Forensic Bibliography #5

The Problem of the Poetic Pellas or, What’s in a (Wrong) Name?

Is this a stake I see before me?

London, BL, MS Sloane 2430 (f.2v)

The study of martial literature, like any other topic with few followers, is prone to errors of citation and sourcing. These errors can persist to the point that they become their own sort of source. Repeated use makes them historical. I think the genre of historical martial arts is the easy target because much of the material that enthusiasts work with is well outside the typical scholarly territories anyway and few of these students have the source fetish that academics develop. The case-study today is the “poem of the pell.”

Imagine a group of earnest, sincere, well meaning and enthusiastic men and women, with decent undergraduate degrees in chemistry, mathematics, partical physics, and engineering, who, with a collection of 1950s news reels, newspaper clippings, a biography of Oppenheimer and a decent machine shop, decide to build a nuclear reactor. Given time, and some luck, they could probably do it but they would need to re-invent the wheel at several points and they are likely to miss important steps or make mistakes that more knowledgeable and experienced people know and avoid. Odds are, these self-motivated, if under-prepared people might even contribute new and innovative solutions to old problems, but they will also violate international nuclear regulatory laws, they will probably contaminate the hell out of their neighbourhood, and if the established nuclear physicists ever actually hear about their work, they may dismiss them as dangerous kooks or have them reported for violating SALT treaties.

This is the scholarship of the historical martial arts community in a nutshell, minus the nuclear contamination. There may be some international regulatory violations (mostly copyright and reproduction licensing), but that can wait for a different blog entry.

The “poem of the pell” is the nickname given to several verses in a text called Knyghthode and Bataile, a mid-fifteenth century verse adaptation in Middle-English of Renatus Vegetius, De re militari.1 Once again, we can lay some blame for the confusion at the feet of Joseph Strutt. He reproduced the ‘poem’ in his Sports and Past-times and relegated the historical context to a footnote that no-one ever reads.2 The ‘poem’ is simply the verse adaptation of chapter 11, book I, where Vegetius advises the use of the pellas or pile (a wooden stake, about six feet tall) as used in gladiatorial training.3

Knyghthode and Bataile survives in three manuscripts:

Cambridge, Pembroke College, MS 243 (ff. 1-55)
London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus A xxii (ff. 515-572)
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 45 (ff. 8-17, 24-40, 44-45)

That confusion about this text is important because these sort of mistakes mislead readers into unsafe speculations. One recurring problem in the literature of martial instruction, a problem commonly lost in the clutter, concerns relevance. How safe is the conclusion that the pell, as described in this work, was a fundamental part of medieval combat training? That is generally the conclusion drawn from this text but it’s far from certain.

Vegetius enjoyed a popularity in the medieval period that is perhaps far in excess of his actual influence on military matters. The scale of that influence remains a point of debate but his popularity amongst readers is undisputed.4 Part of his popularity comes from his classical pedigree and the rarity of his Latin prose. Some classical texts survive in numbers not because they contained anything practical or compelling, but because they were examples of good Latin.

Adaptations into the vernacular, while losing the grammatical market, retained the air of classical authority. Authors altered these texts to fit the native vocabulary, when such native terms existed, and they developed new uses for other terms, specific to the translation. That’s an important point to remember when reading these works. Just because a mid-fifteenth century poet was able to fit Middle-English words in place of specialized Latin military terminology does not mean that usage was common or even understood by his readers.

Knyghthode and Bataile actually post-dates the first Middle-English adaptation of Vegetius. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 291 was composed around 1408 and is an important point of comparison for different word choices for the Latin originals.5

I make special mention of that linguistic point because there remains an unanswered question about the pell and medieval training practices. The pell only appears in these adaptations of Vegetius. Christine de Pizan’s The Books of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, while containing some original content, is mostly a a self-conscious adaptation of Vegetius, especially the section that mentions the pell.6 The same can be said of Jean de Meun’s version. It is absent from the original compositions of Honor Bonet, the chivalric manuals of Charny, or any medieval works of martial instruction where other forms of training are mentioned.7 The only medieval illustrations of the pell in use as a training tool, appear in copies of de Meun’s text, all clearly referencing each other.8 The pell never appears in marginal illustrations despite the fact that practically every other elite, common, domestic, or private activity appears eventually in the margins of illustrated manuscripts.

