Decorated survivors

My brother recently asked me a question after watching this “Instant Legolas device” video. The video mentions that “nothing in the medieval world was not decorated.” The question was whether that was a cultural thing, or a misperception based on survivorship bias where the objects likeliest to survive into the modern era were generally higher quality and fancier.

My first reaction was that an average person’s regular tools must have been simpler and plainer, because who needs an everyday wood-choppin’ axe that’s got fancy borders?

On the other hand, it is true that people in the past in basically every era before 1900 used more decoration on the things they did decorate than modern people do or would. The term horror vacui refers to decorations or details that fill all available space as though the creator was afraid of emptiness, and has been applied to works from Victorian England as well as Ancient Greece.

What do I mean by “more decoration”?

There’s a rule of thumb in historical costuming that once you’ve put trim on your clothing, you should go back and add at least that much more trim to achieve the minimum historical look. Modern sensibilities are simply never over-the-top enough. Let’s start with something familiar. Think of a necklace, maybe something you’d give as a gift or wear yourself. Now think of an elaborate necklace, extra-fancy, maybe even gaudy.

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The Fencing Ladies of Vienna

I’ve never quite figured out where to start this one. I created a draft to write this post four years ago, but all it said was “Yup. I should write this.” Maybe I’m overthinking where to start, though.

In the late 19th century, in Vienna, there was a fencing school for women.

They had uniforms. Their coach was Hans Hartl, who in 1903 was “probably the greatest master of the sabre in the world.” They fenced in multiple styles, including a foil and reversed foil-dagger style he invented. They had a traveling show that came to New York.

If you’ve looked for vintage pictures of women fencers on the internet (which seems like a safe assumption) you may have seen this picture from that tour.

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Virtual visits

I made a list.

Lots of museums have online content. These are museums, institutions, and important places that have virtual versions, where you can explore their physical space as if you were visiting in person.

This is by no means an exhaustive list! I also haven’t tried most of these. I read a lot of recommendation lists of virtual museums and combined them here for you.

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Ladies in Plating updates, and the value of falling down the rabbit hole

Seven months later, I have something for you! Here’s a new copy of the Ladies in Plating slides, now with source information for every image plus updated identifications where appropriate.

Of course, no sooner had I finished getting help solving weird PDF problems than I discovered another bunch of errors I’d made while adding the attributions. But I thought I’d release this imperfect errata edition to you now, and fold the corrections into the next updates. I’ll be presenting Ladies in Plating for a distributed audience in a couple weeks, as part of the Capital Kunst Des Fechten “Plague Lectures” series.

If you’re interested in material culture or other details of pre-modern and early modern life, I highly recommend spending as much time as you can stand studying artwork like these examples. It’s easy to accidentally lose entire days this way, but you’ll learn a ton of stuff.

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Live streaming events shared calendar

This is not a research post, but bear with me, I think you’ll like it.

I made a calendar to share interesting things that happen entirely online, but only at specific times. I’ll add things I’m aware of, but you should add some too! Anything you like– kid stuff, art, music, lectures, whatever. It’s public, so feel free to share these instructions with anyone.

To subscribe:

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Looking forward: 2020 research plan

I haven’t written anything in a while– the holidays wiped me out and left me with a HUGE to-read pile. But I’m still here! My 2020 research and lecture plans are coming together. Lacking an exciting tale from history to share with you today, I thought I’d give a quick preview of what I’m working on and planning,

  • Annotated Ladies in Plating slide deck, with errata
  • Women as war leaders in the 14th century and Hundred Years’ War (Joanna la Flamme, Isabella the She-Wolf, the Lioness of Brittany, and more)
  • Louise Labé and Veronica Franco: female poets of the mid-16th century who were rumored to also be swordfighters
  • Paulus Hector Mair’s Latin translation of the Jud Lew gloss (and maybe I will post about translation more)

If all that war and poetry leaves me pining for some art history, I may do some collections of women with swords in art, probably more like an homage to The Toast than like deadpan essays. However, the art collection format is extremely vulnerable to falling deep into internet rabbit holes, so I will probably try to avoid it until I’ve got this year’s lectures well underway.

I also am going to contribute some articles to Traditions of the Ancestors!

Finally, if this is all far too many complete sentences, but you’re not afraid of internet rabbit holes, you should know I post on twitter erratically but more often than on other platforms. If you’re hoping for pearls of wisdom I’m probably not who you should follow, but if you’re interested to learn what random topics I look up on Wikipedia, you’re in luck.

Sir Walter, possibly-neurodivergent miracle man

I discovered Walter von Birbach in a story I now refer to as “The coolest miracle.”

