”A man of arms beyng never so well horsed, and ron as fast as he can, the Yrissh men wyll ryn afote as faste as he, and overtake hym, and leap up upon his horse behynde him, and drawe hym from his horse.”
-Froissart, Johne’s translation.
I had a hard time coming to terms with this quotation from Froissart’s Chronicles. It just seems so unbelievable that a warrior dressed in little more than a shirt and a padded waist-coat could 1) run faster than a horse, 2) vault into the saddle with his weapons in his hands and 3) overpower a fully armoured knight. I suppose the ‘man of arms’ need not be completely covered in armour, but he’d still be well protected.
Nevertheless and after thinking about it, I’ve come up with some interesting points that make it believable.
The first point was at first one that made this seem even more unbelievable, namely that, as rule, Irish warriors fought in bare feet. How could anyone run so fast, let alone jumping onto a horse, with no arch support? Now I am no bare-foot running fanatic, but after reading up on the minimalist shoes that have become fashionable recently I became curious as to whether or not there was something to the idea that our bodies simply could run more efficiently without the encumbering of all that padding. Taking my cue from Tim Ferriss’ writing on how one is to run in bare feet, I ran a little test timing my ability to run a hundred-yard dash. In short, I found that without shoes my time was reduced by four seconds. I wonder how fast my children would be if they spent their whole childhood barefoot and racing our dogs?
Second, I used to train in various martial arts and I have seen some pretty amazing feats. I once saw an adolescent push off of a wall and throw no less than five alternating kicks before he landed. Not even considering the breaking of cement blocks, the feats of agility that Free Runners perform as a matter of course suggest that there is more to what we can do physically than we desk-sitters might suspect. I remember when there was some contention among academics over whether one could take a head with a Celtic Iron-Age sword. The answer, to me, is pretty obvious presuming that the warrior has spent his or her life practicing the art.
Third, Fiannaíocht tradition situated its warriors right in the middle of an ideal that privileged skill, speed and cunning. The legends of Fionn MacCumhail and his warriors show them effectively pole-vaulting over lines of battle and Free Running through the forests of Ireland, leaping over branches at chest height, slipping under branches at shin-height, and not even slowing down when removing a thorn from their feet — and all this is alongside their tapping into supernatural sources of knowledge. Warriors like Cú Chulainn and Conn Cétchathach implement feats that seem to prefigure those found in the more recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Arguments that these are purely literary seem to miss the point. The tradition of combat in Ireland perceived the makings of a warrior as involving speed, power and cunning.
To close, I think this is yet another situation where the preconceptions of modernity limit the potential for who we can be. If we release ourselves from the expectation that 1) humanity lacks the physical acuity in other animals and 2) ideal existence is one of inactivity (e.g. sitting on a beach somewhere being a glutton), each of which contributes to the conceptual foundation for what I mockingly call the ‘Cult of Privileged Decay,’ then what we can physically achieve suddenly expands by an order of magnitude.
I wonder what other areas of our life suffer from such limitations as well.