Christian Cameron

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Month: November 2015

Looking for History — Greek fortification and Medieval gun positions

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My grandmother was an exceptionally intelligent woman who was passionately interested in antiques.  I’m pretty sure I got my love of antiques from her, and possibly even my passion for authenticity and material culture.

She was also very cheap.  Or rather, she liked a bargain.  She had a whole theory on how to search for and purchase antiques.  Her theory was that you wanted to find an area that had been prosperous during the period you wanted; say, the late 18th century (her favorite).  And then, ideally, was much less prosperous afterwards, so that the area kept its old chairs and didn’t refurnish all its houses; so the nice early pewter and good Sheraton and Hepplewhite furniture was still, so to speak, sitting around.  Used, but loved, never thrown on the rubbish heap.

A few years ago, I became interested in early examples of military architecture purpose built for cannon.  I was fascinated by the development of the bastion trace or ‘Trace Italienne‘ system and I’ll note, snarkily, that the author of the Wiki who thinks that Trace Italienne and the star fort are the same is… well, not seeing the same development path I see. Anyway….

I have a book that says there are ‘few, if any, surviving examples of round gun ports and early gun positions left in the world.’  I happened to read this comment while on vacation in Greece, and I stood at Mytilene on Lesvos and laughed, as the whole fortification, built in 1462 and ‘renewed’ by the Turks around 1470, is riddled with round gun ports and very early ‘bastions.’  I thought I’d found something exceptional.

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Actually, what I’d found was the military history equivalent of my grandmother’s theory on antiques, proved large.  It turns out that Greece is a place where the very best, and most expensive, Italian military engineers available to the two richest states in the Mediterranean and perhaps the world, Genoa, and Venice, built dozens… maybe HUNDREDS, of fortifications in the years between 1440 and 1470.  And then it all collapsed; within a decade, virtually every Genoese and Venetian possession had fallen to the Turks for complex sociopolitical reasons that good fortifications could not prevent…  The Turks didn’t need a lot of the forts, so they just sat there. Like a good Heppelwhite chair in an old logging town, waiting to be collected.

But sometimes, doing research has a comic element, and Medieval gun positions provided one of the very best.

A week ago, I was on tour with my friends.  It’s called the Pen and Sword tour; and we visit fortifications and battlefields and.. wineries and really good restaurants.  And ships… archaeological sites… almost any bar that serves mastika…

I digress.

We all enjoyed Mistras (last capital of the Byzantine Empire; a city that towers over the plain of Sparta; one of the world’s coolest places; my bet for the real life Minas Tirith) so much last year that we decided to visit again.  And, rather like re-reading a favorite book and finding something you missed the first time… we were coming down the steep stairs when Stephan Callahan said something about a ‘gun position’.

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I came around the corner and there was a beautiful example of a very early gun position; round topped, slightly sloped.  The site has a likely terminus ante quam of about 1462, so the gun position has to be pretty early.  I was just looking at it, and the incredible view down over the lower town and gates, when Stephan (or maybe Jamie Harrison) said, ‘And here’s the gun.’

Indeed.  Lying right there was a large section of the (probably exploded) breech of a welded, not cast, Medieval gun.  No marker, no tag.  Just… sitting there.

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Wow.  It even has the touch hole, which rather ended discussion of whether this was really part of an original medieval gun we’d found on the ground by the gun position.

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The close up…

OK, comedy aside, it’s actually exciting and rather moving to realize you are looking at multiple artifacts that, together, actually tell a story.  I don’t know what the story is; that gun may have sat in the rain, decorating the road, until the 1770s when the inhabitants of the town, misguided, tried to revolt against the Turks under the impression that the Russians would save them (who could make this up?).  Maybe they tried to fire the gun; it would have been 300 years old and riddled with rust on its welded (not cast) seams.  Or maybe it was so bad that it exploded in 1462.  Maybe the Turks blew it up after taking the place, because, (as you see when you stand there) it was just too hard to haul it down the hill…  That was a big gun.  I’d peg it around the 24 pound bore size.

The best moment, however, came when we read the sign, located about 5 meters from the gun position.

