Blog Archives




I have been re-reading the Worm Ouroboros by ER Eddison lately and have found it to be immensely entertaining, stimulating to my imagination, and very useful for my own writings.



Wednesday, 4 February 2015

We are selecting objects for a new permanent display of metalwork on the first floor (Lower Gallery). Whilst searching through the museum’s reserve collections at our off-site storage facility  we found this wonderful board mounted with different types of mail armour. Mail is often referred to as ‘chain mail’ – terminology introduced by Sir Walter Scott in his 1822 novel “The Fortunes of Nigel”.

This assemblage was collected – and possibly arranged – by General Pitt-Rivers himself. Pitt-Rivers collected from many sites in London during the 1860s, often as part of early ‘salvage archaeology’ excavations during groundworks for civic construction projects such as the London Underground and the Victoria Embankment.

C17th-centruy mail with rounded jumped (butted) rings and f
lat, welded rings. 1884.31.41. 5 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The pieces of mail are described in an early catalogue of 1874 as “Twenty fragments of Chain armour. European and Oriental”. The hand-written labels date some of them to the XVII (17th) century, and several are recorded as being recovered from the “Thames Embankment”. The board has clearly been put together as an exhibit rather than a cataloguing or storage device. We have no record of whether it was ever displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum but it may well have been displayed in Bethnal Green Museum (now the V&A Museum of Childhood) and South Kensington Museums (now the V&A) where the General’s archaeological and ethnological collection was first shown to the public in London from 1874-1878 (Bethnal Green) and from 1878-1882 (South Kensington), before being donated to the University of Oxford in 1884.

The board was arranged to show a variety of different types and gauges of linkage variations within the single category of ‘mail armour’ – a neat demonstration of Pitt-Rivers’s concept of ‘typological’ arrangements. Some samples are of butted or ‘jumped’ mail, arranged in alternating rows with solid welded rings. Butted rings were the cheapest type of mail to make and buy, though the most vulnerable to a well-placed thrust from a sword or spear. Each ring is linked to four others in the European ‘4-in-1’ style.

There were also examples of what seemed to be imitation rivets – perhaps to give the illusion of quality or strength – plus large-gauge hooked mail with spiral links, which may have been worn by horses in conjunction with solid barding armour.

Mail with possible imitation rivets (left) and hooked mail, possibly for horses (right)
1884.31.41. 15 and 1884.31.41. 13 © Pitt Rivers Musuem

The different pieces of mail were fixed to the painted wooden board with metal staples. Many of the metal rings were suffering from corrosion and rust and some links were missing. When the items were sent to our Conservation lab, our conservator Andrew rearranged tangled links and cleaned the metal with a sponge and stiff brush.

Of the twenty small pieces, a handful demonstrating the different mail types were chosen for the new Metalwork display. One substantial piece of fine mail was arranged flat on the left side of the board, rather like a half-folded T-shirt, but in fact consisted of a tube that opened out into a flat piece. Perplexed, we consulted the experts. Staff at the Royal Armouries were very helpful and Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour and Oriental Collections, suggested it was part of C17th-century pajama zereh (mail trousers), worn by an Indian Mughal warrior.

Half riveted mail armour, identified as being part of Indian pajama zereh (mail trousers), India. 1884.31.41. 3
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Next, Andrew considered how to create a mount that would both support the mail for display and illustrate how it would be positioned on the body. Using a template from the armour, and based on his own leg, he made a liner out of calico, and filled it with polyester wadding. After padding it out to form a rough leg shape, he then tacked the mail to the calico with cotton thread. Research indicated this is not too dissimilar to how the armour would have been worn, as it would originally have been sewn to fabric trousers. Mail armour can adjust to many shapes and is very heavy, so this mount should support most of the weight and hopefully help visitors understand how it was worn.

Andrew at work in the Conservation lab making a new display mount for the pajama zereh leg armour
© Pitt Rivers Museum

You can see just how much work has to go into preparing just a few objects. You will be able to see the mail armour, alongside up to 200 other objects, in the new Metalwork display on the first floor this summer. In the meantime, you can still find examples of full mail shirts, plus various other armours (plate, lamellar, brigandine) upstairs on the Upper Gallery or here on our Arms and Armour site.

