Fragmentary and Fragile: Lances and History

Now that I am back home, safe in the dry company of my little library, I am in a position to attempt an answer to a question posed by a reader back on 2 November. That question involved the assertion that the lances of late Renaissance tournaments were peculiarly fragile—as in ‘deliberately’ fragile.

The assertion that prompted the question was made, with some confidence, by Sydney Anglo back in 1960 and a quick search tends to point back to Anglo’s paper rather than other primary sources. Unfortunately, my go-to alternatives, which have waited patiently for me back here in the library, don’t seem to address this issue. Thankfully Anglo revisited the problem, if obliquely, in his more well known The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale, 2000).

Anglo (243-5) mentions the work of Giovanne Dall’Agocchie (or Delle Agoccie), Dell’arte di scrimia libri tre… (Venetia: [Francesco Portonari] Giulio Tamborino, 1572) who advocates breaking lances instead of unseating your opponent. To aid in this endeavour, Agocchie describes how to make three-piece lances that will more easily break when struck square on a target. That’s a start, and while it does not prove a wide and deliberate adoption of ‘frangible’ lances in the latter half of the 16th c. it is consistent with a general trend away from the practical and towards the theatrical. These little things are worth further investigation and one should expect another update on this, when I actually get around to it.

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2 thoughts on “Fragmentary and Fragile: Lances and History

  1. That’s a really good example that I’d want to quote on my blog if I hadn’t got sick to death of arguing about cavalry tactics! When I posted about lances, I found that in the late 16th century La Noue and Mendoza both agreed that lances usually broke in battles even though they took opposite positions on whether lances were still useful. That means that lances breaking doesn’t necessarily mean they were deliberately weakened, but your example seems very explicit that they could be.

    • This is turning onto one of those academic bees, currently stuck in my research bonnet (alongside the Duke of Northumbria’s Ely Place fencing school). Agocchie is certainly talking about tournament lances specifically and these were, by the mid-16th c. drastically different in style and function than anything combat horsemen would have used. They diverge in style as early as the 14th c. (Barker, 1986 and DeVries, 2nd ed. 2012, both mention this, but there is no detail). The problem is that the fragile lance is simply assumed as part of the ‘degeneration’ of the tournament as a surrogate for combat (that is, at least, the language used by Coltman, 1919). I suspect the best evidence is the sort of indirect kind that suggests deliberate design towards fragility. Anglo has a few more of these indirect references, like Zapata’s musings on the properties of lances (Anglo, 242). Coltman mentions multi-part lances for German tournaments in the 16th c. as well (97-ff). There is also the article, circa 1889, by Lord Dillon “Tilting in Tudor England” (Archaeological Journal, lv). I have not tracked that down yet.

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