Err, nope. William Wallace was a devout Christian, never actually wore a tartan kilt (they became popular three centuries later), and certainly never sported blue face-paint for battle (associated with the Picts, centuries earlier during Roman Britain). He’d likely wear chain-mail to battle, and use a standard one-handed sword that can be used with a shield. The gargantuan sword with its simple, but by now well known, hilt design is probably of a later origin.
When I read Dragon’s Trail (reviewed here on the blog earlier this month), I loved the realistic depiction of historical arms, armour, and fighting techniques. It also reminded me of the article that I’ve started to write some time ago but never finished. Consider it a PSA about writing realistic sword fighting in fantasy, rife with pointers to resources that even the most phlegmatic of authors can research and use.
Nobody expects historical accuracy from Hollywood movies. In fact, it’s a bit of a trope to poke fun at all the historically inaccuracies in any given movie. Combine Braveheart and a drinking game, to guarantee any average history aficionado will be left with no memories past the first half hour of the movie.
But how do we know that what’s depicted is inaccurate? And how is that related to novels?
For the first part, there are real historical sources. Written accounts, often accompanied by drawings, from the same time period. There are archaeological finds, in forms ranging from buried treasure, to burial sites, to tapestries and art. All of these form pieces in a puzzle, that historians use not to produce a definite “true” version of events, but the most plausible explanation that accounts for all the evidence. The process historians use revolves around gathering evidence from as many sources as possible, critically examining and evaluating the biases and correctness of those sources, comparing conflicting versions, and then proposing a possible explanation to the evidence for peer review.
Building on my previous article regarding Action Choreography for Novels, the main focus of this article is fighting in the pre-modern era – there are many and varied accounts of sword fighting techniques and battle tactics throughout history, Scots of the thirteenth century included. We know that the Scots of Wallace’s time did not wear kilts nor use face paints. We know that their fighting style was influenced by the previous medieval era, based on long, straight, single-handed swords used in conjunction with a shield. Two-handed swords, if they existed at all at the time and region, would have been of ceremonial use only. And from analyzing the sword currently kept in the Wallace Collection, we know that its construction appears to be a melding of several sword parts, done at a later date.
All this information is freely available of the web, and is easy for even a layman to locate and learn. At least an interested layman – and one would hope that authors writing on a subject are interested in it. And once interest is piqued, a whole new world opens up. A world of historically accurate, humanly possible, fights.
After having poked fun at one of Hollywood’s most horrendously inaccurate movie, the second part of this article will be about proper writing of fighting scenes. This should be useful, I hope, to all historical fiction writers who deal with combat, and to those fantasy writers interested in making their novels grittier and historically accurate.
Note that there is nothing wrong with the more fantastical side of fantasy – from Conan to Elric, we can enjoy our sword-wielding protagonists to be a bit on the superhuman side. However, I believe this should be a conscious decision, matching the authors intent and modern tastes, and allowing to slant the writing accordingly.
The Big Picture
As I point out some common tropes and pitfalls, as well as give out some good resources to start with, I want you to keep in mind that the important take away of this article is this:
Weapons, Armour, and Fighting techniques never exist in a vacuum. It is always a matter of CONTEXT.
Everything that was used on a battlefield – or off the field in some dark alley – was used in context. Metallurgy and mining technologies affected what weapons could be manufactured; economics affected what could be made available for warriors and armies; terrain and climate affected field formations; enemies affected tactics and strategies.
All too often in books and movies we see anachronistic usage of weapons and armour. Even worse than having weapons and armour that are not correct to the period (think Camelot and full plate harness), is seeing weapons and armour that don’t match each other, or are used in grossly inappropriate ways.
Part I – Armies
For the vast majority of human history, armies fought in formation. That is true even for the musket and rifle units, up until the twentieth century. And, also for the vast majority of human history, the spear was the main weapon of the regular foot soldier, with the sword being a sidearm. There were some notable exceptions of course, but a block of soldiers with shields and long pointy things on a stick was what you’d normally expect as the mainstay of ancient battle fields. Even in individual combat, spears had a tremendous advantage, let alone in when fighting in formation — as armies did.
