Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Knights in Shining Armor?

Walking tank?
Tudor or Elizabethan jousting armor
Image by Tirithel
Once upon a time, there was a knight. This knight carried a great, heavy two-handed sword and wore upon his person a suit of shiny armor. He traveled up and down the country on his gigantic charger righting wrongs and saving damsels that had gotten stuck in towers. Everyone knew who he was because he wore on his helmet a fluffy plume and carried in his right hand a stripy lance...

We'll stop it there.

There are probably several things about this description that we know immediately are wrong. Knights didn't go riding around righting wrongs (unless they happened to be named Don Quixote) and damsels hardly ever got stuck in towers. Stripy lances of course, were only used in jousts, which didn't really get going until the High to Late Middle Ages. But the rest of it is wrong, too, at least in the context of a serious battle (admittedly, I know very little about these things and I will endeavor not to sound like a complete idiot as I continue).

There are several misconceptions about knights...all largely to be blamed on Sir Walter Scot. As I was growing up, I was under the impression that European knights of the Middle Ages wore plate armor to battle and that this plate armor was so heavy that the only horses that were strong enough to bear the weight were draft horses. Not only that, but when these slow-poke Medieval knights ran into warriors from other cultures, they met instant death, because the weapons, armor and horses of these other cultures were either sharper, lighter or faster.

This actually isn't true.

Joan of Arc, one of the most famous armor
wearers in history, was active in the 15th century,
which was after the start of the Renaissance
To start out, knights of the Middle Ages didn't wear full plate armor, and didn't wear suits of armor at all, until the end of the era. Plate armor originated as a sort of 'bullet-proof' vest made of small plates to supplement mail. True plate armor and suits of armor did not come to their own until the period called the Renaissance when it was already rendered obsolete by the advent of firearms. For the most part, full suits of armor were not worn in battle, only for tournaments, or parades. The stuff isn't as heavy as we probably were led to believe (a full suit doesn't weigh more than sixty pounds and is generally half that weight) but it's still hot and unpleasant and restricted vision. Some of the most famous suits of armor still in existence are parade pieces that belonged to Henry VIII. Fully suited up, it's said Henry had to be hoisted aboard his horse with a crane, but this was more due to the weight of the King than to the weight of the armor. I feel bad for the horse.

So what did they wear?

A piece of hand-welded Medieval mail
They wore exactly what everyone else wore; after all, mail shirts have been around for centuries. The Vikings wore them, the Mongols wore them, the soldiers of the Islamic Golden Age wore them. Mail shirts themselves were excellent protection against both slashing and stabbing cuts and would even limit the penetration of a longbow, or crossbow bolt. They didn't do well against battle axes, or war hammers or a horseman's lance; even so, wearers were more likely to die from concussion than the horrific gaping wounds we see in movies. Because each ring had to be welded or riveted into a particular pattern by hand, mail shirts were also expensive, so most people just wore hard leather, like boiled leather or rawhide, which offered fairly good protection.

Which brings us to Helmets.
This nasal helmet was used extensively by he Normans
and shows hints of their Viking ancestry
this is a replica of the style used between 10th-12th century
Image by Silar

Helmets didn't get visors or plumes on them until
tournaments in the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance . During the Early to High Middle ages, or the era we associate with the Crusades, a helmet would simply be a metal cap with a nose guard. They were made of steel, and with the knight's own hair bound up under them, they weren't half bad for protection. By the end of the 12th century, flat-topped cylindrical helmets, that looked a bit like tin cans with eye holes, were vogue. A direct blow to either helmet from the era with a broadsword would only dent it, not cleave it in two.

The first line of defense...

Was not the sword at all. The sword was a personal weapon, only to be used in close quarters. The Romans
The Norman charge of the Saxon shield wall at the Battle of Hastings
used long cavalry swords on the Barbarians and by the 18th century, sabers could be used effectively from horseback because of the reduced armor, but during the Middle Ages, the Knight's first weapon was the spear, or the lance. Cavalry charges with outstretched spears were frightening things, especially with the weight and momentum of the horses behind them. They could break through shield walls and had no trouble with mail shirts. Jousting on either side of the tilt, or barrier, was a Renaissance invention, inspired by the days when knights charged each other across open fields with sharpened spears in the Middle Ages, then battled it out on foot. Jousts were not a major part of Medieval tournaments, which originated as free-for-alls with armies of Knights wielding swords and spears: the goal was to capture as many of the opposing Knights as possible and hold them for ransom. Ivanhoe really didn't have it right.

And speaking of broadswords...

