Cornell University Press

Why Do Swords Matter?

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“It’s not every day you step on a sword in a lake!” observed a museum curator in Sweden, after receiving a pre-Viking age sword that an eight-year-old girl had unwittingly discovered on her summer vacation. Medieval sword blades still turn up from time to time. Sword hilts turn up even more often, in hoards of coins, brooches, and rings, the “warrior bling” of the early Middle Ages. Not all of the swords found in lakes, rivers, or peat bogs are as rare as this pre-Viking sword, which dates from before about 700. But virtually every time a medieval or ancient sword appears, it earns a moment in the limelight.

Why? True, it’s not every day you step on a sword, but museums around the world are already bursting with sword collections. And really old swords are not much to look at; scaly strips of metal that look as if some creature has been nibbling on them. Sword hilts fare better, sometimes, but the elegant scabbards and sword belts that went with them have long since decayed.

Yet our fascination with swords is apparent every time a new find is reported, such as the BBC coverage of the Swedish girl’s discovery. Even modern swords headline museums’ displays. Just west of Appomattox Court House in central Virginia, a private museum squats next to the two-lane highway. Stretched across the side of the building, a banner proclaims: “Robert E. Lee’s Sword!” The owner clearly hopes to waylay tourists heading to the National Park up the road, the site of Lee’s surrender to Grant in 1865. This sword is presumed to be sufficient to attract their attention.

Yet our fascination with swords is apparent every time a new find is reported, such as the BBC coverage of the Swedish girl’s discovery.

Swords are a particularly powerful instance of our impulse to anchor ourselves in the past through objects. We relish the experience of slipping great-grandmother’s thimble onto a finger, or hearing the creaking wood as we rock in great-grandfather’s chair. We are particularly vulnerable to objects as a way to connect with the past because we are surrounded, now, by disposable treasures – expensive cell phones that quickly become obsolete, for example.

Even worse, much of our “reality” is now virtual. Our attraction to things, like a thimble, is a nostalgic reflex. It invokes a past where the meaning of things was straightforward and endures from that time to the present. In fact, the past we encounter in that object exists only in the present. We do not think so readily about the long hours hunched over mending in inadequate light, wearing that thimble.

Even worse, much of our “reality” is now virtual.

Swords matter in the here and now—even brittle, rusting fragments from lake bottoms—because we think we know what they meant, then, so that they become a means of connection for us to that remote past. This nostalgic reflex has dangerous overtones. Our gesture of recognition obscures the long, complex history by which swords became the signature prop of warrior identity, and of the authority to commit violence that accompanies that identity.

Swords matter in the here and now because we think we know what they meant, then, so that they become a means of connection for us to that remote past.

Every ancient or medieval blade we recover should be scrutinized by experts to add to our understanding of technology or the importance of prestige objects in those days. But whenever an old sword appears both enchanting and familiar, then we should be on our guard. We should not want to live in a world where swords continue to have that kind of power.

*Featured image: Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Funds from various donors, 1929. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kristen Neuschel is Associate Professor of History at Duke University. She is the author of Word of Honor: Interpreting Noble Culture in Sixteenth-Century France (Cornell, 1989) and a number of articles on early modern history as well as on teaching and pedagogy. Learn about her at www.kristenneuschel.com.

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