Monday, August 30, 2010

Bonus Post -- Sword Fighting References

A couple of the sword fighters from the RWNZ demonstration sat next to me at the lunch that followed their demo, and I picked their brains a bit.  Here are some internet sites they said had good, authentic information on sword fighting.

ARMA Association for Rennaissance Martial Arts.  Covers both the Middle Ages and the Rennaissance.  Focuses on serious study of the fighting techniques of that period.  I've checked out this and it's got a wealth of information, including demo videos of fighting from various time periods.

Stoccata School of Defense. Focuses on the Renaissance and beyond, with a small amount on the late Middle Ages.

Sword Forum International.  Focuses mostly in the weapons themselves.


The last morning of the RWNZ conference, sword expert Nic Harrison, assisted by eight or so sword fighters from three New Zealand historic sword fighting clubs, demonstrated a thousand years of sword fighting history to an enthusiastic audience of historical novelists.

Nic teaches historic sword fighting techniques. He’s been the technical consultant for a number of movies. The swords these fighters used were real weapons – not the blunted wooden swords used by the SCA. Most were replicas of ancient swords, but a couple were actual weapons from their time period, all beautifully maintained. Well, as well as possible. Nic show us black marks on one blade and commented that there’s only one thing that can corrode a sword like that. You guessed it. Nic commented there’s an irony in the fact that the only thing that can damage a sword is the one thing it’s designed to seek.

The first group to fight represented the Viking period, from about 800 to 1100 AD (later in the North.) Saxons, he said, would have used similar weapons and techniques. Most of our information on how Vikings fought comes from the Norse and Icelandic sagas.

Fighters of that period were well armed. They usually carried a round shield, a two-edged sword, a saex (a foot-long knife with a long triangular blade —the word “Saxon” comes from it), and often a fighting axe. They would wear a helmet and either armor constructed of leather or, if they could afford it, chain mail running to their knees. Altogether, their equipment could weigh has much as 35 kilos, about 80 pounds.

There’s no evidence that swordsmen of that period wore gloves, by the way. Even the fighters in the Bayeaux Tapestry, which depicts William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of English, had no gloves.

This picture from the Bayeaux Tapastry, by the way,
alos shows the knight carrying a heater as his shield.

The style of helmet changed through the period.

What our fighters were wearing wasn't much different from the famous
helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial pictured above.

Those from about 700 AD, which were what our demonstrators were wearing, were rounded on top and straight at the sides. They came half way down the face in the front, with eye-shaped holes cut for the eyes. Cheeks were exposed but a metal plate or nasal covered the nose. Often extra metal was added over the eyes to create an eyebrow effect. Nic commented that the intention of the helmet designer would have been to provoke fear in those looking at the wearer.

In fact, as they started to fight, fear was a good deal of the swordsmen’s strategy. There was a lot of posturing, posing and making of noise. Nic said that often the winner of a battle was determined by who stepped back first.

The shield was not only an important part of the fighter’s defense. It was part of the offense, as well. It could be used to push an opponent or to thrust his weapon aside.

Ideally, the shield should cover the fighter from his nipple to his knees, but the bigger a shield gets, the more it is vulnerable to being pulled by the wind. Shields were made of lightweight linden wood or a laminate of linden and oak, which combined lightness with strength. Some had steel bands on the face. They had straps on the back that the fighter slid his arm through. Most shields from that period were round, but heaters were also used.

Anyone who’s read Bernard Cornwell’s King Alfred series knows of the formidability of a shield wall. Nic had the fighters demonstrate a shield wall for us and it was easy to see why opposing one would have been such a challenge. As the fighters stood shoulder to shoulder, their overlapping shields were locked to each other by tucking the shield’s right edge between the next soldier’s shield and his left arm. This created a virtually impenetrable wall across the army’s front. Further, two or more fighters so locked together could maneuver as a unit, providing a strong, wide front that would protect the weaker fighter.

Saxon defenders making a shield wall, from the Bayeaux Tapestry.
The shield wall is on the right.