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No.  Really.  Top notch job, Ephorates. Note the part that says ‘only be seen in large, coastal, Venetian castles.’  This was the capital of Byzantium, friends. Venice only got here in the person of Malatesta, in 1464…

And while we’re on the topic of guns; Stephan Callahan (again) arrived to the Pen and Sword tour from Venice.  He had a great time in Venice, but his complaint, reiterated several times, was that ‘Venice has lost its military history.’  I remember this too; lots of carnival masks; no memory of an overseas empire and a giant fleet and marines and everything.

In fact, by one of those odd acts of nerdy serendipity, we were talking about the paucity of Venetian military antiquities as we walked along the harbor front of one of the Jewels in the Serenissima’s crown of empire; ie, Nafplion.  It was sunset, on a magnificent day.  I paused to light a little cigar.

Several history nerds whooped all together, the long war cry of veteran gamers, usually heard only on 28mm battlefields and occasionally in ‘Rome, Total War.’

Around a slight curve in the road was an 18th c. sea bastion; a little harbor defence for Morisini’s military masterpiece of fortification.  And filling every embrasure.. or at least, five of six — was a fortune in magnificent bronze guns.

Here, enjoy some artillery porn.

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These are the very stars of Venice’s arsenal; long, heavy guns, probably from Morosini’s siege train.  Every one of them cast by a master; all with their names cast in.  To me, they looked like 32 pounders, but perhaps bigger, and I don’t even know what the Arsenal’s standard bores were in the period 1682 (earliest gun) to 1696 (latest gun).

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And of course, Naflplion fell to the Turks in 1715; another point for Nana’s theory; these guns are still where Morosini left them.  And they are not in Venice, where, let’s face it, by now they’d be church bells, or tourist bric-a-brac, or probably most likely, carted away as scrap by Napoleon Bonaparte.

I think I’m a pretty good historian, for an amateur; but I would never have thought to go to Greece to study late Medieval fortification, and I’d have been wrong.  Nor the evolution of Enlightenment fortification, and Nafplion’s high fortress is one of the most extreme and advanced pieces of Vauban-style architecture in the world.  Leaves Fort Ticonderoga cold.  As good as Louisbourg.  Which, come to think of it, is in Canada; because most of the great French examples are wrecks due to other wars… and rebuilding of cities…

Addenda:  Only after writing this blog did I look at the next picture… a Venetian howitzer.

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It is too late to have done the job itself; but the one in front of the military museum wasn’t.  If this was Morosini’s siege train… and it looked it… what if one of these guns was the culprit who blew a whole in the Parthenon?

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My friend Doug Cubbison, a veritable artillery detective, is the man for this job.  Doug?

Oh.  And to increase sales and clicks… the mandatory cat photo. I have good tie ins… Morosini always had his cat with him, even in combat.  Interesting, eh?

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These cats live in the nunnery just below the Mistras gun position, so are probably pure Byzantine.

Oh, yes… we saw lots of Ancient Greece… the next blog will cover all that.  But the gun positions were ‘world class.’  And.. well, I hope you laughed.  I’m writing to the Greek Archaeological service.

 

 

Pen and Sword II; Teaching Martial Arts — and Delphi

 

IMG_1071Intro to Bolognese in the Vale of Delphi

By today, my Pen and Sword tour will have gone to Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Olympia, and be well on our way to Delphi.  If we’re lucky, we’ll stop and look at the battlefield of Plataea; the battlefield, and the ruins of the walled city where Arimnestos grew to manhood.  And the plains of Morea in the Red Knight.

Delphi is a magical, haunted place.  i suppose if you go at high summer, the mystery is largely gone; I wonder sometimes if the Greeks thought the same.  But in the fall, there’s delight everywhere, and with a little luck, we’ll be horseback riding in the Vale of Delphi later today, after a reverential visit to the temples and the museum.

But before that; every morning, in fact….

….There’s sword class.

