Archive for September, 2010

I am excited today to have Jeri Westerson, another medieval novelist, and author of the Crispin Guest series, here today to talk about medieval weapons.  Funny, how I can’t seem to engage many people in a good discussion about caltrops these days, but Jeri is a woman after my own heart!

Welcome, Jeri!

Jeri Westerson on Medieval Weaponry:

Ah, weapons.  I am very keen on weapons.  Medieval weapons, that is.  I like to use them and like to see them in action.  Don’t get to see all that many castle sieges these days, but the occasional joust gives me my fix.

I have a decent cache of a few weapons.  You really can’t write about a medieval knight–ex-knight or otherwise–without owning a sword yourself.

Mine is your basic medieval broadsword.  It’s about forty inches long and weighs three pounds.  the hilt, that is, the handle, is designed for one-handed use, because your other hand would be busy with either a shield or a dagger.  (More on daggers in a moment.)  You could be using your standard chevron shaped shield or a smaller, round shield called a buckler.  And the use of the sword with its swashing sound and the buckler gave us the term swash-buckling.

Fighting with a broadsword is not an elegant affair of feinting, reposting, and other flairs of swordsmanship.  It’s too heavy to use like that, for one.  And for another, you were out to do damage with it.  It’s a slashing and chopping weapon more than a stabbing one, though you can certainly stab with it.  And as far as I can tell, there were no fancy rules as you have with fencing, with those dainty little foils.  You use your sword in all manner of ways.  By swinging, chopping, holding the blade by one hand and jabbing it, using the heavy pommel at the base of the hilt for slamming skulls, using your fist as well, and slashing his legs out from under him.  It was rough and tumble and they meant business.

Though my sword is not sharp it can still do the job.  And it’s rollicking good fun slicing off the scalps of pumpkins come October.  It’s different at my house.

I also own a few daggers.  A Baselard was popular in the 13th and 14th centuries.  This was a dagger whose blade was double-edged and sharply tapered to a deadly point, with little or no Quillons or hand guard.  It was popular amongst the ladies to ward off unwelcome attention.  No really does mean ‘no’ when you wield one of these.  They were often bejeweled.  Medieval bling.  Sometimes the blades were so long that there was a fine distinction between them and swords.

Another kind of dagger was a Kidney Dagger–so called not for its intended target but for the kidney shapes at the base of the handle.  A Main-Gaucheis held in the left hand (gauche) hand while crossing swords with your opponents as an extra defensive and offensive weapon.  Misericorde–meaning mercy–was a straight, thin-bladed dagger used for a mercy stroke on a fallen adversary.

Other weapons of  war included a Flail–sometimes confused with a Mace.  A mace is a club with a steel or iron head used to clobber soldiers but good.  Sometimes it was a spiked ball called a morning star.  The flail, on the other hand, is a handle with a chain and a very nasty bit attached to that; spiked ball, spiked rods, etc.  The original heavy metal band, to be sure.  Also called “holy water sprinklers” (I have a cool set of earrings like that as well as a full-sized flail.  Like I said, different at my house.  You can’t imagine how well-behaved my husband is.)  One of my favorite mace stories is about Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s brother.  Since he was a bishop, a man of God, he wasn’t allowed to shed blood, so a sword was out.  Instead–as a warrior–he used a mace!  Bashing in one’s enemies’ head was okay with the Church, I guess.

Lance–a knightly weapon used in battle as well as in tournaments.  (If you see foot soldiers holding something similar, those aren’t lances.  They’re called Pikes and they use them to spear the oncoming knights or their horses.)  Lances were sharpened for battle and for the Joust a l’Outrance, which was a joust to the bitter end when one’s opponent surrendered, was wounded, or killed.  For the Joust a Plaisance, the lance was blunted (called ‘rebated’) and fitted with a coronel, an iron head with several blunted projections to redistribute the shock of the lance.  The forepart of the lance shaft was also made to be easily splintered, as the splintered lance proved a hit, although this wasn’t always the case.  The Vamplate was added to provide protection for the hand of the one holding the lance.  In early jousts, the knight would aim for the chest plate of the other combatant.  But later, a small shield plate was attached to the chest plate as a place to aim for that was a little less lethal.  It was not sporting and showed a bit of cowardice to flinch away from an oncoming blow.

Mangonel–Often confused with a catapult.  This is another variety of siege engine for hurling stuff.  The arm of the machine was forced back by winding a rope around a beam to create tension.  Let the rope go and wham!  The arm snaps up, stops at the frame, and the object in the arm keeps going.  (Momentum isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law.)  Trebuchet–Another siege engine using a counterweight (a bucket filled with rocks) to launch heavy objects at castles.  Balista–Also mistaken for a catapult but works more like a giant crossbow, hurling large missiles, bolts, and burning objects.  Sounds like fun!

Petard–a hand bomb filled with Greek Fire used to break down gates explosively.  If you were to ‘hoist with your own petard,’ you were thrown into the air by how poorly you managed your bomb, so it was your own damned fault.

