[lit-ideas] Re: What a day!

  • From: David Ritchie <profdritchie@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2012 13:36:00 -0700

On Jul 23, 2012, at 4:58 AM, cblitid@xxxxxxxx wrote:

> Today [19 July 2012] 'Kalenderblatt' passed over the sinking of the Mary 
> Rose, 

Had my book on swords been published--I doubt now that this will happen--you 
could have read about my encounter with the Mary Rose sword.

Here's an excerpt: Leeds.  I had lunch at Yates’ Wine Bar, where a poster 
explained that something called “the Blob” was “an unrivaled taste experience.” 
 I thought about asking if it was “surprisingly good.”  I ordered a pint of 
Boddingtons Ale and a steak and kidney pie, which I was enjoying immensely 
until it occurred to me that I’d not read anywhere that the mad cow disease 
scare was over.  The first person I asked reassured me that it was over and 
that everything was now,  “safe...just as long as you didn’t eat meat from 
certain parts of the animal, where was it exactly, near the bone perhaps?”  I 
started imagining my own obituary in one of those peculiar English tabloid 
headlines, “Blade Buff Felled by Cut Too Near Bone.”   
        From the center of the city, the pedestrian approach to the new museum 
passes along a canal and over a bridge by Tetley’s, a brewery where they charge 
for tours.  The walk was very pleasant and the first sight of my goal equally 
so, for what is now the back of the armory building (the architects designed it 
to be the front but practical matters overcame aesthetic ones and they moved 
the door from the end where pedestrians walk, to the end where cars park) is 
marked by a large glass turret, containing a winding staircase with rows and 
rows of weapons decorating the walls.  Like great halls in ancient fortresses 
it says in a casual way, “Welcome to our castle.  You’ll notice we’ve got so 
many weapons in our armory here, we had to hang the surplus up. ”   
        When I meet Graeme Rimer, Keeper of Department, a title that puts him 
in charge of the swords I want to see, he seems very much a man under siege.  I 
mention to him that people in London are skeptical about the move of weapons 
from the Tower to Leeds and ask about how the decision was made.  Why take 
weapons out of where people expect to go and see them and move them into a 
building in Leeds?  The answers provided a brief lesson in the other side of 
real swords, the curator’s task of trying to make a fine collection pay for its 
upkeep while at the same time making the weapons available as a resource for 
study.  Briefly, in the Tower there was a shortage of display space and the 
storage was, as one might imagine, in rooms spread here and there in a much 
modified and very old building.  Preserving steel weapons in a porous stone 
building in Britain’s wet climate was difficult.  Then there were the usual 
difficulties associated with government work--who was responsible for which 
kinds of decision and so on.  The upshot was that when the Crown Jewels people 
wanted more display space, the weapons people started looking around for 
somewhere else they could show the collection.  The best offers came from the 
English Rust Belt or whatever they call it, 
free-beer-if-your-company-moves-here zones.  Rimer was justly proud of having 
secured financing, built a building and moved the collection all in a very 
short time.  And he was aware of the old adage, uneasy lies the head that wears 
the crown.  People were expecting the museum to fail.  Literally and 
metaphorically, there was no free coffee for anyone here.  
        When I visited they had just opened an exhibit on “Buffalo Bill and the 
Wild West.”  Walking past it on the way in I thought I saw confusion of 
purpose--what on earth would be the connection between one of the great arms 
and armor collections of the world and Buffalo Bill?  Had the Tower of London 
Armoury lost its head?  But the longer I spent in the galleries, the more I 
came to like the place, and I was not alone.  Among parents with children, the 
place is a hit.  They come in droves, they come in hordes, they eat the 
sandwiches and real home-made Bakewell tarts and real home-made soup sold by 
the restaurants, watch real imitation sword fights and see the exhibits and the 
slide shows and the brief explanatory videos, all of which are well done.  They 
buy things in the gift shop, which is one of those disappointing places that 
thinks a museum should sell toys and ice creams and sweatshirts,  but stocks 
few books capable of   taking the story further.  
        Generally people who visit the museum come away pleased, more engaged 
than people were by the same collection when it was at the Tower because there 
is more context, more explanation.  If this were as close to real swords as any 
person could come, it would be close enough.  He or she would get the general 
idea of real swords and guns and so on and have plenty oddities to consider.  
One example, a German Extending Rapier from about 1590.  The card accompanying 
the exhibit explains, “On 1 March 1557 Mary I decreed that no sword or rapier 
larger than ‘a yarde and a halfe quarter’ should be worn or sold.  This sword 
could be made to conform, but it could also be lengthened when the wearer 
        But for me there was one step closer to real, a visit to the inner 
sanctum, the vault where all the swords not currently on display are stored.    
        They provided white gloves.  I asked Peter Smithurst, my guide for the 
occasion, how common damage from acid on people’s fingers really was.  He said 
that during the move they had found one or two examples of people who had 
clearly touched the blades with ungloved hands and left impressions, residual 
marks.  I said I had never used gloves when handling swords and that it seemed 
somehow wrong to pussyfoot around holding in gloved hands weapons that big 
rugged men had worn in weather both fair and foul.  He smiled.  And then we 
both put gloves on, for after a bewildering journey through what seemed like a 
labyrinth designed for security purposes but actually, according to Smithurst, 
was just the architects and the building’s users miscommunicating somewhat 
about who needed to go where and by what routes, we had arrived in a cavernous 
room that was filled with rack after rack of splendid swords, halberds, pikes, 
all things bright and beautiful.  Guns were elsewhere.  What , Smithurst asked, 
would I like to see?  
        “Scottish Basket Hilts.” 
        To write or speak of “real” in relation to anything Scottish is 
difficult.  Two recent authors call the problem the “legacy of tartanry.”  
Every nation suffers from a gap between how people who haven’t been there 
imagine it to be and how it “really” is for people who live there, but in 
Scotland’s case the problem is particularly acute.  There are Scots and 
would-be Scots all over the world stirring the pot and coming up with images of 
a land of mists, heather and tales of the toughness of men who wear skirts.  
Bagpipe jokes.  This is not a new problem.  When Boswell visited the highlands 
in 1773 he wrote:

"Wed 1 Sept...M'Queen walked some miles to give us a convoy.  He had, in
1745, joined the Highland army at Fort Augustus, and continued in it till
after the battle of Culloden.  As he narrated the particulars of that
ill-advised, but brave attempt, I could not refrain from tears.  There is a
certain association of ideas in my mind upon that subject, by which I am
strongly affected.  The very Highland names, or the sound of a bagpipe, will
stir my blood, and fill me with a mixture of melancholy and respect for
courage; with pity for an unfortunate and superstitious regard for
antiquity, and thoughtless inclination for war; in short, with a crowd of
sensations with which sober rationality has nothing to do."

Thus it is with many people when they hear the massed bands at a Highland Games 
or the Edinburgh Tattoo or when they come across a basket hilted sword.  And if 
the sword in question only looks a little like a Scottish sword and was made by 
low-wage workers in India, the question becomes, is this any more or less real 
than Japanese T.V. personalities or African Americans from Sacramento playing 
in a pipe band?  (I mention the former because a student told me of a t.v. 
stunt in which a presenter attempted to ‘learn’ the bagpipes in three or four 
days; I mention the latter because at a recent Highland Games I caught their 
performance and loved it.)  In clan parades at Highland Games in the U.S. it 
has become customary for men to march past dressed in some version of 
eighteenth century garb, shouting the clan rallying cry and saluting with 
replica swords.  These are not quite reenactors, and they’re very much real 
contemporary people who feel Boswell’s non-sober, non-rational mixture of 
melancholy and respect.  
        If all this semi-real stuff has the power to make us feel something, 
imagine the overwhelming power of the collection of swords that now was before 
me.  A final ironic point.  Anthony Darling attributes the decline of highland 
sword making art to two things: the Disarming Act of 1746, and the manufacture 
in Birmingham, England of poor imitations of the basket hilted sword which 
allowed Colonels to arm new highland regiments at a cost of only eight shilling 
and six pence per sword.  Small wonder that one often comes across early 
eighteenth century hilts on late eighteenth century and even on nineteenth 
century blades.  Scots knew a good thing when they saw it.     
        How to convey the beauty of these broadswords?  The blades vary, some 
relatively narrow, some up to three inches across, but they were all probably 
made somewhere outside Scotland--Solingen, Shotley Bridge, somewhere.  The 
peculiarly Scottish art, the thing that holds the eye, lies in the variety of 
responses to the same problem: how to protect the user’s hand.  Burton 
dismissed basket hilts as a bad design that restricted a man’s wrist movements. 
 It may be that he was right.  To me this doesn’t matter.  It's about a 
craftsman's vernacular.  
        Here an unknown smith pieced together what’s called a “ribbon hilt,” a 
simple set of pieces of iron whose decorative power comes from form alone.  
Pick up a sword from the other end of the spectrum and there’s a pommel of 
semi-precious stone, a red velvet liner, intricate wiggly bits, the same form 
more or less, but gone completely over-the-top baroque.  A poor man’s sword, a 
rich man’s sword, both now called the same thing--basket hilt, both lie 
sideways in the dark,  side by side like bones in a casket, bound together for 
as long as the museum stands, leveled by the passage of time, preserved by how 
we value what is real.  
        Here is the standard, hearts and diamonds basket hilt, associated with 
Glasgow and crudely copied by makers in Birmingham.  And here is a more wavy 
pattern, the peak of Scottish invention, the work of Walter Allan, freeman of 
the Incorporation of Hammermen of Stirling.  I get permission to take 
photographs.  As I click away the Hammermen, as hilt makers were called, come 
to me, a parade of ghosts: John Simpson, Thomas Gemmill, Robert Craig in 
Glasgow, John Simpson, Walter Allen, John Allen, James Grant in Stirling and a 
trailing host of clan armorers and local blacksmiths whose signatures, marks, 
styles, identities are lost.  
        I take a photograph a blade marked, “Gott Bewar de Verechte Schotten,” 
which on the spot I guessed might mean, "The upright Scots have God on their 
side.”   The horizontal Scots would, of course, already been in God’s 
protection.  It turns out that "God protect the righteous Scots" would be 