Shield walls are not entirely impenetrable. Though an attacker couldn’t get through the shields themselves, he could go over the top, with a blow to the eyes or, more commonly, underneath, with a blow to the legs. Nic commented that battlefield burials are full of men with missing legs.

Here’s where a further Saxon/Viking weapon came in handy: the long axe. This is nothing more than an axe mounted on a handle as tall as a man. It gave its carrier the advantage of distance. It could be used to snake a shield away from a swordsman, making him vulnerable to the axe blow that followed.

Generally, though, Saxon/Viking combat was very close range. And individual encounters, contrary to what we read about in novels, didn’t last long. The demo fights we saw moved fast. One or two blows, that was it.

Nic said the average encounter – if one of the fighters didn’t back off immediately – usually lasted no more than 20 seconds, unless the combatants were evenly matched and extremely good. (Think of a battle as a series of encounters.) So when the sagas talk about a fight such as a holmgang – a ritualized fight settling a dispute between two men -- lasting for hours, they are playing up the skill of the two men.

How did a person get killed? Well, weapons from that period were designed to cut, rather than pierce. But unless, you succumbed to a blow in the face (King Harold Godwinson died at Hastings from an arrow in the eye) or losing a leg, you were not likely to die from a cut. Chain mail was good defense against the sharp edge of a sword. The power behind the blow, however, would crush the mail into you, cracking bones and creating internal injuries. That’s a lot harder for primitive medicine to treat than an open wound.

Next blog post: sword fighting in the age of plate armor.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey, at the RWNZ conference

It’s 9 o’clock on Friday night. The Harlequin/Mills & Boon “Romance in Red” cocktail party at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference has just ended. Despite the theme, I was ill prepared for the brilliant blast of scarlet that assailed my eyes as I stepped off the elevator. One hundred women in red make quite a statement, even if, like me, you don’t drink. I grabbed my signature Coke Zero and schmoozed.

We’d all just spent the whole day at a workshop with Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey, so everyone had something to talk about. Thinking, hah, this could be material for at least one blog, I took copious notes.

The neat thing about Vogler was that in addition to being a delightful speaker --piercingly honest, often self-deprecating and always humorous – he also presented lots of material that wasn’t in his book. He grew up on a farm, but ended up one of the top story gurus in Hollywood – a job known as a Story Analyst, the person studio relies on to tell them whether a movie script will fly.

I’ll talk a little in later blogs about how Vogler adapted Joseph Campbell’s analysis of mythical structure to constructing fiction. For now I’ll share some of the ideas and principles of storytelling that Vogler is passionate about.

Vogler strongly believes in the power of stories. “Stories have healing properties,” he said. He emphasized that he thinks stories take on a life of their own. What happens in a story needs to follow “what the story needs”.

“It’s better to be clear than pretty.” Vogler said that in this applies to the tendency to be so poetic the audience can’t really figure out what’s going on. For me, this brought back memories of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Sure it’s a movie landmark, but I could never make heads nor tails of it.

He talked about reading as an altered state of consciousness and used the example (with slides) of how molecules of unmagnetized iron fresh out of the forge look (randomly distributed) and how they look after they’ve been magnetized (all lined up in neat lines positive charge to negative charge.) He said the unmagnetized condition is like the reader’s mind when they open a book. The magnetized condition is what the writer wants to happen after the reader’s mind is exposed to the results of the writer’s craft.

Later, as Vogler talked, it became clear to me why we want to “magnetize” the reader. First, successful stories resonate with the reader. One of the ways they do that is by touching on universal truths we all share, no matter what our culture. Another is through the emotions the story evokes. As writers, we magnetize our readers through the themes we choose (those universal truths) and through making our readers experience the same emotions our characters feel.

