Spotlight: Oakeshott Type XVIII Swords
An article by Sean A. Flynt
Clearly, the combat environment favored a compromise blade design that could both thrust and cut. The swords Ewart Oakeshott classified as Type XV represent one such compromise design, with their straight-tapering, acutely-pointed profile and stiff flattened-diamond cross-section.
Like Type XV, the classic Type XVIII blade is relatively broad at its base, of flattened or hollow-ground diamond section, tapers to a strong point and sometimes features a pronounced central ridge. However, Type XVIII improves on Type XVs cutting capacity via a gentler taper toward the point. The resulting blade profile is slightly convex, with greater width (or breadth) at the Center of Percussion than found in Type XV blades. In some cases this convex blade profile alone distinguishes Type XVIII blades from their straight-tapering Type XV brothers. Routine honing during the working life of a sword can actually change the blade profile enough to frustrate modern attempts at classification.
If popularity is an indicator of martial effectiveness, Type XVIII must have proven itself very effective indeed. According to Oakeshott, Type XVIII and its subtypes were "the most widely used swords between c. 1410 and 1510 all over Europe". The basic type was in use as long ago as the second century B.C. and as recently as the 18th century, but, for the purposes of this article, we will examine only Type XVIII swords of the late medieval period.
Many of the historic examples shown below depart in varying degrees from the basic type descriptions they illustrate. Oakeshott readily admitted that his typology should not be viewed as inflexible, and he had second thoughts about his classification of some of these swords, moving them from one type to another over the course of his long career. It is difficult and in some cases impossible to reconcile the discrepancies between his classic books on the subjectRecords of the Medieval Sword ("Records") and The Sword in the Age of Chivalry ("SAC"). Unfortunately, Records includes only Type XVIII and Type XVIIIa. The other subtypes must be identified, however imperfectly, with reference to SAC and to discussions with informed students of the sword.
Properties of the XVIII and its Subtypes
In order to avoid block quotes, the descriptions below simply paraphrase Oakeshott's extensive written descriptions.
Shown below are authentic examples of the Type XVIII sword and its subtypes:
This famous sword, dated to before 1422, is closely associated with Henry V, and almost certainly hung over his tomb in Westminster Abbey. It is a relatively plain sword, with iron cross and pommel now slightly corroded under the light funerary (?) gilding. One pommel recess features a painted red cross on gilded ground. The blade is 27" (68.6cm). Oakeshott noted that this particular Type XVIII sword "is of all the swords of this type the finest to handle".
With a hilt very similar to the previous example, this sword is only slightly smaller and in significantly better condition.
This Milanese example of the late 15th century features a grip and pommel of ivory and bronze-gilt and a cross also of bronze-gilt. The upper part of the blade nearest the hilt is etched and gilded.
This is an especially graceful example of the type. It is 35.375" (89.91cm) long and dated 1400-1450. Cross and pommel are of gilt-bronze and the grip is leather over cord and wood.
This near-pristine sword of c. 1440-60 features a pommel of gilded iron, a grip of black horn and a cross of gilded copper that may be a 19th century replacement (its gilding and quality differ from the other hilt furniture). The 34.75" (88.3cm) blade is inlaid in copper on each side.
This perfectly preserved specimen has a 34" (86.4cm) blade and a hilt of gilded iron. Oakeshott considered this a classic example of Type XVIII.
The hilt of this weapon consists of a pommel and straight cross chiseled to look as if made of three rods or twigs twisted together and splayed out at the ends. The hardwood grip, with a collar of gilt-bronze at its center, features a similar, twisted form. The blade length of 34.9" (88.7cm) is incorrectly cited in Records as 30". The overall length is 43.2" (109.7cm) with a weight of 2 lb 12 oz (1.25kg). The vaguely organic form of the hilt, called "writhen," is commonly associated with German swords.
Oakeshott identified this sword as "an absolutely perfect example of this sub-type". Dated 1400-1440, it is in perfect condition and likely was preserved indoors. The blade, 35" (88.8cm), features two Passau "Running Wolf" markings and a daisy or marigold stamp. The grip is of leather over cord and wood. The pommel is engraved with arms featuring a lion rampant, and scholars have long presumed that the sword was owned by emperor Albrecht II c. 1438-39.
This example, dated c. 1400-40, is in mediocre condition, having a hilt in better shape than its 33" (83.8cm), bent and corroded blade. The wooden grip is modern.
This perfect and well-documented sword is dated by Oakeshott to 1350-1400 (others have suggested a date of 1400-1425). The blade is 31" (78.74cm). The grip is leather over cord and wood.
This is an especially graceful example of the type. It is 35.375" (89.91cm) long and dated 1400-1450. Cross and pommel are of gilt-bronze and the grip is leather over cord and wood. Oakeshott noted that the blade is unusually wide for a Type XVIIIa.
