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The Biography of a Sword


Mapping the sword lifecycle in Middle-ages

This article is respectfully dedicated to my dear friend Jan Motyčka.

The means of warfare in the past are an immensely popular topic, attracting both many laymen and experts. We as humans seek dramatic tales full of violence, using them as educational sources and lessons to pass on to next generations. This modus has not changed across history, and that’s why we can very often find mentions of weapons throughout sagas and chronicles. Usually, but not exclusively, the weapon references are tied to an armed conflict.

During the first half of 2018, I have read several Early and High Middle Ages chronicles. In most of them, I could not but notice a striking presence of a sword outside of warfare context. Thus, I started to categorise the mentions, which I would now like to present to the reader. The summary is open for an update by anyone – I would greatly appreciate any and all help, expansion or reference, that will of course be properly sourced.

This article provides a serious and complex approach towards a topic, which is often idealised by the community. The main outcome of this text is that swords were to an extent perceived as living objects, with their own lives and stories. In Old Norse literature alone, we know of more than 170 names of swords (Falk 1914: 47–64), confirming the theory; Anglo-Saxon literature contains some sword names as well (Mortimer – Bunker 2019: 421-3). We will not be far from truth by claiming that a weapon played a major role in the medieval life, permeating its whole nature and often identifying its social status. The sword itself was closely linked to the most important values of men – specifically to family bonds, custody and service to the king.

The sword was something one would never part with willingly; it was wielded in king’s halls, at assemblies and during field work, even at night always reachable, hanging on the wall above the bed. It is therefore no surprise that a sword often accompanied it’s owner to the grave and the afterlife. The function of the sword is therefore not only as a weapon – and from what we can tell, many of them were not even use this way.

The creation and maintenance

Crafting and testing
Despite trying not to generalize, the amount of found swords requires us to take a broader look. The best information regarding creation of the sword are the archaeological finds themselves, of which we have thousands. The weapons vary in shape, which constantly developed throughout the time, even though they usually kept circulating for some time of their existence. We can certainly pinpoint several types that were more prominent than the rest, providing a suggestion of “fashion” waves and specialised blacksmith workshop. If inscriptions, such as ULFBERTH are the signatures of such workshops, then some were even active over the span of several centuries. The number of swords produced in 9th-11th century is estimated to circa 500 thousand – 2 million.

Nonetheless while even today we can find many experienced swordsmith who are also proficient in other craft – giving them the ability to produce the sword as a finished, put-together product – a part of the excavated swords (especially those from the Early Middle Ages) suggest having the blade and pommel made by two different craftsmen. With that in mind, a professional swordsmith undoubtedly had a privileged stance in the society and received many craft orders. The swords were custom-made according to wishes, design and dimensions requested by their soon-to-be owner.

A required quality of the best available Early Middle Ages swords was for the weapon to be able to bend without causing permanent damage. It was recorded both by Notker the Stammerer (Gesta Karoli Magni 18) and Arabic observers (Ellis Davidson 1994: 116), who described these experiments done on swords. Another valued attribute was a highly durable blade. Haralds saga hins hárfagra (43) mentions that: “The King Aðalstein gifted Hákon a sword with gilded cross-guard and handle, and the blade even more magnificent. This sword Hákon took and struck deep into stone-mill up to the central hole, and since that day the sword got called Millbeater [Kvernbítr]. It was the best sword ever to appear in Norway.

In Old Norse heroic circle we read of Sigurð, who tries a sword by splitting an anvil on which it was made, also by cutting in half a bunch of wool floating in river (Vǫlsunga saga 15). Swords were undoubtedly an immensely valued commodity which usually only be afforded by members of higher-status clans. Due to the expensive price, it comes as no surprise that swords were often stolen, both from the living (eg. Laxdæla saga 30), and graves (Kozák – Ratajová 2008). Some of the tested swords conclusively turned out to be a low-quality attempt for reproduction of the professional product (Williams 2009), while others appear to have rather decorative function, than intended for repeated use in combat (Fedrigo et al. 2017). This thesis is supported by literary sources, which mention both high quality swords, and those that often bend easily during battle (for example Eyrbyggja saga 44).

honzaMaking of the Petersen type H sword. Source: Swordmakery Elgur.

Sharpening, storing and cleaning
There are not many literary sources regarding sharpening of the sword, and those that we have are often tied to sword preparation prior to battle. Such an example is Dudo’s notion: “Some sharpen the weapon’s edge, of sword and axe.” (Dudo: Historia Normannorum, ed. Lair 1865: 142). It is not sure whether several types of sharpening stones were used during the sharpening process, although it is possible – there are several archaeological finds of sharpening wheels and stones of various coarseness. For initial rough work, it would be best to use sharpening wheels, such as those found in Haithabu (Resi 1990) and Frankish manuscripts, while using sharpening rod-like stones for finishing touch. In some Anglo-Saxon and Viking graves, there were finds of long, massive sharpening stones, which wielded in hand of a ruler could have represented an insignia of the protector of realm and its people (Słupecki 2004: 238).

The swords were stored in two-piece wooden core scabbards, that were covered in leather, combination of leather and textile, or layered textile. Sword baldrics allowed comfortable transport at waist or over the shoulder. Inside of the scabbard was lined with textile or fur that was probably impregnated in oil or vax, keeping the blade impregnated and protected from environmental damage. Despite that, the sword still required some occasional maintenance from cleaner. As an example, The Legal Code of Alfred the Great (§19,3; Čermák 2009: 481) informs that if a sword was given to cleaner for storage, using it to commit crime was illegal: “Should the cleaner accept else’s sword for maintenance, or a smith else’s tool, they ought to return it unblemished [not used for crime], the way it was accepted.” A sword was a clearly visible symbol predicative of its’ owner’s identity (eg. Gísla saga 36), and if it were used to commit crime, the guilt was be bestowed upon its legitimate owner, rather than the temporary keeper.

A sword was worn visibly, and quite possibly in a way to emphasise one’s manhood (Mortimer – Bunker 2019: 403-4). There were nonetheless situations in which it was intentional for the sword to be hidden under a cloak: “When they entered the hall, Hauk ordered his men how they ought to behave, especially that those, who entered first, are to leave last, and that all are to sit in a single line at the table. Each was to carry a sword at his left side, hidden beneath a cloak so that it is not seen” (Haralds saga hins hárfagra 42). In Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (46), while fleeing from an island, the protagonist packs his war gear in a cloak, which he then ties around his neck so that his hands are free for swimming.

If the sword was not being worn by its owner, it was often hung on wall next to a table (Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 70) or above his bed (Laxdæla saga 30). Magnate halls that possibly also served as armories, held a significant number of weapons (Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 45; Óláfs saga helga 162). During sea voyages, the sword would be stored in a chest (Laxdæla saga 76; Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar 117).

utrechtSword sharpening on rotary sharpening stone (right) and using a whetstone (left).
Source: Utrecht psaltery (MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32), fol. 35v, circa 830 AD.

In service outside of combat

Question of the ownership
Considering what has already been said, and that is going to, it is clear that sword was clearly a male symbol. In some languages, such as Old English and Old Czech, male lineage is clearly put in context with weapons in general or swords in particular. A sword as such is a symbol of active power and strive for existence and sovereignty. Also, a sword can be considered among phallic motifs, which would explain some sword names; some sources put sword and phallus in a direct context (Gallus Anonymus: Gesta principum Polonorum I:7; Grettis saga 75) and losing a sword results in loss of sexual appetite (McKinnell 1990: 23).

