The Zombie Survival Manual — Part One

ZombieSurvivalLogoSo you’re hanging out at the mall food court with your best friend—talking about football or space probes landing on comets, or maybe about the merits of The Evil Dead 2 versus Army of Darkness—when you hear a scream. Not a Jerry-Springer, I’m-gonna-whoop-your-ass-in-front-of-Abercrombie-and-Fitch scream, but an H-P-Lovecraft, Dear-God-his-entrails-are-coming-out-of-his-ear sort of blood-curling howl. You shove another handful of fries into your mouth and turn to look, then stop chewing.

One of the fries falls from your open mouth and lands on the red plastic tray.

It has begun.

The hungry dead have risen, and you’re fresh out of fries.

(Editorial aside: Please note my use of “the hungry dead,” here, not “the walking dead.” Because it’s not the walking that causes problems. Sure, it would be unsettling—and possibly violate several health codes—if the dead wandered like stray cattle across our cities. But really, what would be the danger? The occasional cost of quarter-panel repairs for your car. Higher dry-cleaning bills in crowded pedestrian areas. Maybe more slip and fall lawsuits in supermarkets. The real danger is the whole eating-your-cerebral-cortex thing.)

At Strongblade, we have always seen ourselves as both providers of fine historical/fantasy reproductions, and educators of the public. And there can be no finer act of education than protecting all of you from . . . The Zombie Apocalypse.

In the upcoming series, we will discuss the most efficient ways to survive an outbreak of the hungry dead.

Some of you know that I wrote a bestselling trilogy about a zombie-like plague in 14th century England. The Scourge is about a knight trying to fight his way through this post-apocalyptic medieval landscape to reach his wife. Where relevant, I will include snippets from the book. Because knights. And zombies (called ‘plaguers’ in my books).

In this first part of the series, I want to talk about the various weapons that can be used to provide undead relief. I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon, and provide a bit of historical, martial and literary insight into each one. Starting with weapon one: The sword.

Let it begin.

THE SWORD:

Advantages: Multiple edges, decent range, coolness factor

Disadvantages: Difficulty removing from bodies quickly, Awkwardness at close range, poor at penetrating skull.

 

NostrumCover900x600Tristan stands and straps his helmet on. “More of those things, Edward.”
I stand slowly, stoop and catch my breath.
“What’s wrong, old man?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I reply. “That creature hit my breastplate hard. Just need to catch my breath.”
He stares at me, the great helm hiding his expression.“There are only three,” he says. “I’ll take them. You get the rest of the walnuts.”
I shake my head and stand straight. “You want all the glory.”
I hold my sword in the long guard and take a deep breath.
The demons hurl themselves at us.
I hit the cobbled road again.
The impact blackens my world for an instant and fills the back of my nose with the taste of fire. I struggle against the creature, but I have so little strength. My sword is in its stomach, but it does not seem to care. One of the demon’s eyes is as large as a doorknob. The monster gouges at my visor, its twisted teeth clack against the bevor at my neck. It gibbers as it searches for openings in my armor. Desperate groans and growls. Hands batter my helmet, make my ears ring. I push at its chest. A thin black tongue thrusts out from its neck in a bloody spray. Not a tongue. The tip of Tristan’s sword. I shove the demon’s head to one side hard. Tristan pulls the blade back and hacks two-handed at the neck. Once, twice, and the third cleaves the head from the body. Blood spurts as the misshapen head tumbles to the cobblestones. The arms continue to rake at me for three or four heartbeats before the demon realizes it is dead.
“Excellent strategy,” Tristan says. “Letting it get on top of you so that I could kill it easily.”
“Shut your mouth, you baboon,” I say. He helps me up.
“I’m glad we shared the glory, Edward.”
 
