Ewart Oakeshott: "Dean of Swords" - Part I
is proud to present a brief interview with the foremost Medieval sword
authority and recognized World expert, the late Ewart Oakeshott, unquestionably
the leading researcher in the field for decades.
Almost non-stop for more than 60 years
he had collected, studied, and researched his favorite subject and
lifes work: his beloved European swords. He is one of the very
few who approached the subject as something more than just an archaeological
or anthropological curiosity for art museums. Oakeshott was involved
privately in the martial handling of antique swords and in recreating
historical fighting as long ago as the 1940s. His many wonderful
reference works have been a great inspiration and major resource for
students of Western swords.
From his quiet home in England, Mr. Oakeshott delightfully
consented to a rare interview with ARMA Director John Clements, on Saturday, October 10,
1998. A portion is now presented here:
"Sir, we are all great admirers of your work. You
have written on European swords and weaponry with such clarity and insight. You should
know that without your efforts we would not know nearly half of what we do."
"Well, Im a very modest old man, just an amateur really."
"I think wed all loved to be your level of "amateur". A whole
generation appreciates the sincerity and efforts of your passion."
"Thank you. So many people have told me that, it is really extraordinarily heartening
to know how much you all appreciate what Ive done. Ive only written what I
thought needed to be said about these things. Theres just so much nonsense out there
all by academics. Its quite the wrong attitude to take (with swords). These people
have positions of great power but are still mostly art historians looking at these swords
only as craft objects of artistic interest, not really as historic weapons or personal
"Id like to ask you a few questions now about our favorite subject,
"Splendid, please go ahead."
"The main question is about one youve mentioned a few times in your books, and
that is this nonsense about edge parrying with medieval swords or cutting blades."
"I'm sure that was done only in absolute extremity. Basically, I think the edge
wasn't used, it would be ridiculous, it would ruin it. It frequently comes up in the Sagas
such as in one battle at sea where men were fighting in their ship and they said 'Our
swords aren't biting anymore', so the leader went and got new swords from his sea chest
under his high seat and gave them fresh blades, but you see they were smacking them
against mail and shields and that would have blunted them. So they needed sharp ones to
"All the medieval swords out there dont show much trauma to their edges, is
that because they were used properly with little or no intentional parries, except on the
"There are one or two references in medieval
chronicles to men whose swords ended up chewed up and couldn't be used. This belief that
blades must be in constant contact just isn't so. It's not a matter of style, you just get
out of the way (of attacks). You can notice there are thousands of swords in medieval
artwork of all sorts and yet I only recall perhaps two that are shown with damaged edges.
I've handled hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these things over the years, you know.
Only a few really show any edge damage and some would be expected when a blade contacts a
helm or even mail armor. But these things were designed for that purpose in mind. We know
this from modern experiments."
"Absolutely, when you actually cut things with
historically accurate sharp quality versions it doesnt take a genius to figure out
that on a medieval sword, whether one or two handed, the edge is for cutting not
"You find that with almost any sword, especially a
cutting sword up to the 17th century, little tale-tell nicks in the blade, but it
doesnt follow that they were made by parrying with the edge: you hit a chap whether
in the 12th or 13th or 16th century and you are bound to make a little nick in the blade,
and most swords Ive handled nearly all of them have got some minor nicks, and some
have slight shallow waves where blades deflected or the nicks have been honed out."
"You mean they periodically polished and
"To some degree, yes. Were talking about a cutting
blade, a thicker one like an estoc or tuck would not matter much. Many medieval cutting
swords now have rounded edges where they've been sanded or polished over."
"The rough spots and damage taken out? Back then
or in later centuries?"
"Yes. Back then, Id imagine. You have to
remember these things were in use for a long, long time."
"And they could not be indefinitely re-sharpened
or re-polished over and over?"
"No, no, of course not."
"In Japanese swords they call that a "tired
blade", when its edge can no longer be polished past its temper line."
"Well, its the same way of course,
dont you know. Its all the same."
"Well, weve always maintained in the ARMA
that the more experience you acquire in actual contact-sparring, where you are really
hitting people, and then the more skill you gain from cutting materials with sharp swords,
it all then makes perfect sense."
"Splendid, jolly glad to hear that."