At least in Early Middle Ages Scandinavia, it seems that women were entirely separated from armed conflict – in Laxdæla saga (35) it is said that a sword cannot be drawn in a presence of a woman, while Icelandic law mercilessly punishes women who “hold a sword in their hands due to their perverseness” (Starý 2010b: 203). Despite that, we do encounter three instances of a sword being held by a woman in Old Norse culture – in the family sagas, that we perceive as the most realistic depiction of reality, women manipulate with sword without much skill and only temporarily. The reasons can be clearly demonstrated: Freydís in Eiríks saga rauða (11) intimidates Skrælings with a sword that she found on a battlefield and which she begins to pound on her chest, which we can perceive as a self defense. Þordís in Gísla saga (36) wants to avenge her brother by killing his murderer with her brother’s sword on her own. Auð in Laxdæla saga (35), who is said to wear pants with leg-wraps and rides a horse, uses a sword to injure her husband as a revenge for divorcing her.

We can thus see that in specific situations regarding self defense, personal or family honour, that is quite important moments in life, a woman would go around the law and arm herself with a weapon. There is a similar anomaly in Old Norse female graves, in which weapons were found. We only know of dozens of such graves, and they are struggling with interpretation issues (eg. Gardela 2013). One can though imagine the interpretation of sword’s presence in a similar manner.

As for mythical and heroic shield-maidens, who are often mention in an argument, I share the opinion of religionist Jiří Dynda that these characters rather played a role of commutive testing of the line of social clichés by attempting to turn traditional manners upside down, providing the audience with critical insight into the social system (Dynda 2016: 176). As is stated later in the text, it was also possibly acceptable for a woman to hold a weapon on some rare occasions, such as festivities and carnivals.

testBend-testing a sword’s blade. Source: Dmitry Chramcov, Truin Stenja.

Family heirloom
The fact that swords were handed down generation by generation is indicated both by the artefacts themselves and some literary sources. In general, some swords were passed down for up to five generations, some even further. In such a context, swords represented an emblem of rightfully obtained heritage (Geary 1994: 49).

At least 3 Norwegian swords suggest being passed for so long, that they were re-forged and updated throughout the ages in order to meet current fashion requirements. This trend can also be seen on some other Viking Age swords (Fedrigo et al. 2017: 425). We also cannot omit a sword from Vik, Norway (T921), which was – as impossible as it might sound – handed down from generation to generation, beginning with its creation in 10th century, up to 1872, when it was gifted to archaeologists from Trondheim museum, where it resides till present day.

As for literary sources, we can cite both Old Norse and Frankish. In Vatnsdæla saga (17–27), we can read of a sword that was “given by fathers to their sons and was named Clan blade [Ættartangi]“; this sword is obtained in the saga by Ingimund, who obtains it by ruse, and then by his two sons after Ingimund’s death. They carry it publicly in turns in a way that one takes it to horse races and hunts, while the other has it for autumn assemblies and court meetings. In Grettis saga (17), Gretti accepts the sword Jǫkulsnautr, which was handed down through several generations according to the saga. Gísla saga speaks of a hereditary sword named Greyside (Grásíða), which is put in context with creation and extinction of the saga’s main hero’s clan. In Hallfreðar saga vandræðaskálds (11), the protagonist hands a sword to his son, after a beam falls on his head during a sea battle; though he wishes to have all the other equipment buried with him in a coffin, including his helmet. In Landnámabók (Sturlubók 310), while on death bed, king Harald I. Fairhair gifts his friend Hrollaug with “a sword, a drinking horn and a golden ring weighing 5 ounces. The sword was later owned by Kol, son of Hall from Síða.” The sheer peak was sword Skǫfnungr, buried in 6th century in a barrow of Danish king Hrólf Kraki. The sword was stolen by a character named Skeggi in 10th century, who then passed it to his son Eið, who later lent it to his relative Þorkel. After Þorkel died, the sword came to possession of Gelli, who travelled a great deal of Europe and was buried with the sword again in Roskilde, Denmark (LandnámabókHauksbók 140; Laxdæla saga 57–78). This epic story can possibly only be surpassed by sword Dragvandil from Egils saga Skallagrímssonar: originally intended for duels, a very sharp sword of Ketil Trout is inherited by his son Grím, who then gifts the sword to his distant relative Þórólf Kveldúlfsson. He then gifts the sword to his brother Skallagrím, who passes it to his son Þórólf, who then gifts the sword to a magnate Arinbjǫrn, who finally passes it on to Egil Skallagrímsson. At least two Frankish magnates – Eccard of Macon and Eberhard of Friula – bequeath swords in their wills (Coupland 1990Hampton 2011).

dedictviHanding down a sword to the heir. Source: Donatan Równonoc – Słowiańska Krew.

Connection to newlywed bed and cradle
It is possible to track down that in some cases a sword accompanied man since one’s conception or birth. I was told by eyewitnesses that as late as 20th century in Slovakia, two crossed swords or blades were laid beneath newlywed bed to help conceive a son and to protect the new-weds from evil forces. Similar custom was present during childbirth. Such ethnographic noteworthy can be put in context with Ibn Rustah, an Early Middle Ages Persian traveller, who recorded a similar habit among Early Middle Ages Rus: “When one among them becomes a father of a son, he walks up to the new-born with a sword, throwing the weapon in front of the child with words: ‚I bestow no wealth upon you, you only shall have that which you claim by this sword.’” (Brøndsted 1967: 206).

I was able to find one another Medieval reference connecting a sword with newlywed bed. For a marriage to be validated, the new-weds had to be laid to bed. This act could sometimes only be symbolic as the husband was represented by his best man. It was against the husband’s wishes for the bride to be dishonoured, and thus like in the case of marriage in Rennes, 1490 between Maximilian I Habsburg and Anna of Brittany, a bared sword could had been laid between the husband’s representative and his wife, which guaranteed the bride’s purity (Nodl 2014: 81). A longsword in the bed can also be seen in the manuscript MS Hunter 252 (12r), which is dated to the last quarter of 15th century.

Ritual of passage
Swords played an important role during ritual of passage by be-knighting. Young men usually aged 15 to 21, who were being prepared to become swordsmen, received a warrior’s belt and a sword, which bound them officially in service to their master and church (Flori 2008: 184–195). Such an example is Hungarian king Stephen, who was belted with a sword prior being crowned (Simon of Kéza: Gesta Hungarorum, ed. Veszprémy – Schaer 1999: 162–163), or Polish king Boleslaw III. Wrymouth who during a hunt in his childhood slew a boar and a bear using spear, was eligible to lead men into battle, while aged 14 despite “not being belted by a sword.” Circa around his 15th birthday, his father belted him by a sword during a feast, also granting swords to his peers (Gallus Anonymus: Gesta principum Polonorum II:18). Boleslaw’s story tells us that he was granted a sword only when he proved himself in both hunt and battle, which seem to be the general requirements for warrior’s initiation (Schjødt 2008: 352–355).

In other examples, warriors would lay their sword on an altar, from where they would remove them after the initiation. New knights were commonly initiated during king’s crowning. For example, Sigismund of Louxemburg knighted men during his crowning by taping three times on their left shoulder by St. Wenceslas’ sword (Žůrek 2014: 42).