— From THE SCOURGE:NOSTRUM by Roberto Calas

 In my historical fantasy trilogy, THE SCOURGE, the main characters tend to use swords when fighting the zombie-like demons that have overwhelmed their country. The characters are knights, so this is appropriate. The protagonist, Sir Edward Dallingridge, hacks his way through waves of undead while trying to reach his wife (who is a hundred miles away). In reality, the European medieval sword—while an excellent choice against lightly armored troops or unarmored opponent—is a is a difficult weapon to use against writhing hordes of undead.

sba-warspike1_lSwords are designed, primarily, to slash. Zombies are designed to not give a crap about slashes. See our problem? In most zombie mythos, penetrating the head is the only way to kill them. Sure, a powerful slash can cleave a head, but when you are swarmed by the undead, who has time for powerful slashes? And even if you had the time, you encounter the age-old and highly technical problem of sword-stuckery. A blade that penetrates the skull will remain lodged there until dislodged by an equal or greater force.

Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a master, swords can be as good a weapon as any for fighting the hungry dead—especially small groups of them. Swords actually have a lot of good traits going for them. Well-made, well-sharpened European swords can shear off parts of a skull, so as not to get stuck. Swords have multiple, razor-sharp cutting edges, a good three-foot length to keep opponents at bay, and you get instant street cred just for showing up with one. There is nothing that will make you look cooler in a zombie apocalypse than strapping a medieval sword to your belt. So if you’re trying to be the alpha in your survivors’ group, then a sword may just be the ticket.

But wait . . . there are dozens of swords available. How can I write one post about all of them? Aren’t I generalizing to a ridiculous degree?

Yes and no. A Japanese katana might be a little more effective against zombies. Katanas are quick and curved, which makes it hard to get them trapped in skulls. But the same general principals apply. Swords are slashing weapons. Zombies laugh at slashing weapons. Until you slice the top of their skull off, kick their twitching body, and shout, “Who’s laughing now, lurchy? Who’s laughing now?”

Okay. So maybe it’s worth looking at the various types of swords and their various strengths and weaknesses in a zombie apocalypse. I have added a chart below, complete with a handy cutout line, so you can keep it in your wallet when the hungry dead come to snack. The overall rating is calculated using a point system for each of the categories. The higher the rating, the more effective against the hungry dead.

 

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SwordEffectivenessChart

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 So, the Roman gladius has it. Lethal penetration from the V-tip. Easy to use in close quarters, and blazingly fast. Killing barbarian hordes turns out to be remarkably similar to killing zombie herds. Those Romans were way ahead of their time.

Check back in a few days for the next installment, where we look at hammers, maces and flails!

Medieval Mug Shots

beer-flood

Beer and bread. Um…you’re doing it wrong.

A history professor of mine once told me that there two things every civilization in history have had—beer and bread. Which proves that humankind is not stupid. If you’re going to pick two things to have in your civilization, you can’t do much better than those. Although I’d try to sneak a little cheese in as well, because pizza is a glorious thing. And bacon, because, bacon.

But I’m not here to talk about bread or pizza, or even bacon. I’m here to talk about beer. Or, more specifically, about vessels used to hold beer. Yes, Medieval drinkware.

Many of you have probably heard the urban legend about lead tankards in the Middle Ages. According to legend, if you see your reflection in a tankard and say Bloody Mary three times, you will . . .  no . . . wait . . . the urban legend is actually about a woman who drugs men, puts them in a bathtub filled with ice and takes out their kidneys with a tankard so she can sell the organ on the black mark . . . no,

The chupacabra lives inside pewter tankards. Or something.

The chupacabra lives inside pewter tankards. Or something.

wait . . . that’s not right either. I can’t really remember the urban legend, right now. I think it had something to do with Richard Gere. Hang on.

Okay. I found it. The urban legend about medieval tankards is this: They were made out of lead, and the lead leeched into whatever it was you were drinking. This caused severe lead poisoning, which knocked the person unconscious. And, for some reason, medieval people couldn’t tell the difference between a dead person and a passed out friend that should be laughed at and drawn on with sharpies. So the “ignorant” medieval people put the unconscious person on a table for three days to see if they woke up. And that’s how, the legend says, the “wake” before a funeral came about. Except that medieval people weren’t stupid. The average medieval human knew more about death than most people in the 21st century, and could easily tell the difference between unconscious and rotting.

