A re-evaluation of an old weapon
In the 19th century, a sword from the 9th century was found in the bottom of the Seine near Paris, which was equipped with an exceptionally well-preserved scabbard and fittings. The set, which is not very well known in the literature, is a crucial find for understanding the wider context regarding the emergence of new progressive types of swords, the construction of scabbards and the use of Carolingian fittings.
The Gay Collection and its fate
The sheathed sword that is the subject of this article belongs to a group of militaria collected by the French architect, passionate researcher, member of the French Society of Antiquities and collector Victor Gay (1820-1887). This researcher’s lifelong interest in medieval and Renaissance material culminated in the writing of a monumental work, more than eight hundred pages long Glossaire archéologique du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance (Archaeological Glossary of the Middle Ages and Renaissance), published in 1887, in which he listed a number of items from his collection.
After Gay’s death, the art component of the collection moved to the Louvre National Museum (published by Migeon 1909), while “pieces less suitable for the Louvre were auctioned, including a large collection of arms which had at that time been purchased by a Parisian arms dealer” (Post 1911: 76). The auction of the collection, which included approximately 170 items including 40 swords, 45 daggers, 30 pole and firearms, 18 spurs, 2 cannons and 3 helmets, took place at the Bacherreau auction house in 1909. With the significant help of Emperor Wilhelm II., who showed interest in the collection and did not hesitate to pay 30,000 marks for it, the Berlin armory Zeughaus became the new owner, whose funds were significantly expanded by the collection. The collection was brought to the armory in 1911, when it was published by Paul Post.
By being incorporated into museum holdings, Gay’s original collection was fragmented. After World War II, exhibits from the Zeughaus were transferred to the Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (MfDG), and after German reunification to the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM). It can be assumed that a significant part of the original collection can be stored in the DHM, as evidenced by the records created not long before the merger of the two museums (Müller 1986). At least one sword from the original collection is now in the Royal Armories in Leeds (Royal Armories 2020). The current location and condition of the sword, which we will discuss further, is unknown, but it can be expected that if the specimen survived the turbulent 20th century, then especially its organic component might be significantly damaged. In a personal conversation, Zbigniew Robak told us that the find probably did not survive the Second World War. The same was confirmed by Roland Warzecha who attempted to contact Deutsches Historisches Museum.
As far as we know, the set or parts of it have been published a total of eleven times. The oldest publication of the find is Gay’s original work from 1887, where the sword is graphically depicted with the caption:
„[…] pattern welded blades matching the following attached image. It is a depiction of an object left by the fearsome Frisian Normans at the bottom of the Seine during their invasion and occupation of Paris in 885. The second piece, coming from the same source, but more complete and accompanied by goldsmith’s work, leaves no doubt of their common origin. […]“ (Gay 1887: 22-3)
„An example with a certain date brings us to the last years of the 9th century. From a series of swords coming from the siege of Paris in 885, we selected a piece […] with a gilded silver fitting […] which shows a style that is neither French nor Danish, but Frisian […].“ (Gay 1887: 641)
„Year 885. Frisian sword with scabbard, handle and slider made of wood. [The fitting] is silver with gold parts.“ (Gay 1887: 642)
Drawing of the sword by Gay 1887: 642.
The second and no less important publication of the find is presented by Paul Post in 1911, who describes the items received in the Zeughaus armory. His publication provides the only known photograph along with a more comprehensive description:
„Probably the most interesting piece in the entire collection is an early Romanesque sword found near Paris, together with a well-preserved scabbard […]. The badly corroded and damaged blade bears signs of pattern-welding, not uncommon in the Early Middle Ages. The hilt with a semicircular pommel still has a wooden handle with longitudinally directed annual rings. The wooden scabbard with the remains of the former textile cover is broken into two separate, slightly bent halves, which formed the front and back walls of the scabbard. On both walls of the scabbard, there are thin, parallel furrows at regular intervals of approximately 6 cm, which indicate where the straps connecting the two halves of the scabbard originally led. On the central part of the upper end of the outer side of the scabbard, there is a butterfly-shaped protrusion made of wood with longitudinally directed annual rings. This one is probably a remnant of the baldric attachment system. A belt fitting was found along with the sword […] with not very detailed plant ornamentation that emerges from a gilded background. This fitting poses a problem for dating the weapon. According to the available information, the fitting belongs to the early Christian period, close to the Tassilo Chalice. The semicircular head, on the other hand, hardly allows such an early dating and goes to the 11th-12th century […]. This conflicts with Gay’s original suggestion that the hilt sword belongs together. Gay’s hypothesis that both the sword and the fitting belonged to a Frisian Norman besieging Paris in 885 must be questioned to a great extent.“ (Post 1911: 77-80)
Photo of the sword. Taken from Wamers 1981: Abb. 11.1a.
