EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:
Ewart Oakeshott: "Dean of Swords"
- Part I

eo1.jpg (17129 bytes)ARMA 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 life’s 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 1940’s. 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:


ARMA:
"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."

EWART OAKESHOTT::
"Well, I’m a very modest old man, just an amateur really."

ARMA:
"I think we’d all loved to be your level of "amateur". A whole generation appreciates the sincerity and efforts of your passion."

OAKESHOTT::
"Thank you. So many people have told me that, it is really extraordinarily heartening to know how much you all appreciate what I’ve done. I‘ve only written what I thought needed to be said about these things. There’s just so much nonsense out there all by academics. It’s 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 tools."

ARMA:
"I’d like to ask you a few questions now about our favorite subject, swords."

OAKESHOTT::
"Splendid, please go ahead."

ARMA:
"The main question is about one you’ve mentioned a few times in your books, and that is this nonsense about edge parrying with medieval swords or cutting blades."

OAKESHOTT:
"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 fight with."

ARMA:
"All the medieval swords out there don’t show much trauma to their edges, is that because they were used properly with little or no intentional parries, except on the flat?"

eobook.jpg (17977 bytes)OAKESHOTT:
"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."

ARMA:
"Absolutely, when you actually cut things with historically accurate sharp quality versions it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that on a medieval sword, whether one or two handed, the edge is for cutting not blocking."

OAKESHOTT:
"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 doesn’t 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 I’ve 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."

ARMA:
"You mean they periodically polished and re-sharpened them?"

OAKESHOTT:
"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."

ARMA:
"The rough spots and damage taken out? Back then or in later centuries?"

OAKESHOTT:
"Yes. Back then, I’d imagine. You have to remember these things were in use for a long, long time."

ARMA:
"And they could not be indefinitely re-sharpened or re-polished over and over?"

OAKESHOTT:
"No, no, of course not."

ARMA:
"In Japanese swords they call that a "tired blade", when its edge can no longer be polished past its temper line."

OAKESHOTT:
"Well, it’s the same way of course, don’t you know. It’s all the same."

ARMA:
"Well, we’ve 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."

OAKESHOTT:
"Splendid, jolly glad to hear that."

ARMA:
"Ok, what then about references to 17th and 18th and 19th century manuals that advocate using edges?"

OAKESHOTT:
"Well, it didn’t matter much at all in those days to their swords. Certainly not to rapiers, small-swords or sabers."

ARMA:
"You’ve said before blades by then were not made for the same purpose (as medieval ones) and that they weren’t nearly of the same quality either."

OAKESHOTT:
"Yes. So really what it amounts to is that you can’t use a sword to hit people, especially in armor, without damaging the edge to some degree."

ARMA:
"A certain amount of damage occurs just by general use? I understand, I’ve 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?"

OAKESHOTT:
"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. It’s an awful pity and really shouldn’t be done. Indeed, you don’t 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."

ARMA:
"Yes, it’s the ‘we must show fencing’ mentality. We’re at a loss as to how to demonstrate this futility except through serious in-person contact-sparring."

OAKESHOTT:
"Its difficult correcting so much that for years has been said about our swords in the movies and such. The whole Errol Flynn / Ivanhoe nonsense."

ARMA:
"So stunt-fighters and performers are just being lazy by insistently using the edge so prominently [in blocking]?"

OAKESHOTT:
"It’s 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 like that."

ARMA:
"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."

OAKESHOTT:
"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 wouldn’t 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."

ARMA:
"Essentially, ‘cut-and-thrust swords’ like George Silver used."

OAKESHOTT:
"Certainly. I’ve written about this in my books. Fencing people have ignored or overlooked these swords. We’ve got them all over the place here."

ARMA:
"Is this because there’s 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?"

OAKESHOTT:
"Yes, certainly and it’s a shame. They (renaissance military swords) are quite beautiful and very well made -- they were effective."

ARMA:
"So, you wouldn’t have had that amount of swords and that great a variety of swords being made if they didn’t have a need for them and hadn’t perfected their designs?"

OAKESHOTT:
"Oh, absolutely, I’d say."

ARMA:
"And methods [cut-and-thrust] for their use follow from both? "

OAKESHOTT:
"Yes."

ARMA:
"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?"

OAKESHOTT:
"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."

ARMA:
"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?"

OAKESHOTT:
"If I can ever finish it -- I’m 82 you know. [Laugh]"

ARMA:
"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? I‘d really like to see that one available again."

OAKESHOTT:
"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."

ARMA:
"Thank you, sir. We are most grateful for your time."

OAKESHOTT:
"Thank you, any time again. It’s been a real pleasure."


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.



Ewart Oakeshott - Part II

ARMA
"How did you first get started with your interest in swords?"

OAKESHOTT
"My mother’s brother was a popular author in the 1920s and was fairly wealthy, so I grew up surrounded with his sword collection, it was inevitable that I would have an interest. My father was a civil servant and a fan of history and a great teacher of history, he gave me a taste for it. So it was these two things combined, a passion for history and a passion for swords."

