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Myth-ing in Action

Tabac Iberez

Impetious
Published by SLP
Always good to see the old tired cliches drug out and shot again. The problem with writing a combat, however, is that not more people want to write a fight than participate in one.
 

Balaur

Active member
Location
Australia
I'm guilty as sin of a few of those, especially the corner of the eyes one, but I think I've avoided some of the others.

Trying to plausibly portray combat while having no experience with the real thing is something I often grapple with as a writer, especially since a disproportionate amount of my works involve all sorts of ladies and gentlemen poking each other with pointy and I'm a bit of a military history nut while also being a 20 something nerd who hasn't been in a serious fight since primary school.

As far as other authors go, writing pre-modern combat is even worse, as no one actually agrees on what is realistic, there's an insane number of myths and counter-myths floating around, and finding first hand accounts often requires fairly extensive research. Oh, and if it's fantasy, you're going to have work out how magic and various critters fit into all of that as well.
 

David Flin

An evil Socialist, apparently.
As far as other authors go, writing pre-modern combat is even worse, as no one actually agrees on what is realistic, there's an insane number of myths and counter-myths floating around, and finding first hand accounts often requires fairly extensive research.
I'm not sure how helpful pre-modern re-enactors would be. I recall a tale told to me by someone from one of the Ermine Street Guard, Roman re-enactors. Apparently, they had noticed that the evidence suggested that the chap playing the big warp-around brass musical instrument was always depicted as wearing chain armour rather than the slatted armour the rest of the musicians played. One day, they were fooling around, and one of the others tried to play the instrument. He took a deep breath, only to discover that the weight and distribution of the armour, combined with the weight of instrument meant that he couldn't take enough of a breath, and playing it was basically impossible.

There's also the tale of American Civil War reeanctors who, having read reams of stuff about how troops on the march would halt for ten minutes every hour on a standard march, and they'd make and drink coffee in that ten minutes. It took them a while, with a lot of false steps, but they eventually worked out how it was possible to build a fire, grind beans, boil water, make coffee, and drink it in ten minutes. The answer is teamwork and preparation.

And I didn't even get into the aftermath of combat, where the adrenaline rush has faded.
 

Balaur

Active member
Location
Australia
I'm not sure how helpful pre-modern re-enactors would be. I recall a tale told to me by someone from one of the Ermine Street Guard, Roman re-enactors. Apparently, they had noticed that the evidence suggested that the chap playing the big warp-around brass musical instrument was always depicted as wearing chain armour rather than the slatted armour the rest of the musicians played. One day, they were fooling around, and one of the others tried to play the instrument. He took a deep breath, only to discover that the weight and distribution of the armour, combined with the weight of instrument meant that he couldn't take enough of a breath, and playing it was basically impossible.
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Ah, the joys of what happens when re-enactment experience contradicts the historical evidence. That's caused plenty of internet flamewars over the years.

I'm involved in HEMA/historical fencing, have done a bit of basic experimental archaeology, and am around the peripheries of the re-enactment scene, so I'm fairly familiar with re-enactment.

Re-enactment can be very helpful in a lot of areas, especially when done by the more serious living history types, and very problematic in others. For example, melee rules in a lot of viking re-enactment bans leg and head-shots with spears-the main targets against a shielded opponent- for safeties sake while counting hits to armoured areas as kills and also requiring more armour than was historical which completely throws off a lot of the strengths and weaknesses of different weapons. People interested in winning the game(or worse, convinced that it actually represents what worked historically) end up using ahistorical tactics, so spear and shield is crap and barely used whereas it was one of the most common combinations historically, and two handed axes are used to hang back and "snipe" with ahistorically long hafts rather than by elite troops like Huskarls to fight up close. Meanwhile, everyone comes up with contrived stories about their personas being Varangian guard veterans to justify stomping around in heavy lamellar armour than the "mail shirt and helmet, if you're lucky" actual Vikings fought using.

On the other hand, it can give lots of useful insights, and nothing puts things in perspective like noticing you keep getting hit on the arm, looking at medical records and realizing that A. A disproportionate number of sword wounds were to the sword arm and B. Many of these wounds were permanently disabling...

Watching drone footage of a hundred+ guys slugging it out with full power hits is also pretty spectacular in its own right and can give an idea of what a whole battlefield might have looked like, or how some of the dynamics of a melee fight might have worked.

Overall, I'd say that re-enactment, especially re-enactment combat needs to used carefully, trying to triangulate it with other sorts of evidence, and that it really, really depends on the calibre of the reenactors involved. Each sort of evidence provides one part of the picture, and it has to be pieced together with care.

Another source of inspiration that I like to use is footage of riot police vs. protesters. You have massed groups with varying levels of training reacting to a dangerous situation, shieldwalls, cavalry charges, polearms(South Korean protestors are hardcore), skirmishing with thrown weapons... It's as close to as ancient battle as you can get nowadays.
 
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