Problems with Oakeshott's Typology
Selected problems and limitations of Oakeshott's Typology in the context of current research and finds.
Examples, comparisons with an overview.
Maciej Kopciuch, 2016-2022.
'I doubt whether I shall live long enough to elaborate yet again, though I am sure someone will have to do so sooner or later. Space does not permit, nor the work require, that this typology should be repeated here in full though of course the basic typology (bones again) is set out and illustrated; and since inevitably much of what I wrote all those years ago has been outrun and outmoded by another thirty years of research, most of the many errors in those books can be corrected and some of the mass of new discovery included - and no doubt many fresh errors perpetrated which will in their turn be corrected by the uncovering of more evidence as the decades pass. It will fall then, maybe to you who read this, to take over where I have to leave off.'
- Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword, 1991.
The Oakeshott typology is certainly the most complete and functional typology of European medieval swords we have and which we use to this day.
However, one should be aware of its limitations and problems that we encounter when encountering new finds.
Oakeshott was not a scientist, as he himself boldly said, but an enthusiast and collector. His enormous contribution to the scientific field of sword research remains his most valuable heritage.
In the context of the period when its classification was created, in several stages, we can assume that it used mainly collections from Western and Central Europe. Access to the collections behind the Iron Curtain, in the Eastern European bloc, was very difficult. And even later, after Ewart Oakeshott died in 2002, in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, research and scientific studies were still underway. Many valuable discoveries and finds were yet to come.
This means that a great deal of research material, comparisons of European medieval swords, were beyond the reach and knowledge of this great author.
This is one of the most important reasons why the Oakeshott typology needs to be updated, supplemented and maybe even changed.
Sword publications and catalogs: comparison of research material
Polish professor Marian Głosek, in his 1984 publication 'MIECZE ŚRODKOWOEUROPEJSKIE Z X-XV w.' ('CENTRAL EUROPEAN SWORDS FROM 10th TO 15th CENTURY') cataloged 487 swords (including selected swords from museums in: Poland, Eastern Germany, Hungary, Chechoslovakia) and this is just one old publication, of which many more have been written, and which still few people know about.
In the publication 'Swords of the High and Late Middle Ages from the Arms Collection of the Croatian History Museum in Zagreb.' Dora Boskovic, Damir Doracic, Zagreb, Croatia. 2009, we can see 27 examples of original medieval swords very well documented.
In the publication 'Ninth to mid-sixteenth century swords from the Czech Republic in their European context.' Jiøí Hošek, Jiøí Košta, Petr Žákovský, Praha – Brno 2021, we will find 430 original medieval swords, perfectly documented.
In the publication 'Medieval Swords from southeastern Europe. Material from 12th to 15th Century', Marko Aleksic. Belgrade 2007 we find 412 original swords described, including finds from Slovaia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and others.
In the latest publications of finds in the Ljubljanica River in Slovenia, we find 75 original swords described.
All of this gives a total of over 1,400 examples of original medieval swords, documented and cataloged by researchers in Western Europe, to which Ewart Oakeshott had hardly any access (or no acces at all), and many of these studies were held after his death in 2002.
In contrast, Oakeshott's books contain a total of around 250 described swords, which is also only a small fragment of research material from museums and private collections at the time he wrote his books. Many of them, however, date from a period later than the Middle Ages, and should be included in the classification of Renaissance swords. Also, many of these swords, as it turned out, were made (or remade) at a later date, some examples are made in the 19th century, and only stylized to be medieval. Therefore, only about 200 examples from his most extensive publication can be named as medieval swords, subject to the typological framework for this group of swords.
It seems a very risky statement that it could be fully representative research material for the whole of Europe. And yet, on the basis of this material, a typology was created that everyone uses to this day.
This shows the comparative scale of the material and allows the classification as we know it to be based on a small part of the research material. Thus, it cannot constitute a fully authoritative classification system, both in the geographical, stylistic and source context.
It seems that the popularity and functionality of the Oakeshott typology made it the main tool of scientific classification of medieval swords among both amateurs and scientists. We find it in all self-respecting scientific studies and catalogs of medieval swords. Researchers use it willingly, because it treats all elements of the sword separately. It is both convenient and leading to a lot of ambiguity at the same time, especially when one takes into account finds that differ from those established in the typology.
Oakshott used the optimal key for classification, which is still the most functional, though certainly not perfect, tool. Especially when we look at his swords described as 'Unclassified', among which there are many very typical swords for a given, often found in the source material or in museums. These swords, although they have nothing unique about them, elude classifications because the criteria used do not include them. It will be e.g. the relation between length, width or number of fullers.
I was wondering for a long time whether it is possible to extend and complete the existing Typology, add new subtypes, clarify descriptions and dating.
It is hard to resist the impression that this could further disrupt the readability of the typology and cause more misunderstandings.
The typology should be legible, not only as a typological diagram, but also serve as a practical tool to easily find the type of sword and help in the indisputable dating of new finds. In their present form, these functions are sometimes difficult, mainly due to the broadening of the research material.
Problems with writing and naming types and subtypes
An additional problem is the way of numbering types using the Roman notation, which interferes with defining centuries in many countries of central and eastern Europe, where for example, the 11th century is written as the XI century.
As a result, we have a situation when, for example, the Oakeshott Type XIII sword, is dated in this writing system as the XIV century, which of course causes a lot of consternation and mistakes when cataloging swords in publications, e.g. in Poland.
If you want the classification system to be fully universal, you should use numbering that will be equally legible all over the world. If you want the classification system to be fully universal, you should use numbering that will be equally legible all over the world. Especially in the countries where the finds related to the typology are so common (European medieval swords).
