A Very Early Modern Olympics

I hope those EMEMHians among you are taking some time out of your busy summer schedule to watch some of the Rio Olympics coverage. In addition to the requisite soccer (aka “football”) and basketball viewing, I’ve decided to dip into the (European) martial arts. Which means adding a bit of fencing (I think I prefer sabre over foil and épée), archery, shooting, equestrian, and, of course, the pentathlon.

Sabre jump lunge

Sabre jump lunge

All of which makes me absolutely astounded at all the individual (or team, with a horse) skills a good early modern military officer was supposed to have. Presumably there are big differences between modern single-event sport specialists and early modern jack-of-all-trades military professionals. And the skills of the average army officer were likely far below what might qualify as “expert.” But it’s interesting to speculate about what historians might learn from such modern echoes of the martial past. As a few historians have done already: skulkers Erik Lund and Gavin Robinson come to mind.

I do wonder, though, what English longbowmen would have done with clickers, sights and stabilizers. And did a cuirass provide as much protection to cavalry troopers as those inflatable vests modern cross-countriers wear?

Modern archer

Modern archer

And I hope you military medical types out there are slightly amused that old-school cupping has joined space-age-polymer kinesio tape as the latest athletic fad:


So who wants to start a petition to get horse archery as an Olympic event? Maybe parade ground evolutions? Or perhaps add ramming to the rowing competitions, followed by some boarding and hand-to-hand: a new triathlon of rowing, followed by jumping/rope climbing, followed by cutlass fencing? (Sounds like Ninja Warrior, now that I think about it…) The possibilities are endless!


6 responses to “A Very Early Modern Olympics”

  1. Wayne says :

    Have you seen the rig that the air rifle competition uses? seriously. Let’s regulate back to simplicity.

  2. jostwald says :

    At first, I assumed that the eye patch the air pistoliers wear was a modern invention. But now I wonder if the reiters’ helmets included a little flap they could flip down to improve their aim… 😉
    My totally amateur impression is that all these modifications seem to be intended to bring the competition to a “pure” state (e.g. air pistols/rifles without much recoil, fired at short range, etc.). Maybe it’s like dressage in equestrian or karate forms, where implementation of idealized technique is the goal?
    That being said, I find the bow mods particularly weird, that you’d include sights and stabilizers, and have the clicker tell you when your draw length is optimal – that seems like most of the things that make it hard to hit the target, except for wind (says a guy who has only shot a bow a few times in his life).

    There has to be a huge advantage all this modern tech allows. I was struck by how some of the top shooters/archers (female at least) have only been in the sport for 5 years or so. Or maybe they got in their “10,000 hours” quicker than early modern marksmen could?

    • Pradana P.M. says :

      Having shot a large variety of bows from bare stick-bows to modern compounds with all the tacticool stuff, the modern sights and stabilisers _do_ make a pretty significant difference to how easy it is to shoot accurately — and perhaps more importantly, to how soon beginners can start shooting at an acceptable degree of accuracy. I’m a barebow man myself but I always advise beginners in my old university archery club to try using the sight when they’re ready to do aimed shots (as opposed to just shooting at the big target butt as a whole without worrying about any higher level of precision in order to develop good form and a crisp release).

      And yes, modern athletes probably get more practice than early modern shooters too. Military longbows were heavy enough that their effects are more like weightlifting than modern archery, so I suspect even the most dedicated English archers would have had to take more days of rest and recovery if they didn’t want to wear themselves out too quickly. Even the handful of modern people who can draw military-weight bows in the English Warbow Society today notice that practicing for two days in a row (without a rest day in between) is enough to bring an unacceptable risk of injury. And when it comes to firearms, you’ve probably noticed that the records don’t have that much to say about the issuing of powder and shot specifically for practice, so soldiers or militiamen who wanted to get extra practice would often have had to dip into their combat allotments or pay out of their own pockets for the additional supplies.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    It’s not a real equestrian sport unless something inedible is killed!

  4. Pradana P.M. says :

    If we look at the broader trends in some historical reconstruction activities like horse archery and HEMA (historical European martial arts), there seems to be large segments of practitioners who are resisting sportification for fears that the future practice of their arts would be confined to the purely sportified form with specialised equipment very distantly removed from the original activities as well as specialised rule-sets that incentivise very different behaviours from what we might expect to see on historical battlefields or whatever martial setting we choose as the reference. So I wouldn’t hold my breath on the incorporation of those things into the Olympics — although I can’t entirely sympathise with the people who completely reject any degree of sportification either since sportified forms have always been necessary to enable antagonistic practice at an acceptable level of realism and/or intensity.

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