Reward and a gift
One could obtain a sword as a gift, a reward or as a payment from his master. In Old Norse environment, such a way is explicitly mentioned several times. For example, Norwegian skald Þórbjǫrn Hornklofi mentions king Harald Finehair’s poets, who were rewarded for their service with golden rings, red cloaks, painted shields, swords with scabbards bound in silver wire, chainmail, gilded sword baldrics, bracelets and carved helmets (Hrafnsmál 19). Icelandic skald Þjóðólf Arnórsson mentions in one of his stanzas that during loot splitting obtained during battle at Helganes, he received a full armour consisting of chainmail, weapons, shield and a helmet (Stanzas about Magnus Óláfsson in Danaveldi 8). Last, but not least, skald Hallfreð Vandræðaskáld uttered a stanza at the end of 10th century, for which he received his fourth sword (Lausavísa 11). A reward or gift in form of a sword was mutually rewarding trade. The sword provided its bearer with noble status, but also bound to service in future. Rulers cared a great deal for their followers to represent the lord’s wealth appropriately through rich equipment, while gaining effective protectors in case of a conflict. It seems that those of elite status quite often gifted one another a sword during political meetings (Hampton 2011: 36) where swords served a client- or allegiance-representing role: the offering one had a upper-hand position, while the gifted was inferior, while the act of handing the sword over meant a bind in service (Falk 1914: 42). In Haralds saga hins hárfagra (41), the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan sends a sword to the Norwegian ruler, which acceptation is seen as a sign of inferiority: “The envoy put forward the hilt to the king, saying: ‚Here is a sword sent to you by king Aðalstein, wishing that you accepted it.’ The king took the hilt, to which the envoy replied: ‚You accepted the blade by king’s wishes, and by doing so, you became his liege.’” Also, in Óláfs saga helga (62), accepting the sword is explicitly understood as a symbol of vassalage.

Not only was a sword gifted, it could also be an intermediary in accepting other gifts. In Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (55), the main hero Egil was so saddened by his brother Þórólf’s death that he only sat impatiently, pulling the sword halfway out of the scabbard, frowning. King Aðalstein, whose his brother fought for, understood the meaning, took his golden ring off his hand (gullhringr), put it on his sword and pointed towards Egil. Egil drew his sword, taking the offered gift over: “(…) and sitting so for some time, the king took out his sword from its scabbard and took a golden ring from his arm, huge and fine, putting it on the tip of his sword. He then stood up and walked down to the floor and raised his sword with the ring towards Egil. Egil stood, unsheathing his own sword, walking down to the floor. He put his sword inside the ring, pulling towards himself, then went to sit once again. The king sat in his highchair and when Egil sat down, he put the ring on his arm, his eyebrow straightening once more.

present-dar-sword-rusPassing a gift. Source: Белая Рысь.

Insignia of warriors and king’s official
A description of richly dressed man bearing a sword is commonly found in medieval chronicles. Wealth and blinding beauty are often glorified – such as retainers, who were given to Godwin of Wessex by king Harðaknút, the last Danish king of England, in 1040. They were described as follows: “Each also wore a chainmail, partially gilded helmet, a sword with gilded hilt at his belt, and a Danish axe decorated with gold and silver on his left shoulder” (Florentius of Worcester: Chronicle). Similar testaments of representative look of a warrior are often found throughout the history. Not always was a sword given by the ruler though – king Cnut the Great is said to only have accepted to his elite group Þingalið only those from prestigious clans, who stood before him with their gilded axes and swords: “And so he declared and let his messenger to spread the word, that the merciful king can only be approached with the right of closer collaboration by those, who greet the king and embellishes the ranks of his warriors with glimmering glory of their gilded axes and sword hilts” (Sven Aggesen: Law of the Retainers, § 1–2). A similar record can be found in Gulaþingslǫg (309), which describes a standard equipment of Norwegian militia as follows: “A man ought to have a broad axe or sword, a spear and a shield, which is reinforced by three iron strips in its whole width and has the handle held in place with iron rivets.

A sword could be a symbol of not only warriors, but also of ruling officials. Such an example can be Old Russian mečnik, bailiff, tax collector and an occasional diplomat who placed wooden stamps inscribed with text and a sword symbol on collected assets (see Janin 2007: 266–268).

kolekWooden stamps attached by mečniks on collected furs. Source: Janin 2007: 267.

An oath
If the weapon was so tightly tied to personal honour as we believe, then it comes as no surprise that they were used during oath. The ruler’s vow on sword (áþ-sweord) is mentioned in Béowulf (verse 2064), while Nestor (Primary Chronicle 944, Téra 2014: 78) cites a decree from 944: “Non-Christian Russians are to lay their shields and bared swords, the forged belts and other arms, and let them swear on everything written in this decree: lest all who break their promise be killed by their own weapon and cursed by God and Perun too.” The vow on sword is also mentioned in response of pope Nicholas I. to Bulgarians from 866 (Dynda 2017: 26–29). Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Rerum gestarum libri, book 17: 12.16) mentions a vow on a bared sword that is placed at the neck of the swearing one in the 4th century. We can only add that according to a legend, Vrastislav, duke of the Bohemian tribe Lučané, stated before the battle at Tursko: “And I swear on the hilt of my sword, which I bear in hand, that I shall lay puppies to mothers’ breasts instead of their infants.“ (Kosmas: Chronica Boemorum I:10). Some sword finds seem to prove the literary sources; the wooden sword from Arum, Netherlands, mentions an oath (MacLeod – Mees 2006: 179-180).

meč-dominik (2)A sword locked with a band of peace. Source: Dominik Schörkl.

Sword as a part of the ruler establishing ritual
Throughout the entire Middle Ages, swords (including spears in some cases) were tightly tied to the act of formal passing of reign and establishing a ruler on throne (Flori 2008: 185–186). In such a case, the sword played a symbolic role of knightly virtues and military power, connected to a duty of protecting the subjects. The sword was similarly to other insignias commonly connected with some of the ruler’s famous predecessors; in Czech area, two Early Medieval swords survived in such a manner – the St. Stephen’s and St. Wenceslas’ – which were never archaeologised and thus are extremely well preserved.

Passing of the reign had three steps – the choosing, the enthronement (placing on the throne) and acclamation (shouting of glory). Sword was being used at least during the latter two steps. A common practice in late Middle Ages was bringing the sword during enthronement by a military dignitary in a ceremonial procession to church, where archbishop would hand it over to the king. King’s duty was to accept the sword, only to sacrifice it at the altar. One of attending royals would then buy out the sword, wearing the bared blade for the remainder of celebration in front of the king. In Hungary and Poland was additionally a custom for the king to swing the sword during a specific moment three times to each cardinal direction (Žůrek 2014: 41–42). Thietmar of Merseburg recorded a moment, when a Medieval man connected an incomplete enthronement ritual (lacking anointing and blessing) with incomplete sword (Thietmar of Merseburg: Chronicle I:8). Shouting of glory to the ruler with a weapon in hand is also recorded in High Middle Ages Norway, where this act was called vápnatak (Sverris saga 16).

Ruler on a throne. Source: Schietzel 2014: 574.

