburne was 'good' and Hood was not, which also (I decided) had to be tied into the historical reality of the times. The 1190s, mainly. That actually made it easy; unlike the king in the film versions of the stories, Richard the Lionheart was a total bastard who cared not one jot for England or the English. But he knew how to win battles. Who would admire a man like that? Well, Hood would - if Hood was a similarly psychopathic bastard! So, then the world building began in earnest, and that was a whole different kettle of fish. Lots of research - some totally unnecessary, I expect! 

MM: As a personal note. I have long been what I think you would call a Ricardian, (An admirer of Richard III.) I believe a lot of history has been written by those who either worked for the winning side or wanted to make coin or connections favorable to them. Case in point William Shakespeare working for the Granddaughter of Henry VII, and his play Richard III which made him out to be one of the super villains of the high medieval period. As a result I like seeing another perspective on history, especially where a beloved character or historical personage is maybe treated differently than our beloved films and books have lead us to view them.

TV: This also means making Prince John 'good', which is more of a challenge - but when you look into it, he clearly was no worse than many medieval kings, and better than some. He was just hated in his own time and soon after, and the chroniclers really laid into him.

MM: On his (Richard the Lionheart) way back from the Holy Lands, he was forced to take the land route back home. Richard was captured by Leopold V Duke of Austria for slighting his standard at Jerusalem and for the possible murder of his brother-in-law Conrad of Montferrat. As a result, he was held for ransom (100,000lbs) of silver, for a staggering amount of money-roughly $24 million in today's market. This in essence left Prince John the bad guy for having to help his brother and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine raise the funds for his freedom. Which from many accounts absolutely beggared the English crown and her possessions. Which should help readers understand why Prince John was so hated. And why there was such poverty in England at the time. 

*It could also be argued Richard's lust for battle set up the conditions which brought about the Magna Carta, and subsequent First Baron's War.

TV: There's also the contrast with Richard, who won lots of battles but was never actually in England long enough for people to start hating him (as the people in his French domains did, and continually rebelled). What's funny is that those awful taxes that John imposes in the Robin Hood stories were actually Richard's doing. He sold everything he possibly could to finance his crusade, and once said he'd have sold London if he could find a buyer. That's how much he cared about it! 

MM: It didn't hurt Richard was also Eleanor's favorite son.

TV: True. She also makes a cameo appearance in the “Red Hand.” But basically the manuscript was too large and I had to cut her portion of the story away. However if readers would like to view it, I have that chapter on my blog where they can read the “deleted scenes.”

MM: How did this story come to life? Or rather a book is oftentimes created because of an author's vision and an editor (publisher) having faith and the ability to “see” what the story is trying to convey. Who is responsible for this?

TV: First of all, I must acknowledge the part played by Jason Kingsley - the reigning monarch of Rebellion - whose initial idea it was to have Gisburne as a hero. Also David Moore, my editor, who took that idea, shaped it, and brought it to me to see if I was interested in pitching for it. Without them, none of this would have been possible. It just so happened I had been thinking about new ways to tell the Robin Hood story - having been frustrated by Ridley Scott's backtracking - and jumped at the chance.

Right from the start, I saw it as a kind of proto superhero story, with Gisburne as a Dark Knight figure, determined to fight to keep order, and Hood as a kind of Joker figure, who really did just want to watch the world burn. Gisburne is also a tragic hero. We remember Hood as the hero, and I wanted that reality to be part of it – Hood is not a force for good, but somehow we remember him that way, and Gisburne becomes the bad guy in the legends. 

So, it became a story about history, and about legends, and about how these two things are made, and evolve. Initially, that was to be a series, as with many Abaddon books, but after the first book I felt I wanted a story arc, rather than an ongoing soapy 'story of the week' thing. It's big. It needs that. So we decided a trilogy was best. The last of these is being written right now, and is called simply 'Hood.' -And there will be blood spilled!

*Quick interjection-Jason Kingsley OBE is the owner of Rebellion. He and his brother own Abbadon publishing a fantasy/science fiction imprint, a video game production house and is also the owner of the 2000AD comics which owns the Judge Dredd franchise. Kingsley is also a dedicated medieval historian, researcher and long time jouster. He sits on the board of governance for the Royal Armouries, which is the United Kingdom's national museum of arms and armour.

MM:In addition to Jason Kingsley 'seeing' your vision, how else did he help you? And have you two actually met?

TV: Well, believe it or not, I have never actually met him! I had heard about Abaddon – an imprint out of Rebellion – and wrote a zombie novel for them set in the Viking period (once again, far more research than was strictly) necessary - The Viking Dead.Then the Gisburne idea came up, and as that developed I started to converse with Jason online about medieval matters.

Mostly I was hassling him with trivial questions about medieval life. And weapons. Lots of weapons. I know a lot more about these things than I did at the start, but the one area about which I knew nothing at all was horses. Clearly, without horses, there can be no knights, so I have bent his ear about equine matters on numerous occasions, and there is no better ear to bend on this subject! He keeps saying I should visit and see his horses in action, which I really must do...

