Swords Galore

Fighting the Medieval Way has gradually become a more and more fashionable pastime. As usual the fashion is transmitted or gendered by novels and then picked up by films and museums.

The novel in case is the “The Mongoliad”, which is a fictional narrative set in Foreworld and written by the renowned Sci-Fic writer Neal Stephenson together with a group of collaborators cum sword players organised in the Subutai Corporation. At the core of the project is a narrative of the exploits of a small group of fighters and mystics in Medieval Europe around the time of the Mongol Conquests in the 13th century. Originally the “book” was published much like a 19th century serial on tablets and smartphones. In April 2012 a definitive (reedited and rewritten) edition was published. However, the project does not end here: a few days ago, the Stephenson announced that he was going to make a game, called CLANG, with swordplay at the centre. At the same time rumour has it that plans are up for filming the novel. According to Subutai president, Jeremy Bornstein, the genesis of the project was Stephenson’s dissatisfaction with the authenticity of the medieval sword fighting scenes, which he had written into his Baroque cycle of novels.

For people, who wish to know about the future, the works of Neil Stephenson is well worth visiting. For instance he was one of the first to describe the invention of the now ubiquitous tablet in the novel of The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Accordingly, when someone like Neal Stephenson writes novels of sword-play, event-makers in the Museum world must notice. Two exhibitions this summer seem to be reflecting this new trend.

Rapier of Christian II, Elector of Saxony

The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe
This exhibition reveals the fantastically skilled artistry behind the rapier; at once a weapon, fashion item, and rich jewellery object, it represents the rise of a new and upwardly mobile middle class in the sixteenth-century, the related concepts of masculinity as well as the emergence of the duel of honour.

In the Middle Ages the wearing of swords in a non-military context was strongly discouraged. This all changed as the Renaissance period ushered in the rise of a new elite class. This dramatic increase in the carrying of swords, and specifically the appearance of the long, thrusting rapier, helped make the Renaissance world an increasingly dangerous place, one in which duelling (though technically illegal) became commonplace.

The exhibition comprises exquisite and deadly weapons and related works of art from the Wallace Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Armouries, and British private collections, brought together with stunning princely weapons and costume from some of the greatest continental collections, exhibited in Britain for the first time. The very best sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century swords will be seen alongside beautifully illustrated fencing manuals from the Howard de Walden Library, on long-term loan to the Wallace Collection, while portraits, design books and documents will help place the Renaissance rapier in its social and artistic context to tell us more about the men who owned and used it.

Parade costume of Christian II, Elector of Saxony

One of the magnificent pieces on show is the rapier of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576). Modelled with unbelievable skill in solid gold, the hilt, glittering with multi-coloured enamel in many bright colours, is set onto a deadly Milanese blade of the very best quality. Another showpiece is the rapier of Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611), which for the first time is displayed alongside its matching doublet a

nd breeches, cut from the finest Italian silk.

Acompanying the exhibition is a special display –  Making the Renaissance Sword – in the Conservation Gallery of the Wallace Collection. The display showcases contemporary texts and illustrative sources. Coupled with modern science these have enabled modern scholars to understand much more of the art of sword-making, which developed during the sixteenth century. The display features stages in the construction of a swept-hilt rapier and reveal how the Renaissance sword-smith relied on a continuous tradition of craftsmanship dating back to the early Middle Ages

I Cavalieri dell’ imperatore
Another couple of magnificent exhibitions in Northern Italy in Trento tell the story of Late Medieval and early Modern Knights and their peculiar way of life.

The idea of the exhibitions stem from one of the famous frescoes in the Torre Aquila of Castel Buonconsiglio: The Tournament in February. At Buonconsiglio the exhibition centres on the more romantic parts of the story: The tournaments, the rules of chivalry and the showy pieces made for special occasions. On show is for instance the armour, which was forged for the Austrian Archduke, Charles the II, at the occasion of his marriage. Another magnificent piece is a mask carousel showing faces of Turks, which was used for training plus a 17th century military tent. The Castello del Buonconsiglio is a museum as well as the largest monumental complex in Trentino-Alto Adige. The Castle served as the residence of the Bishops of Trento from the second half of the 13th century until the secularization of the principality in 1803; in itself the castle is well worth a visit.

Another venue of the exhibition is Castel Beseno, a large fortified complex  which occupies an entire hilltop dominating the Valle dell’Adige, between Rovereto and Trento. Temporary exhibitions, cultural events and period costume pageants are held here, in the exceptional scenario of the vast Campo dei Tornei (Tournament Field). Here focus will be on warfare as such and the exhibition showcases weapons, artillery and armour, meant to be used in battles. Both exhibitions are well stocked with multimedia presentations as well as video- and scenic reconstructions. During summer a series of events – tournaments, mock battles and marriages will be staged for the “Medieval Traveller”.

A large part of the pieces shown at the exhibition stems from the Landeszeughaus in Graz


The Mongoliad
Neal Stephenson, Erik Bear, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, E.D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Mark Teppo
47North 2012


The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe 1520 -1630
Tobias Capwell et al.
The Wallace Collection 2012

The Queen of Weapons
Dr Tobias Capwell
iBook available to download


The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe
The Wallace Collection, London

I Cavalieri dell’ imperatore
Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento
Castel Beseno