Medieval Arms and Armour: a Sourcebook
Volume I: The Fourteenth Century
Thank you for joining this issue of the Medieval Herald, Dr Moffat.
It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me. Please do call me Ralph.
We’d like to begin with a brief account of your studies to date, please, and to learn what it was about the medieval period that caught your imagination.
After finishing a degree in Scottish History at Edinburgh I went on to study for a master’s in Medieval Studies there. An AHRC collaborative doctoral studentship came up at Leeds. The collaborators being the Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds, and the Royal Armouries. My thesis was a critical edition and analysis of three fifteenth-century tournament manuscripts in the Royal Armouries Library. I greatly benefited from ‘on the job’ training with the Senior Curator of European Armour Karen Watts.
My fascination with all things medieval goes back to my childhood and time spent with my parents. When visiting a castle or battle site my pa would tell stirring tales and sing songs of Wallace, Bruce, Rob Roy MacGregor, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. My ma was one of those people who reads every single word of every single label on an information panel. This great combination of fact and fancy imbued me with a real passion for the past.
What inspired you to compile a sourcebook on arms and armour?
My inspiration for the sourcebook is driven by two factors: inquisitiveness and frustration. I am one of those pedants of the most revolting kind. I want to know why a piece of armour or weapon is so called. What is the etymology? Was such a word used by craftsmen and fighters of the time or is it a neologism spawned from the imagination of later connoisseurs and scholars? When it comes to references in secondary sources to medieval documents such as inventories and wills, I want to see these for myself. One simple paleographical error can radically change the meaning of a word.
I was such an incessant nuisance to the expert curatorial team at the Royal Armouries with my questions that it got to the point where “Why don’t you find out for yourself!” became the default reply. Was there one place a novice such as myself could go to find the answers? Frustratingly, no.
There are some magisterial studies from such glossarists as the Sire Du Cange and Victor Gay. Many of the entries, however, rely on printed editions of documents. These entries are then referred to by such giants of arms and armour scholarship as the Baron de Cosson, Sir James Mann, and Dr Claude Blair. The palaeography and language skills honed at Leeds put me in a good position to chase such sources down and make them more accessible to a wider readership. I was clear in my mind that I didn’t want to produce a publication that purported to give a linear development of fighting equipment. The sources can be used in such a way that the reader can build their own knowledge and understanding. Illustrations, of course, are essential to any study of material culture. Although it’s always best to get some cotton gloves on and handle real objects wherever you get the chance.
You have begun with the fourteenth century but also plan two further volumes, don’t you? It’s an ambitious project – it must be daunting?
Daunting is an understatement! Once we get into the fifteenth century there is a proliferation of source types: arming treatises, poems, letters (what did happen to the armour and armourers sent from Lombardy to Henry V?!). As the equipment becomes more elaborate so the vocabulary must catch up. There are also such spanners in the works as the divergence of English French from French French (if this makes sense?) and an increase in loan words coming from northern Italy.
Where did you begin and how did you decide to organise your research?
It’s hard to remember – I’ve been squirreling away notes and references for years now. Initially the idea was for a single volume covering 1200 to 1500. However, it soon became clear that there were far too many sources for just one. I’m certainly not the most organised of thinkers (just read these answers!). I was certain, however, that original sources were the best way of my getting to understand more about arms and armour. I’m far, far, too fragile for living history and crafting with hammer on anvil hurts my ears and elbows.
Tell us something about the documents you have examined in your work. What’s the most unusual source for information on weapons that you have uncovered to date?
What I find fascinating is the agency of the producer. For example, an inventory is scribbled by a scribe trying to keep up with the jargon spouted by a professional armourer. These documents tell of a deeper meaning to objects. The earls of Warwick pass down through the family the sword and mail shirt of Guy of Warwick from the famous romance. The Duchess of Gloucester leaves her son his father’s mail shirt that has a design of cross over the heart. She knew fine well that her husband had been murdered and this was her son’s only physical connection to his father.
Have you been able to view – and maybe handle? – examples of many of the weapons that you discuss?
Yes! As Curator of European Arms and Armour at Glasgow Museums I am in an extremely privileged position. The fantastic collections belong to the people of the city. Access to them for all is key to what we do. Having visitors come to Glasgow Museums Resource Centre to hold real arms and armour gives me that same feeling of excitement as I felt the first time I experienced it at the Royal Armouries.
And do you have a favourite?
Asking a curator if they have a favourite object is akin to asking a parent if they have a favourite child! Most do (both curators and parents) but wouldn’t dare admit this openly.
What do you think military historians, re-enactors and curators will find of most interest in your book?
Even if a reader uses this volume just to check a word in the illustrated glossary, this would make me happy enough. However, my hope is that those interested will delve deeper. A military historian will find out that armour might not be nearly as expensive as they had thought. A living history practitioner will discover that the Black Prince bore armour from when he was seven years old and that the warlord Marshal Boucicaut used siege ladders as monkey bars. Also, I hope to reduce the chance of injury with such details as using fabric and leather to line mail defences for the groin.
Curators are compulsive categorizers. I once spent a whole afternoon explaining to a colleague in our documentation team that a morion and a Spanish morion were, in fact, two totally different types of helmet. Concrete definitions and standardized spellings give curators a warm feeling inside when it comes to filling in forms and entering details into files and databases.
And what does your sourcebook tell us about the names of weapons and the language of arms and armour?
There’s definitely humour. For the Flemings a nasty spiked club is called ‘Good Day’. I’ve speculated (without any evidence) that certain mail collars were called Pisans because if you went on a night out in Pisa without one you were bound to have your throat slit!
At this point we usually ask what’s next for you but this time we know: volumes 2 and 3 are to follow. How are they going?
I’ve amassed far, far, too many sources for the next volumes. The real challenge is to whittle them down to a number that will be manageable and informative. Selecting images will be a joy, but deciding what to leave out a sorrow.
And finally, what has your experience been of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online and in-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days?
As someone who really enjoys engaging people with Glasgow Museums’ remarkable collections using a screen has been a real challenge. Slides are one thing but object handling is another. On the flip side I’ve reached out to colleagues and fellow researchers in a way I might not have done before (especially those in other time zones).
Conference organizers are going to have to dramatically rethink their formats. Trying to convince your organization that a 20 minute paper with slides can’t be given in a video conference is increasingly difficult. For me, the real business gets done in the coffee breaks and social functions. Meeting new people with interesting ideas and catching up with colleagues in your field is essential. Building networks and enabling fruitful discussion cannot (currently) be done in a virtual space. I’m going to a conference next year where, after we’ve given our papers, we’ll be fighting it out with pollaxes! If the next two volumes don’t appear you’ll know why!
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RALPH MOFFAT is Curator of European Arms and Armour at Glasgow Museums. He is responsible for the care, research, and dissemination of information of the people of Glasgow’s collection.