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!


3 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?

  3. Erik Lund says :

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

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