A classic Medieval sword, a type VII, this replica
weighs 2lb 10oz. Sword is by Albion Swords, while the
 scabbard and the picture are by DBK Custom Swords
They weren't that heavy, either. And despite their differing profiles and construction, they compared to the weapons of other cultures. For example, they are similar in both the cut and the thrust to a curved blade, despite the radically different shape. They were also quite sharp, but because of the weight and shape of the sword, a 'razor edge' wasn't necessary to be effective. By the Early Middle Ages, the advent of the weighted pommel made the wielding of European swords quick and fluid. In later years, massive two-handed swords nearly six feet long were vogue, but during the Early to High Middle Ages, a one-handed sword weighed between two and three pounds. To put it in perspective, a 'light' sword of another era, the rapier, often weighed about two and a half pounds. Battles sometimes lasted all day and we can't have our knight getting worn out, now can we?

Now we'll get to the Horse.

At its heaviest, a mail shirt only weighed thirty pounds and most mail shirts weighed between ten and fifteen
The modern Frisian is a medium sized horse, with a usual height
of sixteen hands, that is descended from Medieval war horses
pounds, and since most mid-sized horses can easily carry three hundred pounds, weight was not a great factor when choosing a horse. Inspection of horseshoes and horse armor from the Middle Ages suggests that Medieval warhorses were between fourteen and sixteen hands, or between 4'6" and 5'3" at the shoulder, only slightly smaller than modern day hunters. Compare that to modern draft horses that can be upwards of six feet at the shoulder...and uncomfortably wide to ride.

Many references were made to Spanish horses during the Middle Ages.
The Andalusian is a very ancient breed and like
 the Freisian, they are agile and highly intelligent
Wenni on Flickr
The biggest factor in a knight's horse was not size, but training. Most knights, or soldiers from the Middle Ages, rode coursers, or light, fast horses that could get them there and back and do it in a hurry. A handful of knights owned destriers, which could be worth seven times as much as a courser. Destriers were generally more agile and more strongly built than coursers, but most importantly, they had specialized training.

Today, we call it horse dancing, or dressage. In Vienna, the Spanish Riding School has developed a breed devoted to it, called the Lipizzaner. Medieval desteriers were trained to fight on command. Moves that are natural in the wild, such as bucking, rearing or kicking, were refined into specialized moves that we watch today at the Olympics. A knight's life might depend on the responsiveness or agility of his horse, but also on his steed's ability to land a well-aimed kick. A sword is important, but a horse can be a secret weapon.

In conclusion...

Probably the best depiction we have of Medieval knights is in
the Bayeux Tapestry (which isn't actually a tapestry)
Medieval European knights were much more frightening than the suit-of-armor stereotype rattling about like a pile of crockery on a falling-asleep draft horse. Instead, they wore flexible mail shirts or tough leather that was nearly impervious to Medieval weapons, wielded spears that could punch through armor while riding about on horses that were capable of spinning in place, kicking you, or leaping into the air on cue.

Of course, the armor, the weapons and the horse might set you back the same amount that a four bedroom house would today, so there weren't very many of these fearsome knights around.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Roman Architecture

Colosseum in Rome
We've all heard of the Colosseum. In a way, it stands as a symbol of the excesses and brutality of Rome...but Romans had more than one side to them and created an empire whose shock-waves still spread over us today. The Roman Empire stretched throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East and great tracks of Europe. Remnants of that dominance still stand in forgotten places, or are taken for granted by people who pass them everyday.
The Pantheon
Andrew Wales, Flickr

Roman engineers are probably most noted for first
incorporating concrete into their buildings. Concrete, interspersed with the Roman arch, gave their architecture an extraordinary beauty and sense of weightlessness, revived in the classical styles of the modern world. Though the Roman architects were at their height in a world we now call ancient, they were able to construct the Pantheon and top it with a un-reinforced concrete dome that remained the largest in the world for more than seventeen hundred years. Here is a list of some of the most beautiful and little known feats of Roman engineering that still remain (all images, unless otherwise noted, are from Wikimedia Commons).

The Appian Way in Southern Italy 312 BC

Probably some of the most important pieces of Roman engineering are the Roman roads, which, literally, paved the way for the modern world. The Romans had advanced road-building techniques that were not matched again until the 19th century. After the route was surveyed and leveled, often times legionaries would march through, laying one section of road at a time. One of the oldest and most famous of these roads was the Appian Way, which threaded its way from Rome to the ports in southern Italy. Many of the Roman roads are still used today; Watling Street, which stretched from Wales to Kent in Britain is now the A5 highway.

Amphitheater of Pompeii 80 BC

Pompeii is famous for being one of the cities that was covered with a layer of ash from Mount Vesuvius nearly two thousand years ago. It sits on the coast of Italy, halfway down the peninsula, not far from Naples. In its day, it was a rich and prosperous town. The citizens of the city and the surrounding areas may not have thought it was so great the day Vesuvius went off in 79 AD, but hundreds of houses and artifacts were almost perfectly preserved by the falling ash. Even loaves of bread were carbonized and are now displayed in museums. The amphitheater, just outside of town, is thought to be one of the first to be built of stone and is the oldest and best preserved amphitheater in the world.  