ARMA
I think never having had our own "middle Ages" or "Renaissance period", we in America tend to wrongly imagine that this is a common thing to occur to Europeans. But, I imagine living with an 800-year-old castle in your hometown you’d get used to it and don’t think of it the same way we would."

OAKESHOTT
"Yes, yes. I was a commercial artist you see, so the craftsmanship also appealed to me as well as the history."

ARMA
"So, I understand you just started picking them up here and there and not finding enough information starting researching yourself?"

OAKESHOTT
"Collecting was easier then of course, swords were cheap! I acquired things easily, I got my first sword in 1931 and later during World War II when I got called up, Sotheby’s still held sales, they sold weapons for pennies, there were thousands of swords then. In the 1950’s this continued and they were at reasonable prices. I remember I spent all my money on them, I would save up for them. "

ARMA
"Much the same as we do now for replicas! What a difference.

Is anyone in your family a student of swords?"

OAKESHOTT
"I have three children and nine grandchildren and they haven’t the slightest interest in swords. They all think I’m quite mad (laughing)."

ARMA
"You’ve been said to have once suggested that you felt that when it came to collecting antique swords that you, or anyone, did not really own them, that you were all just "caretakers", can you elaborate?"

OAKESHOTT
"Yes. These things have been around for so long and gone through so many people’s hands. You come to realize that when you are gone they will still be here and someone else will own them, but only for awhile."

ARMA
"So, in that sense we are just custodians."

OAKESHOTT

"Yes, they only come into your possession for a short time and you care for them until they go on to someone else, you see. You may own them for now, but they are a part of history."

ARMA
"Interesting…"

OAKESHOTT
"I saw a sword just the other day that I had (originally) acquired for my 21st birthday, and which I had written about quite extensively in my "Archaeology of Weapons", and some poor chap had removed the original grip and replaced it with this god awful one that was entirely inappropriate and just wrong."

ARMA
"Oh, no…and he was just trying to get a better price for it? Sad."

OAKESHOTT
"My collection now is small only about 40 blades, I’ve reached the point where I am fairly satisfied and don’t trade or collect anymore. I’ve had some fine pieces over the years come into my possession and I traded them for others or sold them to get another I fancied. After awhile you decide to trade for something else. But now days its gotten harder and harder."

ARMA
"Yes, I understand that the larger museums buy them up then they don’t have the money or space to display them and just lock them away in a closet or something where they are never head of again."

OAKESHOTT
"Yes, it’s sad to think of them ending up locked away in a private collection or buried in a museum basement."

ARMA
"One of the things ARMA is doing in America to promote their study is to present to the public better examples of the finer replicas, and thereby educate on just how fine they were, how light and well-balanced. We do exhibitions and displays to show them off and hope to one day publicly present a few actual antique blades for viewing and handling, much in the way that Japanese sword preservation societies do with their weapons."

OAKESHOTT
"Wonderful. It certainly needs to be done. A great friend of mine, a chap named David Edge, of the Wallace Collection, runs a regular sort of series of talks where stuff is handed around. He goes about and does this."

ARMA
"We need to get more real swords into the hands of the public so they can see and appreciate them."

OAKESHOTT
"Certainly, you have to handle them before you can understand them.’

ARMA
"The real things are so much finer that the replicas. Does anyone come to mind as having good, accurate replica blades today?"

OAKESHOTT
"Raven Armoury swords are quite good of course, Simon Fernham, is a talented young artist and craftsman."

ARMA
"To return briefly to the subject of sword types again, you point out the differences between blades in the renaissance that were swords and that were rapiers, this seems to be a matter that slips past a lot of people?"

OAKESHOTT
"Well, I don’t see why…"

ARMA
(interrupting) "Spoken like a man who’s handled hundreds of real swords…!"

OAKESHOTT
(laughing) "Yes, well we are dealing with both swords, or reitschwert as I call most of them, and true rapiers. There is a simple difference, there are two simple blades, one is broad with reasonable breadth and one narrow, one can cut an arm off …the other is a rapier. It’s for thrusting with. There’s simply no doubt that the true rapier has very little if any edge."

ARMA
"No argument here, I can assure you. But it’s those that are in-between, that are transitional, that can be confusing."

OAKESHOTT
"Somewhat, yes. They were always experimenting you see. But they knew what they were doing."

ARMA
"About various long-swords, isn’t it readily apparent that the style of use of an early long-sword is significantly different in handling and application than a later, narrower one with a sharper point for fighting heavy armor?"

OAKESHOTT
"Absolutely different, they were not employed in the same manner, how could they? One is broad for slashing and the other not."

ARMA
"They have different points of balance and centers of impact as well as cutting and thrusting capacity, too."

OAKESHOTT
"Very much so. One need only lift them to see this. They were intended for different purposes."

ARMA
"Well, I know you time is short so I will end things for now here, thank you again"

OAKESHOTT
"Not at all, thank you."

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