Book Review: Swords And Hilt Weapons

Swords And Hilt Weapons, by Michael D. Coe, Peter Connolly, Anthony Harding, Victor Harris, Donald J. LaRocca, Anthony North, Thom Richardson, Christopher Spring, and Frederick Wilkinson

This is the kind of book that could easily become a mess with such an unusual scope (namely swords and hilt weapons) and so many co-authors.  Fortunately for readers of this book, there is a strong sense of cohesion in it, despite some repetition, that comes about because the book is well edited and because the authors did a good job of dividing up a massive subject between a variety of subject matter experts who all thoughtfully researched and wrote about swords in different time periods as well as different places.  In having a dual organization by chronology as well as by region, the authors managed to strike a good balance when seeking to explain the way that the swords and other hilt weapons (like daggers and battle axes) managed to develop over the course of human history around the world, and how the design of weapons was dependent on a variety of factors from the sort of purposes those weapons had (whether for use or for ceremony), the nature of combat those swords were engaged in, and the systems of weapons that the people in question used and had to fight against, all of which led to plundering and the spread of certain designs.  If you have an interest in military history and enjoy reading a solid discussion of weapons technology, this book is a surprisingly excellent read [1].

The organization of this book is quite important and also quite intriguing.  The book has a variety of coauthors with different specialties in British universities and museums and other institutions (like the Arms and Armour Society).  Its sixteen chapters cover 225 or so pages worth of material, and first look at what is deemed as “Western” military culture from the stone, bronze, and iron ages to Greece and Rome to the barbarian and Christian times of the Middle Ages to the renaissance to the shift from rapier to short sword in the sixteenth century to the wars of the seventeenth century to eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe.  At this point the simple chronological method of organization stops and the authors look at combination weapons (gunblades and other examples), before looking at American swords and knives and the survival of those weapons into World Wars I and II.  At this point the book jettisons the chronological organization altogether and spends the rest of its time looking at the regional histories of the Islamic world, Japan, China and Central Asia, India and Southeast Asia, Africa, and pre-conquest America.  The result is a book that is strikingly complete and far more complicated than one would expect.

So, assuming one has at least a slight interest in the development and change over time of military technology, what is it that one gains from this book?  For one, the reader gets a sense of the complicated nature of the use of weapons.  For one, these are not merely weapons of the past–bladed and hilted weapons continue to appear in active use, whether as ceremonial swords used by militaries around the world, or as part of the “Bowie” knives and other short blades that are issued to soldiers for active use in the field.  For another, there has always been a tension between swords as a sign of social class and swords as a useful sort of weapon for self-defense.  The authors here point out, rather subtly but no less profoundly, that the possession of weapons was a sine qua non of freedom within a society.  Those societies whose elites wished to oppress the commonfolk did so often through the aim of limiting access to weapons, something that is of great relevance in our own contemporary political situation.  This is a book that, like many books it seems, speaks about the past and manages at the same time to say something interesting and important about our own times and the fact that the battles that were waged over who could possess swords are important as models for the behavior of our contemporary corrupt elites.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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