What then is the value of this ‘poem’ for the student of medieval martial arts? It doesn’t work as evidence for the medieval use of the pell, at least it isn’t definitive evidence for its use in the period.9

I get a little bent out of shape by these ‘errors’ that creep into the discourse on medieval martial knowledge. There are some very bad habits amongst the enthusiasts who lack the footnote-fetish of the trained academic. It isolates this area from a broader readership and from a scholarly audience. That audience can materially contribute to the study of historical martial arts. Remember, footnotes are your friends. It will keep you from accidentally making an unstoppable army of radioactive ants, apparently what delayed early nuclear projects in the 1950s, or so the movies lead me to believe.


1      The critical edition, which should be consulted over any others, is Knighthode and Bataile: A XVth Century Verse Paraphrase of Flavus Vegetius Renatus’ Treatise ‘De Re Militari’ R. Dyboski and Z. M. Arend eds. Early English Text Society Orginal Series 201 (London: Oxford University Press, 1935). Boydell and Brewer appear to have picked up the back-list of the EETS and this volume is back in print, but at a steep price. The ‘poem’ runs from the 50th to 56th stanza. It also contains the catchy advice, supported only by classical authority of Vegetius, that “forto foyne is better then to smyte” (to thrust is better than to strike). There is a good study of the historical context and production of the text in Daniel Wakelin, “Scholarly Scribes and the Creation of Knyghthode and Bataile.” English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, 14 (2005): 26–45.

2      Joseph Strutt and William Hone. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England … A New Edition, with a Copious Index by William Hone. (William Reeves: London, 1830), 114.

3      The most accessible translation of Vegetius is Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science, 2nd revised ed. N. P. Milner trans. and ed. (Liverpool: University of Liverpool, 2011). Chapter 11, book I is at 12-13. For the Latin version you will need to swollow your disgust and consult whichever crummy P-O-D copy you can find of Epitoma Rei Militaris M. D. Reeve, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

4      Rather than list the various sources that cover the dispute, I will just point to Christopher Allmand, The De Re Militari of Vegetius: The Reception, Transmission and Legacy of a Roman Text in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

5      This also has a critical edition, sadly out of print. Geoffrey Lester ed. The Earliest English Translations of Vegetius’ De Re Militari (Heilderberg: Carl Winter, Universitatsverlag, 1988).

6     I refer to the translation, Christine de Pizan, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, Sumner Willard trans. Charity Cannon Willard, ed. (University Park, PA.: University of Pennsylvania, 1999). The pel gets its mention in part 1, chapter ix (29-30 in Willard and Willard). Readers should note Pizan’s title to that chapter which identifies this advice as the classical practice, not necessarily the contemporary one.

7     I wish I could refer readers to a good source that discusses medieval training practices in detail, but there is no such thing. Probably the best single source is Sydney Anglo, “How to Win at Tournaments: Technique of Chivalric Combat” Antiquaries Journal 68, 2 (1988): 248-78.

8      These manuscripts are London, British Library, MS Royal 20 B xi, (f.3), a French manuscript from c.1300, its contemporary, Paris, BbF, MS Fr. 1604, a verse adaptation of de Meun produced by Jean Peiorat, and London, British Library, MS Sloane 2430, yet another copy of Meun. There is a nice description of the BL manuscript in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London: British Library, 2011), 362-3.

9      The assertion that the pell was a feature of medieval training (and not just something people were aware of, thanks to Vegetius) is made explicitly in Robert Jones, Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry (Oxford: Osprey, 2011), 84.


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