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Katie Vernon: Weapons in Society

The Royal Armouries recently held the first in a series of conferences showcasing the latest research into arms and armour. Here, Katie Vernon, who was awarded a bursary to attend the conference, gives their impressions of the day.

At the conference Weapons in Society I was able to handle some of the Royal Armouries artefacts. It’s inspiring and just plain fun handling items so old and which are usually nestled behind glass screens. The museum staff provided an amazing range of objects: a spearhead from 2500-700BC, flint or wheellock muskets and pistols from the 16th to 18th centuries, and even modern prototypes of armour. Interacting with these items offered many surprises such as the heaviness of the musket barrel, or the lightness of the swords. Holding them makes you think about previous owners using and collecting arms, and I can’t help but think if it’s so thrilling to handle them now, how amazing it must have felt to own the most fashionable, technologically advanced, and wondrous weapons. Such as the 16th century double wheellock pistol (item catalogue XII.719) available in the handling session, which could be loaded with two rounds in the barrel, or the conference cover photo of the early 17th century axe and wheellock combination pistol (XIV.6).

 

Examining these items tells a story of their use; plug bayonets (such as X.67 and X.289) were discussed by Mark Shearwood. Even high value, decorated, bayonets that we might expect to be solely for show, often had damage marks from use. He also discussed potential research methods using replicas, to avoid damaging museum items: testing if when the gun heats from firing and subsequently cools if it is possible to get the bayonet back out of the barrel for reuse. Similarly Victoria Bartels’ paper on 16th century firearms in Florence also discussed practicalities of using these items. An audience member asked about how the weather in Florence compares to other European cities and countries, as the use of a wheellock pistol is limited by the weather. The ignition mechanism for the pistol (the wheel) is on the outside of the gun, so if exposed to water it might not light, which certainly poses a problem for many months in rainy Northern Europe! This provides a great example of how important it is to ask: what environment were these items used in, and how did it impact the way in which these weapons were used or developed?

 

Weapons and gender were discussed in various sessions at this conference. Weapons are often associated with masculinity: not only can swords be phallic symbols, but also guns, as Bartels discussed, because they fire “emissions”. But women using weapons was also discussed by Bartels and Dr Mark Bennett – who presented on the gift of a sword and revolver from the 19th century American ice trader Frederic Tudor to Sir Henry Havelock, a British general in India. They discussed the appropriateness for the time and location, for instance, women in countries under colonial rule might have been thought of differently to women living in Britain; or were praised in the local media when defending themselves and family. This raises so many questions about how much women knew about using weapons – to defend themselves or others they must have had some knowledge. My PhD focuses on late medieval England, and I believe there is potential here to investigate women’s use and ownership of weapons. The papers above included sources from crime and news reports, which would make a really interesting addition to the wills and probate records I intend to examine, because they can show contexts in which certain weapons were used.

 

My PhD investigates the connotations of specific items of arms and armour in late medieval English romance (stories about knights and their adventures). However, it’s easy to consider these only in the context of exaggerated fantasy stories, ignoring their practicalities. The artefacts at the Royal Armouries remind us that these were real arms and armour, encountered and owned by contemporary readers. Therefore, I am also comparing the items in the stories to arms and armour encountered or owned by contemporary readers. For my own research, items in the collection such as IX.15, an early 14th century sword shortened into a falchion, provide an insight into the life cycle of weapons specifically mentioned in romances. As noted on the armouries website, this item has been deliberately shorted during the time the sword was used. The tip has been sharpened into a different shape from a straight sword – falchions are curved blades. Rather than glorious examples of armour owned or given to others by royalty, I think the items that are well used, with hodgepodge modifications and repairs, are probably the most interesting. They’re the type of items you usually miss on your first visit, but centuries of history and owners have left a mark on them. It’s been reshaped and reused to suit the owner, raising questions about how the object was thought about and how it was used.

Kate Stands waste deep in snow wearing a blue woolly hat.

Katie Vernon is a first year doctoral candidate at the University of York, whose work examines how arms and armour were presented in Middle English romances

Learn more about the objects Katie got to see up close in our Collections Online site.

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