Chapter 18: of castles and sieges
If you want to know what this blog is about…
The times when we killed each other with craftsmanship
Imagine you are a warrior of the Middle Ages (mind me, not a middle-aged warrior). After months of siege, hunger, cold, disease and the endless fear of returning fire from the defensive catapults and trebuchets, your own siege weapons have made a practicable breach on the rampart walls. Your time has come. You don your leather jerkin, the little metal plating you can afford, your war-beaten helmet and your boots. You drink a little more to pluck up courage, do not eat much because belly wounds on a full stomach will usually end up badly —not that the ones on empty stomachs end well—, although you know it is actually you are not hungry at all. You pick up your dagger, sword and shield, and grab the ladder you made a few nights before next to your companions.
The bugles order march and you start to walk towards those damned ramparts full of enemies waiting to kill you. You are lucky and didn’t get into the first wave. This time there is a chance you get to the top. When you reach the line where the first corpses of your former mates lie scattered around arrows driven on the ground at an angle, the walk becomes a trot. No sense in staying in this dead zone too long. Won’t avoid your journey up the ladder unless it ends your journey anywhere.
You realize your trot has turned to a clumsy run over uneven terrain, bodies and arrows growing more abundant and hard not to step on. You realize your brothers in arms are screaming, and you with them. You hear death whistling past and sometimes catch its blurry shape with the corner of your eye. You raise the heavy shield up again, your shoulder screaming in agony under the weight, your back hurting from the awkward position you are running in. You know the noise an arrow makes when entering the ground and when entering a body and you are hearing both versions too often now to do anything but run on. You see dead and dying companions, most you don’t know and that’s a blessing. Some you do, but you still run on. Nobody’s getting help until all is done and victory is yours. If there is no victory, nobody who cannot do it on his own will leave this place alive. No mercy for the loser. You are a veteran warrior, you know the worst comes now…
When you reach the wall some ladders are already set. You place yours next to them and wait your turn while some hold it steady and others begin the climb into the breach. The wait under fire, defenseless, that is the worst. You pray it will be quick, a well-aimed arrow or stone, and not boiling oil and a torch. Please let it not be fire. Your turn comes and up you go. You hear the noise of steel against steel all over. Men screaming in anger and in agony, bodies falling from above, big rocks passing by. You reach the border, look up expecting a pike on your face and exhale when you see you can actually climb up. You are a killing machine now. Your utter terror turns your duty to fight into a need to destroy those who terrorize you. You draw your sword, pick an opponent and attack.
In this close quarters melee you drop your shield, forgoing defense for freedom of movement. Your first action is to parry a high sword thrust with yours. Heavy man, big, unshaven, dirty, hungered, desperate. Just like you. You hold his sword high with yours while you grapple with the other. He spits in your face in his effort, you smell his stinking sweat, his foul breath, his grassy hair and see he is missing teeth. He grabs your windpipe and crunches, but you manage to hold him by the nape and smash your helmet against his nose. All those nerves spread an instantaneous agonizing pain and he closes his eyes for a split second. Too long.You take that time to produce your dagger and sink it into his groin. That wound will finish him for good, but not quick enough, and now he knows he is dying he is most dangerous, so you do not stop your blade there, you pull up. You hear that sickening noise, are overwhelmed by that peculiar and terrible stench and feel all his warm life spilling on your hand. Your windpipe is released as he holds your stare in a final intimate moment of wonder, pain and horror. You look at him one last second, take a deep breath and attack the next enemy.
The new civilized way of killing
You can change the situation, the weapons, the numbers, but that is basically the way we have been killing each other for thousands of years. What changed this was not musketry, but rapid fire and explosive artillery. Machine-guns and bombs. And then came computers.
For the most part, wars are now fought from a distance. Nowadays, fighting close quarters implies being killed by a small fragment of lead at the speed of sound or shattered by shrapnel coming from a grenade. The percentage of soldiers who fight and die in hand to hand combat without using firearms is negligible. And that is the way it used to be. You normally picked your foes one by one, looked them in the eye, smelt their sweat and you fought them with your hands, knives, swords, axes, hammers, until you could pierce them, smash them, disembowel them, slit their throat or cut their heads. It was hard, gruesome, tiring, work. And psychologically straining too because you knew your death would normally be terrible, as for your companions and foes.
Now the short distance that made killing so difficult is increasingly growing, to the point we now kill through a black and white screen at the press of a button. So much like with the PlayStation. We do not pay the price of killing anymore, not the way it used to be. We now kill in an aseptic, civilized and “clean” way. It is like killing without killing. I do not know if that is good. Killing should never be easy. Mankind has been killing in an artisan way for most of our existence. It is the arrival of industrial technologies that has changed all that. If we consider that Homo sapiens sapiens has existed for over 70,000 years and that we created the worse killing devices just a century ago and in that time we have fought two World Wars that had more casualties combined that all the wars in the previous centuries, we should consider we might not be prepared to wield such killing power. We are living the era of industrial killing, where up until a blink of an eye ago, historically speaking, we were artisans.
