Monday, 30 September 2013

Calories and Elizabethan armies

 At the famine village in Doagh, Donegal we were shown the 6.8 kilos of potatoes the average Irish man was eating before the famine.
Icelandic traditional foods
This was by no means a chosen diet but was more the result of British colonial misrule. The potatoes alone resulted in a whopping 5916 calories and provided a fairly robust diet though with major deficiencies, notably in fat 10% and a slew of vitamins B12, A, D etc. Additions of fish, dairy products and some meat (there was quite a bit of wild food eaten in Doagh) would have rounded out the diet make it livable but the average calorie intake must have been higher still. Dr William Short came up with a 10,000 calorie a day figure for his Assessment of Icelandic diets The Icelanders in the 10th century were very healthy by contemporary standards and Icelanders remain some of the healthiest people in the world today. Archaeology shows that 10th century Icelanders did not suffer from nutritional deficiencies. While the RDA of many nutrients and vitamins is based on the minimum to avoid deficiency ,eating the RDA of protein causes muscle loss for example, and doesn't take account of different dietary compositions (the absence of grain/starches greatly reduces the need for vitamins C) intakes at this level meet and exceed the RDA for every nutrient the body requires. Most calculators don't account for the anti-nutrient effect of some foodstuffs particularly whole grain foods but it is clear that according to modern nutritional science Icelandic and Irish farmers could eat a healthy nutritious diet, though they were working at levels which would seem extremely strenuous today. Scaling back this diet to meet modern calorie requirements of just over 2000 calories a day might not result in nutrient demands being met, especially given modern soil depletion and our generally indoor lives.
 This lengthy preamble was a way of getting to some 16th century ration lists I found for English armies sent to fight in Ireland. Ireland was considered a very hard duty and had very low survival rates, sort of a mix of Vietnam and the Eastern front but with far more rain.We should assume that the diet was enough to sustain the men though was probably just enough to do that, armies are not known for overfeeding men, 16th century armies also suffered from serious supply difficulties and dishonesty at every level. The following should be seen as an "ideal" ration, it ran for a long time and was repeated so was probably satisfactory. Also note the absence of alcohol which suggests a complete picture isn't being given as alcohol was drunk in large quantities throughout this period. 
Per day men were issued 1.5 lbs of bread or 1lb of biscuit, butter at 1/2 lb for two days and 1/4lb for two more, supplemented by porridge one day and pease the next. Cheese on two days at 1lb 2lb of salt meat one day a week or fresh meat at 2.5 lb or pork or bacon at 1lb.
 Ten and a half pounds of wholemeal (presumably) bread gives 12624 calories 1.5 lbs of butter gives 4878 calories two pounds of cheese 3171 (surprisingly low!) one pound of salt pork gives 3248 whilst a pound of bacon gives 2454. Another source gives a meat ration of 1.5 lbs per day per man assuming salt pork as a generic and not terribly expensive ration meat gives 4872 calories per day or 34104 per week . A quarter pound of porridge (oats) gives 70 calories and sadly my calorie and nutrition counter doesn't "do" pease so we'll double up the porridge to 140 calories per week. With meat one day a week we have a weekly total of 26525 calories for a low 3787 calories per day. With meat (salt pork) every day gives 54917 per week or 7845 per day closer to levels for Irish farmers in the 19th century. Modern British army rations contain about 4000 calories while the (in)famous K-ration provided less at about 3000 calories. K-rations resulted in malnutrition in troops who relied on them for the bulk of their nutrition and modern military rations are not intended for long term use. So it would seem that the additional meat ration would be required to keep a 16th century army on the move and in reasonable health. With the quantity of grain a salt meat ration would potentially result in scurvy, fresh meat or local vegetables would prevent this.  Given that this food ration weighs in at 15.5 lb per day, with a large army of 3000 men it would take over 23 tons of food A DAY to keep them fed to this level.Even a less exceptional and smaller army of 1483 men such as that which faced Shane O'Neill in 1569 would require over 11 tons of food a day. This figure though minus Kern does not account for the quantities of powder and other materials of war, let alone fodder for horses.While figures lower than this would be both likely and possibly sustainable on the short term much lower figures would seriously affect the army's ability to function. The Minnesota Starvation experiment had a starvation ration of 1500 or so calories a day which resulted in major adverse effects in the subject's performance and even mental health.
Irish cooking without pots
 Figures like this make us realise just how effective scorched earth policies were, or how effective pastoralists such as the Irish/highlanders moving their herds was at limiting the effectiveness of  conventional armies. While English armies carried as much food as possible "on the hoof" the large baggage trains of Elizabethan armies must have seriously hampered their ability to pursue war in Ireland. While it is tempting to believe (as contemporary writers did) that Irish and redshanks were more nimble and physically capable than their lowland or English neighbours a great deal of their manoeuvrability must have come from the lack of supply trains in Gaelic armies. Kern were famously good at raiding and obtained much of their food "off the land" on campaign, an ability put to good use by Henry VIII in France. While operating in their own, friendly or at least not-hostile lands Irish armies could obtain much food locally.
 We must not be too quick to dismiss the cross-country abilities of Gaelic armies, the English could not bring Irish armies to battle and looking at maps or historical reports immediately impresses upon one the shocking speed and manoeuvrability of Gaelic forces. Montroses' famous move to Inverlochy over avalanching mountains being a great example of a feat it being almost impossible to imagine a conventional army performing, feats repeated on an almost weekly basis by the army taken into England by Prince Charles in 1745 during a harsh 18th century winter.
 Succesful Irish viceroys did not commit to the field without specific objectives but with control of the seas and later in Scotland Wade's roads some measure of control was obtained through forts positioned at strategic locations Derry, Inverlochy etc. Burt states clearly that forests and woods were cleared from roadsides to prevent ambush in Scotland a tactic that pre-empts American defoliation programs in Vietnam. Yet even with garrisoned forts it appears that direct control over large areas of Ireland or the highlands was considered impossible and indeed attempts to supply Inverlochy by land were stopped due to the risks involved.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


