Monday, 7 July 2014

Medieval Monday: Equipment

It's another Medieval Monday, and today, I'm looking at the most important activity for any heroic figure in a medieval setting- shopping. It's a weird thing, but in medieval stories, epic poems and so on, often we hear more about the hero's equipment than about their personal characteristics. Indeed, in many cases, we get the impression that the biggest difference between them and anyone else is the stuff they're carrying about. In many ways, the RPG thing of spending hours poring over equipment lists and digging out that plus one sword of general light entertainment is a more accurate representation than people think.

Swords are an obvious one. Arthur had Excalibur, but his wasn't the only sword of note in stories from the middle ages. El Cid had Tizona. Roland had Durendal. Even the swords that didn't have names of their own were typically described in terms of their quality and makers. Raoul de Cambrai's sword is described as being the next best sword in existence to Durendal, pointing to a kind of shared awareness of this process of talking about the quality of the weapons. There was also a tendency to talk about the swords being forged by particularly famous or even mythical smiths, from the "Galant" who forged de Cambrai's blade to Wayland Smith, who gets cited in all sorts of places.

It wasn't just swords though. That focus is a modern one. The stanza after we hear about Raoul's special sword, we hear about a golden shield. The stanza before, we hear about a helmet proof against every blow. Armour was a big deal for writers in the middle ages, and indeed, the way fight scenes are written in the literature, it is often the big thing. Modern movie fight scenes are about grace and skill and movement. Written medieval ones are mostly about personal strength set against the strength of the opponent's armour. Often, we find detailed descriptions of armour giving out beneath the strength of particular blows. I'm not saying that's an accurate description of how fighting happened, but it is how it was portrayed in fiction.

Perhaps a part of that is because there was an element of reality to it. The simple fact was that the people who could afford thick armour and good weapons had an advantage over those who couldn't. It wasn't an unfair advantage in their eyes so much as a symbol of their greater nobility and higher birth, which of course made it right that they should be able to beat up all those poorly armoured peasants. Indeed, a big part of the whole issue of becoming a knight was not nobility per se (barons, earls etc would have been insulted if you'd called them a knight in the early part of the period) but simply the ability to afford the armour.


Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Stuart, nice to meet you. Thanks for the visit and the comment on my blog. I agree that in medieval stories and epic poems we hear more about the hero's equipment, ornaments and accessories than about their personal characteristics. Reading your post is giving me an idea to tackle an medieval MG story sometime in the future.

Mina Burrows said...

Yeah, I'd have to agree with affording the armor bit.
But when you're talking about heros, it's way cooler to create characters that have little and still manage to come out on top.

Great post!