Another way is how we orient our readers to the story. Readers have an instinctive feel for story patterns. They know, at the very least, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end, as Aristotle put it. Today we use more sophisticated words, such as introduction or set-up, development, crisis, climax, turning points, black moments. Vogler’s Writer’s Journey introduces a parallel way to structure your work based on the stages of a quest. But no matter which structure you use to label the parts or stages of your story, readers have an instinctive feel for “this is where we are”. A story that lacks or hides that structure throws the reader, one of the reason, I guess, why films like Pulp Fiction are so disorienting until you take the time to figure them out. Structure guides our readers through the story, giving them clues as to what to expect next. The successful story teller takes what they expect and turns it on its head in a way that the reader says, “Oh, wow, I should have seen that coming.” (One of the reasons why in a really successful work, readers go back and read it again.)

Chris Vogler also gave some advice about the successful pitch: “Make the person you’re pitching to think it’s about them.” He gave the example of pitching to a top level Hollywood woman producer: “It’s a story about a woman who’s the most powerful person in the world.” The story sold.

His advice makes me realize how important it is with a query to know as much as you can about the person you’re querying and really tailor your query to them.

OK. I’m up at 6:00 am tomorrow for a special session in which you submit the first page of your manuscript in an open session, someone reads it out loud, and the editor/agent critiques it before the whole group (a little scarey, but it’s a good way to learn). So that’s it for tonight.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Saxon Non-Invasion – More Evidence

I’ve been blogging about the evidence against a Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. I’ve mentioned that the type of vessels the Germanic peoples had during that time period were not likely to be able to carry over troops in the scale an invasion would require, and that the forts along the “Saxon Shore” – the southeastern coast of England – were more likely supply or trade depots than provision for defense.

There’s other evidence I’ve unearthed as well.

First, there’s the myth that when the Romans pulled out, everything fell to pieces. The population dropped. Farmers abandoned their lands and it went back to forest.

Well, Michael Jones in The End of Roman Britain notes that Britain did not turn into a wasteland. In fact, it supported a healthy population of 4 million or more. He also points out that, rather than returning to forest, the era shows evidence of more forest being cleared.

Jones’s assertion is supported by the pollen studies described in Episode 2 of the BBC TV series, Britain AD, hosted by Francis Pryor. You can view this episode on U-Tube.
It makes fascinating watching because it piles up the evidence against a large-scale invasion. Pryor’s book Britain AD, which I’ve quoted in this post and elsewhere in my blogs is an expansion of the ideas in the TV series.

Anyway, pollen studies are based on the premise that the pollen of plants growing in an area get deposited into the soil, where it remains for thousands of years. By taking a soil core, you can see what was growing in the area during a particular period of time. Core samples taken all over Britain show that the land did not revert to forest, as has been traditionally suggested. Instead, the same land continued to be farmed. There were no vast wildernesses.

Second, when there is an invasion, you expect archaeological evidence in the form of towns and villages destroyed, buildings burned, and religious shrines (especially) sacked and destroyed. With a few exceptions, there is almost no evidence of this throughout Britain for that time period. Instead there appears to be a period of building and expansion (this is the period in which Wroxeter grew from a small fort to a major center) throughout the land.

Francis Pryor, in his book Britain AD lists dig after archaeological dig in which continuity, not destruction, is evident, and in which “Celtic” and “Saxon” families appear to live side by side. He states, “Whenever archaeologists have taken a close look at the development of a particular piece of British landscape, it is difficult to find evidence for the scale of discontinuity one would expect had there been a mass migration from the Continent.” (Britain AD, p. 15)

Third, there is the issue of DNA testing. The BBC show provides some interesting evidence that might support an invasion. A researcher testing the males on the eastern side of the UK, found a preponderance of genes that are supposed to link to Anglo-Saxon traits. The problem is another team of DNA experts at the same university found totally conflicting results.

Today historians and archaelogists are split between two camps. Traditionalists still maintain that the theory of a large-scale Anglo-Saxon invasion explains the changes in culture and language which Britian experienced. But at least half the historians and archaelogists working at the coal face of research today maintain that these changes can easily be explained by forces and processes that don’t require an invasion.