Listen, I’ve been incredibly lucky as a swordsperson.  I’ve had great teachers all my life; I’ve known a great many good swordspeople in a wide spectrum of disciplines; so many, in fact, that when people say ‘you do sword fighting?  that’s really cool.  Never met anyone…’ etc, I always think ‘You should get out more often.’  Jay Borne, my middle school fencing coach; Mike Edgar, my first ‘sensei’ although he’ll blush when I say it; Delos Wheeler, a great epee fencer; Ian Brackley, still my favorite small sword teacher; Sensei Zimmerman, in Aikido and Iado; Guy WIndsor for Italian long sword in Finland; Greg Mele for the whole world of Armizare and Chivalric fighting arts…

And I’ve been taught in a fascinating variety of styles.  Not sword styles…that’s another blog.  My first maestro, in classical (Italian) fencing, carried a very heavy fencing saber and not a fol, and hit us when he didn’t like something, which was all too frequent.  Mostly I got hit in the back of the leg.  Because of my stance, or posture.

In a piece of remarkable, and painful irony, when I was in boot camp, my Marine Corps DI used to hit me int he same leg, for a very different fault.  I hope this makes you laugh, especially if you are a Navy or Marine Corps vet, but I was, when I joined up, a 10 year veteran of Revolutionary War reenacting.  I’d done a lot of drill.  I was pretty much a master of His Majesties 1764 Manual, which is shockingly very close to the ‘Naval Boarding Party’ Manual they teach in basic.  Except the whole right foot going back at ‘present arms.’  I did a great many push-ups, and I had a DI in conniptions.  For weeks.  Same leg.

Later, when learning Armizare, the leg was in trouble again, this time for not being ‘wide’ enouhg in my stance.  But no one hit me…

As usual, I digress.  So, my first experience of martial arts training was very regimented; only the instructor talked, and everyone was too terrified to ask any questions.  No theory was taught at all; we did pretty rigid drills.

Then I took Kendo.  We were encouraged to shout, at times.  Everything was very fast moving, and seemed to me a little chaotic after classical fencing.  But the rigid structure was still there, underneath.  You bowed to your maestro.  I mean sensei.  All the time, it seemed.

Later, I did Aikido.  My friend Wes Shuler fired me with enthusiasm for Aikido in Kenya on an operation, and tossed me around a hotel room, but given his infectious enthusiasm, his John Wayne ‘can do’ attitude, and my general hero-worship of him, it was way more fun than all that regimented stuff.  I got one on one instruction.  Lots of it.  The lesson was not lost on me, either; I mean, by then, I was a very, very good epee fencer, and I’d had lots of private epee lessons from good coaches.  Not one of them was as good at making me want to emulate him as Wes, and I don’t think Wes even thought of himself as a ‘martial arts instructor.’

A few years later, in Canada, I took Aikido formally, and it was yet another teaching style; lots of respect for the sensei, true, but a very informal attitude about many things; regimented displays at times, but lots of demonstrations.  Bit almost no one ever speaks aloud in my dojo.  The sensei instructs.  But he (or she) does not usually speak.  The silence is very nice, but at times, to this gai-jin, hopelessly confusing.  About the ninth time I ask the sensei to show me a technique, I no longer want to play.  Or I’d like a little verbal coaching.  Still, I got that lesson too; sometimes words get in the way. Patient repetition is wonderful.  Well, to a point.

In the world of Long Sword and Armizare, I started with Guy WIndsor, who runs a very successful and rather wonderful school in Finland, the School of European Swordsmanship.  It was very like my early fencing life; Guy teaches, and students are quiet and respectful.  To be honest, Finns are very quiet when they accept authority.  But Guy also teaches with immense charisma, and his line of patter… is very smart, very focused, and sort of diametrically opposed to the Aikido silence.  Fascinating, Captain.  There seem to be many ways to learn martial arts.

Finally, in the North American schools of fence, or of Armizare, there is a certain rather American (or Canadian) unease with authority.  No one in North American Armizare wants to call themselves a ‘Master’ although there are at least four people I see as ‘masters.’  There is a certain informality of dress; no one bows to anyone.  And perhaps it is the Millennial generation, but I hear and see fewer and fewer of the outward signs of respect, and I wonder….

And yet, early this summer, I took a pole axe class in my own Salle (at Pia Bouman school of Dance in Toronto) and Jason Smith had a wonderful touch; clever as Guy, sometimes silent and sometimes loud, full of patient repetition and good drills, but also encouraging some student thought and experiment.  By the way, Jason ‘informs’ the character of Ser Danved in ‘Dread Wyrm.’