Aqueduct of Segovia 1st century

The Romans were really fond of running water and their great stone aqueducts created the required height for fountains to spring up in Rome. But these aqueducts were about more than decorative fountains, or even providing fresh water. There is evidence that they supported an industrial revolution before the Industrial Revolution, when aqueducts like this one would have run countless mills all over the Roman Empire.

Temple of Portunus in Rome 1st century

In this temple in Rome, we can see Greek influence. One reason why the Romans were so great is that they borrowed everything from everywhere. They adopted Greek dress, Greek habits, Greek plays and added the large assemblage of Greek gods to their already massive collection. The Greeks were great, but an inability to unify contributed to their demise at the hands of the Romans. The Romans never had trouble being organized. 

House of Menander in Pompeii 1st century

Romans lived pretty much the same way we do today (minus the WiFi). The richer people lived in villas, while the poorer people lived in apartment buildings, or insulae, where they could rent a room from the landlord. Roman villas generally were built around a central garden with a fountain and covered walkway. The massive House of Menander in Pompeii was the abode of a merchant. The interior is decorated with lovely frescoes, some of the few remaining examples of Roman paintings. 

Tower of Hercules in Galacia 90AD

In case you were wondering what a Roman lighthouse looks like, here's one. This one is nineteen hundred years old, which makes it the oldest operational lighthouse in the world. There was once one like it, towering in Cleopatra's day in Alexandria harbor, that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was damaged when part of the city fell into the sea during an earthquake and today, the Citadel of Qaitbay stands on the foundations.

Gymnasium at Sardis 2nd century

There was a great preference for physical fitness in the Roman culture. Gladiators had a similar position as modern day football stars and Roman body armor exaggerated muscles. Just like today, sports had a great significance in Roman times. Women participated as well, wearing things that looked like bikinis. The Gymnasium at Sardis, like most gymnasiums in those times, was attached to a bath complex where the athletes could take a dip. I suppose showers weren't invented yet. 

Theatre at Palmyra 2nd century

The Romans loved their drama. They may not have been as prolific playwrights as the Greeks, but they enjoyed a good story every now and then, too. Think of Roman theaters as modern-day cinemas; every town that was worth its salt had one. They generally faced the sea (if there was sea to be had) so the incoming wind would blow the actors' voices up to the audience siting in the cheap seats. The acoustics are fantastic; the theaters were often elliptical so the sound had two focal points instead of only one.

Puente Trajan at Alcantara c. 104-106 AD

The Romans were the first to use arches in bridge construction and managed to span even the Danube and the Rhine. Their bridge building prowess was unmatched until the 19th century. Puente Trajan, as it's name implies, was built during the reign of Trajan, and over the years, various bits of it have been blown up to keep armies from crossing it. Fortunately, the middle section is still original, but the bridge is now shorter than it was when it was first completed.

Porta Nigra in Trier c. 186-200 AD

The Porta Nigra is the largest, and probably the best preserved, city gate north of the Alps. Although it served as one of four gates for the walled city of Augusta Treverorum in Germany, it was never completed. During the Middle Ages it was converted into a church, then Napoleon Bonaparte came along in the 19th century and ordered that it be reduced to the original Roman structure. He was fond of the Romans...see the Arc de Triomphe.

Portus Adurni in Portchester c. 3rd century

I know it looks like something out of a Medieval epic, but it's actually Roman. It's located in England and forms part of the chain of Saxon shore forts built to keep back the Saxon mercenaries that later took over most of Britain. Roman Britain is often thought of as a cultural backwater, a forgotten island on the edge of the known world where walls were built across the country to keep back the murderous Picts...but don't let these impregnable walls fool you, between Roman conquest in 43 AD and withdrawal in 410, Britain became a cultural center. There were elaborate bath houses and well-laid roads and Romanized Britons built mansions for themselves that had glazed windows, radiant heating, running water, mosaics and as many as seventy rooms. Really, that's not half bad. 

Aula Palatina at Trier AD 306–337

I don't know about you, but I think this place looks like a 19th century mill building; it's actually sixteen hundred years old. It was built as a Basilica in a massive palace complex in Trier, Germany, to serve the same purpose as a forum in Rome; basically the place where lawmaking took place. Fortunately or unfortunately all the later redecorating on the inside was burned out during WWII and the original Roman mason-work is now visible. 

Palace of Diocletian 4th century

You may plan for your retirement by downsizing; Emperor Diocletian did it the other way around. He commissioned this massive palace by the sea in what is now Croatia. After the Romans left the place, other people moved in, opening their businesses and building their homes directly into the foundations and in the walls. Today, the palace, and all its later additions, forms the center of the city of Split. 