Sir Walter was on his way to a tournament, perhaps near Darmstadt, when he passed a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom he was thoroughly devoted– in fact, preparing for the tournament, he had fastened her favour around his arm the way other knights did with their sweethearts’ tokens. He decided to stop and pray. A priest mentioned that he would be giving mass soon, and Sir Walter decided to stay for mass.

After a while, Sir Walter realized he was terribly late for the tournament. As he hastened to the field, he saw many men approaching who looked like they’d been fighting. The tournament had ended. But before Walter could get very down on himself about it, a very strange thing happened: the men approaching began to negotiate terms of ransom and release with him, as if he had captured them during the fight.

They explained, by and by, that a valiant knight in Sir Walter’s armor, with Sir Walter’s heraldry and banners, had ruled the day, performing such feats of martial prowess as had rarely been seen in living memory. Many prisoners were taken, many honors were won.

For while Sir Walter was busy at his devotions, the Virgin Mary had gone and taken his place at the tournament.

Sir Walter threw down his armaments on the spot and declared he would devote himself thereafter to her service, forsaking knightly life.


I haven’t studied miracles nearly enough to really claim I know which one’s objectively the coolest, but I think this one’s a contender, and not just because it teaches us that Mary will dunk some scrubs when she wants to.

There’s something else important and striking about this story, which spoke to me in a personal way. Here is an unmistakable medieval hero who loses track of time. In really big ways. Giving in to a deeply significant personal obsession, he fell out of society for a whole day, failing at his cultural duties of manliness and chivalry.

While Walter is not rewarded for this transgression, neither is he punished– in fact, the end result is that he was perceived as successful, but took the opportunity to choose a new path to follow.

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Puns, finger guns, and chair incompatibility

I’ve been thinking about it since I first saw the Christine de Pizan illustration that all my friends now call “Lady Finger-Guns.”

I was going to write about medieval finger guns for Pride Month, and then life happened. I realized too late that I had no hope of getting it written for Bisexual Visibility Day/Week. However, that heads-up gave me enough time to make it happen for National Coming Out Day!

At this point some of you may be wondering what I’m on about.

So. There’s this idea that bisexuality, for unknown reasons, often presents alongside other predictable traits.

Common stereotypes accepted and joked about among bisexual people include indecisiveness, bob haircuts, awkward hand gestures (finger guns, peace signs) and outerwear (leather jackets, flannel, hoodies).

My usual caveats about interpreting images apply here: these are images I’ve collected together because of what I saw in them. It’s up to you, gentle reader, to decide whether people who can’t sit straight or constantly bust out finger guns are possibly, probably, or definitely bisexual.

Without further ado: medieval and early modern images featuring bisexual stereotypes. Buckle up, there are a lot!

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Half a warrior maiden

One of the first warrior women I fell in love with–and, really, maybe the first–was a Hopi story that I heard as a small child, when my dad would be sent to exciting desert places on research trips and Mom and I would go along for part of the trip and we would all go together to explore nature and visit indigenous artisans.

Hé-é-e , the Warrior Maiden, is one of the Hopi kachinas, forces of nature understood as archetypal characters. The characters are enacted as ceremonial performances and depicted in carved and crafted dolls or statues. She is a young woman with burned and battle-worn clothing, half of her hair up in a fancy arrangement.

Adobe Gallery tells her story thus:

Many years ago, tradition says that some Hopis were living outside of the main village, and the mother of this household was putting up her daughter’s hair.  The mother had finished only one side of the hair whorls, the hair on the other side still hanging loosely, when they saw enemies sneaking toward the village.  The daughter snatched up a bow, quiver and arrows from the wall and raced toward the village to warn the people. She then led the defense until the men in the fields could return and rout the enemy.

Many pieces of this story spoke to me, and many still pluck at my heartstrings. It’s a story of community, and personal relationships. It’s a story of priorities and significance. It’s a story that’s very different from most European warrior lady stories I encounter.

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Swordsquatch 2019 slides and images

Manuscript miniature showing a monk and a crowned woman looking at an armor rack
Miniature from page 97r, Bibliothèque municipale d’Arras MS 845 (Roman de la Rose)

I’ve got lots to write up about women in armor, both from the last few weeks of research leading up to Swordsquatch and from conversations at and after ‘Squatch. This whole project has been even better received than I could have imagined, and I’m excited to dig into the details with all of you!

In the interest of expedience, this installment will have a lot fewer words than usual, but it does have nearly a hundred and fifty pictures. Here’s a PDF of the slides from my presentation:

You can see the images used in the presentation (with tags, high res versions, and source links) at my image tagging site under the label swordsquatch_2019.