A Cultural History of the Medieval Sword
Robert W Jones
In a few sentences, please tell us what your book is about.
This is a book about swords in the high middle ages. Who had them, why they had them, and how they used them. It takes a holistic approach, combining the study of their symbolic significance alongside their practical usage. It outlines three distinct ‘cultures’ of medieval swordsmanship. There’s the noble one we expect, where the sword is a sometimes mystical symbol of power, status, and authority. Then there’s a far less recognised middle-class culture, in which swordsmanship was a pastime for the educated. This is the culture which, I argue, results in the fechtbüche – the fencing manuals that have been so important in the development of the third culture of the sword, that of the modern recreation of medieval swordsmanship, whether on stage, reenactment field, or ‘Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) community.
Who used swords? Did this change through time?
In the early middle ages, the sword was a status symbol in the hands of a warrior elite. As Sue Brunning has shown us in her excellent book The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe, swords at this time were potent symbols of power, and could have a direct connection with the warrior who wielded them. By the period I am looking at, the eleventh through to the sixteenth century, that had changed, and the sword was in many ways more common. Yes, it was still the iconic symbol of kings and knights, and elements of its former magical past remind in the stories of Excalibur or Durendal, but in other ways it had become a much more mundane object. It was also more widely owned. The educated and urban middle class that grew up in the high and late middle ages were also users of swords. For them, as well as being a mark of their aspirational status to join the nobility above them, the ability to wield a sword was a pastime and a sport. Whilst fencing masters might be employed to teach men swordsmanship for judicial combats, in which they defended their honour, it would not be until the early modern period that the sword was being carried as an everyday accessory, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice to defend the honour. But that is a story for another book.
How do you define the sword as a ‘cultural artifact’?
A ‘cultural artifact’ is an object that can tell us something about the culture of the people who made and used it. The sword is exactly that, as it is not just a tool for killing, but at the same time a piece of sporting equipment, a metaphor, euphemism, and symbol of power and authority.
Was there something from your research that especially surprised you?
I think that French knights stole Excalibur from Henry V’s baggage at the battle of Agincourt! Apparently, the local knights that attacked the English encampment during the battle, ransacked Henry’s luggage, stealing crowns and jewels and also ‘the sword of King Arthur which was worth so much money that no one knew what to do with it…’ It was fascinating to me that the loss of such a famous sword was taken so lightly, and also that Henry wasn’t wielding the victory-giving weapon on the battlefield. As to how it came to be there… well, you’ll need to read the book!
In your marketing brief you state that your favourite sentence from this book is ‘Men used swords to kill other men. Anything else they used them for – sport, symbol, gift, thing of beauty, euphemism, or metaphor – stems from this one simple, brutal fact.’ Can you elaborate on why you have chosen this sentence as your favourite?
I am a cultural historian, and spend a lot of my time looking at the how medieval warriors thought, rather than how they fought.. The manuscript illustrations, effigies of knights, and the arms that remain in museum and collections is all very often elegant and beautiful to look at. It is very easy to forget the savage reality of what they are made to do, and how all of that elegance, beauty and symbolism, in the end, comes out of that bloody function.
If there is one thing about swords you really want people to take away from your book, what is it?
That the sword was not just the iconic weapon of the medieval warrior-elite, but also a plaything and status symbol for the middle classes.
ROBERT W. JONES is Alumni Association Coordinator and tutor at Advanced Studies in England, an independent study abroad programme based in Bath, England. He is also a Visiting Scholar in History at Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.