Santa Costanza in Rome 4th century

When Constantine I built this mausoleum for his daughter, the Roman empire had begun its shift East. We can see the roots of Byzantine architecture in the dome and simple arches, which is even more pronounced in the delicate columns in the interior. Rome was crumbling, but the architecture remained a blueprint for the coming generations. We can see echoes of it in the fairy-like Alhambra, the Romanesque style of the Middle Ages, and later in the Baroque style. It appears everywhere today, from capital buildings to libraries.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Living with Celiac Disease

Since May is Celiac Disease awareness month, I thought I'd do my bit. I don't really hold with awareness months, because generally the only people who are aware that it is an awareness month are the ones who are already aware of the disease...
I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease when I was seven after it was triggered by a bout of mono. If I hadn't been diagnosed, I would have died of starvation.
Most people haven’t the faintest what Celiac Disease is; Doctors and sufferers included. It has no cure and no prevention; once you have it, it’s for life. It’s not catching, because it’s genetic. If your parents both carry the gene, there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease, which basically means it’s what happens when your body starts attacking itself. Rheumatoid arthritis, Cancer and Crohn's disease are other well-known autoimmune diseases; this is why you can develop cancer even if you’ve never smoked a day in your life.
This image shows a normal cross-section
 of the small intestine (top)
verses a celiac's small intestine
after contact with gluten (bottom)
When I was seven, I couldn’t spell the name of my disease, but I knew full well what it was and how it affected me. I lost weight, my hair was falling out, I suffered from a fatigue so extreme I couldn’t climb the stairs. What was happening inside of me was something close to science fiction. Because of the altered chemistry of my intestines, a protein named gluten was slicing up my insides like billions of tiny knives.
Gluten is something akin to magic; it’s what hold’s dough together when you’re kneading it. Gluten is an integral part of three grains: wheat, barley and rye. By eliminating these three grains and all their verities, a celiac sufferer can lead a relatively normal and painless life.
Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds. Wheat, in particular, is the most commonly used flour in the world. It’s wonderful stuff; you can make bread out of flour, yeast and water and it won't fall apart, or go stale overnight; wheat is hardy and grows beautifully, and if you eat the whole grain, you’ll have a very balanced and healthy diet. Just eliminating bread isn’t enough, however, because wheat is used in everything from shampoo to an additive in pepper.
Many people are probably familiar with the label ‘Gluten Free’ that appears in health food stores and specialty isles. Fortunately for us, companies dedicated to gluten free food are increasing, but it’s still an expensive diet, mostly because the companies, in order to appeal to as many people as possible, cater to a number of different dietary restrictions like egg and nut allergies, diabetes and lactose intolerance. The result is often disgusting.
Udi's is one of my favorite gluten free brands
All people need to do is hear the word ‘diet’ and they think it must be healthy, however the gluten free diet is not healthy and its adherents often suffer from vitamin deficiencies. If you don’t have celiac disease or a related wheat sensitivity, don’t go on the diet; it’s not worth it. There’s nothing in the world better for you than whole grain wheat.
Celiac disease is fairly common, affecting about one in every two hundred people. Italy has the highest percentage of celiacs in the world; so if you have celiac disease and you want to go globe trotting, that might be the place to start. Many countries have rules and regulations regarding the parameters that must be met in order for a product to be called gluten free. The rule of thumb is three parts per million; which is basically three particles of gluten per million particles. Any higher, and celiacs know it.
Canyon Bakehouse is another first rate gluten free bakery
There are several myths circulating about celiac disease that should be cleared up:
Oats contain gluten: Actually, oats contain a protein similar to gluten and most people with celiac disease can tolerate it (not me, unfortunately); however, the oats must be carefully processed from the field to the shelf, to avoid cross-contamination. So to be on the safe side, avoid oats unless they are specifically labelled ‘gluten-free’.
You are allowed to cheat: Celiac disease is an affliction where no cheating is allowed in the diet. Even if you have no symptoms, or very few, you are still damaging your body. Adding ‘small’ amounts of gluten also won’t help you ‘get over’ the disease. You cannot alter your genetics. If the correct diet is maintained, celiac disease has a good prognoses, but if you cheat, you will almost certainly develop cancer and/or diabetes.
Celiac Disease is an allergy: This is one of the worst myths circulating. Celiac disease and allergies are both autoimmune reactions, in that it is your immune system doing the damage. The two often go hand in hand and are sometimes mistaken for each other, but they are very different things.

Rice is the most common substitute for wheat,
but it's lower in nutrients and makes terrible flour
If you think you have celiac disease, go see a specialist. Primary care physicians are great, but I have yet to meet one that actually knows what celiac disease is. 

If you want more information about Celiac Disease, check out the Celiac Sprue Association. My final line to all ye Celiac sufferers out there is; you are not alone.