And if there was no invasion, then there was no need for an Arthur to save Britain. Or was there?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Left-Handed Sword Fighting

Medraut, the hero in my Arthurian trilogy, is left-handed. I’ve often heard that left-handed fighters have the advantage (hence the term “sinister”, which is Latin for “left”). I decided to investigate how Medraut could use this to his benefit.

First stop, Stephan’s Florilegium ( For those of you who aren’t familiar with this website, it’s a compendium of various on-line discussions between members of the Society of Creative Anachronism. Some of the material is extremely well-researched, though you have to be careful to ensure that the information you’re accessing is appropriate to your historical period, as the SCA covers everything from late Roman times to the Renaissance. There are also a lot of articles describing how to recreate historical technologies with modern materials, so you do have to keep on your toes. Probably the largest benefit to the articles, though, is the sheer volume of material on the practical details of how something feels or works. It’s articles like this, I find, that help me get into the heads of the people living with and using those technologies.

Click under “Combat” and you’ll find archived several articles on left-hand fighting (LH-fighting-msg).

OK, this is what I learned. There is something different when you’re right-handed facing a left-hand opponent. Blows fall differently. If you’re not used to fighting a lefty, it indeed does give the lefty an advantage. But only if the righty is inexperienced fighting a lefty. An experienced rightly like Lancelot, for example, could knock the sword out of Medraut’s left hand every time.

Unfortunately, SF didn’t give me the details of technique I wanted. And, darn, I know I’ve seen some good stuff somewhere! On to Google and “Left Handed Sword Fighting”. Hah! Just found “Heinrich’s Guide to Sinister Sword Fighting” Another member of SCA.

Now we’re into the nitty-gritty.

First, protecting yourself. Heinrich says, “As a left handed fighter, you will also get pounded along the left side of your body much more than a righty would his right. This is because you are mirrored to your opponent. Your sword side is directly across from his sword side. Your shoulders are going to be hit and well as your legs and rear end. Wear enough armor to cover these areas without sacrificing mobility.”

Shots: Believe it or not, the various thrusts a sword-fighter makes are called shots (at least in SCA.) And there are a lot of them. Heinrich comments, “You may want to avoid putting a thrusting tip on your sword especially at first as it will inhibit some of your key shots. By this I mean the quick snap shot to the face. This is a bread and butter shot that all lefties need to be able to throw quickly and accurately. You can end a fight before it even starts by throwing this quick flat to the face of your opponent as they come in on you or as you engage. This works well for righties as well so be aware.”

What makes fighting a lefty-so dangerous? There’s a lot of info about fighting techniques on a webpage by another SCA member, titled "Sword and Shield Fighting" ( In addition to a lot of practical advice about weapons, armor, fitness and shots (and the link for a good video on U-tube where he demonstrates all this), he’s also got a whole section on fighting left-handed.

What makes fighting a lefty different from fighting a righty (if you’re right handed) is that the shots and defense all come from a different side? If you’ve had some practice sword-fighting, you automatically know where to move your sword and shield to counter the blows coming in. With a lefty, the same blows are coming from the opposite side. And your sword/shield may not be there in time to stop them. It’s easier for a lefty, for example, to hamstring a righty because their blows come in to the back of the righty’s leg.

The reason for the difference in direction of shots is how the two swordsmen’s equipment match up in a fight. In a right on right or left on left, your shield is opposite the opponent’s sword. So you’re in a position to deflect most of your opponent’s sword blows with your shield. With left-on-right, the configuration is shield to shield and sword to sword. In other words, as a righty, your sword arm is vulnerable to your opponent’s sword.

Somewhere I read – and I’m really frustrated because it was a long time ago I sourced this material and can’t find it now – that the smartest strategy for a lefty was to keep moving forward and around towards his/her left, which forces the righty to step back in order to protect his/her sword arm. This puts the opponent’s balance at risk, and balance is crucial for a good sword fight. It also forces the righty to shift his shield further over the front of his/her body, which limits his/her visibility.

Of course, a righty experienced at fighting a lefty can use exactly the same strategy on the lefty.