The authenticity of this sword, dated to c. 1350 and associated with Edward III, was the subject of debate for decades. Oakeshott described the many methods used to effectively prove its lineage (see Records). Its hilt is in pristine condition but its 33.5" (88cm) blade is covered with shallow rust pits and a reddish-brown patina. Unfortunately, this important and beautiful weapon is now in a private collection.
This perfect and beautiful sword is dated to 1450-1480. The 36" (91.44cm) blade is unstained, but the hilt is the most remarkable feature of the weapon. The extremely long grip is covered with finely tooled leather. The gilt-steel furniture is just as finely finished, with flattened and gently recurved cross and an engraving of the Madonna and infant Christ set into the front of the pommel. The rim of the pommel bears the inscription
As difficult as it is to distinguish between actual type XV and XVIII swords and Type XVIII suptypes, it is nearly impossible to reliably identify those depicted in contemporary artwork. Even assuming medieval artists noticed and cared about the aesthetically minor differences between the blade types, they didn't necessarily depict them accurately. When contemporary artwork does show blades of obvious Type XVIII profile but without the distinguishing features of a given subtype, we can't know if we're seeing an accurate depiction of a weapon not accounted for by Oakeshott's typology, or if the artist merely failed to record the minor details we require for positive identification.
The 15th century German illustration shown at right clearly depicts a Type XVIII variant, as does Hans Talhoffer's famous fechtbuch of 1467. Talhoffer offers the added benefit of showingin gory detailhow these weapons were used against both armored and unarmored opponents.
Fifteenth century arms and armour can be found in Loiset Lyédet's highly detailed illustrations (The first two volumes of Froissart's Chronicles [c. 1475] are available on-line). Although illustrating events of the previous century, Lyédet depicted the arms and armour of his own era, and did so in surprising variety and detail. Everywhere in his tiny paintings one can see relatively broad, tapering blades of flattened-diamond section fitted with curved crosses, very long grips and wheel pommels. These blades are mostly of Type XV, but a few Type XVIIIs are shown as well.
A Sampling of Available Reproductions
Angus "Gus" Trim produces too many Type XVIII swords to list them all here. Examples include the AT1513 (XVIII), AT1432 (XVIIIa), AT1517 (XVIIIa), AT1520 (XVIIIb), AT1422 (XVIIIc), AT1593 (XVIIIb), and AT1592 (XVIIIe).
Arms & Armor's lineup includes the Dürer Bastard Sword, English Longsword, German Bastard Sword, Knightly Riding Sword, Irish Sword and the Oakeshott Sword. Their Type XVIII replicas merit special attention here because many of them are based on the historic examples shown above. Thier Schloss Erbach Sword is based on XVIIIa.4. Their Edward III Sword is based on XVIIIa.5. Their Henry V Sword is based on XVIII.1, and their German Branch Sword is based on XVIII.7.
Albion Armorers offer the Kingmaker, Regent, Earl, Dane, and Orleans. Some might class their Svante Nilsson Sture sword as a Type XVIIIb or XVIIIe variant or perhaps a combination of the two. The cancelled First Generation Rouen was loosely based on XVIIIa.3, shown above.
Del Tin Armi Antiche's Type XVIII offerings include their 14th Century Medieval Sword (DT2144), Italian Medieval Sword (DT2157), Italian Sword (DT5150), Gothic Bastard Swords (DT5155/57), Two-Handed Sword (DT5161), and Ferrara Sword (DT5162).
Museum Replicas Limited has offered many Type XVIII replicas over the years, including their Battle of Patay Sword, based on XVIII.4 above; War Sword of Albrecht II, based on XVIIIa.1 above; and Arbedo Sword, based on XVIIIa.3 above.
CAS Iberia / Hanwei's Hand-and-a-Half Sword (SH2034) is based on the Albrecht II sword shown above in XVIIIa.1, and their Edward III Sword (SH2033) is based on the exhaustively documented original shown above in XVIIIa.5.
The Oakeshott Type XVIII blade must have been an unusually effective design, judging from its longevity and great cultural scope. Its many medieval subtypes and hilt forms, while frustrating to the typologist, often are of great beauty. It comes as no surprise, then, that the type is so often replicated at all levels of quality and price.
About the Author
Sean Flynt is a writer and editor living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in Western arms and armour of all periods, but especially those of 16th through 18th century Britain and Colonial North America.
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
Sword Illustrations © 2004 Peter Johnsson
Histoire de Roland: Koch, H.W. Illustrierte Geschichte der Kriegszüge im Mittelalter. (Augsburg, Germany, Weltbild, Verlag GmBH, 1998), 176
Significant contributions to this article provided by Nathan Robinson
The list of available reproductions contained in this article is not meant to be all-encompassing. It is, however, a good representation of what was available at the time of this article being published.