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21.08.34 Neuschel, Living by the Sword

21.08.34 Neuschel, Living by the Sword

Swords have received enormous attention from scholars in a range of fields focused on the European Middle Ages, including archaeology, military and social history, as well as literary studies. As has been clear for more than half a century, swords were ubiquitous throughout the medieval millennium as a primary weapon, alongside the spear and lance, of men who fought on horseback as well as those who served on foot. In this context, swords were carried by middling and small-scale landowners, by landless men of low social origin who served in the military households of magnates, as well as by members of the social and economic elite. Swords are treated in law codes, narrative works, poetry, and administrative texts throughout the post-Roman period now characterized as Late Antiquity as well as in the high and late Middle Ages. The ever-increasing sophistication of archaeological research, combined with ongoing developments in the study of metallurgy also have provided extensive information about the construction of swords of a wide range of types. Indeed, one of the most important developments in scholarly studies of swords is the recognition that smiths engaged in an ongoing process of experimentation and improvement throughout the medieval millennium, including in the post-Roman centuries.

In this volume, Kristen Neuschel, associate professor of history at Duke University, seeks to shed new light on the role of swords in the medieval millennium, with a focus on what she rather anachronistically denotes as France and Britain, from the late Roman period through the end of the sixteenth century. Neuschel's starting point is the claim is that modern observers, including modern scholars, have not understood the ostensibly central role played by swords in shaping or rather in creating the identity of "elite warriors" in medieval Europe, particularly in the period after 1200. Neuschel sets out her goals for the book in a lengthy introduction that begins with a comparison of inventories of the property of two French aristocrats, one from the early sixteenth century and one from the later sixteenth century, which she contends hold the key to understanding just how central swords were to elite identity. Neuschel then turns to a lengthy discussion of the "power" of swords that was due to their "long history as required identity markers" (18). Although she does not explicitly refer to specific anthropological studies, Neuschel draws heavily on anthropological models of non-literate and non-Christian peoples to argue that medieval Europe, and particularly early medieval Europe, was an "oral culture" that "shaped the imagined capacity of swords and other objects" (18). In this context, she asserts that because medieval Europe was an ostensibly face-to-face society "objects play a role in constituting each person" (18).

In the first chapter, titled "Swords and Oral Culture in the Early Middle Ages," Neuschel draws on a small number of early medieval texts, including the will of Margrave Eberhard of Friuli (died 867) as well as the Anglo-Saxon poems Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, and a few English-language studies dealing with sword finds and elite burial practice to draw a number of sweeping conclusions about the roles of swords in early medieval Europe. Neuschel's main point in this chapter is that swords were relatively rare and expensive weapons in the early Middle Ages, whose bearers gained significant prestige from their possession.

Unfortunately, Neuschel makes a series of factual errors throughout the chapter that thoroughly undermine her various claims about the specific ways that swords serve to create elite prestige. First, and most importantly, swords were not rare in early medieval Europe, but rather were a primary weapon for very large numbers of men, including those who did not have sufficient wealth to be mobilized to serve on horseback. To make just one obvious point in this regard, late Roman arms factories produced hundreds of thousands of swords, which remained in circulation for many generations after the end of imperial rule. Over the course of the fifth-ninth centuries, these Roman arms factories were replaced by very large numbers of arms workshops, often based in monasteries and royal palaces, which produced vast numbers of high quality swords. Neuschel, apparently, was unaware of these realities, or of the enormous scholarship, much of which has been published in German, which has treated sword production in the early Middle Ages. In this context, Neuschel asserts, contrary to the state of the question regarding the famed Ulfberht swords, that smiths in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages were incapable of producing high quality carburized iron and steel and had to import this material from Asia. In fact, it is now well understood that early medieval smiths constantly improved their metallurgical skills and that the metal available for the production of swords was significantly superior to that employed by late Roman arms makers.

Another significant problem in this chapter arises from Neuschel's effort to establish the role of swords in creating elite identity by asserting that the putatively rare sword burials highlight their power to signify the status of certain individuals as leaders. In fact, very large numbers of sword burials have been identified by archaeologists in a wide range of contexts throughout much of the early medieval West. Moreover, Neuschel is incorrect in asserting that sword burials reflect "barbarian" practice, as it is now clear that the inclusion of swords as elements of grave furniture already were common in the fourth century among the broad population, that is during the period of ongoing imperial rule. In large part, Neuschel's effort to assert the public "performance" of sword burials, in the absence of any sources attesting to such a practice, is based upon her extrapolations from Guy Halsall's claims about early medieval burial practice that, in turn, were built upon a statistically insignificant set of furnished graves from one small corner of Regnum Francorum under Merovingian rule.

In chapter 2, "Swords and Chivalric Culture in the High Middle Ages," Neuschel argues for a fundamental shift in the role of swords because of the ostensible development of a knightly culture beginning in the twelfth century. In particular, Neuschel emphasizes the use of swords in dubbing ceremonies for knights and the use of images of swords by many aristocrats on their seals. She also points to the ubiquity of swords in both historical and literary works as signifying a newfound importance of this weapon as an element of elite culture and marker for elite "warriors". Neuschel is undoubtedly correct that swords and images of swords were used in these ways in the course of the 12th-14th centuries. However, Neuschel does not explain how the references to swords in the twelfth or thirteenth century were different from the mention of swords by writers in the ninth, tenth, or early eleventh century. One might point here to Flodoard, Richer of Rheims, Alpert of Metz, or the anonymous author of Deeds of the Bishops of Cambrai, to name just four authors writing in the earlier period in the region of modern France, who discuss swords and their use in many different contexts.