Now, I am not talking about whether ancient warriors were braver, or more skillful than our soldiers nowadays. It is just a different kind of bravery and skill, but you are risking your life in both situations. However, ancient warriors feared arrows most, because you could not fight them. You could avert them, intercept them with your shield, but you could not kill them and many times hear or see them coming. Warriors were used to fight to the death, fight. You cannot fight an arrow, and besides, a kid can shot one, given the right bow. And that scared them. Now it is like that for the most part. Soldiers do not hear the shot that kills them. Scary. So I am not talking about bravery or skill, besides I already did in my way. I am talking about scale, and simplicity.
Maybe now that killing has become so easy we should not be bolder but more cautious. Because we are reaching the point where, seemingly, there will be no price for killing enemies, except taxes. We can kill with drones, now, and that is going to evolve unless we decide otherwise. Like Spidey’s uncle said, with great power comes great responsibility. Maybe mankind has yet to realize that its power of destruction does not affect just locally anymore. We survived the risk of a nuclear third war, but we are still living under the chaotic results of the World Wars and the debris of the Cold War of the 21st century and its industrial killing, which has made dangerous materials and weapons available in the black market.
We are not realizing that what the vanguard train devices always ends up reaching the rear wagon. We are escalating the way not only other states but other organizations and even individuals can kill. We are going to reach a point where too many people in the world can do too much damage too easily. And I am talking about damage to the first world. We reached the point where too many people can do too much damage too easily in the third world long ago. Africa is the way it is because we left it in shambles and then sold them guns to kill each efficiently. They have no running water, but we will not allow any shortage of guns and ammo. And when some of them look at us and hold us responsible we blame them for hating us. Ain’t we cool.
Retaliation, castles and history repeating
Something history has proven beyond boredom is that retaliation does not save lives, end wars or finish conflicts. Retaliation only brings back retaliation and the more you punish your enemies the less they have to lose, the more they can hurt you. We cannot expect to rule under fear of retaliation. Maybe, we should take the time to give it some thought and consider that, maybe, if we just invest a little less in security, which is not the same as defending ourselves, and a little more in eradicating the situations that turn our enemies desperate, maybe, only maybe, we would all live better. We have been led to live in a state of fear that renders us malleable and tame, We accept things that were unacceptable and consider things that were inconsiderable. We might think we are stronger, safer, but the truth is we are weaker, more fearful. And we have done that to ourselves. Security is a subjective feeling that depends on this fear. The more we fear the more we need to feel safe, and we build a bigger castle discarding the fact that all fighting castles were overcome or surrendered in the end.
All empires in history have been toppled by more desperate people, or by other empires that grew under their shadow. All have succumbed and vanished in more or less time. They all fought while they could. The only thing they had in common is that none of them had the resources nor the wisdom to try to remove the reason to be hostile from their enemies when they could. No empire negotiated when there was no need to and no empire could negotiate when there was no other choice. We do have the resources. A different empire is possible. Maybe we should start by shaking off a little of that fear they have inoculated in us, then demand our rights back, then demand the pillars of the philosophy that made us great restored, then a different way of ruling, fight the lobbies that make our countries steer towards their interests instead of our own and try to fix things without using our muscle. Why? Because we are the only ones that can change the tune we all dance to. Because we are the ones sieging ourselves.
Naive? Of course. But the fact is that all the other alternatives are known to have turned out in utter failure time after time. And all great empires end up in war and chaos. Are we ready for the next wave of war and chaos? Will we survive it? Will anybody? Maybe the only sensible choice left is to try naive alternatives.
I am no pacifist. I think some wars should be fought. I am actually glad some were. But war is the ultimate sacrifice, should really be the very last resource, considered a Pandora’s Box and treated with equal amounts of respect and fear. One knows when a war starts, but seldom how or when it will end, or the indirect repercussions it will bring about on both sides of the front.
And here ends my story about castles and sieges. Hope you liked it. Now go buy some pictures 😉
About the Pictures
All the panoramas you see here are photo-mergings, except the last one if the colonnade, which means they can be printed big. Most of them are wider, but I cut them so you can see some detail. All these pictures are from Southern France. You can find many more castles and bastides in this gallery.
This pictures can be printed in photo paper, canvas, metal or acrylic surface from 8″ to 108″, or in greeting card format. You can check them by clicking the images above. I am all in for customizing pictures. All of them can be retouched in many ways, texts added, altered, changed or deleted. Ask freely.
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