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Weapons in Society - Royal Armouries conference 2021

Last month, the Royal Armouries at Leeds held their conference 'Weapons in Society'. Taking place online, it featured eleven speakers giving papers on the roles of arms and armour in the medieval and early modern eras.

The conference was recorded and all the papers are now available on Youtube. Here are the videos along with abstracts of papers.

Session 1: The significance of swords and those who bear them

Claire Mead - Women with swords: Double-edged depictions

In early 2020, reacting to the depiction of sword-fighting women in Netflix’s Witcher series, the assertion that ‘zero women fought with swords’ launched a flurry of ripostes asserting the presence of women within sword-fighting history and culture.

Historical records confirm the existence of ‘women with swords’ throughout a range of different time periods and cultures. Just as importantly, their presence in fiction, legends and art reveals the lasting symbolic power of the sword-wielding woman. This symbolism comes with its own set of ambiguities when it comes to the depiction of femininity and power. It would be tempting to consider these depictions as inherently feminist regardless of their context or author. However, looking at them critically raises fascinating paradoxes and conflicting interpretations. Do sword-wielding women symbolism challenge the gender norms of their time – or do they reinforce the assumption that warrior women are an exception to their own gender?

In what ways do these figures assert their femininity alongside traditional masculine traits to either uphold the status quo or threaten to topple it? From depictions of Lady Justice and the mythological Amazons to Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings and She-Ra in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, exploring how women’s sword-wielding heroism has evolved can tell us a lot about what they represent in our past and present.

Exploring the symbolic power and subversive nature of women with swords can also create new ways of exploring powerful themes around women’s histories, gender non-conformity and LGBTQI themes in the field of arms and armour. Expanding our perspectives around swordswomen as historical, semi-legendary and fictional figures alike can in turn welcome new inclusive audience engagement and interpretations within museums and heritage sites.

Rob Jones - ‘Guy drew his sword. Then he was a knight’: Re-evaluating the sword as a symbol of knighthood

This paper will assess just how important the sword was in comparison with other symbols of knightly status, such as the belt, the horse, and harness, suggesting that all were important elements of knightly display in their own way. The paper will then focus on the role of the sword in the rituals for making a knight, highlighting the similarities between the sword’s use and symbolism in the ceremonies for making knights and for making kings, suggesting a direct connection between these rites and the inscriptions on sword blades, and arguing that it was these rituals that served to make the sword preeminent amongst the trappings of knighthood.

Session 2: The perception of arms

Eric Wagner - What’s in a name: Weapons and culture through the lens of named weapons

Names hold undeniable power over what they are describing, but the study of the names of arms and armor is largely ignored. This presentation is designed to explore the implication of named weapons and their role in memory and social authority, by examining not only historical swords, but also mythological swords. There is a distinct timeline that can be followed where the names of weapons evolve alongside the cultures to which they belonged. Early examples tended to be more descriptive of what the various makers or wielders intended them to do, or physically descriptive. Juxtaposed with this, especially in Christian Europe, weapons tended to be more descriptive of ideas or what the wielder should represent, loaning a level of social or moral authority. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, wielded a blade named Joyeuse, and that sword (or a facsimile) has been used in coronation ceremonies for centuries. It makes sense that to induct a new king, he draws upon the power and authority of Joy. By exploring the conventions on naming weapons at various times, much can be discovered about the attitude towards arms and their place in society.

Kelly DeVries and Michael Livingston -  Eustache Deschamp’s poem: A curse on those who require arms to be made

Eustache Deschamps was a French poet and diplomat, who was made huissier d’armes to Charles V in 1372. It was while he was holding this position, in 1374, that Deschamps wrote a little-known poem cursing those who required him to make arms. The relationship between his governmental position and the poem — or who it is that he blames for the requirement, whether French, English, or otherwise — is just one of the questions that this neglected poem prompts us to ask.

Beyond matters of individual authorial intent, however, the proposed paper situates this poem against broader cultural questions about arms as symbols of war and peace in the middle of the Hundred Years War. This poem, only recently translated into English by the authors, not only describes Deschamps’ disgust with those who make war, and thus those who require weapons to be made, but he identifies specific weapons and their place of manufacture — focusing primarily on diverse staff weapons and relatively new gunpowder weapons. What does the poet’s focus on these specific categories of weapons tell us about the proximity of warfare for the common public at the time? What does the poem as a whole tell us about the general awareness of the manufacture and usage of medieval arms?

Session 3: Collecting and documenting arms and armour

Chris Young and Phil Philo - ‘A sword used by Cromwell’ and other arms and armour in the Spence Collection, Preston Park Museum, Stockton-on-Tees

The Spence Collection is one of the more interesting ‘unknown’ collections of arms and armour in a North East museum. This paper will outline the career of First World War colonel, Gilbert Ormerod Spence (1879-1925) and his collecting activities in the period between 1900 and 1925. We will examine the range of the collection, which was sourced through London and provincial dealers from some of the important sales of the period. It includes some pre-historic material, but mainly consists of European arms and armour from the 16th to 19th centuries.