        What else was there?  The Mary Rose sword.  The one and only sixteenth 
century English basket hilt, rescued from the bottom of the sea, right there on 
a short plank of wood.  Would I like to hold it?  Indeed I would.
        And there was a sword made by Monsieur Leparge in Paris, with a 
triangular blade on which was written Nelson’s famous message, “England Expects 
Every Man To Do His Duty,” and a list of Wellington’s victories in Spain and 
Portugal.   I wondered what the Frenchman thought of the commission.   Perhaps 
he was a royalist and happy to accept.  
        There was a sword with a detailed calendar engraved on the blade.  
You’ve seen the movie of this in action: 
“So,  finally we meet.  Prepare to die.”
“Right ho, fair enough.  But why?”
“Because it is your day to die.”
“Oh... I see, how do you know?”
“Because I’ve looked it up on this calendar on my blade.”
        And there was a rapier longer than any I’ve ever seen, five foot or 
more, so long it would seem impossible to use.
        In the library I met Jenny Connolley, the first female arms and armor 
specialist I’d ever come across.  It’s my experience that many women are better 
at reading and understanding  visual signs than I am so, I felt I had to ask 
her about sex.  
        “What do you think of the notion that swords are some kind of penis 
        She said that it’s something of a commonplace among Art Historians that 
in Renaissance paintings and prints there is often a visual connection made 
between the sword and the codpiece or what’s inside it, and that if I were to 
look in J.R.Hale, Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance, I’d find all kinds of 
grist for that particular mill.  We pulled out a copy of the book and looked. I 
had to agree.  In many of these old pictures men do seem to be holding their 
sword hilts rather suggestively and blades do sometimes seem to be pointing 
rather...well... provocatively.  But then, of course, people today are not used 
to seeing great bulging codpieces as normal and we don’t live in the world of 
Renaissance men.  
        “Don’t forget the ‘ballock’ or ‘bollock’ dagger,” said Peter Smithurst, 
checking to see how I was getting on and wanting to introduce, Andrew Deane, 
one of the museum’s weapons demonstrators.  We summarized the conversation for 
Deane. He said that while it may be true that artists developed a convention 
about how swords can be used to suggest sex sword fighting as he understands it 
isn’t sexual at all.  It’s a different kind of energy altogether.
        “When I fight,” he said, “my energy peaks in intensity, but it’s 
definitely not sexual.  I have to keep control of my weapon.”
        I don’t want it to seem like I’m making fun of Andrew here.  He’s a 
very intense and straightforward kind of guy, a nice guy and he meant exactly 
what he said--that the two “intimacies,” sword fighting and sex, are quite 
different.  But I report the words from my notes.  I trust they’re exactly as 
he said them.  
        I spent some time rummaging in the library.  A newspaper article from 
1904 caught my attention chiefly for how much it sounded like the turn of the 
century comic novel, Diary of a Nobody and Monty Python’s “Why accountancy 
isn’t boring.”  The piece opened with what the author knew to be understood by 
all, but which was news to me--some towns in England have their very own civic 
sword, “There are very few towns in England which possess the privilege of 
having a sword carried before the Mayor.  During the fourteenth century only 
seven cities and towns received it, Lincoln, York and Chester received their 
gifts from the King.  Newcastle acquired its privilege by special Charter in 
1391.  London, the first city to which the privilege was granted, has held a 
sword almost from time immemorial...” or shortly thereafter...”while as to the 
use at Coventry and Bristol, no evidence is forthcoming, although the Bristol 
sword is believed to have been in use since 1373...”  Now to the heart of the 
matter, whether Guildford had a sword too.  To get the joke you have to think 
of any place along the train lines that feed New York or on the other coast, 
consider maybe Bakersfield.  “Had Guildford a sword?  There seems to be every 
probability that Guildford was one of the towns which had a similar privilege, 
but it is not at all clear how that privilege was acquired.  Possibly... 
Probably from James II, when the King granted to the Mayor and Alderman the 
right of using the royal color, scarlet for their gowns...”  

David Ritchie,
Portland, Oregon

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