One of the most detailed and definitive overviews in print of types of Viking swords, Swords of the Viking Age by Ian G. Peirce and Ewart Oakeshott, is a dense volume that came out in hardback in 2002 and paperback in 2005.
Given the current wave of interest in Viking finds and the sheer volume of historic discoveries around Scandinavia, as summers get hotter, it seems high time to revisit this labor of love by experts Ian G. Peirce and Ewart Oakeshott.
From Petersen to Peirce
A pioneer in the study of medieval swords, Oakeshott prefaces the work by acknowledging the debt owed to Dr. Jan Petersen, author of Viking Swords, published in 1919, and H. R. Ellis Davidson, author of The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England from 1962.
Not only is this a niche area, but the topic of swords has been surprisingly overlooked in the numerous volumes dedicated to Viking history.
As Oakeshott puts it, also citing Davidson, often a sword was given to a child at birth, passed down from father to son, closely associated with much of what was significant in a man's life, carried with him to the king's hall, hung over his bed at night and temporarily replaced while reluctantly being re-sharpened.
The sword was an ancient heirloom evoked in poetry by the skalds.
And yet, unlike types of sailing vessels, say, only a select few scholars have drilled down this deeply to produce the kind of granular detail that must be like catnip to those whose free time is spent manufacturing swords for festivals and reenactments.
Even if that's not you, anyone with interest in this period of history would appreciate Oakeshott's revelation that a surprising number of blades for Viking swords were produced by a particular ironworker in Solingen, in the German Rhineland, whose Frankish name of Uflberht is inlaid on many finds.
The other center for blade production was around Passau in southern Bavaria.
Oakeshott spans several centuries in making the connection between the decorative heritage of Celtic times and the Age of Chivalry while outlining the nine types of Norwegian hilt.
- READ MORE: A complete guide to Viking weaponry
Viking swords were crafted out of iron, and single-hand, double-edged swords were preferred. Photo: Militarist / Shutterstock
The devil in the detail
It was the book's illustrator and designer, Lee A. Jones, who not only felt the need for such a detailed study, he commissioned and funded the whole project.
This allowed Ian Peirce, a lecturer and museum consultant on Viking swords, to trek to Scandinavia, Dublin, and Paris several times in the 1990s, twice with Jones in tow.
The pair analyzed specific swords held in institutions such as Bergens Museum Oldsaksamling in Norway, the National Museum in Copenhagen, and the Musée de l'Armée, the last resting place of Napoleon at Invalides.
Many of the 80 or so examples are from the Universitetets Oldsaksamling in Oslo. Several are in private collections.
While Swords of the Viking Age begins with Jones' detailed drawings from pommel to tip, Peirce's painstaking inventory is the heart of the book, accounting for 120 of its 152 pages.
Arranged in chronological order, each example is photographed at least once and accompanied by essential details, including its present location, estimated date, blade length, and condition. Additional information, such as the place of discovery, overall length, cross length, grip length, and balance point, is also provided.
Pierce then provides a whole page of description running to several hundred words.
It's not all dry detail. The pleasure the author feels in being so close to these fearsome artifacts is palpable – he starts the book, in fact, by calling his decade-long quest "a source of great joy."
He also agonizes about the subjectivity of the wonderful term wieldability, a word that probably doesn't exist in English but is undoubtedly the essential element of any sword. Can someone actually pick it up and use it? And, if so, for what exact purpose?
With this in mind, Oakeshott delves into the world of Viking duels, in particular the holmgang, ideally fought out on an islet, usually over property or women, with a cloak spread under the participants' feet to keep them apart.
Rite of passage
Publishers Boydell Press, specialists in medieval history, which merged with Chaucer specialists D. S. Brewer to create Boydell & Brewer, provide Peirce and colleagues with the perfect vehicle for their endeavor.
From the publishers' complementary website for further reading on the subject, we learn that Ian Peirce passed away at the age of 67 on Armistice Day in 2008 and Ewart Oakeshott at the age of 86 in 2002.
Given that 2002 was the year their book was launched, one can hope that Ewart Oakeshott, the venerable scholar, was still able to pore over the manuscripts before they went to print.
This would have allowed him to appreciate the wealth of detail and diligence that had gone into what ultimately became a significant part of their life's work.
With sword discoveries now almost commonplace – such as the recent one in a couple's garden in Setesdal, Norway – it may be opportune for someone to consider a new work on the subject, perhaps accompanied by color photographs and more context about the find-site.
Whoever this someone might be would have to dedicate a few years to the task, just as Peirce and Oakeshott before them. Like Viking swords, these kinds of books are handed down from generation to generation.
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