Are we more civilized today?  I don’t think we are masters of our emotions any more now than in yesteryear.  One has only to look at police records to see that men still get into brawls, and sometimes weapons are involved.  But battling for entertainment?  Well, boxing and wrestling are big.  Paintball players are out there battling to a colorful and bitter end, and then there are the jousts staged by various organizations, from re-enactors to Medieval times to the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England.  There is also competitive jousting, too.  Those folks are trying to get sponsorship to make it into the next extreme sport.  I’m all for it.

yes, we fight and watch mock battles for the thrill of it, just as they did.  We still get into tussles; we still draw our weapons when our honor is impugned; we still kill and we still die.

So let’s be careful out there.  A little chivalry is a good thing.


Jeri leaves the chivalry to her ex-knight turned detective Crispin Guest.  Her latest novel in her Medieval Noir series is The Demon’s Parchment, now in bookstores.  Read the first chapter on her website

Jeri Westerson

Noir and hard-boiled fiction seem to be in Jeri Westerson’s blood. She was born and bred on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Reporter, would-be actress, graphic artist; these are the things she spent her time on before creating her hard-boiled detective, Crispin Guest—ex-knight turned PI, solving crimes on the mean streets of fourteenth century London in her Medieval Noir series. The Boston Globecalled her detective, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass.” Her 2008 debut from St. Martin’s Press, VEIL OF LIES, garnered nominations for the Macavity Award for historical mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel. Her second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, is also a 2010 Macavity finalist and a finalist for the 2010 Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Her third, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, is due for release October 12. Jeri is newsletter editor and on the board of directors for the southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is president of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime. She is also a member of Private Eye Writers of America and the Historical Novel Society.

Jeri’s New Novel, The Demon’s Parchment:

“Westerson skillfully lulls her sleuth and the reader into a sense of “I know what is going on,” then zings them with the truth. Absolutely first-class; highly recommended for fans of medieval mysteries. –Library Journal, Starred Review

The Demon’s Parchment will be available October 12!

Week Three of the Blue Bells of Scotland opens at The Burton Review.  Included are a guest post about my experience on the banks of the Bannockburn, where the great battle happened, and a giveaway.  Stop by and leave a comment for a chance to win a copy!

Today’s Research: The Post Bannockburn Years

There are two great frustrations in research: the lack of sources and conflicting sources.

In the past two days, as I work on book 3, The Castle of Dromore, before returning with a hopefully fresh eye to The Minstrel Boy  (book 2 of the trilogy), I am scouring sources online and in my collection of books and DVD’s on all things medieval and Scottish, for Robert Bruce’s movements in the months from June 1316 to June 1318.  Broad strokes are easy enough.  Mostly.

There was a tremendous famine from 1315 to 1317.  Bruce himself led raids into England in the summer of 1316.  In early 1317, Bruce joined his brother Edward in Ireland for the war there, and stayed till May.    In the autumn of 1317, Bruce got mail–from the Pope.  He refused it because it was not properly addressed to him as king.  Also in the fall of 1317, Bruce began his third attempt at re-taking Berwick from the English.  The siege would last until April of 1318, when Peter Spalding, an English soldier with a Scottish wife, betrayed the English and allowed the Scots in.  (The lesson to be had here is, do not insult a man’s wife.  He let the Scots in because he was tired of the English soldier’s snide cracks about his Scottish wife.)  After taking Berwick, Bruce returned, in the spring of 1318, to ravaging the north of England, in his attempts to both force Edward II to make peace and finance the war which Edward II insisted on carrying out.

A gripping story is not built on broad strokes, however.  It is built more on the day to day, on the sights, sounds, smells, conversations, the emotional lives of the characters living out these events.  It is not enough, for the historical novelist or reader, to know that Robert Bruce was in Ireland from about January to May of 1317.  It is important to know where in Ireland–was he fighting in mountains or on boggy terrain?  Did they cross small creeks or raging rivers that drowned some of their number?  What was the weather?  Rainy, dry, hot?  (Actually, Bruce was there during the worst of the great famine of 1315-1317, which was so bad that the peasants were turning to cannibalism.  There are some vivid details waiting to jump off the page, in that piece of information.)  Who he was fighting with and against?  What were their colors, their personalities, their backgrounds?  Did they have tents or sleep in the open?

One detail that comes to us is the story of the laundress giving birth.  With the enemy not so far behind, Bruce stopped to make sure she was cared for, refusing, even for the sake of himself or his men, to leave a woman alone in such a situation. 

For the author who aims for accuracy, it is an irony that, although it is difficult to find sources, when enough are found, a new problem arises: they eventually contradict one another.  And given the ease of  creating websites on the internet, plenty of sites do contradict one another, even sites that appear very professionally done.  My current research, for instance, tells me that Robert Bruce was in Ireland from January to May of 1317.  And that he was holding a council meeting at Stirling, across the sea and across an entire country, from Ireland, in April 1317, a month before leaving Ireland.

Hm.  The Minstrel Boy will involve someone being in two places at once.  But it’s not Bruce.

Don’t forget to leave a comment at The Burton Review for a chance to win a free copy of Blue Bells of Scotland!