I have just finished the first draft of the first chapter. I am going to reproduce the conclusion such as it is here. This was the most difficult to write as the information I needed simply wasn' t there for the most part. I owe a great deal of thanks to David Colter who really pointed me in the right direction with the sling material. This is very much from the "get it down not get it right" phase but I am very glad I have moved on to areas where 1; there is more evidence and 2: I know more about the evidence.

 Conclusions are hard to draw from the small amount of evidence from the dark past. The light produced gives exciting hints but is rarely illuminating. It would seem fair to say that the cultures of Celtic Europe were not interested to any great extent in ranged warfare. This would fit with an heroic vision of conflict in which small warrior bands competed for prestige and glory.
 Barry Cunliffe states that intensifying conflict gave rise to the complex hillforts of Southern England.
These hillforts with their great hoards of slingstones appear to have been designed to make great
Clay sling bullets
advantage of the effectiveness of the sling. Modern experiment has shown that attacking troops would be placed under a massive barrage of “fire” from defending slingers, making assaults on these hillforts a serious and difficult undertaking. Complex hillforts such as Danebury
Danebury entrance
are not really known further North in Britain and in modern Scotland the building style was quite divergent which suggests a very different approach to conflict. Prof. Cunliffe and others state that an identifiable increase in prestige goods from the Mediterranean act as a kind of “bow wave” of Roman imperialism. With petty kings consolidating their territories through a more expansionist kind of warfare. Whether by accident or design (I suspect the latter) these embryonic states could then be assimilated much more readily by the Roman machine.
  Though hard to determine archaeologically it does appear that the North of Britain was at relative peace at this time, conjecturally it may be that intense use of missile troops reflects a far more ruthless and political use of martial force than was the cultural “norm” for  pre-roman Britain. While the Irish cycles may seem to undermine this hypothesis it should be noted that slings are used by heroes against anonymous armies, supernatural enemies, or a vilified enemy such as a lying charioteer or the rather villainous Queen Medb. Fighting between heroes of rank is by spear or sword.
 If this hypothesis is true why then did the sling not come back into use in harder times such as the bitter conflicts with the Vikings?  The bow seems to have but one advantage over the sling in that it can be shot more accurately. Modern Balearic Islanders have been  hosting slinging competitions for several years, the smallest target zone is a full 50cm across. A size which would completely encompass many archery targets at similar ranges. Sling stones can be thrown by modern slingers over 400m with lead shot being used to out-range stone shot in antiquity. Xenephon notes that slingers were out ranging archers in the retreat from Persia and the deadly efficacy of the sling was noted by many classical writers; “ Soldiers, despite their defensive armor, are often more aggravated by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood.” (Vegetius) or “But when Hamilcar saw that his men were being overpowered and that the Greeks in constantly increasing number were making their way into the camp, he brought up his slingers, who came from the Balearic Islands and numbered at least a thousand. By hurling a shower of great stones, they wounded many and even killed not a few of those who were attacking, and they shattered the defensive armour of most of them. For these men, who are accustomed to sling stones weighing a mina (approximately 600g), contribute a great deal toward victory in battle [...] In this way they drove the Greeks from the camp and defeated them.” (Diodorus Siculus).
 The words of the classic authors are given weight by the presence of Roman Army surgical probes for removing sling bullets. Slings can also be used to give a similar rate of shot as a good archer though the off hand can also be used to hold a shield giving more protection to the slinger with only a small reduction in rate of shot.
Sling bullets are readily available and where made from clay or lead are very simply fabricated. Slings themselves are readily fashioned from any fabric or leather and would be easily within the means of any person who wanted one. The bullets are easily transported and in dire emergency rocks can be picked up from the ground and used. Arrows are longer and both arrows and bows require considerable time and material to make. Indeed in the context of large armies and sieges a sling actually seems to have no disadvantage compared to a bow. Note however that classical armies used both slingers and archers.
 In a combat of smaller groups of men perhaps more spread out as part of raiding, skirmishing or piratical groups a greater degree of accuracy might be required or at least be advantageous. A bow would have the advantage of a slinger in such a situation the bow can also be shot from a kneeling or crouching position and requires far less movement from the shooter. This potentially makes a bow a better choice for ambushes.

