Fighting in full armour: how it’s really done

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 11.48.55(Surfacing briefly after an extraordinarily busy year…)

Myths abound on the question of how far full armour of the kind still used in the early 16th century allowed its user to move, run and fight, and what kinds of tactics such human tanks could use, and could be used against them. This fascinating short video from the Musée National du Moyen-Âge at Cluny and the University of Geneva dispels many; I was especially struck by the way that knight-versus-knight fighting depended on finding ways to bypass the armour rather than the classic movie smash-and-bash style. Well worth a watch.

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1510: all at sea

The great naval powers of the Mediterranean are Venice and the Ottoman Empire, followed by Genoa, Naples, Spain and the pirates of the Moslem Barbary Coast and the Christian Knights of St John in Malta. Florence has never been a maritime state, but as its strength and ambitions grow, it is beginning to lay the keels for a new kind of vessel, the screwship. Powered not by wind or oars but by gears, slaves or springs driving underwater propellors, these ships promise to make other vessels obsolete, not least by offering a flat platform for naval artillery, and so Florence’s rivals are duly concerned. On the other hand, they tend to scoff at the suggestion that the rising power is also working on a sommersibile, a vessel able to travel beneath the waves…

Story Seed: The Hunt for Red Ottavio

Sub1This prototype sommersibile was named Red Ottavio after Ottaviano de’Medici, an enthusiastic young scion of that line, who appeared a fervent champion of Florence’s underwater ambitions. He appeared to have  thrown his lot–and his fortune–in with the Republic, but this now seems to be in doubt.

The Red Ottavio is a small but exquisite confection of carved wood and burnished brass, its propellor and air pumps powered by a pre-coiled springs, supplemented by a hand-crank. Crewed by a dozen stalwarts and captained by the doughty Capitano de’Marchi, it set out secretly from Marina di Pisa at dawn yesterday on its third shake-down cruise. On it was Ottaviano himself: having plowed so much of his personal fortune and energy into the project, he could hardly be refused.

It ought to have returned from at dusk. It is now the day after, and there is still no sight of it. Is it now languishing on the bottom of the Mediterranean, having sprung a leak? Did it become lost, perhaps dragged off course by an unexpected current, and is it now becalmed at sea, its springs unwound? Or was Ottaviano a traitor all along, and is the sommersibile now on its way to a foreign port, to be turned against Florentine vessels or sold to the highest bidder? And what can be done about it? Already, Florence’s small navy is sending two fast galiots out to hunt for it, and the war galley La Riga is being signaled to quarter the waters off the Tuscan coast, but what if it is headed to those pirates at Genoa? Or those murderous hypocrites in Rome? Maybe it is time some trusted people were sent up and down the coastline for any sight of this marvel, while others quietly made their way to Milan to listen for any rumors that Ottaviano was working for his kin there…?

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1510 in 2014

Alessandro Scoglia, one of the daredevils of the Florentine glider corps.

Alessandro Scoglia, one of the daredevils of the Florentine glider corps.

To an extent, 1510 has had to be bubbling on the backburner through 2013, like an alchemist’s concoction: in the main, work and ‘serious’ books got in the way. However, the time has given me the opportunity to gather my thoughts and ideas and I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that I don’t want to give the richness of the setting short shrift. To this end, my thinking is now to make it an all-color work, in some ways a little like the classic Osprey military history works. Indeed, a core artist will be Johnny Shumate, one of Osprey’s A-list illustrators: the Florentine glider pilot here is one of his. The estimable Steff Worthington will be mapmaking, and I’ll also be drawing on the rich body of Renaissance art, sometimes perhaps suitably doctored. In order to support this, in the new year I’ll be launching a Kickstarter fund-raising/pre-order campaign, with the aim of publishing in the probably-late summer (and keeping the price realistic). More soon, not least as I also think about whether the include the Wordplay rules in the main book, have them in a slighter, black-and-white companion, or simply direct people to buy them separately and only include notes on how to adapt the rules to the setting. Anyway, thanks to all for your patience and I look forward to bringing this to you in 2014.

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1510 hits the small screen…kinda

ImageI’ve been looking for the ideal 1510 TV series or film. No, not the Borgias, fun and sumptuous though it may be (albeit with too little Machiavelli). But I finally think I’ve found it with Davinci’s Demons. The lineage may seem a little unsubtle (“let’s make Da Vinci a little bit like the cocky, ass-kicking Sherlock Holmes out of Elementary“), the CGI sometimes a little CGIish, but on balance, come on, it has Leonardo, Medicis, Borgias, intrigue, clockpunk devices, mystic conspiracies, some quite good acting, and, my grudging comments about the CGI apart, some really quite splendid backdrops. Well worth a look. (And some exciting news about 1510 coming soon, by the way…)

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Was Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘tank’ really a revolving gun platform?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe story is that Leonardo deliberately built a design flaw into his famous tank design because he never wanted such a terrible machine actually to be built: that the hand cranks that turned its wheels revolved in opposite directions. Thus, either the men cranking would  work against each other, or else the tank would revolve instead of moving forward. However, as this post by a quality engineer notes, this was hardly a fatal flaw beyond the ability of another engineer to spot and fix. Instead, he suggests that the spinning was not a bug but a feature; given how slow it would move and how hard it would be to reload the cannon inside, on the battlefield, instead the ‘tank’ was designed to be towed to the battlefield by a team of horses and then, when the enemy was near, rotate and discharge its guns in turn on them as it spins, like a kind of post-medieval mitrailleuse.