Carrying sword in front of a ruler
Each high rank nobleman had his own personal servant, which was responsible for caring of his master’s combat gear and carried his sword during special occasions – in Latin, such an office is called armigerensifer or gladifer. In some countries, this office was appointed in Early Middle Ages, in others, such as Norway, the office of king’s sword bearer appears as late as 13th century (Falk 1914: 42). The previous example of coronation shows that the bearer of king’s sword was usually the highest ranked military official – during the coronation of king George of Poděbrady in 1458, his sword was carried by Henry of Lipá, the Marshal of the Czech Kingdom together with other important men (Žůrek 2014: 29). Sometimes the bearers are made of young men from prominent families, to whom this service serves as a training for future career. For example, magnate Ansfrid, who in his youth served emperor Otto I., was during his journey to Rome tasked with pitching his majestic tent right next to that of the emperor and to carry his sword to show that he got accustomed to the court etiquette (Thietmar of Merseburg: Chronicle IV:31).

High Middle Ages chronicler Gallus Anonymus informs that it was perceived as highly rude if a traitor committing crimes against the crown would approach the king accompanied by his sword bearer. This suggests the sword attributing a sovereign status superiority (Gallus Anonymus: Gesta principum Polonorum III:25).

A ruler with his sword bearer. Source: Cathedral door in Gniezno, 12th century.

Royal insignia
In such instances that the ruler did not use a sword bearer’s service, he would carry his sword demonstratively hung at the belt. Einhard, chronicler of Charles the Great, wrote about his master: “He would dress in blue cloak and always carried his own sword with hilt and belt of silver and gold. Sometimes, he also carried a decorative sword, though only for ceremonies and receiving messengers from abroad.” (Vita Karoli Magni 23).

There are several cases of depicting medieval rulers holding a sword while sitting on throne – the sword is usually resting on knees with hilt on the right or depicted in vertical position. This is yet another representation of sword expressing the ruler’s function as protector of men and military commander. Sword symbolism was so popular among the elite that it was often used in name-giving (William Longsword, Hjǫrleif), on banners, coin design (minting of king Eric Bloodaxe, Slavnikid minting) etc.

Similarity to depicted rulers is also expressed in Grímnismál, in which king Geirrǫð sits on throne and grips his sword half-drawn. Another reference is provided by Hákonarmál (9) by skald Eyvind Finnsson, who mentions a fallen army being led to Valhalla by dead kings, who rest their drawn swords on their knees: “Kings sat with swords drawn, shattered shields and armours pierced.” This idea may be based on traditional depiction of king, but also be connected to placement during burial ritual, where the ruler’s body would be seated on throne in all his glory. The custom of laid sword is also mentioned in Hirðskrá (31), according to which would new members of retinue of Norwegian king raise his sword laying on his knees and then take a vow with Bible in their hand:

When the king accepts new members, no table should be placed in front of him. The king should have his sword placed on his knees, the coronation sword in case he was crowned, and his arm over it. The chape of his scabbard ought to point behind the ruler, with pommel resting on his right knee. (…) He, who is to become a member of retinue, is to kneel on floor or a step before the king and accepts the sword hilt with his right arm.

36633827_1730057513757050_6440239946375626752_nWilliam the Conqueror sitting on throne in his glory. Source: Bayeux tapestry, 11th century.

Usage during assemblies
Weapons used at assemblies and other mass gatherings best testify about the fact that their ownership was a matter of course. We have already mentioned vápnatak, which basically includes any shouting of glory or agreement with a weapon in hand. This Germanic custom appears in sources from 1st to 13th century: Tacitus wrote during assemblies, Germans had a custom of “waving and stomping their spears” and “ratification by weapons” the decision of court, while Magnus Lagabøte’s State Law from 1274 states that a decision becomes lawful only when “agreed upon by raised weapons and their bashing” (Starý 2013: 53). Sverris saga (20) mentions a situation in which people ratified king’s speech by weapons as an act of agreement. We can thus fairly expect that among the weapons used during vápnatak, swords were also present.

The assembly was a sacred place where armistice was in effect, and not only at the meeting itself, but also during the journey to it. The status of sacredness was also achieved by so called “bands of peace” (friðbǫnd), that is by bands most likely tying a sword to its scabbard, which prevented the weapon from being drawn for duration of the assembly (Starý 2010a: 321; Starý 2013: 133–134). Some Scandinavian and Baltic swords have handguards with penetrations or even rings that might had served this purpose (Tomsons 2012: Fig. 3, Fig 7). An excellent and quite detailed literary description can be found in Gísla saga (27), from which one can assume that merely touching another’s weapon was perceived at least curious:

“‚It is quite a jewel, that sword you bear in your hand,’ said young man. ‚Would you allow me to take a look?’
‚Quite an unusual request you ask,’ Þorkel replied, ‚but I shall allow it,’ handing him the sword. The young mang grabbed it, took a step back, removed the band that kept the sword secured for the duration of assembly and took the sword out.
‚I did not allow for you to unsheathe the sword,’ Þorkel chastened.

Shouting of glory to leader. Source: Przemek Zając, Wolin 2015.

Sword dancing
There are several celebrations of medieval and modern age Europe that can be associated with “carnival culture”, which represents a special condition for temporary suspension of usual everydayness and rollover of social cliché. A part of it could had been costumed parades, dances and chanting, theatre, excessive consumption of food and drinks.

Various Scandinavian and Continental depictions from 600-900 AD show characters wearing animal masks, in dancing position and a weapon in hand. The Oseberg Tapestry (ca. 830 AD) possibly portrays a funeral procession of which members of both sexes are dressed in masks and gripping weapons (Hougen 1940). Byzantine emperor Constantin VII. writes around 953 AD of “Gothic dance”, which takes place during ninth day of Christmas and during which men from his guard dressed in fur and masks to circle dance, sing and show a battle. Moreover, frescos from Kievan Saint Sofia Church from 11th century depict, among other things, a carnival with people bearing weapons and masks (Gunnel 1995: 66–76).

Sword dancing was also captured in 14th and 15th century Scandinavia (Gunnel 1995: 130–133). A reference by Lucas from Wielki Koźmin is also known from 15th century Poland: “I remember that in my youth, I read in some chronicle of Polish idols, and this custom prevailing to our current time, when young girls would dance armed with mauls and swords, shattering them mutually.” (Dynda 2017: 289). Modern history sword dances are recorded from majority of Europe and have survived till present day mainly in Great Britain (eg. Rapper Sword Dance a Highland Sword Dance), where they are exhibited during various celebrations; they also have a tradition in Croatia (Moruška) and Moravia, Czech Republic – the dance Pod šable (Beneath a sabre; free translation) from Moravian area Slovácko is performed by boys and men dressed in traditional costumes with wooden swords during carnivals.

Deity insignia
Swords appear in hands of supernatural beings and deities throughout entire Middle Ages, and not only in Europe. An example is a statue of Slavic god Svantovít in Arkona, Germany, which was carrying an enormous silver-plated sword (Saxo Grammaticus : Gesta Danorum 14.39.3 [Dynda 2017: 203]) or a statue of god Rugiaevit in Korenica (Saxo Grammaticus : Gesta Danorum 14.39.39 [Dynda 2017: 229]): “The artist gave him the same amount of swords in scabbards, hung at his waist on a single belt; the eight he held drawn in his right hand. That one was placed firmly in his hand and fixated by an iron nail preventing removal other than by cutting it off – which in the end happened anyway.

A belt of so called Zbruch Idol, a potentially Slavic idol from 10th century or a very credible fake from 19th century carries a sabre (Komar – Chamaiko 2011: 188–189). A sword is traditionally associated with several biblical characters and Christian saints – sword in Christianity represents a symbol of truth, pureness, equality, power and strength, which separates good from evil. The sword itself is cross-shaped, a feature undoubtedly often used.