"Ok, what then about references to 17th and 18th
and 19th century manuals that advocate using edges?"
"Well, it didnt matter much at all in those
days to their swords. Certainly not to rapiers, small-swords or sabers."
"Youve said before blades by then were not
made for the same purpose (as medieval ones) and that they werent nearly of the same
"Yes. So really what it amounts to is that you
cant use a sword to hit people, especially in armor, without damaging the edge to
"A certain amount of damage occurs just by general
use? I understand, Ive seen this myself. . . . How do the researchers and Living
Interpreters at the Royal Armouries feel about this, seeing how they are heavily involved
in both hands-on exploration as well as public education?"
"The Leeds museum fellows are all friends of mine,
and they know all this. John Waller there, head of the living interpreters and the leading
practitioner of reenactors in the UK, when you talk to him he always explains the thing to
do is get out of the way or turn yourself so the blow glances off your armor or your
helmet or weapon. But when doing something for the public they sometimes give them what
they want -- whack, whack, parry, parry. Its an awful pity and really shouldnt
be done. Indeed, you dont parry at all if you can help it, you get out of the way!
We are talking about killing and fighting here, not putting on a play show. The movie
fights bash, bash, bash -- which is all wrong."
"Yes, its the we must show
fencing mentality. Were at a loss as to how to demonstrate this futility
except through serious in-person contact-sparring."
"Its difficult correcting so much that for years
has been said about our swords in the movies and such. The whole Errol Flynn / Ivanhoe
"So stunt-fighters and performers are just being
lazy by insistently using the edge so prominently [in blocking]?"
"Its not proper or historical for a medieval
sword. John Waller agrees and points out that parrying was something to be avoided at all
costs except when absolutely necessary, such as when your helmet fell off or something
"That has certainly been our experience with
cutting swords. Those who go out of their way to parry open themselves up to all sorts of
actions. . . . Another issue that causes confusion and which you wrote on is the
difference between renaissance swords and rapiers."
"Oh my yes, there is much more to be said on this.
There were numerous types of swords in use and rapiers were only one form. You
wouldnt take one in to battle. You only have to examine the swords [rapier blades]
in hand to see real cutting would be all but futile. There were reitschwert,
assorted basket hilts and such for that."
"Essentially, cut-and-thrust swords
like George Silver used."
"Certainly. Ive written about this in my
books. Fencing people have ignored or overlooked these swords. Weve got them all
over the place here."
"Is this because theres no surviving
tradition of fighting with these sword forms as there is for the thrusting style of sport
fencing, which traces its roots directly back to rapier schools?"
"Yes, certainly and its a shame. They
(renaissance military swords) are quite beautiful and very well made -- they were
"So, you wouldnt have had that amount of
swords and that great a variety of swords being made if they didnt have a need for
them and hadnt perfected their designs?"
"Oh, absolutely, Id say."
"And methods [cut-and-thrust] for their use follow
from both? "
"So you feel as well then, that these later
methods of swordsmanship eventually were lost by virtue of the value of swords being
reduced so much as military arms?"
"Yes, precisely. I should say so. Fencing changed
to be concerned almost entirely with a (civilian) thrusting style for gentlemen to use in
duels of honor."
"Well, studying and practicing the renaissance
military style is certainly something we continue to work on. By the way, I am told you
have a new book coming out, sometime next year?"
"If I can ever finish it -- Im 82 you know.
"What about reprints, I see several are coming out
now, how about one of your excellent European Arms & Armor from the Renaissance to
the Industrial Revolution? Id really like to see that one available again."
"Oh, yes, I was just thinking about that. I only
have one copy of it left myself and I was thinking this sure is nicely put together with
some wonderful things in it."
"Thank you, sir. We are most grateful for your
"Thank you, any time again. Its been a real
Mr. Oakeshott is author of such noted books as The Sword
in the Age of Chivalry, The Archaeology of Weapons, Records of the Medieval
Sword, Fighting Men, A Knight and His Weapons, and several others. His next
work, due out in mid-1999, is a monumental study of Norse swords, called The Sword in
the Viking Age. Watch for a sneak preview excerpt here on the ARMA website sometime in
the future -- as well as another interview.