Finally, from My Armory dot com ( a little bit on how a good righty could defend him/herself against a lefty: “IMHO as a right-handed fighter I would be inclined to move in very fast right sloping steps (i.e. counter-clockwise) around the left-hander's outside to 1) keep away from their shield, 2) close in and bind up their sword arm with my shield, 3) attack from behind with my short edge to their head, neck ,shoulder, back, torso, hip, back of thigh, or back of knee, or long edge to the calf, lower leg or ankle, maintaining pressure with the shield the whole time. Should they disengage I would continue circling right so that any strike they could manage would be back-handed and easily deflected with my shield while presenting me with a number of open long-edge targets along their outside. I think such maneuvering would negate most blade contact while employing the shield in exactly the way it is intended to be, as a dynamic defensive barrier. I think the trick is to maintain superior speed and not be thrown off by the idea of fighting a left-hander, just get in quick, tie them up, and cut them down. Again this is strictly IMHO.”

OK, Medraut, you have a lot to learn.

BTW, the realities of life have struck and I’m going to have to limit my blogging to once a week, if I’m going to do a good job of it. I’ll be posting my blogs on Mondays New Zealand time from now on (that’s Sundays for you in the Western hemisphere.)

Friday, August 6, 2010


Time for a change in pace. I was listening to an RWA tape lately and heard editor Jennifer Enderlin from St. Martins Press talking about two of the signs that a writer is writing for herself, rather than for the reader.

The first of those signs is inserting every bit of research you’ve done into the manuscript. The research grinds the story to a halt while details not necessary to understand the action are revealed.

I’ve seen examples of this myself recently while critiquing historicals. Usually, I’ve noticed, it’s accompanied by a change in voice. The author switches out of whatever character’s POV that section of the book is in and into what I call “professor mode”. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m reading a text book, rather than a novel.

Jennifer Enderlin suggests that authors only put in as much research is necessary to understand that moment of action – no more. She says to use research sparingly, and in small drips.

The most effective use of research I’ve seen is where it’s incorporated into the action. In a work I just critiqued, for example, a character is shown making soap. The steps blend with the other action going on around her, with the other action often interrupting her job. By the time I had finished reading that passage, I knew how they made soap in the middle ages, but I didn’t feel the soap-making had intruded on the story. Very effective.

There are, of course, authors who can pull off big sections of research-exposition and entertain the reader with it. James Mitchner was a master at this. His Space left me breathless at how he could entertain me with highly technical stuff. But Mitchner knew how to turn the background into a character in his book – in fact, it was the essence of his voice. Plus it was a skill he developed over time.

The other sign of a writer writing for himself, according to Enderlin, is over-writing. This is when every detail of a simple action is drawn out in minutia.

Her example went something like, “She got up. She went to the window. She pulled aside the curtains. She pushed open the sash. She looked down. In the garden below she saw a small black dog.”

Her advice was to cut to the chase, which I interpret to be something like, “She pushed open the window and saw a small black dog in the garden below.” (Assuming the dog is important).

Jen’s remark has made me extremely conscious of two-verb sentences in which the first verb is the beginning of an action and the second verbs finishes it . For example, “He reached over and touched her.” Why not just “He touched her?”

Usually the beginning of the action isn’t necessary and slows the pace. You can cut dozens of words from a chapter just by doing a find on “and” and checking the usefulness of the verb that came before it. A real blessing when word count is important, yes, but even more of a blessing in creating that tight prose we all want.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Saxon Shore -- Evidence of Prospertity?

The Saxon Shore forts are imposing stone fortresses along the southeast shore of England. Dominating the coastline where they are set, the forts are probably the most impressive examples of Roman architecture remaining in Britain today. In my last blog I talked about where their name came from -- the region in a 4th century Roman military document was referred to as “The Saxon Shore”. Popular wisdom has it that the forts were established to ward of Saxon invasions, but scholars today are questioning that theory.

Here are some alternatives that have been put forth. All consider the Germanic threat to have had minimal impact on the decision to build the forts. In other words, they don’t think there was much threat.

