|Posted: Fri 21 Feb, 2020 10:21 pm Post subject: Book Review: The Sword in Britain, An Illustrated History
I just received my copy of The Sword in Britain, An Illustrated History Vol I: 1600-1700 by Harvey JS Withers. The text is a superb introduction to swords of this period.
The topics are divided up thoughtfully. Withers begins with a section on Nomenclature of the Sword, which gives a helpful overview for those not familiar with the terms, Rather than give elaborate textual descriptions, Withers relies on a number of photographs of different antique swords, with labels identifying what is what. The approach is clean, neat, and is easy to follow. He also includes partial photographs of a wide variety of sword blades in this section, just to give the reader a brief overview of the range and scope of blades from this period. Next to it is a page showing some of the types of blade decorations, whether inlay, maker's marks, double fullers, or designs created by carving out parts of the blade. The final pages of this section are devoted to displaying some of the variety of 17th century sword hilts and sword pommels.
The remainder of the book is organized around broad categories of swords: Infantry Swords, Cavalry Swords, Hunting Swords, Rapiers and Smallswords, and Naval Swords. Obviously some of these distinctions are not hard and fast, but they do provide a useful way of organizing an otherwise bewildering variety of weapons. What makes this book especially good is that Withers does not focus exclusively on British swords. Rather, for each section, the first part is devoted to more British-specific types, and the second part focuses on various continental examples. I suppose if the reader was religiously expecting only British swords, they might feel frustrated; however, such a division between "British" and "Non-British" is clearly anachronistic, and ignores the fact that many British swords would have been continental weapons.
Throughout much of the book, a whole page is devoted to a single artifact. Multiple photographs focus on the entire sword, the hilt, different sides of the hilts, close ups of knucklebows or the dish guard, all in full colour. There are instances where two swords are placed on a single page, but even here, the reader has a photo of the full sword and then a close-up of the hit and forte, giving a fairly good understanding of the weapon. Various details in the photo have text commenting upon them; some might find this irritating, but I think it's still useful, especially if you are not already an expert. There is usually a short paragraph describing the weapon in the corner, and a variety of primary source, period images to accompany the weapons as appropriate.
One weakness of the book is that not all images are of uniform quality. Some of the weapons, often those from Hermann Historica, have grainier details. Unless you are expecting very high resolution and sharp images of the entire length of a blade, this probably won't be a major issue. Most of the images have more than sufficient sharpness and clarity to give the viewer a very clear understanding of the blade.
Besides the extensive photographs of swords, Withers also gives a brief introduction to each section of the book, and an overview the different sword types in Chapter Two. The only readers who may be dissatisfied are those hoping for fairly detailed and involved discussion on contexts, associations and the like as found in a book like AVB Norman's The Rapier and Small-Sword: 1460-1820. For readers looking for this kind of coverage, this book is unlikely to satisfy. However, as a visual-rich text that gives a good idea about the appearance and characteristics of a wide-variety of swords, this book is excellent.
Overall, I'm very pleased with this book. At 182 pages (minus the bibliography) it covers a wide variety of swords and examples of individual weapons. As an introduction to the subject or simply a lavish visual resource, Wither's book is an excellent place to start.