Jesus in Psalter of Herman the Durynian (HB II 24).

Sword used during sacrifice
Periodical animal (and sometimes even human) sacrifice in pagan Europe is more than well documented. Strong animals were chosen for the purpose, which up to the act were privileged with inviolability. While we know of many details regarding the ceremonial and ritual sacrifice itself, there is basically no comment on the weapons used for that purpose. An image stone from Tängelgårda, Gotland, Sweden shows a scene in which a man holds horse’s bridle in one hand and a raised sword in the other. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a single literary source mentioning usage of sword as the tool for purpose of sacrifice.

A possible depiction of sacrifice on image stone from Tängelgårda, Sweden. Source:

Miniatures and wooden swords
Several miniature casts and forgings of swords have survived archaeologically – we know of 18 pieces from Scandinavia alone (Jensen 2010: 45–49). Their function is not though known – in some cases they seem to be amulets, in others they rather resemble a function of vocative gifts. We also know of wooden swords that might have been child toys (eg. Kolčin 1971: 52, Ris. 22) or burial swords, as will be described later. In several child graves, short swords up to 50 cm of length were found, that appear to be fully functional (eg. Peirce 2002: 86).

In my previous work (Vlasatý 2018) I gathered several dozens of swords with hilts of organic components. I am also aware of swords with wooden core covered in decorated metallic case (Vlasatý 2020). Despite various critical approaches these weapons seem to be fully functioning, that is, could have been used as weapons and symbols.

Context of combat

The importance of sword as a weapon in literary sources dominates and is so perceived till present day. It is important to note that sword had a limited utilization in some kinds of armed conflict (a duel, an assassination, self-defence) or in specific phases of battle. Swords could have been present in only some parts of the army; a significant portion of swords can be found in medieval cavalry; gradual changes in Early Middle Ages sword point towards mounted combat, where a sword with longer guard provided increased protection (personal discussion with Jiří Košta). From combat point of view, there was a strong tendency to avoid blocking with the swords; in the case of one-handed swords, a shield or a cloak was used for protection, while with two-handers, techniques called “warding” or “deflecting” were used, but neither case implemented a direct block by angling one’s blade to the opponent’s. The reason being such a block could irreversibly damage the sword and so it’s use could be assumed in an utmost crucial situation. We have various sources citing blades with deep cuts, both literary (eg. Vatnsdæla saga 39, an inch-deep cut is inflicted on a sword by curb hit) and archaeological, where pieces of metal are stuck in blades.

libusin_bojSpear attack. Libušín festival 2017.

Training, sword as a part of weapon set
As presented previously, swords were usually a part of military equipment, rather than being the sole part. This is based on structure of combat training, which started as early as childhood with unarmed wrestling, continued with pole weapons up to advanced techniques with the weapon of utmost grandeur – the sword. This is, among other sources, supported by the structure of late medieval and early modern age fencing manuscripts.

Regarding the sword training, Konungs skuggsjá (37) recommends daily training, and with significantly heavier equipment: “To this training wear heavy armour, be it chainmail or thick padded armour, in your hands carry heavy sword and heavy shield or buckler.” It is easy to imagine that a reasonable adoption of the techniques took a long time (even years) and Konungs skuggsjá additionally suggests that should one manage to learn fencing with one hand, he ought to start training the other too.

It seems that Early medieval men wore a wide arsenal of weapons into battles and used them accordingly to the situation. Florentius from Worcester (Chronicle 1040) describes warriors wearing helmets, chainmail and shields, armed with axes, spears and swords. Ibn Fadlan (Risala §81) describes the Rus who are armed with axes, knives and swords. In all kinds of sources regarding Early Middle Ages, the combination of pole weapon and sword is very common, which naturally results from the nature of combat. Spear played a major role in mass battles, especially in their early phases. Konungs skuggsjá (37) suggests: “Be very careful not to discard your spear in battle, unless you have two, because in ground formation, one spear if more useful than two swords.” The fact that this is a practical advice rather than a mere theorem from manual is supported by sources from all over Europe. Lay of Hildebrand or Battle of Maldon describe a battle initiated by spear throwing, followed by drawing swords. Gallus Anonymus (Gesta principum Polonorum III:23) records a moment where Polish retainers initiate battle as follows: “In that moment, the Polish youth rushed onto their enemy, first striking with spears and then drawing swords.” Among other sources, Óláfs saga helga (226) offers a textbook analysis of battle formation: “Those, who stood in first line, hacked with swords, and all the rest threw spears, fired their bows or threw rocks and axes and other weapons.

Similar combination of ranged and close combat is described in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar (116): “Then the bow torn in half. King Óláf asked: ‚What was that cracking sound?’ Einar replied: “Norway, my king, fell out of your hands’. ‚Not that loud of a noise,’ said king, ‚take my bow and shoot!’ With these words, he threw his bow. Einar took the bow and when the arrow tip could not even reach the bow’s drawn body, he claimed: ‚Too weak, too weak is the king’s bow!’ He discarded the bow, raised his shield and sword and threw himself into battle.

libusin_treninkTraining with a sword and a buckler. Source: Roman Král.

Drawing sword in affection
Aside of improving coordination, increasing muscle memory and toughening one’s body, training with weapons also positively affected one’s self-control required for adequate weapon usage. It is important to realise that drawing one’s weapon in public had a legal consequence, like in present day. This is reflected in several period lawbooks – Russkaya Pravda (§9; Téra 2015: 232) states: “He who draws a sword but does not swing it, pays one hryvnia.” Lawbooks of Stephen I. (Lawbook I : 16, Lawbook II : 15; Segeš – Šeďová 2011: 19–23) analogically state: “For peace to be always preserved and strengthened, especially between young and elder regardless on their legal status, it is forbidden for a sword to be drawn against another with the purpose of harm. He who would dare, may he be killed by the same sword.” and “Should one draw his sword out of anger but harms no one, may he pay half the fine of murder.” Another references are from The Legal Code of Alfred the Great (§15, §38,1; Čermák 2009: 480–481): „Should someone fight or draw a weapon in front of the Archbishop, may he pay hundred and fifty shilling; should that happen in front of yet another bishop or duke, may he pay another hundred shilling”, “Should someone interrupt a public assembly by drawing a weapon, may he pay hundred and twenty shilling to the duke.”

Despite these heavy penalisations, we encounter drawing weapon in affection quite often, especially in the context of crime revenge or dishonouring. Such an example is Njáls saga (120):

“Þorkel sprang up angry and raising his sword he yelled: ‚This sword I received in Sweden and killed with it the mightiest warrior, and many other great men since that day. And when I get my hands on you, I shall stab you with it for your insults.’ 
Skarphéðin stood with an outstretched axe and replied with a grin: ‚This axe I wielded when I jumped twelve cubits across the river Markarfljót and killed Þráin Sigfússon. Eight men accompanied him, but none could reach me. Never have I aimed my weapon, missing my target.’  
After these words, he pushed his brothers and brother-in-law Kári aside, approached Þorkel and threatened: ‚Þorkel, choose one of two: either sheathe your sword back to its scabbard and sit down, or I shall hit you with my axe in your head, splitting it in half down to your shoulders.’ 
Þorkel sat and sheathed his sword. Never before and neither ever later anything similar happened to him.