A reassessment and re-cataloguing of the collection was started in 2018, following a small exhibition to mark the 375th anniversary of the local Battle of Yarm (1 Feb 1643). The work has focused on armour and edged weapons, firearms and accessories of the type that could have been used in the British Civil and Thirty Years Wars, between 1560-1660. Some interesting individual pieces have come to light and are to be the subject of forthcoming articles. We will highlight the initial outcomes of that work, our ambitions for the collection’s future and its use as a potential research collection.

Stuart Bowes  - ‘The compilation and collation of a large amount of work done by others in the past’: Documenting the weapons collections at the Tower Armouries

Weapons have long been collected by museums, yet there have been few studies of the practices of acquiring, documenting, and managing weapons in museums, past or present. As part of a doctoral project investigating the management of the collections in the Royal Armouries, this paper will examine the institution’s documentation procedures to explore how its collections have been perceived and interpreted over time. It will focus on the Inventory and Survey of the Armouries of the Tower of London (1916) by Charles ffoulkes, Curator of the Tower Armouries.

This work offers a fascinating snapshot of a national collection of arms and armour in the early twentieth century, cataloguing the entirety of the Tower Armouries’ collections as they then existed. ffoulkes’ survey will be a departure point for an exploration of the history of public awareness about weapons in museum collections. The historicisation of weapons collections, the study of weapons as material evidence, the emergence of networks of arms and armour experts, and the challenges of communicating weapons collections to wider audiences will all be considered. The Inventory and Survey also somewhat resembles the Royal Armouries’ current online collections database. Comparing these two inventorial frameworks through their respective presentation of the same object yields intriguing insights into the evolution of the conventions for documenting weapons and how this has affected their status as museum objects. This paper will ask whether the approaches of historic and contemporary museums to their weapons collections have more in common than first seems apparent?

Session 4: Arms and armour as social, cultural and religious objects

Kirsty Haslam - Controlling the cannons?: Leadership and the monopoly of military assets in Scottish urban centres, 1523-1613

While Scottish burghs rarely owned an extensive number of cannons, communal funds of money were periodically spent on the purchase, upkeep of, and personnel for artillery throughout the late medieval and early modern period. Although not commonly discussed in detail within Scottish urban historiography, cannons were clearly considered a crucial element of defence and viewed as items of status and prestige for burghs.

This paper will focus on 90 years within the history of Aberdeen during which the burgh’s cannons were primarily controlled by a single family, the Menzies. In the 16th century, the Menzies family’s dominance over the political infrastructure of Aberdeen has been widely recognised but their control of the burgh’s martial infrastructure, particularly the burgh’s cannons, has received little attention. Focusing on episodes in which the family’s dominance within the burgh was challenged, this paper will address the extent of the Menzies’ control over the burgh’s martial infrastructure and ask whether the family where motivated primarily by a desire to try and control the burgh’s defences or to enhance their own prestige. More widely, this discussion has implications for our understanding of urban leadership in periods of both conflict and peace, and for the perception of weaponry as primarily practical or symbolic within a Scottish urban environment.

Gurinder Mann - Sikh weaponry: The mystic chivalry of the Khalsa

The Sikhs have a unique code of conduct with regards to weapons, which they describe as instruments of mercy, and in doing so equate them with god. The Sikhs originally defined as a spiritual group in Northern India and Pakistan who suffered from oppression under the Mughals. Consequently, they combined the spiritual with the martial to become saint soldiers. The fraternity of the pure or the Khalsa was ordained by Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) where initiates drank the holy nectar which was stirred with a sword. The Guru also gave the populace instructions in Shastravidyia or the science of weapons.

The lecture will focus on different types of Sikh arms and armour some of which are decorated and contain verses from the Sikh scriptures this includes swords, charainas, chakkars (quoits) and other weaponry. What was the purpose of these inscriptions? Why do the Sikhs regard weapons with so much reverence and how do we construct history through them? Whilst many of these objects are in India some of them made their way into collections into the UK including the Royal Armouries. This is after the annexation of the Punjab (1849) and the bloody battles between the East India Company and the Sikh Empire known as the Anglo Sikh Wars (1845-46) and (1848-49).

Keynote address: Ralph Moffat - Would the real Andrea Ferrara please stand up?

One of the most ubiquitous names to appear on sword blades in use in the late-17th and 18th century is that of Andrea Ferrara. In Scotland especially he is a shadowy figure shrouded in myth and legend. Was he a Spaniard or an Italian? An expert craftsman invited by a renaissance king? A murderous master hammering away in a Black Wood? These mysteries have been a source of fascination from the 18th century to the present. Have the chance discoveries of scholars in the late-20th century shed some light on the matter? This talk will explore the imaginative fictions and (possible) facts of this intriguing swordsmith.

Top Image: The main stairwell at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Photo by Irid Escent / Wikimedia Commons

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