Pewter tankards, the cool, safe way to make an imbecile of yourself and pass out.

Pewter tankards, the cool, safe way to make an imbecile of yourself and pass out.

Yeah, some people did get lead poisoning from the tankards, but it was a slow process, that didn’t involve falling suddenly unconscious. Passing out is a symptom of an epic night, not lead poisoning.

Another problem with the myth is the lack of actual…you know… tankards in the Middle Ages. Tankards really didn’t become popular until the 16th century. Although, once they came into fashion, they were everywhere.

The typical tankard was similar to the engraved tankards sold by Strongblade. Many had lids that could be opened by levering back a gilded tab with your thumb. Why lids? Well, many homes and public houses still had thatched roofs. And thatched roofs were like entire universes of crawling, pooping and flying things that tended to fall out of their universe into yours. And if they fell, it was best they didn’t do a trans-dimensional half-gainer into your ale.

Entire ecosystems live in thatch. Better cover that tankard.

Entire ecosystems live in thatch. Better cover that tankard.

So if there weren’t really many medieval tankards, what did beer drinkers use to hold their ale or beer or mead or cider in teh Middle Ages? Wooden mugs?

Yes, sometimes.

Wooden mugs were easy to make and rugged. The only problem was how they were made. Wooden mugs were typically built using several pieces of wood, fastened together and sealed with brewer’s pitch or pine tar or ear wax. Okay, ear wax was never used in mugs (except when your friend passed out from ‘lead poisoning’ and you smeared all sorts of things inside his mug without telling him). But wood has a tendency to warp. And when a wood mug warps, the seals tend to break and your ale ends up leaking all over the floor (a threshed floor, which also had its own universe of creepies). Sure, you could carve out a mug from one

Mouths. Providing a home for beer since 1500 BCE.

Mouths. Providing a home for beer since 1500 BCE.

big-assed piece of wood, but blocks of wood of that size were typically reserved for beams or furniture or toilet seats When you drink all that beer and eat all that bread, you’re going to need a good toilet seat).

So they didn’t use tankards, and they didn’t use wood. So what the hell did people in the Middle Ages use to drink?

And the simple answer is: Their mouths.

Yeah, not funny, I know.

Don't just drink. Get medieval on your ale with leather jacks and bombards.

Don’t just drink. Get medieval on your ale with leather jacks and bombards.

Okay, the real answer: The most popular drinking material in the Middle Ages was leather. Yes, leather! Leather was easily available, could be shaped, never warped, always held its form, and could be sealed easily with pine tar or brewer’s pitch (never ear wax. No, no.)

Okay, so leather is more accurate, historically, but I much prefer a nice pewter tankard when drinking beer. Accuracy be damned.

There were various types of leather drinking vessels, and each had its own name.

The most common was the ‘jack,’ a tar-coated mug that flared at the base and was sealed with black pitch. Because of this dark coating on the inside, jacks were sometimes called black jacks. And yeah, there’s a very good possibility that the black jack used for hitting people in the head was named from the mug. Why? Because bar brawls happened in the Middle Ages, and if you had a hard leather mug in your hand, that’s what you used to pound people in the head with. Seriously.

A close relative of the jack is the ‘bombard.’ Which is just a *really big* jack. It shares the name with medieval cannons, either because both had huge mouths, or because both could get you bombed.

Lastly was the bouteille. A long, slim mug with a narrow mouth. Sound familiar? It should be. Bouteille’s were the Middle Age predecessor to our glass ‘bottles.’

All three of these types of vessels were typically made from leather. Because the skin of cows, goats, camels or gerbils was plentiful in the Middle Ages.

Wait. I think I’m mixing up my urban legends again.