The scabbard of the Paris find also appeared twice in the works of Alfred Geibig:
„In this context, three sword scabbards from Paris, France, and Stiens, Netherlands, can be mentioned, which lead to the same conclusion. All three scabbards consist of two wooden halves with the remains of a textile covering. In the case of the Paris find, on the front side, near the mouth of the scabbard, there is a preserved ‘butterfly-shaped’ protrusion made of wood with longitudinally running annual rings, which Post […] interprets as a possible ‘remnant of the baldric attachment system’. Traces of a second, but broken off protrusion with a similar base can be observed just below it.“ (Geibig 1991: 107)
„Wooden remains of various patterns and sizes, probably from the suspension system, can also be found on the Paris, Stiens and Schortens specimens.“ (Geibig 1999: 43)
Probably the greatest attention was paid to the fitting, which was included in analyzes of Carolingian fittings a total of seven times (Arbman 1937: 173; Fraenkel-Schoorl 1978: 358, Kat.-Nr. 13; Lennartsson 1997/1998: 565, Kat.-Nr. 48, Taf. 10.8; Robak 2013: Tab. XCII.9; Wamers 1981: 109, Abb. 11.1; Werner 1969: 501, Pl. 26c; Zimmermann 1923: 64-5). The two texts below are worth quoting, which mention the dimensions and description of the decoration:
„The front side is edged with two parallel, raised lines. The outer one has a beaded edge, the inner one has a central notch filled with niello. Inside, there is a field decorated with a pattern resembling tendrils growing from the centers of two flowers. Some tendrils are topped with clusters of grapes that are decorated with niello dots. All the tendrils are filled with niello lines.“ (Fraenkel-Schoorl 1978: 358)
„Cast oval fittings, gilded silver inlaid with niello. Originally attached with three rivets located on circular washers. Two rivets were placed on the longer sides, somewhat away from the central axis of the fittings, and the third was placed on the front side. Only one rivet, decorated with pearl decoration, has survived. Length 5.8 cm, width 3.5 cm. […] A stray find placed on a wooden scabbard containing a pattern-welded sword, which is atypical of the Carolingian period.“ (Lennartsson 1997/1998: 565)
More detailed drawing of fittings according to Wamers 1981: Abb. 11.1b.
Rethinking the sword and scabbard
The evaluation of the sword from Gay’s collection makes sense not only because it is an extraordinarily interesting and well-preserved specimen, but also because it can help raise new questions related to the beginning of a new trend in Carolingian swords in the 9th-10th century. The description should therefore be meticulous and should address all three components – the sword, the scabbard and the fitting. We will choose this sequence for the next part of this chapter.
Despite its austerity, we are able to read the basic data about the original appearance and circumstances of the find from the published information. The sword, with a pattern-welded blade and a preserved wooden handle, was housed in a wooden scabbard, which was fitted with a wooden slider and a gilded silver fitting, which were still attached to the scabbard. This set, along with at least one other sword, was discovered at the bottom of the Seine near Paris. Post elsewhere states that the length of the find is 720 mm.
Both Gay and Post’s comments are burdened by the fact that they were made before the publication of Petersen’s typology (Petersen 1919). For that reason, the sword was viewed as a Romanesque product of the 11th-12th century, which is incompatible with the Carolingian fitting. This information is also adopted by Wamers and Lennartsson. A photo published by Post shows that the base of the pommel is riveted, suggesting a two-piece construction of the pommel. Knowing this important design feature, the sword can be assigned to Petersen’s type N (Petersen 1919: 125-6) or Geibig’s type 8 (Geibig 1991: 48-50). Swords of this type are believed to have originated in the Frankish Empire in the 9th century and were in use in Western and Central Europe until the beginning of the 10th century (Košta – Hošek 2014: 248-9). The appearance of N type swords is directly related to the X type (analogous shape with a one-piece pommel) and was initiated by the clashes of cavalry units of the internally divided Frankish Empire of the 2nd quarter of the 9th century, which is evidenced by the longer length of the weapon (usually 90-101 cm), better constructed blade and an elongated guard (usually 9-13 cm long). Although Gay’s text presented exaggerated interpretations from today’s perspective, it was essentially more accurate than Post, who considered the components of the find to be incompatible. A more precise determination of the hilt within Geibig’s combination typology is not possible without additional information. The well-preserved handle appears barrel-shaped in Gay’s original drawing, but the photo shows that it gradually tapers from the guard to the pommel. Due to disintegration, in the photos it is equipped with a pair of wires that hold it in place. The total length of the hilt, judging by analogies, could have been roughly 14-16 cm.