Helen Adams
VERVE Project Curator


The Anglo-Saxon War-Culture and The Lord of the Rings: Legacy and Reappraisal

 The Anglo-Saxon War-Culture and The Lord of the Rings: Legacy and Reappraisal

By Pritha Kundu

WLA: War, literature, and the arts, Vol.26 (2014)

The saints and missionaries of the Anglo-Saxon era (1897)

Introduction: The literature of war in English claims its origin from the Homeric epics, and the medieval accounts of chivalry and the crusades. In modern war-literature, produced during and after the two World Wars, themes of existential trauma, alienation of man as victim, horrors of the nuclear warfare and the Holocaust, and the evils of a totalitarian government, critique of narrow nationalism have become dominant; yet some memories of the Classical and the Medieval war-culture can be found, either as subtle allusion, or as a means of irony or satire, as in Catch-22 or Mother Courage. However, another ancient culture of war—that of the Anglo-Saxons—has failed to hold its sway over the thoughts of the modern war-poets and novelists. In fact, the process of oblivion began as early as the 12th century, when the image of loud and boasting warriors, bursting the mead-halls with their genial laughter, and fighting to death for the love of their lords, was replaced by the courteous Christian knights on their quest for the Holy Grail, rescuing damsels in distress, representing abstract virtues and ideals of a feudal culture. In the long run, the medieval image of the knight-warrior, alongside the raw and ‘real’ quality of the Homeric battles, has found ways into the modern imagination, and produced modern reappropriations of these old materials, whereas re-works on Anglo-Saxon literature are of a poor amount. John Gardner’s Grendel offers an existentialist and psychoanalytic approach to Beowulf, rewriting it from the monster’s point of view, and G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse recalls the tone of sadness and lament in the Old English elegies, but none of them shows interest in the war-culture of the Anglo-Saxons, which, notwithstanding the ‘fantastic’ elements of monsters and dragons, remained so realistic in the battles themselves, and a strong bond of love and duty between the warrior-king and his thanes.

Considering the scarcity of the Anglo-Saxon influence in modern war-literature in general, one may wonder and stop by a work like The Lord of the Rings or Silmarillion, which few would be willing to categorise as serious war-literature. The fictional writings of J.R.R. Tolkien are said to have revived the genre of fantasy and magic-realism, and they have been readily assimilated into the new genre of popular literature. What seems to have been forgotten in this process is Tolkien’s own passionate and critical engagement with the war-literature of the Anglo-Saxons, which has gone into the making of his otherwise ‘fantastic’ creation of the ‘Middle Earth’. Tolkien’s lecture, later published as an essay, “The Monsters and the Critics”, brought a formative and seminal change in the course of Beowulf -criticism. His fictional works are at the same time holding the Anglo-Saxon legacy with devoted fondness, yet his reappraisal is of a critical kind—it critiques, reconstructs and reappropriates several Anglo-Saxon themes and ideas while constantly referring back to an old war-culture passed into oblivion…


It’s an interesting theory of war and I think it is at least partially true. Especially from the pragmatic standpoint. I rarely argue against pragmatism or practicality.

But I strongly and truthfully suspect the whole issue is far more complicated than that. For instance, psychologically, and this is especially true once Christian ideals get fully embedded in a society (rather than a society just formally accepts Christianity as a state-religion), most soldiers (truer as time progresses, but especially true of the West) have no desire to kill or harm a civilian, innocent, or non-combatant.

Yes, pragmatically you’re wasting much needed resources and both tactical and strategic advantage by attacking non-combatants, but also, psychologically, you feel it immoral and evil to do so if it can be avoided at all. I know I do.

I would also feel it immoral to attack a combatant who has truly surrendered (rather than just making a pretense of it) or who has demonstrated they have no more desire to fight. Commiserate with that I would have no desire to kill a prisoner of war, or any helpless prisoner. To me all of those things are simultaneously entirely un-Christian and highly unmanly.

Why do we spare civilians in war?

October 13, 2014 – 06:23

Neither compassion nor charity were the reasons why Western soldiers spared enemy civilians in war, new Danish research shows.

Soldiers relaxing in a village. They are not popular among the residents, who may have been citizens of an enemy territory. (Painting by Adam Albrecht)

Soldiers get killed in war. That’s the way it is.

But it hurts us more when people not in uniform lose their lives, despite the fact that a soldier who gets killed just as well can be someone’s boyfriend, son, father, daughter or best friend — just as any civilian.

So why do we actually distinguish between soldiers and civilians? Gunner Lind, Professor of History at the Saxo Institute of the University of Copenhagen, has found answers to this question.

“Soldiers easily got into difficulties using their energy to fight civilians. So the practice was introduced, according to which soldiers would do their best not to harm civilians who refrained from taking part in acts of war,” says Professor Lind.

The military historian has presented his research in a new book, ‘Civilians at War’, in which a number of Danish and international researchers have examined the development of the concept ‘civilian’ from the 16th century up until our modern era. His research begins at a time when the brutality and customs of war of medieval times still applied.

“We all have the impression that the Middle Ages were extremely violent and that’s not far from the truth. The level of violence was really high,” says Lind.

Rules of law laid down by church father

In the Middle Ages everybody carried a weapon. Peasants might not have had swords but they had daggers or axes which they used for their work on the farm.