Hunter of Sherwood Book #1 
MM: What do you attribute to the ever growing fascination with all things medieval?

TV: I think it also comes down to very practical concerns. The world becomes more electronic, more virtual. The moving parts are no longer physically accessible – in fact, there are no moving parts - and at the same time we are engaging more and more with places, people and events who we do not meet and which we often cannot influence. The world is literally slipping out of our grasp.

That sounds melodramatic, but what it inspires in us is a desire to return to a more tactile world, where things are in our hands. That is not necessarily a historical period, but there are historical period where this state was the norm. If you wanted something done, you did it. If you wanted it made, you made it, and if it broke, you could fix it. These days, we make so little that is material, so it doesn't surprise me that we crave this immediacy and contact.

The anxiety of this growing disconnectedness is, I think, behind our fascination with zombies - and the answer to the zombie apocalypse is always to get out of the city, become self-reliant - know how to grow food, light fires, build – give up consumer goods (or die in a shopping mall) and carry an edged weapon. In other words, to survive zombies, you need to become more medieval.

The Viking Dead

MM: How did your research into arms and armour influence your writing? Such as did you ever don an Aketon or a Haubergeon/Hauberk of mail?

TV: One of the research processes for me has been gathering bits of kit so I know what they look and feel like. This is Gisburne's kit, so it's partly me thinking 'What would he carry? What would he need?' and partly just understanding those objects and the people who used them. I took up the longbow, I have an entire scrip bag full of stuff. It's Gisburne's traveling bag, with eating utensils, fire making kit, sewing kit for ongoing repairs to clothing and body, everything. There's even a 12th C razor in there, which was made for me by the legendary Tod of Tod's Stuff. He also made me Gisburne's eating knife - and important part of the story!

I also have a sharp sword, a mace, a dagger, and am pulling together bits of armour as my bank account will allow. One is a Spangenhelm with a faceplate, of a style that Gisburne could have worn (and it's the unfussy, practical style he would choose). This helmet is entirely supported by the neck and weighs a bloody ton. I know that if I wore this for an hour, I would have the mother of all headaches. But it's better than losing your head altogether. I should also add there is a mail coif and arming cap which goes under the helm.

Tolerances were different then. That's what becomes immediately clear. And yes, I've worn a hauberk, though have yet to own one! Putting stuff like this on speaks volumes. It's instant learning. With the helm, for example, the adjustment of the straps dictates the position of the eye holes, which in turn may dictate whether you live or die. It's those kinds of details that come home to you and give you respect for the people who lived through those times.

MM: Who or what have been your biggest literary influences?

TV: That's a complicated one, because many of the biggest influences aren't literary... I have been involved with film in one way or another – writing screenplays, reviewing, interviewing, teaching film at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge – for some time, and many of my points of reference are cinematic. When I am writing, I visualize – think of it as a film, really. The Gisburne books draw on a whole variety of influences, including Indy, Bond, The Dark Knight... (I actually quoted The Italian Job in the first book, but that was just mischief, really.

Having said that the medium is words, which need a style, and a texture. This has been shaped by years of writing as a journalist - partly just in terms of getting it done - and is informed by more influences than I can really quantify, but writers whose styles I love include Conan Doyle, H G Wells, Bruce Chatwin and Stephen King. They're all quite pragmatic writers who mostly strive for simplicity. In the realms of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell is one of the few currently writing who really matters to me. Sometimes I encounter stuff that reads like 300 pages of research, but much as I love research I don’t really want that from a novel. Cornwell has that research in spades, but he knows it’s not really about that – that it’s about a great story, with great characters. And he just gets on with it, with that same pragmatism and simplicity. 

Pragmatism and simplicity are both qualities I greatly admire.And Beowulf. The Viking Dead was hugely influenced by my love for Beowulf - alliterative kenning and all...

MM:What does the future hold for Toby Venables?

TV: The next novel I want to write is a zombie saga set in late Victorian London and combines everything I love about that period. Starts out with a real, recognizable 1880s London, then gradually warps it, then destroys it. And goes all steampunk in the process. It's called Zombie & Son. I'm known for horror novels, but also (by quite a different audience) for historical adventure stuff. I hope this might draw those two together.

I would like to thank Toby Venables for taking the time to speak to Modern Medievalist today. We appreciate his willingness to give of his time, and share his work with us.

Each of the pictures in the article have a hypertext link which should take you to his various pages on Amazon. We will also include links to his personal blog, and his page at Abaddon Books.

Thank you Toby!

Toby Venables' Rebellion Profile

Toby Venables:

Venables' Blog-

Link to deleted scenes-

Hunter of Sherwood Novels on Facebook-

And the myth of the Moston Dragon, slain by Sir Thomas Venables-

Monday, August 15, 2016

Watch this space!


It has long been my stated goal to expand and reach a wider audience with the posts of this blog, and by way our Facebook page of the same name.

Events are now in motion where our ability to do just that are happening. I will refrain from giving details but a strategic partnership to use the common vernacular is soon to be a reality.

In the interim, I  will endeavor to keep providing interesting content of a modern medieval nature to you my friends.

All my very best!

DS Baker.