Reply To: Bows and archery

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Hans Hellinger

Well written post, but we are at odds here my friend.

“So, I would look at it this way: Tod is acting as an empirical scientist in this matter (and there is no shame in that). It’s a rough experiment, but enough to start forming opinions from.”

See, I really don’t agree. What Tod is in fact doing is very similar to the very early cutting and fencing tests with “medieval” swords 20-30 years ago, when what was meant by a medieval sword was a five lb re-enactment blunt made of questionable steel with the balance of a ball-pine hammer, or shooting modern compound bows at armor made of sheet metal. This is an exaggeration to make the point – but it’s not all that different in my eyes from the “Empirical” experiment that the flat earth guy did with a steam powered rocket to prove the earth was flat. Was it an experiment? In a sense, yes. Does it tell us anything about the shape of the planet? No.

Obviously I’m not calling Tod a Flat Earther – or anything like one. I like Tod. He makes beautiful artifacts. I know he doesn’t have a crazy agenda. And yes he does experiments. But you need three things to do a proper experiment – skill to make whatever you are testing, time and space and inclination to run your test (including instruments to measure it), and some kind of grounding in the context sufficient to have a starting point. It’s this third part that Tod lacks. Not because he doesn’t have a history degree or isn’t smart enough. I and many good researchers I know lack a history degree. And I know Tod is plenty smart, he might be smarter than me for all I know. But it’s because, quite ironically since he obviously loves the kit, he’s just not interested in that aspect of it. He has essentially accepted most of the late 20th Century tropes about the medieval world (ala filthy medieval cavemen), and buys into the shorthand of the type you would see in a typical BBC or (dating myself here) History Channel documentary. And that isn’t going to get you there when it comes to medieval anything.

When I mentioned Peter Johnsson, I’m not specifically referring to his geometrical design theories*, I was referring to his pointing out or popularizing the notion that most swords made in Europe between roughly 1200 – 1600, were not in fact like ‘sharpened crowbars’, and were not metallurgically inferior because some parts of the blade were measurably harder or softer than others; but rather that for reasons we do not entirely understand**, even though they were quite capable of producing large pieces of homogeneous steel of uniform properties***, they seem to have almost never made swords out of homogeneous metal. Rather, the sword blades were made from pieces of various different ferrous alloys – some hard, some tough, some soft, combined together for different purposes, in a manner similar to early pattern welding, which varied in the precise details depending on the type of sword it was.

Peter showed us that a real actual medieval sword was, in effect, much more ‘like an airplane wing’ than ‘like a sharpened crowbar’. You really get this feeling if you ever handle a 15th or 16th century antique (or older).

I suspect part of the mystery of the performance of steel crossbow prods may be down to a non-homogeneous design. Or it could also be geometry to some extent too of course.

By the way I think modern steel IS better than late medieval or early modern steel for purposes like making drill bits, washing machines, rebar and i-beams. I do NOT think it’s better than late medieval steel for making swords or body armor. This is why all the really serious top smiths smelt their own iron, just like they did in that Nova documentary.

Medieval steel does have some deficiencies, such as a higher slag content, but the prevalence of that particular problem has been exaggerated, and the other issues with modern steel and head treatments played down.

you make mention of how people in the past were a lot different from us in many regards. I disagree. I feel their understanding of things were different, and because our understanding of things have changed, we instead do not understand them. But, craftsmen were still craftsmen, politicians were still politicians, farmers and scientists and killers the same.

Again I disagree here though the distinction is subtle. The people, physiologically, are obviously the same. But the culture is very different. Even today, a farmer in France, Tuscany or Germany and a farmer in Mississippi or Louisiana are not the same. I know because I’ve met plenty of both. A craftsmen in say, 15th Century Florence or Augsburg is about as different from a craftsman today as a Home Depot machete is from the (original) Brescia Spadona. I don’t think it’s the same for the politicians, scientists or killers either, not by a long shot. There have been vast cultural changes in the last 500 years. I’d be prepared to discuss that in another thread.

* Which by the way if you listen to his lectures or read his articles, he does not actually claim were the basis of all swords – he finds the pattern in swords from a relatively narrow range of time and place).

** and his theories about geometry are basically an attempt to speculate as to one set of reasons for this and some other factors of sword design from this era

*** We know this because we have found billets of such in large quantities dating from this era – I myself have seen a literal raft of medieval iron billets (which were tested and proved to be of uniform quality) on display at the Lateneum museum in Switzerland which are more than 2m long.