Neuschel also problematically asserts, without providing any statistical data or offering a methodology for comparing importance over time, that swords were more central to the identity of men, particularly elite men, engaged in warfare in the twelfth century than they were earlier. Her analysis in this regard would have benefitted from taking into account the studies by Karl Leyser and Eric Goldberg regarding "knighthood" in the ninth century, which make clear the importance of the sword and sword belt to both the rank and file and elite men, who participated in warfare. Overall, Neuschel's claims about the increased importance of swords both in a military and social context in the twelfth century is based upon her misunderstanding of the great importance of swords as tools of war in the previous half millennium.

In chapter 3, "Swords, Clothing, and Armor in the Late Middle Ages," Neuschel takes a broader approach to her subject by considering a range of material goods possessed by elite members of society. In this context, she argues that the turn of the fourteenth century marked a period of dramatic change in both the technology and design of clothing. She also continues her teleological argument regarding the supposed ever increasing importance of the sword in warfare, asserting that swords were more common after 1300 because of a putative increase in the volume of high-quality iron that was available. Following upon this claim, which cannot be sustained given the vast number of sources regarding the wide availability of both swords and high-quality iron in earlier periods, Neuschel argues that elite men had to figure out ways to differentiate themselves from other sword bearers. The solution, she avers, was for them to collect larger numbers of swords and to encrust them with gold and jewels in an ostentatious display of wealth and power. But once again, Neuschel does not explain how this kind of elite ostentatious display differed from that practiced in earlier periods. One might have expected, in this context, Neuschel to draw a comparison between late medieval displays of wealth and the gilded swords in the Staffordshire hoard from the 8th century as well the gilded weapons given by Margrave Eberhard of Friuli to his sons in the ninth century, which she discussed in the first chapter.

Neuschel also makes fundamental errors regarding the nature of warfare in the later Middle Ages. In the period c. 1300-c.1500, just as had been true throughout the medieval millennium, sieges were the dominant forum for military conflict. Contrary to Neuschel's claims, cavalry charges by elite men wearing expensive armor were of limited importance, even in the rare battles in the field. Moreover, the highly stylized combat of the joust, to which Neuschel devotes considerable attention, had no relationship with contemporary warfare. Indeed, anyone who has examined a jousting helmet from the later Middle Ages, which severely restricts the peripheral vision of the wearer, can see immediately that this equipment, and the training to use it, would have been of no use on a contemporary battlefield.

The final chapter, "Swords and Documents in the Sixteenth Century," offers Neuschel an opportunity to discuss material with which she is most familiar through her own earlier research. In particular, Neuschel seeks to analyze sixteenth-century inventory records of elite households to determine what they can tell the discerning reader regarding the importance of swords. However, Neuschel's approach here is methodologically unsound in that she creates a non-falsifiable circular argument. She claims, on the one hand, that the "Their relative invisibility in some records is in fact evidence of swords' particular importance" (132). In a similar vein, in her discussion of Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, Neuschel argues that the minimalist treatment of the swords worn by the two figures shows that they were very important. On the other hand, Neuschel avers that the great attention given to swords in an inventory of the goods of a French king shows how important these weapons were to the ruler's identity. Thus, swords played a central role in creating elite identity both when they are emphasized on inventory lists and when they were absent from inventory lists.

The volume is rounded out with a brief conclusion that highlights the main arguments in each of the four chapters. The book is equipped with an apparatus of endnotes and a bibliography of sources and scholarly studies, the latter of which are overwhelmingly in English with a few French works. There are also 17 plates, four in color.

A historiographically sound, source-based study of the roles ascribed to swords by medieval writers, in any of the numerous genres of texts in which they appear, would indeed be of value. Similarly, an examination of the material finds of swords and a thorough treatment of the archaeological studies in which much of this information is to be found would have great potential to bring important but still marginalized material to the attention of historians. However, this study does not accomplish either of these goals. Rather, Neuschel appears to have started from the proposition that swords played an essential role in creating elite identity, based on her analysis of a selection of late medieval sources, particularly inventories, and an anthropological model that postulates a particularly activist, indeed anthropomorphic, role for material objects. She then went searching for information that she thought would support this thesis in earlier periods without becoming conversant with either the most important source material or the scholarly traditions dealing with swords, warfare, and elite culture. If properly contextualized, particularly with regard to the problem of audience, and accompanied by facsimiles, or at the very least, transcriptions, Neuschel might use a detailed treatment of late medieval inventory lists to say something both new and interesting about the ways in which members of elite households conceptualized their possessions, including swords. As it stands, however, Neuschel has misunderstood and miscast the role of the sword in both warfare and elite culture in the period before 1200, and builds an unconvincing story about swords in the later Middle Ages upon this flawed foundation.