Roman employed slinger from Trajan's column
A sling is particularly difficult to shoot well, while archers can be effective with far less training. This is determined by modern use of these weapons and the accuracy capable by inexperienced shots. It might be that even a short period of time without using the weapon might be enough for the knowledge to be lost to a culture. The sling was an agricultural tool with limited hunting potential, being mostly used for small game (note the accuracy issues above).  Balearic slingers were specialist troops and classical slingers were drawn from classes and societies that used the sling as an agricultural tool.  The sling was used by shepherds for controlling predators such as wolves and pests such as birds and even for herding sheep by Mediterranean communities. This agricultural use would give a wide talent pool of use for a military to draw on. Even where the sling was still in use such as Anglo Saxon England it may not have been in wide enough use to fulfil a military need.  Southern England in the Iron Age was decidedly agricultural with wild food representing a tiny proportion of the faunal remains at Danebury in an area with high population levels. Ireland was also densely populated until the “Dark Age" during the Roman occupation of Britannia.
Balaeric target plans (from

 The last point is that in Europe at least archers also doubled as light infantry; after expending their ammunition archers would then engage in hand to hand combat. This was decidedly not the case in the ancient world where specialist slinging troops were not used for melee. Battles in the ancient and medieval world always (except in very unique conditions) ended up in at least some kind of hand to hand fighting. It may well be that specialist troops were too logistically expensive for dark age and later societies and that it was better to get lighter troops to bring along bows rather than employ specialist types.
 Ultimately all these points are conjecture and it is enough for this work to say that slingers were not used in any number by the Gaelic world in a military context. I suspect that the sling fell out of favour as agricultural practises changed and the sling became little more than a bird scarer or a toy for bored shepherds rather than an essential agericultural tool. While the bow ,a more user-friendly technology,  was recalled when missile troops began to be used more in combat the knowledge base for the sling was lost and it made only sporadic appearances in history thereafter.

Friday, 13 September 2013


Albion Claymore
A post is slowly coming on Northern Ireland and some more assumptions and myths about armour. In the meantime watch this great film of my friend and once fencing teacher Lyell Drummond using his claymore. While many of the extant claymores are described as bearing swords, longswords or two handed swords are frequently referenced in 16th century sources, especially in relation to household troops. They are also widely represented on tomb slabs, it would seem that from at least the 16th century onwards they were widely used among highland warriors.
 The "Book of True Highlanders" gives wards for the claymore that roughly corresponding to the four main wards found in the German and Italian system of longsword fighting. Namely Tag, pflug, alber and Ochs. Nicely remembered in this mnemonic "the day is above the ox who pulls the plough while the fool rests in the shade.......

 Lyell told me that the depressed quillons are particularly useful in trapping and generally fouling the opponent's blade. Originals had thin flexible blades more suited to cutting than mainland European longswords suggesting that they were used more for cutting though armours in use in the highlands at that time would generally resist cuts quite well. Claymores were both longer than longswords and shorter than two handed swords found on the continent., I think the claymore in the film is slightly shorter than most originals but it is nice to see a longsword bout that doesn't degenerate into a fist fight or wrestling match for once.