Mike Loades: Swords and Swordsmen

Cover of Swords and SwordsmenThis is a gorgeous book. Pen & Sword have done Mike Loades proud with the production values—it’s nicely laid out, beautifully illustrated, and has a deeply satisfactory heft to it.

Even if you don’t recognize his name, Loades may be familiar to you if you watch the occasional historical documentary. I most recently caught sight of him belting around in a Celtic chariot, in the BBC’s The Celts: Blood, Iron And Sacrifice.  He has a long history of expertise in ancient and mediaeval weaponry and tactics (in this book he describes the 1970s as his “jousting years”), and he frequently turns up on television, enthusiastically wielding a sword or a spear to illustrate some finer point of warfare. Here he is doing his thing in Bettany Hughes‘s Helen of Troy, and giving you a pretty good idea of the tone and content of this book:

He’s also a documentary maker in his own right, a fight arranger for film and TV, and an adviser to that segment of the gaming industry that involves realistic mediaeval combat.

He has authored a slim paperback volume about the longbow for Osprey, a specialist publisher on military matters, but Swords and Swordsmen is in an altogether different league.

In fifteen chapters, Loades takes a sword (or swords) associated with a particular historical individual as the jumping-off point for a dissertation on the person, the sword, the historical milieu, the style of warfare of the time, and … well, pretty much anything else that takes his fancy. He starts with the bronze sword of Tutankhamun, and finishes with the cavalry sabre of General George Armstrong Custer. Along the way he talks about metallurgy, fashion, the plays of Shakespeare, mediaeval surgical techniques, etymology, the culture of dueling, the design and testing of armour, and his numerous mishaps and discoveries while attempting to reconstruct the specific uses to which a sword might be put. Loades has spent a lot of time in libraries, studying fencing manuals and memoirs; a lot of time in museums, hefting original weapons; and then a lot of time swinging reproduction swords, trying to reconstruct the fighting techniques of the times.

So when Loades tells you that, contrary to popular belief, a mediaeval knight didn’t need to be winched on to the back of his horse, it’s because he has spent a lot of time mounting and dismounting horses while wearing full armour. When he says that the same mediaeval knight wasn’t helplessly trapped in his own armour if he fell off his horse, it’s because he has actually fallen off a  horse in full armour, jumped to his feet, and run about a bit. He has fought with rapier and dagger, he has stood in a shield wall and understood why they always tended to drift to the right (every man was trying to tuck himself more fully behind the shield of his neighbour), and he has established, by experimentation, why Roman soldiers carried their swords on their right hips, rather than favouring the usual cross-draw from the left hip. There’s seldom a dull moment, or a tedious page.

It’s intermittently bloodthirsty, as you might expect. Loades seems to be in a constant state of emotional tension, balancing himself between the joy of finding things out, the excitement of reenacting a sword-fight, and a sort of sinking horror at the potential for death and maiming that resides in his beautiful blades.

Anyway, here’s Mike Loades himself giving the book the hard sell with all his customary enthusiasm:

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