Cornell University Press

Kristen Neuschel on Medieval Military History

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We asked Kristen Neuschel three questions about her recent book, Living by the Sword, Medieval warrior culture, and her research spanning 1,000 years of French and English history.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

My favorite anecdote is one entry in the 1499 list of arms (swords, daggers, axes and armor) allegedly kept by the French king “from all past time to the present,” namely its claim to include the fictional Lancelot’s sword, which “came from fairies.” It was this evidence that started me on my quest to explain how swords could still embody mythical qualities by 1500 and yet (as other evidence revealed) also be more commonplace and more necessary for elites’ personal adornment than at any time in the Middle Ages, when magical swords featured in legends and literature.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wish I had realized how big a task I had embarked on when I set out to examine the meaning of swords to warriors in both France and Britain from 600 to 1600. It was the story I wanted to tell, and the research was riveting. But interpreting my evidence and constructing my argument meant crossing many sub-disciplinary conversations and scholarly specialities. Writing history from this kind of perspective is challenging because of the multiple audiences for whom you are writing.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Military History?

The field of military history is rich and diverse but, because wars have existed throughout history, still often rests on ahistorical assumptions about men (I deliberately say “men”) as well as about military affairs (strategy, tactics, technology.) Even though military history proper is still important, in my opinion it should be recast as a subset of the wider concerns of a larger field concerning “war, society and culture.” We will never truly understand the persistence of warfare unless we consider it in the broadest possible terms, as one of the main forms of violence that seems to need no explanation (the other is domestic violence, which is itself instructive.)

*Featured photo: Carcassonne, France. Credit: Steve Douglas.

Kristen Neuschel
Cover image of Living by the Sword.
Read more about this book.

Kristen B. Neuschel is Associate Professor of History at Duke University. She is author of Word of Honor and coauthor of several editions of Western Civilization.

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