Another aspect of formation fighting, is that it was more orderly that commonly perceived. That classical movie footage of an army arrayed in neat formation only to devolve into a mass of people charging all at once at the enemy, clashing together with another mass of bodies in a chaotic free-for-all melee, might look great on screen… but is probably rubbish when it comes to historically accurate armies.
Armies drilled formations precisely because it was so critical on the battlefield. The one that broke formation first, is the one that lost – usually with massively one-sided loss of human lives. The arrangement was usually that the first rank fought, almost wrestled, with the front rank of the enemy while being supported by the second rank. More ranks were there to help push forward, and fill in any gaps that occurred as comrades fell.
Generals used auxiliary forces (cavalry, archers and the like) to maneuver around enemy forces, and try to break the enemy lines. As soon as the enemy’s formation was disrupted, the rest of the infantry could cut them down. This reliance on formation, and how as soon as formation broke armies lost, is one reason for the usually very lopsided numbers in casualties (the other reason, of course, is that ancient historians wildly exaggerated numbers).
Consider this when you describe your next massive battle, or place your hero in the thick of it. His life depends on the soldiers all around him – not on wading through the thick of it to do single combat with the enemy’s general. In order to direct the army and direct strategies, generals favoured a high vantage points and used trumpets and runners to send commands.
Wading into the thick of it themselves was often not a good choice for vantage point, but under certain conditions it had a specific function. In some eras and battles (think late medieval heavy knights) the commander of the army might also lead a charge. In these circumstances, the general and his close bodyguards composed the elite units, intended as shock troops. Their role was to break and disperse the enemy’s formation, so that the foot-soldiers (always the majority of the army) could then use the breach to finish them up.
Commanders certainly got wounded and killed throughout history. However, the context is very important. Always consider that weapons, tactics and strategies (to say nothing on logistics) are a matter of the economical, technical and social conditions of the armies. Mixing and matching elements from various eras and contexts usually results in a poor and unbelievable description of a battle.
There are plenty of good books on the subject of warfare – and specifically strategy – throughout the ages. Find the one that matches the period that you are writing about. Another good place to start is simply to look at a few battle accounts on Wikipedia – and follow all the references at the bottom to original sources.
My favourites are the battle of Cannae and Zama – showing the ingenuity of both Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, but also showing in clear diagrams the progression of battle, with how units were deployed and moved around in battle. Similar descriptions appear for later medieval battles.
Take any list of Top Ten battles for the specific era you are writing about. Study the background to the battle, the layout on the day, the progression of the actual battle, and the aftermath. Take a look at the technology of weapons and armour used at that time (and bear in mind that the medieval era had a lot of innovation throughout it – a lot more than popular culture gives it credit for), and ask “why”, what was the purpose of those weapons. Were they meant to be used against specific armour, were they easier to manufacture or train with, what was the cultural background associated with them, etc. Going back to the first point, it is all – always – about context.
For the A+ bonus points, consider the old saying: “Amateurs talk strategy. Dilettantes talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics.” If you want a really good army story, start considering how camp life was, and why generals lost hair trying to get their troops fed and supplied on the road. (A baggage train would include carts with fodder and supplied, animals, handlers for said animals and carts, craftsmen & engineers, supplies for these extra people and animals, whores, soldiers’ families (often previously whores), and a miscellaneous ragtag assortment of diseases.) Just imagine what it was like for Hannibal’s soldiers to get the elephants across the alps (elephants, to put it mildly, eat and defecate a lot), or what it was like for Napoleon’s army to try and survive marching through the scorched earth left by the Russians. And just like the journalism adage that to show a huge disaster in a relatable manner you focus on a narrow shot of a boy’s discarded single shoe, lost in the rubble – you can paint a picture of a massive army with a few strokes about camp life.
Part II – Single Combat
Just as important as armies in heroic fiction and fantasy, are the sword fights the protagonist survives and wins. A good duel to the death is always dramatic, and leaves the reader on the edge of their mental seat.