Conflicts in the form of rebellion, feuds or actual war could arise out of the blue because violence was a tool everyone used. When the state or a squire entered into a feud they would gather local peasants, who would bring along their own weapons. In addition to this, a warlord could hire professional warriors and draw on the services of the nobility, who had spent their youth training in the art of war.

Learned Christians and those in power in medieval society saw it as quite legitimate to go to war, despite the moral imperative of the Biblical Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill”.

Augustine of Hippo, also known as Saint Augustine or Saint Austin, who lived in the fourth and fifth century A.D., asserted that there was such a thing as just war, in which Christians could legitimately be involved.

Christians: you may kill, but spare the innocent

Killing in a just war could be justified if one’s adversaries had committed a grave injustice, such as declaring war on, or threatening the lives of, Christians. This was the reason for the preliminary declaration of war in 1095 which led to 200 years of crusades against Muslims.

Among adversaries, however, there would theoretically always be innocents who had nothing to do with the grave injustice committed, and it was deemed that they should be spared by the warring parties.

Was anyone automatically innocent? For instance women or children?

“Children, yes. But women — we can’t be sure of that,” says the historian.

He explains that women had little influence in the society of the day, and children absolutely none whatsoever. The Christian thinkers of the day, however, disagreed as to how innocent women actually were in war, and some held the belief that women could be held to account for an adversary’s unjust actions and thus be held responsible.

Professor Lind does not think the concept had much significance in practice. It was not possible, for instance, to keep a town under siege without its children suffering as a result. Hunger and disease invariably followed in the wake of a siege…


Actually I much prefer the hammer to the mace, and as this video demonstrates you have a far greater variety of handling options with the hammer.

Now I actually use hammers to fight with and have for a long time, not Medieval Warhammers but all metal modern hammers with specially designed heads and claws. Which achieve the same hooking and percussive abilities of the warhammer, but since no one today wears armor the hammer is actually far better for breaking fingers, hands, feet, elbows, ankles and various other bones and joints, for clawing (or hooking) hands and limbs and shoulders, and crippling opponents.

Hammers are quite effective close in (my preferred method of fighting), are hard to take from you (if you know how to hold them) and against unarmored opponents (almost all people nowadays unless you count ballistic vest opponents) are about as effective as knives, but they have a greater range and more kinetic force. (Though it is the well placed stab that always immediately ends the fight.)

Since studying Medieval combat treatises (in the past four or five years) I have found several new ways to make my (combat) hammers much more effective, by applying knife and short sword techniques to hammer and hatchet fighting (another favorite weapon of mine). Plus, both hammers and hatchets are nearly as fast as large knives once you get used to using them. I also like hammers with small hatchet blades on the reverse side. There’s a reason though he doesn’t show the mace as a choke or leverage weapon because the head is too bulky, clumsy, and unwieldy for that (they are really only a weapon for use against slow and armored men – can crackers), whereas the handle of a hammer and the head itself makes it an excellent leverage weapon as I have found over the years. Plus, if you practice with the right hammer then they make excellent and effective short range throwing weapons, similar to a throwing hatchet. Something the mace could never really be effective at.

Anyway I thought some of you might enjoy this video on the Hammer and Mace.

Personally I’ve never much cottoned to the mace. In my opinion the hammer is superior in almost every way.



A very nice little article on early Medieval Axes and the symbols that adorned them.


The Sign of the Cross on the Early Medieval Axes: A Symbol of Power, Magic or Religion?

By Piotr Kotowicz

Weapons Brings Peace? Warfare in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. L. Marek (Wrocław, 2013)

medieval battle axes - Photo by Boksi

Introduction: The tradition of adorning of weapons goes back into the distant past. In the early Middle Ages people also tried to make their weapons look impressive. Among numerous motifs used to decorate swords, spears, spurs and others military accessories, a special position is held by the sign of the cross. The main aim of this paper is the analysis of a group of early medieval axes marked with this sign and discovered in the territory of Europe. Then, it would be explained why this holy symbol was put on such a murderous weapon as the axe.

Among several dozens of ornamented early medieval axes, the group decorated with the signs of the cross is not very impressive. The general number of all the artefacts which are known to the author does not surpass 30 specimens. The geographical distribution of this kind of axes is very wide, but, what is interesting, the majority of finds are located all around the Baltic Sea and in the neighbouring territories. Additionally, most of them were discovered in Scandinavia (Denmark – 3, Sweden – 7 and Norway – 2), a few axes were found in Poland (4), Finland (2) and Latvia (2), and only single specimens come from Estonia and Germany. Finds from the territory of Russia (3), however, group along the basin of the  River Volga, on the route from Scandinavia to Volga Bulgaria. An isolated find comes from Bulgaria, but in scholarship it is connected with Northern Europe and the Viking culture as well.

%d bloggers like this: