But we have authentic contemporary depictions of it in art?

When it comes the the discussion of how medieval and ancient soldiers were actually equipped and fought in reality, something that comes up all the time is the mention of authentic artwork from the time that shows various weapons and how they are being used.

I admit those as evidence, but I dispute that they are proof.

Art is art. Not documentation. Sometimes art can be helpful in figuring out how certain things needed to be constructed to work, and held to be efficiently used. But in those cases you still have to try and replicate the depicted construction or handling and try them out to see if it actually solves problems people have encountered with modern recreations.

People have build plenty of ball and chain flails and studded leather armor over the recent years, but nobody has ever demonstrated that those can be of any use in a fight.

My favorite example of why authentic contemporary art can not be used as proof that people actually did things that way at the time is the 1987 movie Predator. In Predator, we see American soldiers fighting in a jungle, dual weilding MP5 sub-machine guns and carrying a hand-held minigun.

This artistic depiction of American soldiers was created by American artists in 1987, depicting scenes that take place in 1987. It can’t get more authentic and contemporary than that. There are countless historical records that show American soldiers actually saw action South America at that time, and in the archeological evidence we have thousands of surviving MP5s, and numerous still existing Miniguns that are extremely close to the one shown in the footage.

But should we take Predator as a reliable source for how American soldiers conducted jungle warfare in the 1980s? I’d be cautious about that.

And let’s also not forget that many pieces of medieval art were clearly drawn by people who clearly had never seen the things they were drawing.

6 thoughts on “But we have authentic contemporary depictions of it in art?”

  1. Not to mention many medieval artists were drawing things from verbal descriptions months or even decades after the fact.
    Noone who worked on the Bayoux Tapestry (not a tapestry btw) was anywhere near any of the events depicted.

  2. I read your post and think: “Hell to the yeah!” We can’t assume people were accurate or cared to be accurate to objective reality in their art. Whether medieval artists or the makers of 1987’s Predator, they had different goals than just representing reality accurately in a documentary way.

    I took a class that dipped into medieval German literature many years ago. The professor often focused the class’s attention on the different mindsets and priorities of the authors of the works we were studying (including, for many centuries, the idea of the author as important, making novel, unique and original intellectual property which should be credited properly) and how they differed from our modern and post-modern worldview.

    There was a section we studied in which a knight enters a castle to save a kidnapped princess. He is trapped in the dark gatehouse entryway by the closure of portcullises and gates, but against all logic, a window opens which enables the princess to see and talk to him and urge him on. The window shuts when she is finished talking with him. Unless this was a murder hole, and the princess was somehow at liberty to rove the gatehouse defenses while kidnapped, I really can’t wrap my modern head around this.

    The professor said that the narrative required the princess and the knight to see and talk with one another, so the window appeared in the gatehouse entryway wall. When the narrative didn’t require it anymore, the window disappeared.

    Another passage the professor had us read was from a medieval German Monster Manual: “Leo the Lion is the king of all beasts, yet when roaming the forest he happens upon the three-leafed clover, he flops on his back and is helpless, abased.”

    The professor said the author of the bestiary did not care about teaching readers anything about the objective world of reality, the animal behavior of real lions. The nameless author (like his contemporaries) was interested only in the TRUE MEANING behind his bestiary posts. The king of the beasts flopping down before the three-leafed clover is not literally true, it is “analogia” that points to the deeper meaning of the religious truth beneath. In this case, since the clover has three leaves, the bestiary entry points to the power of the Holy Trinity of God in Three Persons which rules the universe, toward which even the king of animals must do homage.

    Karen Armstrong, in her book The Battle for God, proposes a massive shift in early modern European thinking that spread around the world. People used to read the Bible, the Quran, the Torah poetically, not getting hung up on the stories as direct literal representations of reality. She proposes that literalist scripture reading — which our modern day Fundies still follow — is influenced by this early modern imposition of new expectations on the texts: looking for literal descriptions of nature and scientific reality in them. Armstrong believes that future conflicts will be more within religions than between different religions. Mellow Sufis like herself who read the Quran as a poetic, symbol-laden, non-literal guide to life will have conflicts with uptight Wahhabi literalists. It has already happened in Syria and many other places. Parallel conflicts have broken out between free-and-easy wings and fundamentalist sub-groups of other major religions.

    1. There is armor with a leather surface that has studs in it. But the leather isn’t providing the protection. And neither are the studs, which are actually rivets.
      The protection comes from the interior iron plates held to the leather with the rivets. It’s not leather armor, it’s plate armor.

  3. What a great example to choose. I actually laughed when I saw where you were going.

    (I’ve wondered before whether the dual-wielding thing happened because somebody looked at Carl Weathers holding a single MP5 and said, “he makes that thing look like a pistol, give him another one.”)

    Are there “Rules of Cool” that medieval artists applied, like those applied to the guns in Predator? I guess we can’t really ask them…

    1. I think some of the more grievous injuries on people in full metal armor might be quite implausible. I don’t believe any sword can cleave through an iron helmet.
      And of course the countless hilarious depiction of man-sized rabbits brutaly mutilating knights with swords and axes.

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