Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Going Medieval on The Walking Dead!

Season 3 of AMC's The Walking Dead seems to have amped up from last year, with the intrepid (and dwindling) group of survivors now whittling down dozens of zombies per episode.  I guess the long spell of sitting on Hershal's farm eating carbs last season helped them rest up, but I've still noticed a rather proliferate use of scarce ammunition, which doesn't seem like the optimal way to deal with a zombie threat.

Eventually the bullets run out and you will be forced to tier back to a more traditional methodology for eliminating the walker menace:  hand-held, muscle-driven weaponry.  While the tried and true use of gardening tools and heavy hunting knives seems to be popular on the show, the reality is that using a hoe to brain a zombie might not be the most efficient tool.

When it comes to taking down a zombie with hand-held weapons, the Walking Dead crew might want to peruse some traditional medieval weaponry.

Zombies require a brain shot to permanently grant them quiescence and eliminate the menace.  The human skull is designed to protect and shield the brain and can be a difficult target.  Strikes can deflect quite easily, sliding off to one side or the other, leaving you off-balance and vulnerable to a quick zombie chomp.  Measurements from skull impact tests and force studies have concluded that the human skull can fracture from as little as 16 lbs of force (71 Newtons for you science types) but it is very dependent on how and where that force is applied.

For ideal zombie slotting, you want a hand-held weapon that allows you to strike quickly, with minimal muscle force, maximum leverage, and lots of kinetic energy and precision for the impact.  Ideally, the weapon should have enough reach to keep the slavering monster at an appreciable distance.   The minimal muscle force is a necessity as you probably have a fair number of the undead lined up hungering for your brains.  You don't want to expend any more energy killing them than you have to.

Medieval weaponry, designed for use against armored opponents has strong potential for efficient zombie slaughter, after all, it worked really well on the French at Crecy and Azincourt.

Starting with ranged weaponry, everyone's favorite redneck ninja Darryl Dixon is already well-equipped with a compound hunting crossbow.  Crossbows were powerful weapons, with a longer range and more kinetic energy then longbows but were often slow to reload as you needed to crank or lever them back to shoot again.  A longbow in trained hands was just as accurate, almost as powerful and could be shot at a much faster rate.  The downside to the longbow was that to become effective with one required years of training from a very young age.  A crossbowman could be trained in a week.   Longbow-men in England actually had massively overdeveloped shoulder and arm muscles (evidence of which has been noted in a number of bone studies) from shooting the massive weapons with their draw weights of 100-120 lbs.  Consequently the longbow, though probably better for fast accurate shooting, wouldn't be a practicable weapon for zombie fighting.  The crossbow, with its accuracy and ease of use, would be very applicable but the slow reload might be problematic for personal, in-close zombie fights.

So what's your best in-close, effective zombie-killing tool? 

The traditional medieval weapon that Hollywood tends towards when exploring martial chaos with armored knights is the long sword and broadswords.  I'm not going to go into detail on the wide variety and metamorphosis of long swords (also known as the great sword) across the Medieval period (this site is terrific if you are interested) but I am going to note that swords were often overrated as the melee weapon of choice.  Long swords were heavy and sometimes unwieldy, especially when you started getting into the William Wallace-style claymores.  In untrained hands you were likely to tire quickly and probably accidentally clip Carl, who just can't stay out of trouble. 

As a zombie-killing device, the long-sword has the goods to deliver an effective strike.  The television show Deadliest Warrior tested a Viking long sword against a skull target encased in ballistics gel, to try to assess the type of damage.  The sword test saw the skull almost bisected, prevented from being sliced in half only because of the steel mounting rod the target was fixed to.  The sword actually chipped the steel support rod, so the force involved in being on the receiving end of a strike is considerable and any zombie hanging around the arc of that strike would soon be an ex-zombie. 