Threatening with a sword can also be included in this category. Aside of the mentioned quotation, it can also be found in connection with Boleslav I. who threatens with his sword during the construction of Stará Boleslav (Kosmas: Chronica Boemorum I:19).

wojtekEarly Middle Ages warrior with his weapon arsenal. Source: Wojtek Szlagura.

Taunting weapon strike
Dishonoring someone by taunting was seen as a serious crime – in many cases more serious than hurting someone physically. It is no surprise then that the law harshly penalised flat strikes, butting, striking with pommel and hitting someone with sheated sword.

“Should one hit another with a staff, pole, fist, goblet, horn or flat side of a weapon, may he pay 12 hryvnia.
(Russkaya Pravdaa §3; Téra 2015: 231)

“Should one hit another with a sword without drawing it out of scabbard, or by handle, may he pay fine of 12 hryvnia.
(Russkaya Pravda §4; Téra 2015: 231)

“Should one hit another with a staff, pole, axe haft or spear pole, may he pay half the fine.
(Gulaþingslǫg 195)

Legal fight of two men, who measure their skills in restrictive arena, has a long tradition in Europe. In many places, differentiated but locally standardised rules for duelling came to be. Commonalities include duelling arena isolation, in Early Middle Ages often represented by small islands surrounded by water (Bø 1969), and equal equipment, usually a sword and a shield (eg. Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 65; Kormáks saga 10; Priviledge of the king Bela IV to the colonists of Banská Bystrica [Segeš – Šeďová 2011: 125]), less often long axes and pole weapons together with swords suspended on straps around one’s wrist. Usually the fight concluded with first blood, though duels often ended with death. The swords could have a strictly given length (Kormáks saga 10).

Some sources mention lending a sword for duel or assassination. Such an example is Gísla saga (1), where Gísli borrows a sword Greyside (Grásíða) from slave Kol, who, refusing to return the sword, strikes Gísli with a mortal blow. Anglo-Saxon lawbooks punish lending a weapon by participation on paying the damaged side:

“He, who lends a weapon to another for contention in which no one is harmed, shall pay six shilling. Should it be used for armed assault on road, he shall pay twenty shilling.
(Æðelberht’s lawbook §18–20; Čermák 2009: 480)

“Should one lend another his weapon for the purpose of murder, they can, if they desire, pay wergild together. Should they not decide to pay together, the one lending the weapon shall pay one third of wergild and one third of financial penalty.“
(The Legal Code of Alfred the Great §19–19,1; Čermák 2009: 481)

“Should one lend a sword to another’s slave and he flees, may he who lent the sword pay one third [of the slave’s price].“
(Ine’s lawbook §29; Čermák 2009: 495)

soubojA duel. Source: Roman Král a Petr Ospálek.

Marching into battle
Drawn sword in the hands of a ruler is seen as an intent for war. In one charter from 1165 AD, in which king Stephen III. deprives the inhabitants of Bratislava castle and lower castle of military service and obligation to defend the castle, this act is mentioned (Charter č. 88, Marsina 1971: 85). According to a legend, Vlastislav, Duke of tribe Lučané demonstrated his ruling power by touring his sword across lands and all men who grew taller than the sword were to enlist. Those not compliant were to die by that very sword (Kosmas: Chronica Boemorum I:10). Circulating a weapon as a call-to-arms is also known from Scandinavia, where a “war arrow” was being sent (Falk 1914: 102).

This is also related to drawing a weapon during motivational speech prior to combat. According to legend, Vlastislav, Duke of tribe Lučané waved his sword prior the battle of Turkso, uttering motivational speech (Kosmas: Chronica Boemorum I:10). Similar situation is described in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar (13):

“Harald the Golden came to Háls in Limafjord and immediately suggested a battle to Harald Greycloak. He, despite having fewer men, betoke to mainland at once, preparing for battle, lining his man in formation. And before they got in formation, Harald encouraged his men, and having their swords drawn, he himself stood in the vanguard, slashing to both sides.

One of the possible ends of combat was lowering and submitting weapons. A great demonstration is recorded by Widukind of Corvey (Res gestae saxonicae III:69), who described a capitulation of Saxon nobleman Wichmann the Younger:

“He got surrounded by a huge crowd, which attacked him rapidly. Although very tired, he slew many men, but then raised his sword and with these words handed it over to the most significant of opponents: ‚Take this sword and give it to your master, for him to have it in holding as a sign of victory, and then giving it to his friend, the Emperor (…)’.

Capitulation of the garrison in Plön fortress, which included handing over weapons, is also mentioned in chronicle of Helmold from Bosau, possibly from 1075 AD (Helmold of Bosau: Chronica Slavorum I:25–26). The same chronicle (Chronica Slavorum I:64) notes that siege of Süsel fort in 1147 AD, during which 3000 attacking Slavs offered life to a hundred defending Frisians in exchange for laying down weapons, to which a local clergyman replied: “If we are without weapons, all we have left is a disgraceful death. That is why we will not hand over our sword, which voluntary surrender they request, instead bury them in their bone’s marrow and avenge your blood.” In 1076 AD, Boleslaw II the Pious conquered Kiev, where while passing through the Golden gate drew his sword, hacking it into the gate door (Gallus Anonymus: Gesta principum Polonorum I:7, I:23). This act of “piercing the gate” is seen as humiliation of the losing side and in the source is put in context with the following sexual disgrace of the princess, which Boleslaw originally courted.

War booty, ransom and trade article
Considering the extremely high price of swords, it is no surprise that they became a war booty and a trade article. At least in Early Middle Ages, the war booty was hoarded in a single place and eventually redistributed in a way mentioned earlier, which is also known from skald poems. Salvaging weapons on a battlefield can also be seen on the Bayeux tapestry. Sword as a loot obtained from fallen warrior is explicitly mentioned in Gísla saga (35). Anglo-Saxon song Battle of Maldon, which describes a clash with Scandinavian invaders, is a good example of why Anglo-Saxon booty was so sought after: “And so an armed sailor hopped to the magnate, desiring to rid him of valuable rings, clothes and armour, even gilded sword” (Battle of Maldon 159–161). This is a total match to our perception of Old Norse society, in which a major part of single young men was motivated towards risky business, which could increase both their wealth and social status, thus improving position on marital market (Raffield et al. 2017).

The distribution of Early Middle Ages swords itself suggests a major movement of weapons and weapon components across Europe, which could be greatly affected by the market itself (Androščuk 2014: 175–193). During reign of Charles the Great, Frankia sought to erection of several capitularies regulating sales of military equipment and horses to foreigners. Specifically, Capitulare Herstallense (779), Capitulare Mantuanum (781), Capitulare missorum in Theodonis villa (805) and Capitulare Bononiense (811) – in that time, “foreigners” meant Slavs, Avars, Saxons, Bretons and Moors. Several decades later, Edictum Pistense was decreed by Charles II the Bald, forbidding sales of war gear and horses to Scandinavians (which can be archaeologically proved) under the penalty of death (Coupland 1990). The weapon market is otherwise mention rather rarely. In Eiríks saga rauða (11), the Skrælings are interested in buying swords and spears, but the Scandinavian chieftains forbid their men from the trade. Vatnsdæla saga (17) mentions Igmund’s interest in buying a quality sword. Landnámabók (Sturlubók 152) mentions an exchange of a sword and an axe for two horses with black mane. In the matter of exchange, we ought to mention two swords that were handed over as a part of ransom; in the case of archbishop Rotland of Arles in 869 AD, an insane sum of hundred and fifty swords was paid (Coupland 1990).

sber_zbraniCollecting weapons on battlefield. Source: Bayeux tapestry, 11th century.

