A wall of shields is very Middle Ages.
A wall of shields is very Middle Ages. (This photo was taken yesterday on Pine Street.) Photo by Rich Smith

At the end of 2019, we were all like, “Okay, that year was shit, but maybe 2020 will be better,” and now here we are, spending our Saturdays building riot shields out of plastic barrels and reading up on how to treat exposure to tear gas.

But that’s not exactly a new experience for the human race. Compared to centuries past, the ammo is “less lethal” and the peasantry now has smart phones. But this weekend, I saw protestors link arms and shout “hold the line” to each other, and it just seemed so oddly similar to uprisings of the 1600s.

Here are some of the ways they managed to win against seemingly insurmountable odds back then.

Among the oldest military siege tactics is the good old-fashioned phalanx, a line of fighters moving in close formation. Its use was recorded in Ancient Greece, and involved an unbroken shield wall (presumably made of stronger stuff than umbrellas). An important component of the phalanx is that everyone kept pace — a single break in the line introduced a potentially fatal vulnerability. Hoplite soldiers carried their shields on their left arms, protecting themselves and the soldier next to them.

While a wall of shields is very nice, if it’s the Middle Ages and you’re under siege from violent invaders, you may wish to find cover inside of a structure. The best castles and forts had what was known as an “outer curtain wall,” a thick barrier of stone that encircled an entire encampment. The most secure locations had a double curtain, such as Beaumaris Castle in Wales. Obviously, those took years and years to build — a far cry from more the mobile barricades and tools available in modern times.

Another defensive consideration was proximity to water, or at the very least, the availability of water supplies. Not only could they be used to put out fires or extinguish flaming projectiles, they could also be used to aid the injured. What’s more, locating a defensive position along a body of water could mean access to a supply route. As we saw much more recently in Hong Kong, water-inspired tactics and supply lines can still prove vital for protests.

Even more effective were structures with what’s called a “barbican passage,” also known as a Death Trap. Invaders had to enter through a narrow passage to the gatehouse of a citadel, and their movement could be slowed by specially-built obstacles like arrow-slit holes in the walls. There might also be machicolations, small openings through which burning objects could be dropped — also known as “murder holes.” Cute.

These ancient tactics generally involved structures that simply don’t exist today, unless you know of a castle somewhere in Seattle with a murder hole or two. Increasingly, modern warfare involves challenging urban settings in which insurgents present historically unique challenges: blending in with other locals; hiding in dense areas; fast flow of information; and quick access supplies. (The Texas National Security Review has a fascinating article that goes into detail on effective tactics in urban combat, as does the Modern War Institute at West Point.)

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Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and those images of protestors on the streets of Seattle look weirdly similar to renfaire reenactments of centuries-old historical battles.

Just without horses.

For now.