First-hand evidence on the show is provided by the season 3 character Michonne, who's dai-katana serves her as a very effective zombie-elimination tool however it is fairly evident that she has significant training.  Japanese katanas are designed primarily as edge weapons, with a focus on cutting.  As a tool for lopping off zombie heads, it is first rate.  The long sword could certainly effectively take out zombies, but would it be the most efficient tool for the job?  There are a lot of zombies.... and heavy, two handed swords can be tiring.

One-handed swords were probably a better option, which opens up the question of what are you using in the other hand?  Often it was a shield or a buckler.  T-Dog leveraged a shield very effectively in helping clear the prison, which brings to mind that the use of a team-based protective shield wall approach might be very effective against small groups of zombies.  Against large groups, the technique would probably be less useful as you would certainly have zombies coming up the flanks and turning the corner on your shield wall just because of sheer numbers.  At which point, you would be lunch for walkers.  But I digress...I think we will save defensive strategies and armor for another time.

One-handed swords are lighter but typically also shorter, which impacts your reach.  Often they are better designed for quick, accurate attacks, culminating the rise of the rapier-style blades when you move into the Renaissance period.  Rapiers would be good, accurate for attacks in through the eye sockets but are designed for killing with the point, not for slicing and dicing.  They probably lack the weight and heft to be effective skull busters like the long-sword   In addition they, like the katana, require a significant amount of practice and training to be used effectively.

The overall conclusion around swords is that while they certainly provide effective zombie killing, they might require a strength and skill level to effectively wield and will probably not be the most energy efficient solutions for when you have undead lined up around the block.  In short, around about zombie number three, you will be feeling the burn...

Daggers, poniards, misericordes, rondels and other hand-held short bladed weapons are another option but you need to be in-close, within biting distance, which makes them problematic.  Designed to be thrust into gaps in armor, through visor eye slits to deliver a killing blow (or occasional merciful deliverance from other wounds) to a fallen knight, these weapons were very lethal.  The only sure route into the zombie's brain however would be via the eye sockets or the mouth.  While a precise blow with these stabbing weapons might be able to penetrate the skull, the chances are high that most attacks would be deflected.  With a zombie, impervious to pain, uninterested in anything other than its appetite, a glancing blow might allow for a fatal counter-bite.  These type of weapons are probably only a last resort alternative for effective zombie fighting.

Moving onward there is the all-purpose axe.  Medieval era battle axes were generally more tapered in the blade and lighter than the typical general purpose axe used around the home, with a crescent-shaped head rather than the familiar wedge.  They varied widely in size and blade type, including two handed variants of all sizes and shapes. 

Of particular note was the poleaxe and the halberd, which were long-handled variants of the war axes (or axe-bladed variations of spears, if you want to take it from the other direction).  With a broad blade on one side and an armor penetrating pick on the other, halberds and poleaxes were deadly killing tools.  Throw in a spike on the tip and they served as effective and deadly combat weapons.  For zombies, the typical war axe would be more than effective and the highest efficiency and lethality would probably be from the halberd or poleaxe format, giving you reach, leverage and the capability to deliver a fatal blow with relative ease, and efficiently leveraging the physics of the weapon in your strike.  You have the option of the axe blade, the spike or the pick, depending on your mood and preference.  As an added bonus the spike on the tip could be used to hold a zombie at bay while your fellow survivor popped the undead in the brain with the pick side, assuming your fellow survivor wasn't Lori who, true to form, was probably off looking for Carl.  The hooked end of the axe blade could also be used to catch at a knight or man-at-arms, and pull him off balance, leaving them open for a second attack.  There was often a spike on the base as well, to be used on fallen foes.

What medieval themed zombie-killing arsenal would be complete without that old standby the mace?  Maces are hard-core bludgeoning weapons, designed to stun, crush and impact through armor.  Probably the weapon of choice for Merle. 

Flanged maces in particular were effective at penetrating even the strongest armor with the protruding flanges denting the metal on impact.  Against an unarmored zombie skull, the flanged mace would be routinely lethal. 