Swords were undoubtedly favourite weapons for committing murder. Assassinations can be found almost in every chronicle – murders of important characters were important event worth remembering and recording. They were commonly executed in the least guarded moments – during feasts, on toilet, in sanctuaries or on the way to them, in bed, on boats etc. Such events therefore required an increased security. Ibn Rustah mentions that Rus had to mutually protect one another while at toilet, for the threat from enemies craving their wealth was too high (Brøndsted 1967: 206). Defenders of a high-rank person did not hesitate to protect their master and his family with their own bodies if they were not bribed previously. We often encounter the assassins having swords hidden beneath a cloak till the very last moment:

“Theobald approached closer, as if he wanted to talk to him, though he suddenly drew a sword which he brought hidden beneath his cloak, and cut his head off with a single blow.
(Rodulfus Glaber: Historiarum, III:39)

This fact was very well known to people in the security business. Konungs skuggsjá contains a whole chapter (31) on reasons why not to approach the king in cloak. The main passage is as follows:

“It is a custom of well-mannered men to appear without a cloak in the presence of men of power and status, and those not respecting this custom are called yokels. (…) He who stands cloaked in front of the chieftain is expressing his equality to the one he approaches, as he comes dressed in his best apparel like the ruler and behaves as someone who does not need to serve. (…) It is important to also consider which requires caution, that many envy their king, and if his opponent is rash and brave, he might approach the king with concealed dangers and murderous weapons, if he had a cloak. Without a cloak, this would not be an easy task.

Especially calculating is Þorbjǫrg from Harðar saga ok Hólmverja (39), who orders an assassination of her husband, to which he intentionally damages scabbard in a way so that his sword would fall out spontaneously, preventing her husband from using it in defence during his travels.

Using sword for suicide
The motif of suicide is very rare in Old Norse literature. Men act in this way in order to protect their honour or to express their grief. An example is Haki from Hálfdanar saga svarta (5), who after losing his hand, house, menials and wife, “turned the hilt of his sword towards ground and impaled himself on the blade, that the sword got though him entirely.” Another suicide is found in Vatnsdæla saga (23), where Eyvind and Gaut impale themselves on their swords from grief after death of their relative Ingimund. According to legend from Kosmas Chronicle (Kosmas: Chronica Boemorum I:13), a duke gives a choice of death to treacherous Durynk: “Either you jump head-first from a tall cliff, hang yourself with thine hand on any tree, or your criminal life end by your own sword.” Committing suicide using a sword is also found among heroes, such as Brynhild after Sigurð’s death (Sigurðarkviða hin skamma 47–48).

We also include accidents during which owner of the weapon, or his family member could be fatally wounded. Mythological Grímnismál ends with an unintentional suicide, when Geirrǫð stumbles and impales on his own sword.

Torture and execution
Torture carried out with a sword is mentioned by Helmold of Bosau in reference to killing Slavic clergymen at the end of 10th century; the clerics were to have crosses cut on their heads, skulls cracked open and they were to wander the land with hands tied behind their backs (Helmold of Bosau: Chronica Slavorum I:16).

Execution by sword is an honourable death from the period perspective. It was undergone by some men, whose skeletons were found at Ridgeway Hill in England (Loe et al. 2014Woosnam-Savage – DeVries 2015: 37–38), which is partial match to what we know from Jómsvíkinga saga (36–37), where the captured warriors are one by one questioned and then executed by sword. When the executioner wanted to disgrace the prisoner prior to his death, he denied him beheading by sword, similar to Sigismund of Luxembourg towards Jan Roháč from Dubá, whom he disgraced by hierarchically comprised gallows with Roháč on the very top (Borovský 2014: 386).

Destruction of the sword

It is convenient that the sword’s end is connected to death of its wielder or an important change of his mind. In this final chapter, we attempt to summarise the topic of weapon’s destruction and perhaps suggest approaches that were not yet applied.

Sword buried with a man
Swords are found in many pre-historic and Early Middle Ages graves. The reasons for burial along a specific persona are several. In Old Norse literary sources, this is seen as a custom held by the residuaries in order to abide formalities of rich graves, preservation of prestige and honouring the dead. The grave was concurrently a game with senses, appealing to sight, hearing and smell and was to evoke a feeling that everything is alright like prior to one’s death. It is without a doubt that a major part of buried weapons belonged personally to the deceased, and we can not rule out a possibility of a dying wish to be buried with the person’s weapon. Let us present four mentions of Old Norse burials including war gear:

“And he raised his corpse, cleaning and arranging it as was customary. The dug a grave there and placed Þórólf in it along all his weapons and clothing. Before saying goodbye, Egil reached to him, putting a golden arm-ring on each his arm.
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 55)

“There, at the edge of that cape, Egil had a mound erected. To it, Skallagrím and his horse were placed, along with his weapons and his craft tools.
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 55)

“King Hákon was so mourned that both his friends and enemies grieved his death, saying no such king will ever rule Norway. His friends carried his body to Sæheim in Northern Hǫrðaland and piled up a large mound there, to which they laid the king with all his gear and best clothing, but no other goods. Over his grave they conversed as Pagans are accustomed and shown him way to Valhalla.
(Hákonar saga góða 32)

“He placed a drink, fruit and a stringed musical instrument next to him in grave (…). They dressed him in pants, trouser legs, shoes, tunic and silk caftan with golden buttons. On his head they placed a sable-lined silk cap. Carrying him from tent to boat, they laid him to the rest on a blanket and underlaid him with pillows. Then they brought a drink, fruits and herbs, arranging them around him. Also, they brought bread, meat and onions, placing them in front of him, a dog cut in half laid on the deck, and all his armament next to him. Then they brought two horses, which they drove until they started sweating, cut them in pieces and threw their meat on deck. Then they brought two cows, also cutting them in pieces and throwing them on deck, and they also killed a rooster and a hen.
(Ibn Fadlan : Risala §89)

In some cases, we can notice drawn swords, which were carried tip-down during the funeral processions, eventually buried with the deceased. Such an example is found on image stone from Tängelgårda, Gotland, Sweden or Oseberg tapestry, an iconographic source from 9th century, which depicts a character in horned helmet holding a sword tip-down (Hougen 1940). A similar occurrence is recorded by chroniclers during burial of Charles IV (Šmahel 1993Šmahel 2014: 146) and Ladislaus the Posthumous (Šimek – Michálek Bartoš 1937: 121).

A major part of Early Middle Ages militaria bears marks of intentional and sometimes quite laborious damage – braking, bending, rolling, damaging the blade, splitting of shield or helmet. Nature of the sword deformation could easily correspond with its quality – some were only able to be bent, others were more prone to breaking. Blacksmith and reenactor Ondřej Borský, who experimentally destroyed a sword, states that the rolling up of the sword is difficult in the fact that the process can burn different layers of the sword; as strange as it may sound, the complete rolling of the sword requires a good craftsman who can ensure that there is no unwanted destruction of the sword during the process. Researcher Steven Blowney (Blowney 2016) calculated that cca 7,5% of Norse swords from the Viking Age, found within graves or outside, is bent, though he did not count any other forms of destruction. More precise counting shows the average percentage of bent blades is above 17% (Aannestad 2018: Tab. 2a). This suggests that rendering a weapon useless was a widespread tradition, which can be recorded in whole Europe as early as Prehistoric times, basically up to Modern times.

