Cutting Edge Research: WPI Scholar Discusses His Work With Arms and Armor
The following interview with Jeffrey Forgeng, adjunct professor of history at WPI, was conducted by Allen Fletcher and originally published in Worcester Magazine on Thursday, May 24, 2007. It is reprinted with permission from the magazine.
Learn more about Professor Forgeng.
Read about Forgeng's English translation of a classic text on medieval combat, The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570
Visit the Worcester Magazine website.
By Allen W. Fletcher
Jeffrey Forgeng is the curator of arms and armor at the Higgins Armory Museum and an adjunct professor of history at WPI. He is also an accomplished linguist. Born near Buffalo, he lived in various cities both here and abroad, graduating from high school in Geneva, Switzerland, and earning a BA in history from Brown University and an MA and PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto. He spent seven years at the University of Michigan working on the Middle English Dictionary before coming to Worcester in 1999. He is 43 years old.
Q. I know you have a lot of fabulous artifacts down in the basement here. Are you allowed to handle the stuff at will?
A. Yes. In order to be a functional curator, you need to do that. There are 5,000 artifacts down there, and each one has a story behind it. The number of them that have been studied in depth, you can count them on your fingers and toes. The reason I do something like this is obviously not for the money, it's because I love the learning. There is a huge amount that we still don't know about these collections.
Q. Do you get a sense of historical connection when you handle them?
A. Oh, yeah. It's always a sense of awe when I go down there. And so much of our time has to be spent doing administration or writing grants or whatever, it's a treat when you can carve out the time to spend time looking at objects and thinking about them. And it's just astonishing to pick up a sword that was made in the days of the Trojan War. And you can never entirely wrap your head around the reality of what that means: The world that this piece was a part of, the people that it belonged to, the stories that it could tell if it could talk. In some ways it's a little creepy too, because these were implements of war, and a large number of these have been through the innards of human beings at some point, which is kind of bizarre, difficult, unpleasant, but also important. One of the things that I have studied in the long term is human violence — how violence fits into the human world, culturally, psychologically and so on. I try to understand it, because I think a large amount of the time when people resort to violence, either as individuals or as nations, they are not really doing what they think they are doing. We think that we use violence to gain some practical goal that we are seeking, but a lot of the time, that's not really true. We end up using violence because we have painted ourselves into a corner one way or another, and we just don't have any other options. We think we are trying to achieve one thing, when in fact we are just playing out a script.
Q. You can't look at a medieval mace, as an example, without imagining the gore associated with its use. Do you think we've become more or less civilized as we've gotten away from hand-to-hand combat?
A. The answer to that is hugely complex. In some ways we are better off, because we ask questions about violence and warfare that weren't asked a thousand years ago. A thousand years ago, people just assumed that that is what you should do. Nowadays, to some degree our cultures are willing to question that, even though there is a limit to that kind of questioning. The flip side, though, is that our capacity to do harm to others and to ourselves is vastly increased with the weapons of mass destruction and their various forms, from machine gun to nuclear violence. So there's no simple answer to whether we are better off with atom bombs vs. swords.
Q. Do you find national differences manifest in the armor and the arms?
A. It's more true in certain periods than in others. Certainly at the height of the age of the knight, Italian armor looked very different from German armor and both of them looked different from Italian armor that was made for the German market. But I think there is a separate discipline for physical things than for some other aspects of culture. Physical things can be shared across linguistic boundaries in ways that are hard for other things. You can't share ideas across linguistic boundaries — there has to be an act of translation — but you can export a piece of Chinese pottery to England in 1700 and the English can look at it and start to imitate it aesthetically and technologically and so on. So there are very different things that are happening in the world of made things.
Q. Do you have a favorite period, a favorite style?
A. I do like the late Medieval kind of classical knight. The armor in particular is really at its height in the 1400s, and the style of armor that they are producing melds form and function to the degree that it makes it impossible to draw the line between them. You look at a particular feature of armor that's made in 1450, and it's often impossible to say whether it's an aesthetic feature or a practical feature. And that is something that is really interesting to me. I like aesthetics that are very much unified with practicality. You can see this in the 19th century industrial architecture in Worcester, and I love the old mills that have this kind of melding of practical function with aesthetics. They are beautiful, beautiful old buildings; and, interestingly, a lot of them parallel I think, stylistically, European castles.
Q. Can you think of one object in the collection that absolutely takes your breath away?
A. There are quite a number of them. There's a helmet upstairs in the armorer's workshop area that is browned with gilding and it's been left roughed from the hammer, so you can see the dimpled surface. Normally they will beat it again and again later — hammer it until the surface is perfectly smooth. In this particular case, they have left the marks of its creation for aesthetic effect. And it's not just higgledy piggledy. Basically, it's the same thing that I was describing a moment ago: Whoever left those hammer marks operated with that kind of mastery of craftsmanship and that highly developed aesthetic sense; and he left exactly the right marks in the right place, in the right kind of a pattern, so that it is kind of akin to the Japanese in that sort of artful artlessness. They make it look like it's kind of a rough piece, very naturalistic, but at the same time, it's hugely sophisticated and hugely artful. The effect is stunning to me, because you get the peak of the technique and the technology has basically been incorporated into the aesthetics. It's fabulous.
Q. I get the sense that it's no accident that you are doing what you are doing.
A. It was always part of my makeup. Like a lot of boys in my generation, I grew up with knights in shining armor. It's still something that boys pick up on at a certain age. Often at the same age, they are interested in dinosaurs, which I was too, and similar sorts of things. I could have ended up as a paleontologist. I am sure you've had the same thing in your life, too: Some door opens and you go through that door and another door opens and it lands you in a particular place that could have been very different if you had chosen a different door, many stages back. If you've got the resources and the drive and the curiosity, you will land someplace that's interesting.
Q. Was it a revelation that you could be allowed to make a living immersing yourself in something like this?
A. It was astonishing when I saw the job description. I couldn't believe it, because it was like they had written a job for me. I think on this end, they had a similar reaction when they saw my resume. I don't think they imagined there was anybody out there who would so precisely fit what they were looking for at the time.
Allen Fletcher may be reacher at email@example.com.
June 7, 2007