Ideally the best possible position for using the mace would be on horseback, allowing the weight of the weapon to do the work.  Typically horsemen would ride past the enemy and swing the mace back for the impact on their opponent, moving onto the next target without having the horse break stride or slow, which could be fatal in a melee. Whether a horse would proceed against a horde of ravenous zombies is questionable, but one can see possibly riding past in the back of an open pickup and swinging away quite effectively.

Another bludgeoning weapon with a brutal elegance was the war hammer.  These long-handled hammers ranged from halberd-sized (for use on mounted targets) to hand-held, mace-sized weapons.  Usually a hammer was paired with a spike, useful for penetrating armor or hooking foes and their reins.   Designed as bludgeoning impact weapons, war hammers were usually effective at stunning armored knights, even through plate armor.  Against unarmored zombies, the hammer would be deadly as it permitted a massive amount of force to be directed against a zombie's head with a minimal effort, as anyone who becomes practiced at driving a nail can testify.

The last items to discuss are the pike, lances and other types of spears.  Spears are tremendously versatile and dangerous weapons and would be effective with zombies on one-on-one where you could target the zombie's head.  The issue, I think, with them and with pikes, is that a horde of zombies, unlike cavalry, would probably not stop or split when faced with a wall of pikes.  Rather they would end up spitting themselves on the spear and continue moving forward.  I suspect you would end up with a zombie on a stick, which is better than one in your face but begs the question of what next?  Ideally your pikes or spears would have some type of crossbar to prevent them from moving forward all the way to the wielder but aside from an impediment to their movement, a wall of pikes might not provide much advantage.

Other medieval weaponry that might be helpful in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested hellhole would include most of the many variations of the above, in all their myriad details.  Mauls, flails, quarter-staffs  picks, and morning stars (these give me nightmares just thinking about swinging one.  You just know that somebody would accidentally spike Rick and end up on the receiving end of the harshest glare in television).

In summary, a good weapon layout for the Walking Dead survivors would probably include a nice mix of "mid-range" handheld weapons and good close-in finishing tools.  My suggestion would be a team of four wielding halberds or poleaxes to engage the zombies at a good distance, and the others armed with flanged maces and hammers for in-close zombie splattering.  Oh, and rondels or poniards for everyone, for that just-in-case gory close-up moment that all the Walking Dead fan base like to see.

Although I have to say, I would pay cold hard cash to see Rick going to town on a horde of walkers with a long-sword....

Monday, November 5, 2012

City of Fortune

City of Fortune by Roger Crowley is a vivid, engrossing historical account of the rise (and eventual fall) of the the city of Venice.  Crowley traces the establishment of Venice as a small trade port and pulls together the fine threads of profit, technology, commercialism, power and hubris that allowed Venice to build an empire, without any natural resources to draw upon but themselves.

"The sea was at once their protection, their opportunity, and their fate; secure in their shallow lagoon with its deceptive channels and treacherous mudflats that no invader could penetrate, shielded if not insulated from the surge of the Adriatic, they wrapped the sea around them like a cloak."

At the height of its power, the Venetians sat at the epicentre, controlling the crossroads of the spice trade between the Christian west, and the markets of Islam, the Mongol, China and India.  From Asia and the Middle East,  to the European markets of France, Italy and Germany - Venice was the linchpin.  This then was Venice's famous "stato da mar", the dominion of the sea, an empire born of trade, inculcated on profit and ruled by commerce over all.

Well-written, concise and filled with deftly drawn historical figures  and incidents, Crowley examines the Venetian arc of history from their "hijacking" of the Fourth Crusade, the fracturing (at their hands more than anyone) of the Byzantine Empire, into their long commercial feud/war with Pisa and Genoa, and their abrupt decline in the face of Ottoman expansion and Portuguese technology.

City of Fortune is a brisk, epic and superlative account and well worth a look.