It’s an interesting and compelling suggestion. Of course, once one postulates that clockwork and spring technology can provide greater power and mobility–as in 1510–then we can once again salvage the image of Leonardo’s lumbering turtle-tanks crashing their way into enemy lines, blasting in every direction…

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Launch Torpedoes!

al-Rammah torpedo 2Control of the Mediterranean and its rich trade routes is a key concern of the age, and the struggles between the Ottoman Empire and Christendom — and especially the Venetian naval superpower — will be crucial. Just think how useful torpedoes would be in an age of ram-nosed galleys and crude cannon? It’s not so fanciful a clockpunk weapon considering that in around 1280, the Syrian engineer Hasan al-Rammah wrote The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices in which — amongst a range of gunpowder weapons — he detailed a rocket-powered, egg-shaped torpedo which would skim across the water until its spear-like tip hit an enemy vessel, triggering an explosion and blasting it open at the waterline.

There’s no evidence that al-Rammah’s invention was adopted, although as recreations have shown, it can certainly work. The first European use of torpedoes appears to have been in the 18th century. However, in the age of heightened technological enthusiasm of 1510, as well as in the light of the arms race spurred by da Vinci’s New Science, it makes sense that this would be a highly-prized weapon. Maybe already Florence is building a stock in case its fledgling fleet must take on the Venetians or the Spaniards at sea? Or Venice’s Inquisition is feverishly seeking to ensure that it acquires the plans to that its fabled Arsenale can begin turning out finely-engraved copper torpedoes with the same efficiency with which it builds war galleys?

al-Rammah torpedoOr perhaps some scholar has just come across a reference to al-Rammah’s work, triggering a race to get to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and steal the only known copy of The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices, which lies gathering dust in the private libraries of Sultan Bayezid II himself…

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Sample Character Template: the Bravo

From time to time, I’ll post snippets and samples from the manuscript, as it develops…

The Bravo

Michelotto Corella from HBO's The Borgias -- the archetypal Bravo

Michelotto Corella from HBO’s The Borgias — the archetypal Bravo

“Are you looking at me, ser? Stand aside lest I carve you like the Sunday roast!”

You are a hired thug; maybe you are a bruiser from the rough part of town, maybe you pretend to dandyish sophistication, but your business is violence. In these rough times, that means you get a lot of business, whether as an assassin or a bodyguard.

Body Traits: Murderous Swordsman 3d, Quick Knife 4d, Swaggering Bravado 4d

Mind Traits: Know the Local Backstreets 3d

Soul Traits: [Relationship to Patron or Partner] 3d, Killer 3d

Wealth: 2d

Typical Goals: Become the duke’s right-hand man; Kill my rival Grimaldi and take his woman for myself; Make enough money to be able to get out of this business.

Typical Equipment: Knife (+1d), Sword (+2d), Flashy clothes (+1d), Leather jerkin (+1d)

Variations: The Poisoner is a specialized assassin, who replaces skill with the sword and Swaggering Bravado with the Mind Trait Know Poisons 5d and the Soul Trait Subtle Schemer 3d. On the other hand, given the risks that deter many from the duty, the small corps of Florentine Glider Pilots are drawn heavily from free-spirited bravos, and they add the Body Traits Pilot Glider 3d and Light Frame 3d, swap Killer for Adrenaline Junky and Know the Local Backstreets for Navigate from the Air.

The Bravo’s Life

The bravo is an individual entrepreneur of violence, a counterpart to the military mercenary. Down on his luck, he may become a soldier or a bandit, and he may simply work on contracts, threatening a defaulting debtor for his banker here, disposing of an indiscreet ex-lover there, but he will generally aspires to a position within an aristocrat’s household. That’s the life! Occasionally he needs to get his blade bloody, but most of the time it means he gets to loll around cadging food from the kitchens and eyeing up the servant girls, except when it’s time to accompany one of the family to church, business or social engagements and look tough.


Murder for hire is common, and while most assassins are just backstreet thugs or common servants, that doesn’t mean that the law treats it lightly. The men who murdered two Bolognese aristocrats in Florence, for example, were paraded through the streets to the square where they killed him. Their right hands were cut off, then they were hanged, their bodies hacked apart and burned outside the city walls. The locals who had sheltered and assisted them were exiled to the barren island of Elba and their houses destroyed in a symbolic act giving them no remaining place in the city. Moral? Don’t get caught.

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