British researcher Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson (1998: 11) came to conclusion that in some cases, the devalued weapons can be perceived as successful offerings. Much more often – as she admits – the destruction had a practical reason, as it was supposed to prevent grave robbers from stealing clan treasures. Basically no one so far considered the intentional destruction from the perspective of a deep connection between man and his weapon; the weapon is a personal object, eventually a family insignia, which may not fall into hands of an unauthorised person. It is thus symptomatic for the deceased to be departed to “the other side” with a “dead” weapon, which can only be of use to its owner in the afterlife. In The Song of Roland (2300–2354), Roland rather breaks his sword Durandal on a stone than letting it become a spoil of war, suggesting his own fall. A similarity can be found in Arthurian legends, where a sword is thematised as being stuck in a stone, waiting for a rightful man to rule the kingdom.

An interesting note is found in Staré letopisy české, according to which a sword got broken during the funeral of Ladislaus the Posthumous, along with his royal seal, majesty, apple, crutch and his banner – all the official insignia of king’s office, which expired along with the kings’s death:

“And then, after the masses, king’s seal and majesty they broketh and canceleth; the sword they could not break for long, a sharp one which they carried ahead of the deceased king, tip down to the ground; the apple so and his crutch, that is sceptrum they broketh, canceleth and even spoileth further. Even his banner with vanes, tooketh the curator with Czech coat of arms, walketh thrice round the grave, he left not, throwing it on ground, tearing it.
(Šimek – Michálek Bartoš 1937: 121).

In order to the valued coronation swords not having to be damaged, in some cases was the sword substituted with a wooden, silver-plated replacement, such as during the funeral of Ladislaus II in 1516 AD (Šmahel 2014: 128). The same practice can also be observed in archeology, as shown by the sword with antler guard from grave 248 in the Estonian locality of Siksälä (Laul – Valk 2007: 195–196). Another fact to consider is the Czech phrase “die in the sword-line”; when a side branch of the Premyslids died out in 1521 with Valentine, Duke of Ratibor, the residuaries reflected on the dying out by placing a broken sword on his coffin (Čapský 2014: 239). The sword here visualizes a vitality of both single man and a clan living through the individual, and with no owner or a rightful heir alive, the sword’s meaning for existence ceases to exist. It is thus a reason to ponder over other swords found in graves possibly reflecting this logic too.

An artistic reconstruction of the Oseberg mound. Source: Ragnar L. Børsheim, Arkikon.

Sacrificing the sword
Another way for the sword reaching its end could be via sacrifice. As best documented sacrifices can be considered those carried out in water. We know of massive depots counting thousands of intentionally damaged militaria (eg. Alken Enge, Illerup Ådal, Kragehul Nydam, Vimose) that made both by repeated depositions possibly after won battles (eg. Ilkjær 2002), also occasional finds which could be interpreted as random or losing a battle. Sacrifices in water are greatly researched by Julie Lund (200320042008), who interprets as a sacrifice any item stored in swamps, river mouths and natural harbours, near former bridges and fords. A realistic point of view should also include random loses, loses during battle and tactically damaging the weapon equal to contemporary act of destruction of an ammunition depot. It is truth though that sacrifice in water had a long tradition, which was most likely based on the assumption that water, like forest, represents outskirts of society, in which order is not present, thus being a place full of danger and supernatural forces (Lund 2008: 54; Ney 2007: 66). Sacrificing in wells was customary up to Modern Era, even in the form of petty votive offerings, and we still consider it good luck throwing a coin into a well, fountain or lake.

There are several sources on sacrificing militaria and their storing in tabernacles. For example, the Triglav’s sanctuary in Szczecin, Poland “it was in accordance with an ancient custom of forefathers and the law to hoard on tithe valuable spoils, enemy weapons and anything else which they obtained in naval and ground battles. Silver and golden cups were also present, which the noblemen and foremen used for boding, feasting and drinking, and which were on holidays brought to the shrines. Also they stored there gilded and gemmed majestic horns of wild bulls, suitable either for drinking or making sound, and also swords and daggers and a lot of furniture so expensive and beautiful at sight, all that for decoration and honouring their gods” (Herbord : A dialogue about the life of Bishop Otto of Bamberg II:32 [Dynda 2017: 153–154]).

Military equipment was also sacrificed in Catholic church – for example three armigers who stood guard during king Charles Robert’s funeral, were sacrificed to the shrine along with their armour and horses (Dvořáková 2007: 62–63). Although it is questionable whether placement of the weapons in a sanctuary or church was final – at least in case of Triglav’s sanctuary, this was not the case and the items were given away after its destruction.

Digging the sword into ground
For the sake of completeness, we ought to mention intentional placement of sword in ground. Kosmas mentions that Prince Svatopluk buries his sword prior entering convent (Kosmas: Chronica Boemorum I:13). The meaning is obvious – a warrior gives up that which defines his status and accepts a new role. In Béowulf (2244–2245, 2760–2763, 2767, 3047–3049), swords are mentioned as a part of depot stored a long time ago in burial mound by a man who lost the remainder of his clan. The depot consisting of drinking horns and other vessels, old and rusty helmets, arm-rings, golden weathervane and precious, yet rusty swords, is appropriated by a dragon, who the protagonist Béowulf confronts. While the swords are non-functional, they are still considered valuable given their past and antiquity.

destrukceSeveral examples of Early Middle Ages swords with intentional damage.

Destruction in battle
A sword could be easily damaged in battle, as often referenced in sagas. We know of damaged, jagged blades (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar 117; Vatnsdæla saga 39), blades bent and straightened in battle (Eyrbyggja saga 44), broken blades (Heiðarvíga saga 30; a blade breaking on helmet in Gull-Þóris saga 13) and swords breaking at the hilt (Landnámabók [Sturlubók 152]; breaking sword at the hilt on shield in Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga 11 and Njáls saga 30).

The material of sword was valuable and so if the sword broke, the material would be recycled. There is a find of spear/harpoon with back-hooks (krókaspjót) from Iceland, which has a groove, thus suggesting it was originally a sword (Eldjárn 2000: 344). Such a transformation has a parallel in Gísla saga (11): “Þorgrím was a very skilled smith. It is said the both Þorgríms and Þorkel went to the smithy, closing themselves up in there. Then they took fragments of sword Grásíða, which Þorkel inherited in division of property of brothers, and Þorgrím forged them into a spear. This work took them till the end of the day.“

Losing a sword
We have already mentioned losing a sword previously. A good example of such a weapon is a sword from Lesja (C60900), which was lost on an iceberg and which got exquisitely preserved due to being in ice (Vike 2017). As lost militaria connected with an attack of Czech Duke of Bohemia, Bretislav I in 1038 AD was interpreted a huge bundle of weapons found beneath swords leading to Lednica island in Poland (Kola – Wilke 2000: 55–85). Interpretations operating with tactical depreciation of arms, which no one could carry, and which were not to fall in enemy hands at the same time should in this perspective offer a better solution.

Experimental destruction of sword type E. Author: Ondřej Borský.

Here we will finish this article. Thank you for your time and we look forward to any feedback. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.



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One Response

  1. An excellent article, thank you for sharing your hard work and research.
    I was particularly interested in references to Scabbards and baldrics. The former, in some cases, being silver bound with wire. The baldrics similarly, were in some cases, gilded!
    Thank you again.

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