Wednesday, March 29, 2023

'Archers, and Slingers, Cataphracts and Spears'

It’s a seldom-encountered word, rooted in Greek, that sounds wrong on the tongue: cataphract. It echoes cataract. The OED defines it as “a soldier in full armour.” Other sources specify cavalrymen, and even the horses sometimes wore armor. I can’t remember when I learned the word but it came back recently while I was watching Chimes at Midnight (1965) again. Orson Welles is director and screenwriter, and plays Sir John Falstaff. 

Welles stitches together scenes from both parts of Henry IV with others from Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, and excerpts from Shakespeare’s source for the history plays, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. The centerpiece of the film is Welles’ 10-minute staging of the Battle of Shrewsbury. It was fought July 21, 1403, in what is now Shropshire, with Henry IV and his men facing a rebel army led by Henry “Hotspur” Percy, from Northumberland. In Shakespeare it’s the climax of Henry IV, Part 1. The battle scenes are chaotic and noisy – the crash of armor and swords, men and horses screaming. One thinks of Kurosawa's Kagemusha.


Welles in armor is almost spherical. His Falstaff hides in the shrubs through most of the fighting. If the armored men and horses look imposing – half-man, half-machine – Falstaff looks ridiculous, like a corpulent bathysphere. The men in armor appear hobbled under all the weight. I may have first encountered cataphract in Milton’s Samson Agonistes (lines 1615-1619): 


Was Samson as a public servant brought,

In thir state Livery clad; before him Pipes

And Timbrels, on each side went armed guards,

Both horse and foot before him and behind

Archers, and Slingers, Cataphracts and Spears.”


But Welles’ Battle of Shrewsbury brought to mind another recounting of medieval warfare, this one from Briggflatts, published by Basil Bunting in 1966, the year after Chimes at Midnight premiered. It describes the death of Eric Bloodaxe at Stainmore in 954:


“Loaded with mail of linked lies,

what weapon can the kind lift to fight

when chance-met enemies employ sly

sword and shoulder-piercing pike,

pressed into the mire,

trampled and hewn till a knife

-- in whose hand? – severs tight

neck cords? Axe rusts. Spine

picked bare by raven, agile

maggots devour the slack side

and inert brain, never wise . . .”


The other poet Welles’s battle scene brought to mind was Christopher Logue in War Music, his version of Homer’s Iliad:


“Impacted battle. Dust above a herd.

Trachea, source of tears, sliced clean.

Deckle-edged wounds: ‘Poor Jataphect, to know,’ knocked clean

Out of his armour like a half-set jelly

‘Your eyes to be still open yet not see,’ or see

By an abandoned chariot a dog

With something like your forearm in its mouth;

A face split off,

Sent skimming lidlike through the crunch

Still smiling, but its pupils dots on dice:

Bodies so intermixed

The tremor of their impact keeps the dead

Upright with the mass.”

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