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Book Review

Sword in Hand: A Brief Survey of the Knightly Sword

By Ewart Oakeshott

11-1/4” by 8-5/8”, 146 pages, (cloth)
2000: Arms & Armor Inc., $60.00

Reviewed By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Ewart Oakeshott brings a near-encyclopedic expertise to his subject, evidenced by a large number of previous books on medieval knights, their arms and armor. The Archaeology of Weapons is probably the most notable of his earlier works (latest printing 1999).

Sword in Hand specifically traces the development of Medieval European swords. Ewart Oakeshott covers and classifies swords from 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. It seems like a long period of time, but the author points out that some early swords were passed from hand to hand through generations of a family or group. A sword could be a hundred years old or more and still be put to use.

The author’s great knowledge is matched by his depth of feeling for his subject, which makes the book a pleasure to read. Oakeshott takes an archeological rather than an antiquarian approach to research; classifying swords by type and time period. His research draws not only on archeological finds, but also on art, literature and historical accounts in diaries and other documentation.

A reasonable knowledge of European history does help the reader, though it might not be entirely necessary. Oakeshott does tend to meander, as though he is so full of related information about Medieval Europe he has some trouble keeping the main subject in focus. Along the way, however, he offers insights into acquiring, valuing, dating and even reluctantly selling a Medieval sword. While he reserves his greatest ire for antiques dealers who claim to know something about swords (but routinely dismiss authentic examples as fakes), he not only praises fellow scholars in the field, but also is unafraid to point out his own previously-published errors with grace and good humor.

Oakeshott’s description of a typical knighting ceremony adds little to what can be found elsewhere. Likewise, his description of the Pentagon of knightly virtues as they evolved to provide some ethical and spiritual dimension to a knight's vocation (“Liberality, Loving-Kindness, Continence, Courtesy and Piety” (p. 56)) is also familiar. However, their mention is more than timely, lest we become enthralled by these wonderful instruments and forget the violence they are capable of. On the other hand, Oakeshott's occasional asides on what it is like to actually pick up and hold one of these remarkable relics echoes the Viking battle songs liberally quoted in the early sections of the book.

Oakeshott includes descriptions throughout of a particular type of sword's role in a battle or heroic epic. As might be expected, I particularly enjoyed the description of a battle that took place in 1266 between Manfred of Sicily and Charles d’Anjou of France. The French forces, which included tough, German mercenaries, outnumbered and out equipped the Sicilians. However Manfred’s forces prevailed. The deciding factor? New-style swords, with sharp points, that were able to pierce the joints in their enemies’ plate armor.

There are only two drawbacks to Sword in Hand. One, regrettably, is the price. Though I thought it was worth it, sixty dollars is a little steep. Second is its limited availability. Though it can easily be ordered from Arms & Armor Inc., there is not much publicity for the book other than on the A&A website (and now this review). If readers cannot obtain this particular work, I encourage them to pick up any of Oakeshott’s many books still available at reasonable prices (through the Barnes & Noble website, for example). For anyone with an interest in the subject, any or all of Oakeshott’s books are worthwhile reading.

© 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Sword in Hand: A Brief Survey of the Knightly Sword
is available from:
Arms & Armor Inc.
1101 Stinson Blvd.
Minneapolis, MN 55413
(612) 331-6473

About the Reviewer:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

book review, martial arts books, Medieval European swords, knights, armor, knightly virtues

Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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