One of the biggest challenges for those who want to learn about swords is figuring out which sources are authoritative, and what each contributes to our knowledge about these historical objects. Just like any other topic, becoming reasonably knowledgeable about European swords requires a great deal of reading alongside practical studies (playing with swords). This can be particularly difficult because there are so many reference books on swords that are essentially coffee table books full of pretty pictures with little context. Many others are of very questionable value either because they are quite antiquated in their understanding or because they view swords as historical artifacts without much understanding or context of how they really work when used as weapons.
We have put together the following list as a solid foundation for becoming a thoughtful scholar of the sword. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does give you an excellent place to ground your understanding of what a medieval sword is, how they varied across time and cultures, and what attributes separate an authentic sword from a "sword like object." If you read these books and pay attention you will realize that there are disagreements and differences of emphasis between the authors. Part of becoming really knowledgeable about swords is understanding how various experts approach the topic, and what we can learn from each of them.
#1 Sword in the Age of Chivalry by Ewart Oakeshott, 1965
We had to include the work of Ewart Oakeshott in this list, and not just because of Arms and Armor's long partnership with The Oakeshott Institute. Rather, Oakeshott carried out a lifetime of research on European swords that sought to bring together an understanding of art, history, archaeology, and the practical uses of swords. His work stands out in comparison to other 19th and 20th century work on swords as his focus was on the sword as a tool as well as a symbol. Other scholars tended to be largely focused on art and literature or were rather biased against the medieval period as a 'barbaric and simple' time, for example, some of the works of Sir Richard Burton, Egerton Castle and Captain Alfred Hutton. All of these authors provide some worthwhile information, but they are products of their times and their particular interests and relying overmuch on their perspectives is likely to lead a new scholar of the sword to some rather dubious conclusions.
Oakeshott is, of course, not infallible, and some of his works have aged better than others. However, his systematic approach to swords was integral for developing his typology of medieval swords, for which he is justly famous. Ewart Oakeshott created this typology based on surviving swords and the art of the period to create a clear way to describe medieval swords and increase ease of communication about the artifacts. Although many people are familiar with his 1991 "Records of the Medieval Sword", Oakeshott viewed that text as largely a catalogue of some of his favorite swords. It is his 1964 "The Sword in the Age of Chivalry" where he actually develops and fully explains his typology, which has become the most widely used sword typology in the English language. He classifies the swords by blade type, hilt form and style families, all with an eye toward how the swords were actually used, making this work indispensable for modern sword lovers. The major drawback of the 1964 work is that some dating methods have changed between then and now, and new pieces have come to light, meaning that aspects of the typology required reworking. If in doubt, check his later works where he updated some earlier assumptions.
#2 The Sword - Form and Thought, Editors Lisa Deutscher, Mirjam Kaiser, Sixt Wetzler, 2019
This volume contains some of the newest and most interesting thinking and research on the Medieval sword today. Of particular interest is Peter Johnson's work on the form and physics of medieval swords. Aside from his work as a highly skilled swordsmith, Johnson has contributed new depths of understanding to how medieval artisans drew on classical geometry alongside religious and mystical theories to create swords that embodied their worldview and culture. Johnson demonstrates how ratio and proportion were central elements of craftsmanship and cultural value. The book also features some lovely high-definition photos and exciting geometric diagrams. At its best this book provides a window into the world of elite medieval craftsmen, educated in the science, theology, and magics of the time. One thing to keep in mind when reading this is that the intense focus on geometry, ratio, and proportion was probably mostly an elite concern of educated craftsmen who, like the builders of great cathedrals compared to house carpenters, might have had different methodologies than ordinary makers. Humble swords were just as important, and probably more prevalent than their geometrically perfect cousins. The Sword: Form and Thought is one of the most important pieces of scholarship on medieval swords in recent decades.
#3 The Sword and the Crucible, A History of the Metallurgy of European Swords up to the 16th Century by Dr. Alan Williams, 2012
Another big advance in our understanding of how medieval swords functioned has developed from new approaches to materials science and metallurgy. This work delves into the structure and quality of over a hundred sword blades and documents the development of smithing and sword material manipulation from the ancient period through to the 16th Century.
Dr. Williams puts to rest many previously held misconceptions about the allegedly poor quality of medieval swords. It has been a common cultural idea that European swords and smiths were inferior to other centers of sword-making such as Japan and Persia, famed for their specific steels. This is a topic that we addressed in a previous blog "Japanese vs. European Swords: How and Why Are They Different?" The Sword and the Crucible is by far the best resource for anyone interested in the materials and techniques used to make medieval sword blades.
#4 Mediaeval Swords from Southeastern Europe. Material from 12th to 15th Century, by Marko Aleksić, 2007
Marko Alesksic´ has created an exceptional work dealing with the swords of the Southeastern region of Europe. Taking surviving examples from the 12th to 15th centuries and placing them into a time and type with excellent detail. He bases his work on the Oakeshott Typology but, as Ewart Oakeshott had intended, he fills in detail and expands certain aspects to create a better system to describe the pieces and give further insight to this important region.
This is a great addition to the work in English on the medieval sword. The translation is very good, and it is an example of good research in an area overlooked by many in the western cultural studies. If one bases their study of the sword only on one area of Europe such as England or Italy they will not have the complete picture of the ebb and flow of style and fashion across the continent. It is crucial to realize the importance of regions such as Southeastern Europe in this development as it certainly was an engine in development of weapons and armor in the medieval period.
Non-English must haves-
Middelalderens Tvaeggede Svaerd, by Dr. Ada Bruhn-Hoffmeyer, 1954
This typology is based on hilt forms and groupings of similar swords. It was a commonly used reference in the research of the mid 20th century and you will encounter many references to it. A shortcoming is it does not include the blade forms into the descriptions.
Entwicklung des Schwertes im Mittelalter (The Development of the Sword in the Middle Ages) by Dr. Alfred Geibig, 1991
Dr. Geibig created a precise typological system based on a wide survey of swords between the 8th and 12th Century in museums and collections in the central continental region. He details a progressional development of both blades and hilts.
We hope this encourages you to dive in and study the history of the medieval sword. The subject is broad and there is still a great deal to study and research. It is important to have good information in the community and referenced by thoughtful scholars when "talking swords". It is a passion of ours to talk and learn more and do all we can to support those with a like desire.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.