However, before we rush of to chop an enemy’s head in a clean wide arc, blood droplets shining in the sun as his head rolls away, we again need to consider context.
Waving a swords like a maniac over your head will likely lead to getting stabbed in the guts. Waving swords in general takes up a lot of space (another reason why your enemy might prefer to ambush your protagonist in a dark and narrow alley). Armour is generally effective (unlike in movies). People in armour are generally mobile (unlike the ‘common’ wisdom). No one was that much of an idiot that they’d wear something they couldn’t move in, and that opponents could hack through. Armour, weapons and tactics go together, and evolved as a race to counter each other. For example, outside of jousting, late medieval knights in full plate harness didn’t normally carry a shield: the high grade of steel and design was good enough to withstand enemy weapons, so they preferred to concentrate their hands on their weapons. The classic long-sword with its straight, evenly tapered design and a hand-a-half hilt, had evolved from the earlier one-handed arming sword and was used in techniques that involves two hands (e.g. half-swording) to use against such an armoured opponent.
Consider weapons and armour of opposing sides, consider that when cultures clash, there’s always a certain equilibrium – outdated equipment is discarded, and new innovations are quickly adopted. It’s true that many foot-soldiers would still have their grandfather’s chainmail and sword, but you should still examine what weapons went with which armour, and why. Oh, and spikes on pauldrons (shoulder pads) or horns on helmets may sound badass, but are a horrible idea in battle – they provide something easy to grab, and a strike on one will lead the opponent’s blade into a weak point in the armour. There’s a big difference between display and field equipment!
In terms of descriptions, a grounding in basic fencing terms is useful (and even better with HEMA terms). However, it’s often not necessary to do a blow-by-blow description of techniques and manoeuvres. It’s great to see Jackie Chan in a 10 minutes clip of martial prowess, but rather dull to read 20 pages of the same. Build the tension around the fight, jump into the thick of it to the really important bits, and let the reader’s imagination supply the rest.
As you can see, there are a lot of tropes that we have grown used to, that are completely historically inaccurate. If you’d like to learn more, there are a lot, and I mean a LOT, of books on the subject. There are also a lot of good video sources. I will try to list some of the most useful ones.
There are real historical fighting manuals. Those were written over the centuries, and depicted the various techniques taught. The earliest surviving manuscript is the I.33, written around 1300 (the time of William Wallace – though it’s from Germany rather than Scotland).
Of course reading the original manuals (in Old English or Old German) is an exercise best left to historians. There are plenty of modern books covering the subject. Look for ones that mention that old manuals, and that differentiate between periods.
However, since we now consider modern material, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth a thousand likes. There are what I’d like to term “experimental archaeologists” – people who take the manuals, examine the weapons, and try to recreate the fighting styles. It is important to distinguish between “plain” re-enactors to expert who try to rebuild a particular fighting system. The expert usually focus on a particular period and manual, and will be happy to mention it at a drop of a hat. I can heartily recommend the following YouTube channels that do just that:
- Dimicator – Rolad Warzecha specialsed in the Sword & Buckler techniques from the I.33, as well as Viking-era weapons and tactics.
- Schola Gladiatoria – A great channel covering a lot of material, particularly British military fencing styles from renaissance to WWI
- Lindybeige – originally an archaeologist and historian, Lloyd presents all sorts of interesting perspective on medieval and later lives, including combat
- Metatron – covering Roman-era weapons and armour, as well as Japanese ones and general geekery
- Knight Errant – on the technicalities of medieval armour
- Shadiversity – a channel bursting with medieval trivia and geekery
- Skallagrim – covers more than HEMA, with the occasional gun video
I hope this review was of benefit for you. That, rather than just ruining your enjoyment of Hollywood movies, I have provided you with some useful resources and better ways of thinking about the fight scenes in your novels.
Let me know what you think, and what are your favourite resources!
And if you haven’t already, check out my previous article regarding Action Choreography for Novels.
This was a great read. Thank you!
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You’re most welcome! 😊