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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Logan Thompson

Ancient Weapons in Britain

Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2004. 176pp.. £19.99. ISBN 978-1844-15150-9.

To attempt to tackle the development and use of weapons from the Neolithic period to the eleventh century in a single volume is, to say the least, ambitious. To do so in fewer than two hundred pages is even more so. Yet this is precisely what Thompson attempts to do in his work. This book is uncommon given that, while similar works focus on a particular period or people, he has chosen to focus on a particular place; he examines the weapons used by the various inhabitants of Britain. In so doing he spans not only lengthy periods of time, but also several different cultures. This gives us not so much a sense of the linear development of arms and armour in Britain as a flavour of the shifting trends of weaponry as one cultural influence gradually gave way to another. Considering the amount of ground he covers in a comparatively small space the text, this book (with a  modicum of caution) could be a useful introductory survey of the arms and armour of this stretch of time.

Starting as far back as one reasonably can, he starts by briefly examining the development of flint knives, axes, and projectiles points. He then moving swiftly on to copper, bronze, and subsequently iron weapons used by the various “Celtic” peoples of Britain, running through the various types of early iron swords from Britain as classified by Piggott. Thompson next takes the unusual detour of examining the arms and armour of the Romans from the period during which Britannia was the empire’s most far-flung province. This move should be applauded, as it acknowledges that Rome was more than just a period of foreign occupation.  

After this, he touches upon the swords of the Germanic peoples of the Migration period, discussing not only the significant features of these weapons, but also on the technique of pattern welding for which they are most well-known. A breakdown of the various parts of a sword is also found here. He then examines the various weapons of the Franks, including the spear (angon), the iconic throwing axe (francisca), and the Frankish manifestation of the seax. Using these objects as evidence of cultural patterns, Thompson maintains that, although not native to Britain, powerful people across the Channel had some influence if only because some of their weapons have been found on British soil.

The remaining half of the book is more thematic than chronological. Thompson discusses particular weapons of particular peoples (Viking spears, Anglo-Saxon swords, shields, and so on), often citing exemplary specimens of each to reference particular features. In the chapter on Viking weapons he reproduces the Petersen/Oakeshott sword typologies from I to IX, but adds his own commentary and proposed revisions. There is then a brief chapter on armour and the rise of cavalry, particularly amongst the Normans. The final chapter, an account of the Battle of Hastings, seems a bit out of place. While it is sensible, given the book’s cut-off date of 1066, to discuss Norman arms and armour and compare them to those used by the opposing Anglo-Saxons, a historical blow-by-blow of the battle itself seems unnecessary for a book that otherwise focuses on the weapons themselves.

As for the abovementioned caution, there are a few points that will raise alarm bells for arms and armour scholars and enthusiasts. In such instances as his referring to pieces of Roman artillery as “guns”, Thompson’s vocabulary is occasionally lax. Of particular interest is his conclusion, confirmed from “practical weapon handling”, that many of the swords of the Germanic and Viking peoples were clumsy and difficult to manoeuvre. I frequently find this to be a perilous argument, as it does not factor in the training of the individual compared to the sword’s original owner, nor the preferences in sword design of said original owner. It is but one example of a handful of statements that walk the fine line between enthusiastic narrative and speculation.

Perhaps most unusual is his use of quotations. Although I do not desire to turn this review into a critique of style, it merits mentioning since I have never encountered anything quite like it. Thompson sometimes uses quotes that state the same information as the previous sentence which he had just paraphrased, making the quotation seem redundant. In other cases, he will drop into a quotation mid-sentence without any introduction as to who wrote it or when (although thankfully they are all cited in the back), or even that the piece is a quotation; if the reader happened to miss the quotation marks, it would be easy to miss where his words end and his source’s begin. It seems odd that, rather than using quotation to enhance and corroborate his arguments, Thompson seems content to let them tell us many of the good bits.

The inside cover states that Thompson’s research has “shed new light on the materials used, the processes of manufacture, the development of the weapons and their effectiveness in battle.” This appears to be an over-ambitious claim. While the book is a passable introduction to early arms and armour in Britain—a sampler plate to entice a determined reader to look further into the subject—there do not seem be any groundbreaking new revelations that substantially alter the way we look at these weapons. It is clear that Thompson has conducted exhaustive research for this work: visiting collections all over Britain, examining up-close some of the iconic weapons from this period, and reading all previous authoritative works on the subject. What has resulted is a text that it perfectly suitable for a reasonably advanced enthusiast who is looking to get slightly more technical on the subject of ancient arms and armour. This reader will be rewarded with comprehensive descriptions and measurements of some of the best surviving specimens of early weapons, combined with a decent historical contextualization. The work’s potential appeal lies in its focus exclusively on Britain over such a long period of time. For this reason alone, it occupies a useful niche amongst those texts that serve to attract and encourage budding enthusiasts. 

James Hester

Royal Armouries Museum <james.hester@armouries.org.uk>

Page Added: August 2010