So… when I teach, I’m trying to channel all the best bits of all these styles of teaching.  I have a good friend who does no martial arts at all; she’s a linguist, and she teaches ESL.  Despite this, she’s taught me a great deal about ‘teaching’ and the thought-processes involved.  Perhaps the best thing she’s drilled into me is that every student is different, and every one of them probably needs to be taught individually.  Even when you face a dozen new beginners, you need to suss them out and start thinking about what they need.

That’s why the Pen and Sword tour’s sword section is so much fun.  As we’re together 24/7, I get to think about all these people as sword students every day.  And think about who they are and how they learn.  And how I learn.

Perhaps the oddest lesson, last year, was about the aesthetics of sword class.  Having class 2000 feet above the Vale of Delphi is amazing.  So amazing, so beautiful, as to be an incredible experience.  Those mountain dojos in Japan… perhaps they are on to something.  We tend to train in drag, modern, almost industrial spaces; is there anything uglier than a modern gymnasium?  Or a boxing gym?  I’ve been to pretty dojos, but not many.  But training outside, amidst beauty… is very good for students and for the teacher.  I have no real idea why; I could theorize, but I’ll spare you all, just this once.

IMG_1078That’s me and Mike Brennan…

Pen and Sword II — Day four, Mistras and Sparta

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Steven Runciman — a great, if sometimes romantic, historian, wrote a book I’ve read many times called ‘The Lost Capitol of Byzantium’ with a forward by John Freely.  It’s about Mistras, a town that overlooks the vale of Sparta.

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Mistras is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been.  The location is superb,and so are the views.  It seems to be the real life Minas Tirith; at least seven levels of houses and palaces and walls.  And art.  And churches.  It represents the last, last, last gasp of the Roman EMpire; the last of many small renaissances, and the place provided a haven for Greeks and Greek learning int he dark days of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  George Plethon, who, incidentally, thought he was Plato reborn and whose life and writing inspired Harmodius, my mage in the Red Knight series, floushed here, and conducted one of the last great Greek philosophical schools; he educated Bessarion who became a cardinal int he western church and one of the leading sponsors of the Italian Renaissance.  Plethon also taught in Florence for a little while, and had a huge impact  Sigismondo Malatesta retook Mistras from the Turks as almost the last acto fhis brilliant military career and moved Plethon’s bones to Rimini; the two old pagans lie there together.

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And there at your feet is Sparta.  The vale of Sparta is magnificent; the ruins of ancient Sparta are not.  In fact,  they are a little dull.  The Spartans prided themselves on being aristocratic communities and not a metropolis like Athens.  And so they did not leave us a temple like the Parthenon.  I wonder what that says about history?

Today we’ll also see the battlefield of Sellasia, where Antigonus and an army of Macedonians and Achaeans took on the Spartans in a nearly impregnable position.. and defeated them.  Philopoeman was the hero of the day, as a young cavalry officer.

Day after tomorrow we’ll go to Olympia.

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I’ve never been.  Olympia has the best collection of original armour of the Archaic and Classical periods in the world; I’ve read whole books on this collections, and tomorrow I’ll see it, and I hope bury you in photos… not to mention the staggering beauty of the site.  the Greeks chose their temple sites for their beauty, and I must say that they had a remarkable eye.  Given Delos, Delphi, and the Parthenon, as well as the temple locations I’ve seen on Lesvos and elsewhere…

Olympia will probably blow me away…  I’m really looking forward to it.

 

But tomorrow…   is Mycenae.  And Tiryns and Argos…   one of the best scenes in Dread Wyrm (IMHO) emerged from my last visit to Mycenae…  we went down into the ancient cistern, about 70 steps into unfathomable darkness.  I had forgotten how dark it could be, 70 steps deep.  In a place people carved out of the rock about four thousand years ago.  Dark.  And not without fear.  Slippery stone steps.

Khazad Dum?  the Stygian darkness?  Anyway, that’s where I dreamed up how I would write Desiderada’s scenes.  But for those reading them, I won’t spoil them further…

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