The context of historical sources in the typology of medieval swords
Medieval sword typology should not be a tool detached from the context of historical sources which must be strictly related to a given type, including examples. Very often, dating a new find of a sword poses a lot of problems, due to the separate selection of its individual elements. For example, a sword has a blade of the type whose description assigns it to the 13th-14th century, and a pommel from the 15th century, etc. This creates consternation and scientific speculation. Subjective interpretation becomes a tool in the hands of the researcher.
To avoid this, it would be necessary to assign to each type of historical sources, the dating of which is not in doubt. Such sources are certainly manuscripts, tombstones, numismatics and all examples of art that we know of dating.
Therefore, a specific type should have an appropriate number of examples behind it that confirm dating. However, in the above-mentioned historical sources, we find swords as a whole, not as individual elements.
The advantage of the Oakeshott Typology, which many researchers talk about, is the possibility of determining the type of a separate element, because we often find such separately (e.g. only a sword pommel). However, this is not a sufficient argument to use a typology by separate elements for a complete sword find.
It is then that more ambiguities and sometimes contradictions arise.
All the more so because almost all types present in the Oakeshott Typology have many variants, and taking into account the narrow research material on the basis of which the typology was created, it must be said that it does not include many types at all.
Therefore, if we want to classify, for example, a sword pommel or a blade, if we do not find their equivalent in the typology, we simply have to choose the closest similar type, and they are often very distant forms.
Thus, the scientific reference to the find, based on the mere scholarship description only, ceases to be consistent with reality.
Dating problems, extended scope
Oakeshott in his publications includes a very wide range of dating, from the 10th century until the 16th century. This means that there is no restriction to the classic forms of medieval swords, because in the first half of the 15th century the form and function of swords changed as a result of renaissance decorations as well as the appearance of artillery on the battlefields (Renaissance circa 1450-1600). It would be reasonable to limit the typological scope of swords referred to as 'medieval' such as those of the High and Late Medieval period (circa 1000-1450).
The ending date range for such a typology is of fundamental importance.
Swords and other bladed weapons were present for a long time later and were constantly evolving to meet the demands of the battlefield and protective weapons. But in the 15th century the era of the classic sword ended, both the form, function and status of this weapon changed. For the typology of medieval swords, the time frame 950-1450 should be adopted due to many factors. The early Middle Ages (5-10th century) also require a completely different classification due to its specification, also in terms of ornamentation, technology and cultural influences. Such a typology was compiled by the Norwegian archaeologist Ian Petersen (circa 1919).
Sword from Modryń, found in Poland, 2018.
An example of ambiguity in interpretation is certainly the sword found in Modryń, Poland, 2018. In terms of the form of this long sword, both the blade, pommel and handguard in this compilation, as well as the context of historical sources, its date can be determined from the years 1320- 1380. Oakeshott blade type, however, can be interpreted as XX or XIIIa, a double fuller variant that does not exist in the typology, but we know that it was present and a few other swords with the same characteristics are referred to as type XIIIa (Records... Page 105), despite double fuller. According to Oakeshott, type XX is in a way a continuation of type XIIIa, however, this relationship is not visible in the typology scheme. Additionally, the pommel of the Modryń sword is referred to as type Z, which is characteristic of much later swords, 15th and 16th centuries. In fact, this sword has a pommel that has no counterpart in the Oakeshott Typology, and is very common in Eastern and Southern Europe. The Oakeshott himself specifies such heads as 'variant of Type K' (Records ... Page 92).
In the later addition to the typology, the K1 pommel subtype was added, which is slightly closer to this sword, but also leaves interpretation doubts.
In combination with a simple Type 1 crossguard, and a double fullered blade, it repeats many dilemmas affecting the final dating of the find. Therefore, an important factor would be to refer to the historical sources in which the sword is shown and the dates of which we know.
Sword attributed to Emperor Albrecht II, Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword, 1991. The so-called Albrecht II sword, is a very special and characteristic object. From the time it appeared in the book of Ewart Oakeshott: Records of the Medieval Sword, in 1991, it became one of the most recognizable swords and a representative example in the typology of that author for Type XVIIIa, which may also be a variant of subtype XVIa . Most people know this particular sword only from this one publication, one photo and short but intriguing description of the author, who mistakenly gave the wrong length of the blade (88.8 cms which was originally 97 cms). This sword, after in-depth analysis, was most likely made in the 19th century.
Diversity within one type.
This is a collective feature in Oakeshott's typology that we notice almost immediately in his publications. If we assume that the basic criterion for determining the type of blade is the length of the fuller, the shape of the blade and the relationship between them, then within one type we find swords with a very wide range of dating and styles from different eras.
In the context of the aforementioned limitations, it seems very difficult to implement any real changes that could serve as new tools for determining the typology of medieval swords. The new typology that could arise today would have to deal with well-established habits and even the reluctance of researchers.
Ewart Oakeshott was not a scientist, he was a passionate writer, collector, expert on old weapons, and history enthusiast. However, despite this, its typology has been adapted and functions in the scientific world. Mainly due to the lack of a more analytical and complete tool, the creation of which requires a huge amount of research work.
It is not my intention to depreciate Oakeshott's Typology, but it is his words that make someone want to complete his work, and perhaps even find another way of classifying medieval swords, that could be an indisputable and easy tool for all researchers and enthusiasts. I think Oakeshott himself would agree, in the light of the new finds and the fall of the Iron Curtain, that one day it must be done.