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Welcome to Episode #187 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
In 1593, Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis the play in which he writes “like the deadly bullet of a gun, His meaning struck her ere his words begun.” As our guest this week explains, “This is likely a reference to the phenomenon of a supersonic bullet hitting the target before the gunshot is heard. The Henrician arquebuses housed at the Royal Armouries in England, some dating from Shakespeare’s lifetime, were capable of 400 metres per second or more, which is supersonic. The big heavy muskets of his era and many artillery pieces were also supersonic. ‘Bullet’ was used for any gun projectile at the time, so Shakespeare could actually have been talking about firearms or artillery (or both) here.” Shakespeare references either the word gun or musket a total of 7 times in his works. Like so many things during this Renaissance period of history, the technology of firearms and rifles was growing and evolving rapidly in terms of their construction, accuracy, firing mechanisms, and even which countries adopted the manufacturing of these weapons. Several surviving examples of these guns from 15-17th century Germany, France, and England are held at the Royal Armories Collections and their Keeper of Firearms and Artillery, Jonathan Ferguson, is here today to talk with us about the differences between matchlock, flintlock, rifles, and muskets, and to explore exactly what kind of weapons Shakespeare would have known about when he mentions guns, bullets, and muskets in his plays.
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Jonathan Ferguson is Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, based at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Jonathan has curated numerous displays including the forthcoming RA exhibition ‘Firefight: Second World War’. He is also a Technical Specialist for Armament Research Services and Associate Editor for Armax journal. His research interests include the use and effect of firearms and their depiction in popular culture. His publications include the book ‘Mauser “Broomhandle” Pistol’ (2017), a contribution to ‘The Right to Bear Arms: Historical Perspectives and the Debate on the Second Amendment’ (2018), and ‘Thorneycroft to SA80: British Bullpup Firearms 1901 – 2020’ (2020).
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Come inside, where you can cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare.
Enough, sweet Suffolk; thou torment’st thyself;
And these dread curses, like the sun ‘gainst glass,
Or like an overcharged gun, recoil,
And turn the force of them upon thyself.
Musketeer from Jacob van Gheyn’s “Wapenhandelingen van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiesen” (1608). Public Domain. Source
Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?
Depiction of an arquebus fired from a fork rest. Image produced in 1876. Public Domain. Source
As if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her; as that name’s cursed hand
Murder’d her kinsman.
A serpentine matchlock mechanism.12 August 2008. Description, translated from German: “Culture and museum center Schloss Glatt Hook box with matchlock, South German 16th century” Photo by Rainer Halama Own work, attribution required (Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5). Source
Or like the deadly bullet of a gun,
His meaning struck her ere his words begun.
Two soldiers on the left using arquebuses, 1470. Description, translated from German, “‘The people of Zurich attack the Schwyz who landed near Erlenbach during the grape harvest.’ The Swiss Chronicles of Pictures, Atlantis Verlag, Zurich 1941” | Diebold Schilling upload by Adrian Michael | Public Domain | Source
Resources into Arquebus history from the Royal Armouries:
Matchlock muzzle-loading arquebus – Or Caliver (about 1560) | A military style in use across Europe at this time.
Explore the history of the phrase “Brown Bess”
Explore the “Tula Garniture” from the 18th century, “Consists of a flintlock sporting gun, a pair of flintlock pistols, a patch box and a powder flask, and a pair of stirrups.”
By John Probin
With broad sweeping butt.
Provenance: Ex Dunster Castle, Somerset. Purchased 21 May 2002
Physical Description: Flintlock muzzle loading gun, the letters W H inscribed in the butt twice. Trigger and ramrod loose, visible damage. Proof mark on the barrel, a Crown over the letter G.
Books & Resources Recommended by Jonathan Ferguson:
Jonathan points out for you, that if you are interested in learning more about this topic then the Royal Armouries has a library that is open to the public. There, you can find copies of books like Jonathan Ferguson’s first book on the Matchlock as well as many other resources to help you.
Gun Culture in Early Modern England by Lois Schwoerer
Archaeological Journal Vol. 65, Armour and Arms in Shakespeare
Pollard’s History of Firearms by Hugh B.C. Pollard
Finally, Graeme Rimer’s book ‘Wheellock firearms of the Royal Armouries’
Download this Diagram of a Knight's Armor
Includes names of the pieces of a knight's attire, plus where those terms show up in Shakespeare's plays.
Printable, shareable, and ready to color.
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Hello my name is Jim Swafford .. I live in Parmer Co., Texas. For 20 years I have been searching for artifacts that proves that Coronado passed through Pamer County. Also I had to search (metal detect) other areas in line with my route … one which was in Lubbock, Texas in Yellowhouse Canyon. I unearthed a musket ball with spruc attached to it which I believe was a reject in mold and those aside. This ball, in my research, did not fit into any events going on in this area. I measured and weight it and it fit in more with Aquabus gun used in the mid 1500’s which was in the area at that time. Apox. 1″ round and with the spruc 50 grams. I have submitted it to several key Coronado experts yet they have interest in other project and no time to mess with this small item. It is not so much the item that is important but the place it was found and the time period of the item. I have pictures of the ball, maps and location where it was found. I would like to have someone to simply look at it. Thanks
Hello Jim! It’s nice to “meet” you and I appreciate your taking the time to write in. I know how frustrating it can be to locate that resource you need. Unfortunately, I am not an expert in identifying artifacts myself. I could offer feedback, but I do not have the expertise to do valuations and appraisals. I do have some links to people who do that sort of thing and some links to experts in weapons and metals from this time period. Hopefully some of these links will get you to the right place!
The Smithsonian Museum has an entire page dedicated to appraisals and valuations. They have links to specific experts organized by what kind of help/feedback you need. It is a long list, but don’t get overwhelmed. I suggest scanning through to find someone in your area geographically, or if you’re not sure, just reach out to one of them. History folks are tight knit. If the one you contact isn’t correct, they can usually route you to the right place.
Another option I found for you is the New Jersey Artifact Assessment Program. I do not know what the requirements or parameters are to work with them, but they do the kind of assessment you’re asking about for your musket ball, so they might be a good place to contact: https://njmuseums.wildapricot.org/NJAM_AAP
Some of the episodes we’ve done here on our show that deal with weapons and guns I will link to below. Any of these experts (or their organizations) may have assessment information for you. Some contacts are in the show notes of each of these episodes and you can search for the organization name. Since you are in the US, probably contacting the companies in England/UK will be less than beneficial, but if you get no joy from the US contacts, then they might be the way to go.
Guns in Elizabethan England with Grace Tiffany
The Arquebus and Firearms with Jonathan Ferguson
The Royal Armouries may be able to point you to research information that could tell you the identity of your musket ball. They are a great team there.
This episode isn’t really about guns, it’s about swords, but might be helpful:
I am sorry I do not have more to offer you, but I hope some of this proves useful. I would definitely reach out to some of the assessment organizations at the Smithsonian or the New Jersey program listed above. As a tip, you might reach out to your local museum (or even your local auction house), and ask them who they use for artifact assessment. They may have a person or company they can connect you with.
So that you know, it’s unlikely you’ll get someone to evaluate it for you for free unless they are a friend volunteering their expertise to you. Museums and artifact specialists deal with a huge volume of material, with little time to do the in depth research it takes to track down an artifact’s provenance. I expect you will need to hire a professional artifact analyst and I do not have any information on cost or availability there (but again, the organizations listed above will know that information).
Follow back up with me and let me know what you discover. I wish you the best!