Debunking the Myth of the Medieval Sword
When it comes to the study of the Medieval sword, Ewart Oakeshott ( 25 may 1916- 30th September 2002) was arguably the man who did more than any other to bring the study of arms and armour into the 20th century as a serious field of study.
Prior to Ewart Oakeshott’s 1960 seminal book, The Archaeology of Weapons, the perception of the Medieval sword was more myth than reality. The sword was considered a clumsy weapon, little more than a sharpened crowbar incapable of finesse or technique that could easily weigh 15 lbs. It was a myth so prevalent that T.H. White, in The Once and Future King, wrote a scene in which Sir Lancelot was practising with a 30 lb. sword so that his 15 lb. sword would feel lighter.
The scholarly attitude towards arms and armour was very dismissive. The sword, they felt, was a clumsy weapon, and therefore not worthy of any note or serious study. Those who did cover the subject, such as Charles Ffoulkes in 1938, made claims such as:
“The so-called ‘Crusader’ sword is heavy, broad-bladed, and short gripped. There is no balance, as the word is understood in swordsmanship, and to thrust with it is an impossibility – its weight made swift recovery impossible.”
This did not mean that there were no scholars on the fringe who tried to provide the sword – and the field of arms and armor itself – with serious study. Oakeshott was neither the first, nor would he be the last. Those who did, however, found themselves in a nascent field with few, if any, tools for cataloguing and analyzing their findings. For example, Charles Henry Ashdown, in his 1909 book An Illustrated History of Arms and Armour, noted that while there was a rising general interest in the subject,
“…there are few books extant which may serve as a guide to the student, although there are many which deal with the subject. The great works of Meyrick, with Skelton his illustrator, are standard only in a sense that it is necessary to be throughly acquainted with the subject in order to guard against the many errors embodied in them.”
Ashdown’s book was a very notable early effort – his description of swords lacked the “heavy, sharpened crowbar” mythology, and his observations were accurate enough to suggest that they came from actually handling the weapons – hardly a stretch, considering that Ashdown was an archaeologist. However, while he did divide the sword into certain sub-classes such as the Pre-Norman Period, the Scimitar, Hand-and-a-half, Two-handed, etc., he did not recognize the internal variations of the knightly sword when it comes to the blade, or attempt any cataloguing beyond his general categories. This left him without the tools needed to recognize the full development of the sword, and link it to the Medieval arms race between arms and armor, that had actually taken place. As such, while Ashdown had written perhaps one of the most informed books on arms and armor in the English language thus far, he was unable to make the leap that would revolutionize the field.
The typology – the tool that would make Oakeshott’s impact possible – appeared in 1919 with the publication of Jan Petersen’s Die Norske Vikingesverd. Petersen did not approach the knightly sword in his work, but he did establish a means of cataloguing the internal variations. Petersen’s typology, however, did not extend beyond differences in the hilt. It did, however, provide Oakeshott with the tool he would use to revolutionize the field and provide the study of Medieval arms and armor with its most influential book.
Oakeshott’s book, The Archaeology of Weapons, was published in 1960, and it changed the world of the serious study of arms and armor. Oakeshott himself was a collector of antique swords at a time when the price of an antique sword was inexpensive enough that one did not need to be rich to afford it. What Oakeshott recognized was that the knightly sword had variations in the shape of the blade indicating that a sword from one period during the Middle Ages would not have been used in the same way as a sword from a later period. Far from there being a single type of knightly sword, there were cutting swords, thrusting swords, and cut-and-thrust swords. Further, Oakeshott revealed that the development of these variations could not be understood without also understanding the development of armor. As such, The Archaeology of Weapons presented the development of the sword, not just in terms of its blade shape, but also examined its cultural impact and how Medieval bladesmiths adapted their blades to defeat new and tougher forms of armor. For arguably the first time in the English language, Oakeshott had revealed an accurate history of the development of the Medieval sword.
Oakeshott’s typology was so influential that it became a primary tool for understanding and cataloguing the development of the Medieval Sword. His typology, however, also proved to be a work in progress, with new types of sword being added as Oakeshott’s studies developed. In The Archaeology of Weapons, Oakeshott outlined 10 sword types in his typology. By the time he published Records of the Medieval Sword in 1991, this typology had grown to 22 types. When Oakeshott published The Sword in Hand in 2001, his typology had grown to 26 types.
The myth of the Medieval sword has taken a long time dying, even with Oakeshott’s tremendously influential work. In 1992 Kelly DeVries described the Medieval sword as “thick, heavy, awkward, but finely crafted,” and John Clements noted that as late as 2003 A. Baker described the longsword as weighing 20 lbs. However, while some historians still buy into the myth, in many circles it has been debunked.
Chad Arnow, Russ Ellis, Patrick Kelly, Nathan Robinson, and Sean A. Flynt, “Ewart Oakeshott: The Man and His Legacy: Part I.” MyArmoury.com, 2006: http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_oakeshott.html
J. Clements, “What Did Historical Swords Weigh ?” The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts:
Kelly DeVries, Medieval Military Technology, Broadview Press, 1992.
Ewart Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons, Barnes & Noble Books, 1994 (originally published, 1960).
Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword, The Boydell Press, 1991.
Charles Henry Ashdown, An Illustrated History of Arms and Armour, Wordsworth Editions, 1988 (originally published 1909).