A medieval knight on the digital frontline

Daniel Jacquet - 2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Daniel Jacquet - 2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Daniel Jacquet, a scientist and project manager at EPFL’s Laboratory for Experimental Museology+ (eM+), is an unconventional academic. A leading expert in European martial arts, he often gives talks wearing a suit of armor.

Much has been said about the digitization of the Panorama of the Battle of Murten, a 100 x 10-meter painting depicting the Swiss Confederates’ victory over the Duchy of Burgundy in 1476. The artwork, distributed over three rolls weighing 700 kg each, spent several months at EPFL, where every last detail was captured with a 150-megapixel camera. The end result was the world’s largest digital image.

Conservation work during digitalization
© 2023 EPFL-eM+. Catherine Leutenegger

This bold undertaking was the brainchild of Daniel Jaquet, a scientist and project manager at EPFL’s Laboratory for Experimental Museology+ (eM+), which is headed by Prof. Sarah Kenderdine. He landed the position on the strength of his passion and expertise for all things medieval – even though, on paper, he lacked the kind of background a digital lab would normally look for.

Motion capture of German martial arts 16th century
© 2023 EPFL-eM+. Catherine Leutenegger

So how did Jacquet, who holds a PhD in medieval history and counts European martial arts and armored combat techniques of the late Middle Ages among his research interests, end up working on digital projects at EPFL? Despite being a qualified museologist, he struggled to get his foot in the door at eM+. “I didn’t have a background in data science, computer science or augmented reality,” he says. “I was so eager to join the lab, I even considered starting another PhD as an entry point.”

Motion capture of a knight in armor (click on photo to watch video)
© 2012 Motion capture of a knight in armor (click on photo to watch video)

In the end, Jacquet captured Kenderdine’s attention by focusing on what he knew best: as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for the Panorama of the Battle of Murten, he proposed a ready-made, fully funded project. “There are four panoramic paintings in Switzerland,” he explains. “The Panorama of the Battle of Murten is the only one that isn’t on public display. It was shown briefly in Jean Nouvel’s Monolith for Expo.02, after which it was locked away in a bunker. With the 550th anniversary of the Burgundian Wars coming up in 2026, I suggested creating a digital twin of this enormous canvas.” Jacquet’s gamble paid off. In the future, his striking installation will give the public an augmented experience, bringing the painting into the digital age and uncovering details that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

Introducing swordplay to the audience at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum
© 2023 Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

A shared interest in martial arts

Jacquet’s fascination with Kenderdine’s work stems from the time they first met, in Hong Kong, and from their shared interest in martial arts. Kenderdine is particularly interested in Asian combat techniques: in 2016, she worked with the International Guoshu Association in Hong Kong to create art installations based on the motion capture of Kung Fu performances. Jacquet, meanwhile, is a renowned expert in fighting techniques of the Middle Ages and travels the world to talk about his passion. It was only natural that these two worlds – east and west, samurais and knights – should come together. “It’s fascinating to see how the movements used in different fighting techniques change very little down the ages and from one part of the planet to another,” says Jacquet. “Whenever I do a 15th-century sword-handling demonstration, people tell me it looks just like karate or another modern combat sport. After all, medieval sword-bearers worked with the same raw material – the human body – as today’s martial artists. We haven’t invented anything new.”

Art installations based on Kung Fu motion capture
© 2016 Hong Kong, Sarah Kenderdeine and Jeffrey Shaw

Running in a suit of armor

Drawing on his knowledge of combat movement and sword-fighting, Jaquet – a “practicing” historian – custom-built his own suit of armor, which he wears when giving talks as a way to dispel misconceptions and urban myths. “People often conflate the heavy, rigid, full-body armor that was used during tournaments with the lighter, articulated suits of plate armor that allowed knights to fight on foot if they fell from their horse,” he explains. Beneath this metal armor, which covered the feet and lower legs, the fronts of the thighs, and the top part of the body, knights also wore a padded garment that provided an added layer of protection from enemy blows. “We have very few records detailing what specialty clothing knights wore under their armor,” adds Jacquet. “I made mine using experimental archeology techniques. The garment is now in its 28th iteration.”

Jaquet has traveled around the world with his sword and steel suit of armor, which he treats regularly with beeswax to prevent rust. The suit weighs 33 kg – “not much heavier than a firefighter’s uniform or a soldier’s full kit,” he explains. Jaquet also wears his armor in less conventional settings, such as the Course de l’Escalade, a running race held in Geneva in early December. “I had to drop out in the third round because the steel had worn through my leggings and was cutting into my knee,” he says. As part of his research into the maneuverability of medieval armor and its effect on body mobility, Jaquet also participated in an assault course, competing against a firefighter and a soldier. Over the years, his armor has left him needing stitches on more than one occasion.

On flight to New York © 2017 Daniel Jaquet

Jacquet has plenty of interesting stories to tell from his experience as a researcher and speaker. One memorable incident was when he wore his suit of armor on a flight to New York, where he was giving a talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Wearing the armor meant I didn’t have pay excess baggage fees,” he recalls. “I fielded a lot of questions from the other passengers throughout the flight.”

Jacquet’s next challenge? “I’d love to set up my own research lab.”

Author: Sandy Evangelista

Source: College of humanities | CDH

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