Ewart Oakeshott: The Man and his Legacy: Part I
An article by Chad Arnow, Russ Ellis, Patrick Kelly, Nathan Robinson, and Sean A. Flynt
Compiled and produced by Nathan Robinson
Oakeshott was educated as an illustrator, graduating from Dulwich College and London's Central School of Art. The abundance of high quality drawings in his books is a testament to his artistic abilities. Oakeshott's first career was as an artist in London, working at the Carlton Studios and at A.E. Johnson, Ltd. Oakeshott joined the British Naval Service during World War II, served from 1940 to 1945 on a destroyer escort, and was wounded while serving his country. After his subsequent hospitalization, Oakeshott returned to A.E. Johnson, Ltd. and served as its director for fifteen years before leaving to pursue his research full-time.
Oakeshott co-founded the Arms and Armour Society in 1948 and his first publications are found in the Society's journals. He examined many swords while still working at A.E. Johnson, publishing his findings in several journals including The Antiquaries Journal, Journal of the Arms and Armour Society of London and The Connoisseur Magazine.
In 1951, he began his "lifetime of lecturing," as he called it. His lectures on arms and armour and other aspects of history were given to learned societies both in England and America, and in schools and colleges. He also spent time assessing and examining medieval swords in museums.
In 1960, the year in which The Archeology of Weapons was published, Oakeshott decided to devote himself full-time to being a "free lance writer/artist/illustrator" while increasing his time for research. He would spend the rest of his life doing that research, lecturing, writing and/or illustrating books, examining and cataloging weapons, and working as "second in command" to his long-time partner, author and educator Sybil Marshall.
His collecting began in the 1930s, when swords were available for prices that could be considered cheap by modern standards. Even at such low prices, it often was a stretch for his budget to acquire a piece he desired, and he made many sacrifices to develop his collection. It grew to include many weapons over the years, representing nearly half a millennium of historical examples. Pieces from his collection can be seen in his many books and have included some of the finest surviving examples of the sword. The collection of Ewart Oakeshott and Sybil Marshall has been formed into a trust-The Oakeshott Collection- to be preserved, studied, and used for the education of future generations. It forms the core of The Oakeshott Institute, whose objective is "To continue the research of Ewart Oakeshott into the study and classification of swords from the European context, improving our understanding of the materials, construction and stylistic development of these objects."
Thus the Oakeshott legacy lives on through his books, articles, and through The Oakeshott Institute. One of the Institute's objectives is "To continue the research of Ewart Oakeshott into the study and classification of swords from the European context, improving our understanding of the materials, construction and stylistic development of these objects."
Oakeshott's many publications reflect his prolific writing and love of his subject. His articles appeared in The Antiquaries Journal, Journal of the Arms and Armour Society of London, and The Connoisseur Magazine, to name a few. He also wrote eighteen articles for the Park Lane Arms Fair. As noted above, many of his books have become standard reference materials.
The list below is only a sampling of Oakeshott's books and does not attempt to cover every published article. Rather, we want to introduce you to his major works and accompany them with a brief description.
One of Oakeshott's greatest and most enduring accomplishments, arguably, is his categorization of various elements of the medieval and early renaissance sword. He was not the first to organize swords into classes, though his work is perhaps the most complete system of typology for the medieval sword. Dr. Jan Petersen developed a typology for swords of the Viking Age in the early twentieth century. Less than a decade later, Dr. R.E.M. Wheeler simplified Petersen's 26 categories into 7 types (numbered in Roman numerals as I-VII). Oakeshott further refined this system by adding two transitional types, VIII and IX.
Oakeshott followed this by creating a typology intended to dovetail into the work previously done by other researchers on Migration- and Viking-era swords. A key difference between the Oakeshott system and those that came before lies in the fact that it does not limit its focus simply to the hilt or the blade alone, but looks at the whole of the sword.
Viking Age swords tended to vary very little in terms of blade form, leading Petersen and Wheeler to use hilt styles as defining characteristics for their classifications. Medieval swords, however, show great variety in blade form. Using Wheeler's nine Viking-era types as a starting point, Oakeshott began his medieval typology with Type X (ten), which clearly draws its blade form from its Viking- and Migration-era ancestors. The remaining types are numbered XI (eleven) through XXII (twenty-two). A letter after the Roman numeral denotes a subtype where one exists. (e.g., Type XVIIIa).
These thirteen types and their subtypes were further divided by Oakeshott into two numbered groups. Group I, including Types X-XIV, consists of swords designed primarily to oppose mail. They typically feature wide, flat blades with lenticular cross-sections optimized for heavy-duty cutting. Group II, Types XV-XXII, consists of swords designed to oppose plate armour. In this group, we find the acute points and reinforced cross-sections (diamond and hexagonal) needed to stiffen the blades for thrusting. Most swords in Group II are quite capable in the cut as well as the thrust.
Examining the blade, pommel, cross-guard, and grip allows a sword to be categorized according to four frames of reference for description and comparison. It is then possible to group these swords into families of similar styles.
Oakeshott considered his typology to be incomplete and said he was sure someone would come along to further elaborate on it. Taking into account the vast variety of swords in the Middle Ages, he also pointed out that not all swords fit neatly into a particular category. The typology is designed for use as a starting or reference point and not for defining absolutes.
Oakeshott used all the scholarly and artistic tools available to him to make connections and place into context the armour and weapons he studied. The sword, he said, is an "artifact, historical document, symbol of power and valour, and of course romance." Considering this all, he used archeology, anthropology, historical documents, literature, and art to make comparisons and define the artifacts of history he studied. Never forgetting their "grim purpose," he felt these items needed to be studied as part of the whole of history and not merely as objects of art.
Continue to Part 2
Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Sword in the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Records of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Sword in Hand: A History of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Most of the accompanying text written by Chad Arnow
Typology in Detail table data and the pommel/cross descriptions supplied by Russ Ellis
Typology illustration created by Nathan Robinson and based on the work of Ewart Oakeshott
Sword line drawings created by Nathan Robinson, based on swords from Records of the Medieval Sword
Pommel, cross, grip, and sword family line drawings created by Nathan Robinson, based on the work of Ewart Oakeshott
List of published works created by Patrick Kelly
Contributions and fact checking provided by Craig Johnson of The Oakeshott Institute
Editing tasks provided by Nathan Robinson, Chad Arnow, and Sean Flynt
Production services provided by Nathan Robinson
Please see our Spotlight Articles on each Oakeshott sword type:
Type X, Type XI, Type XII, Type XIII, Type XIV, Type XV, Type XVI, Type XVII, Type XVIII, Type XIX, Type XX, Type XXI and XXII