Donald A. White looks at the historical context of the dates of construction. Caurausius and Allectus had led the British in a successful rebellion against the Romans in 289-296. White proposes that the forts were actually constructed to prevent a Roman invasion to retake the island.

Also taking into account historical context, John Cotterill proposes that the forts were, in fact, constructed to supply the Roman army on the Continent with grain and products from Britain. Remember, they were built pre-410 AD when the Romans withdrew. Britain was one of the principal “granaries” of the Roman Empire.

The most recent work was done by Andrew Pearson, who examined each of the forts in detail and within their local context. He came up with some startling conclusions.

First, the forts were not built all at the same time, which argues against an integrated defense system. (Francis Pryor in his book Britain AD notes that the Roman military document in which the forts were mentioned was a listing of what was there, not a strategic plan.)

At the beginning of the third century Dover, an older Roman fort, went out of use, while Caister-on-Sea, Reculver and Brancaster were built. This leads us to wonder if there was a need for defensive structures, why was Dover retired? In fact, the deployment of these structures makes no sense militarily, if they were intended to protect the coast from Saxon raiders. They are all way up north, near the Wash, rather than down along Suffolk, Sussex, Essex, Kent and Hampshire, which were closer to the Continent and much more susceptible to Saxon attack.

The remaining forts were built during the last 40 years of the 3rd century. Portchester was abandoned for a period of ten years directly after its construction and at least half line were abandoned when the Romans withdrew, which theoretically would have been the time Britain was most vulnerable.

Francis Pryor provides an account of the archeological evidence for the purpose of the Saxon Shore forts. He notes how different these forts are from the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall.

Now, there is no question that Hadrian’s Wall and its chain of forts is a defensive structure. Furthermore, if you examine Birdowald, Housesteads, or Carlisle (my own pet as it’s my heroine’s home “castle”), you’ll discover a similar pattern. The fort is square or rectangular, with a gate centered in each of its four walls. The gates are set opposite each other and a road leads from one gate to its opposing gate. This creates a grid around which a large number of buildings are crammed in a very orderly, logical fashion. The pattern repeats throughout the Roman Empire.

Pearson noted evidence of an orderly military-style grid at Reculver, and that the other two early forts appear to have layouts intended for defense. The layout of the remaining Saxon Shore forts, however, are nothing like that. Portchester, especially, has been subject to intense excavation by archaeologist Barry Cunliffe, who is extremely respected for his meticulous field work. There is no evidence of the cramming with permanent structures set on a well-organized grid. In fact, there seems to be a paucity of structures within these forts. There are large empty areas. Strucures that existed were laid out in a haphazard fashion. Remains found in these structures, including infant burials, give evidence of civilian occupancy, instead. It’s been suggested that large areas of the forts were used to store goods.

Pearson and Pryor both feel that these fortresses, rather than serving as a defense network, may have served as collecting and distribution points for British trade.

Pryor in the vast collection of archeological evidence he references in Britain AD, asserts that rather than collapsing after the Roman withdrawal, Celtic Britain experienced an economic boom instead. His hypothesis is supported by Michael Jones, to whom I referred in an earlier blog, and a number of the scholarly articles collected in The Celtic World, the mammoth, academic tome edited by Miranda Greene.

No longer weighed down by the immense burden of taxes paid to Rome, Britains had more money to spend on themselves and their country. There was a building boom, with the revival and refurbishment of many settlements. And, there was a lot of trade abroad. (Pryor gives a vast amount of evidence in the last chapter of his book Britain AD.) This is where the Saxon Shore forts come in. Pearson has noted that they are almost all located at points like near the mouths of rivers or at road junctions that make them ideal of the collection and distributions of goods.

During Roman times, then, these ports may have been used as Cotterill proposed, to send British products to supply Rome. But upon Rome’s withdrawal, they may have remained as trade centers for Britain’s commerce with the Continent. Not all – remember some were abandoned. But that still leaves the other half.

No matter how you look at it, that leaves the Saxon Shore forts as evidence of a period of prosperity – not of a country hunkering down under prospective Saxon threat.