Adventures with Words: Swords and Swordsmen by Mike Loades

Swords and Swordsmen by Mike Loades

An apt subtitle for this book would be ‘A Life with Swords’. Mike Loades did something that very few people would think possible: he took his fascination with ancient weapons and made a career of it. What was even more unusual was that he did this from the 1970s onwards, long before the current interest in historical European martial arts. All this comes out as asides to the main story, which is a history of Western swords (with a single-chapter diversion to Japan), told by taking a single examplar for each period in the history of the sword and examining both the sword and its wielder. So, we have Tutankhamun’s khopesh, the Sutton Hoo sword, Henry V’s arming sword, and many others. Interwoven through the stories of the ancient swords are Loades’s own reminiscences of how he worked with similar swords. For Loades found that one way of parlaying his knowledge of swords and swordfighting into a career was to sell his knowledge to film, TV and theatre companies, acting as a historical consultant and fight arranger. Good work if you can get it, but unreliable. So, to maintain a regular income, he also taught stage fighting at London drama schools. And, talking about the book with my wife, it turns out that Mike Loades taught her stage fighting when she was at East 15 drama school! She was not a natural – during one lesson she unwittingly knocked out her partner. Despite this, Mike Loades remained patient and kind – he was, she says, an excellent teacher.

The book is full of unexpected nuggets of knowledge. Before reading it, I had no idea there was another horse gait, the amble, falling between the walk and the trot. Those breeds of horse that have retained this gait can cover many miles in a day using it and Loades tells us, having ridden these ambling horses, the gait leaves the rider much fresher than having to bounce up and down all day in the trot. Some is speculative, based on Loades’ own use of swords. For instance, his speculations on how the Egyptians used the khopesh, hooking shields with the blade’s spurs, seem entirely reasonable but we will never know for sure.

Some minor quibbles include his treatment of pattern welding and a lack of engagement with what recent pracitioners of historical European martial arts have deduced about the use of swords when fighting armoured opponents, but overall it is a marvellous book, beautifully illustrated and very highly recommended.

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