A significantly damaged blade allows only a brief comment. Corrosion mainly affected the area of the fullers and the edge. The fuller appears to extend to the guard and has been filled in with a pattern welded panel, the twist of which appears to be ZS or ZSZ. Judging by analogies of complete swords, it can be assumed that roughly the final 20-25 cm is missing from the blade, which was apparently partly broken off with the end part of the scabbard, partly when removing the weapon from the scabbard.
Geibig type 8 hilt diagram. Geibig 1991: Abb. 9.
Schematic production of a two-piece pommel of type N and the method of fixing rivets using slag.
Košta – Hošek 2014: Fig. 148.
A well-preserved scabbard is a real rarity in the Early Middle Ages and there is no doubt that the scabbard from the Gay collection is one of the best preserved. The value of this scabbard lies primarily in the fact that it is one of the few scabbards that can be related to Frankish iconography. It is a great shame that we learn so pitifully little information from the descriptions. It is clear that the base was made up of two slabs, as was standard in the Early Middle Ages. Post further informs us about the textile covering, imprints in the scabbard and the slider, but does not specify whether the slider and wrappings were placed under or on top of the covering, and so we must undertake this task now, while we must source from both Post’s photograph, analogous finds, period iconography and practical knowledge of scabbard production.
Early medieval scabbards’ organic sliders seem to always be placed under the covers. This is evidenced by finds of leather covers from Anglo-Saxon England and Dublin, on which imprints of the original sliders are still visible (Cameron 2007: Fig. 46; Mould et al. 2003: 3355-3366), as well as the wooden slider from Haithabu (Geibig 1999: 43- 4, Taf. 17) and Frankish iconography, especially the Stuttgart Psalter, fol. 105r and 158v. Some scabbards testify to the firm fixation of a wooden slider to the wall of the core (Ypey 1964: Taf. 1-3) or to the creation of an opening directly in the wall of the core (Mould et al. 2003: 3355). Only metal sliders seem to be placed outside the covering (Arwidsson 1977: Abb. 60-64; Eldjárn 2016: 326, 328; Kalousek 1971: 111-2, Obr. 174.2; Tomsons 2012: 88, 30. Att.) and therefore it seems that their placing under the cover has a certain connection to the lower strength of the material. Apparently it was desirable that the baldric would still be attached to the scabbard, if only by a organic cover, in the event of a rupture of the organic slider. For this reason, it seems likely that the find in the Gay collection was not an exception, and that the cover completely or largely overlapped the slider, even though Gay’s drawing would make it appear that the imprint located closest to the guard runs under the slider, which would if the drawing is correct, it could mean that the slider was placed outside the cover. When examining the photo, however, it seems that the drawing is not correct in this detail – the imprint is located at the level of the leg of the slider, which is relatively low, and it is likely that the original strap, after which the imprint remained, was partly used to fix the slider from the outside and was not inserted under the slider. An interesting fact is that the slider is damaged in the photos, namely in the highest part, which is also the narrowest point of the butterfly slider. The slider is approximately of the same length as the handle, i.e. around 10 cm.
A diagram showing the shapes of the sliders based on imprints in the leather, together with the indicated cut-outs. Mould et al. 2003: 3363, Fig. 1688.
Neither the written information nor the photographs testify to the use of any other than textile covering, apparently linen. The leather cover is not mentioned and given the level of preservation it can be argued that it was quite possibly not used. It is not known if only one layer of textile was used, or if there were several layers. From the use of textiles and the wrapping imprints, it is clear that the scabbard from the Gay collection represents the type of elite equipment that appears in 9th century Frankish iconography, notably the Stuttgart Psalter (820-830), the Utrecht Psalter (820-835), and the Vivien Bible (845-846). Almost every scabbard depicted in the first two iconographic sources has the following two features: a plain white or gray covering and wrappings that are sparse in the upper two thirds and very dense in the final third. The dense wrapping of the ends of the scabbards, which serves to strengthen the most stressed part, is known for swords and their components from the 9th-10th centuries from Denmark (Pentz 2009: 196), Germany (Geibig 1991: 104–105), Great Britain (Harris et al. 2017: Fig. 7; Paterson et al. 2014: 94-6), Norway (Vlasatý 2022), the Czech Republic (Košta – Hošek 2014: 60-70), Sweden (Arkeologerna 2023) and Russia (Kainov 2012: 46–54). The scabbard we describe lacks the tip, which was very likely reinforced in the same way, but it is the only archaeologically recorded scabbard that demonstrates wrappings in the upper two-thirds of the lenght.
According to Post, the wrapping imprints are spaced approximately 6 cm apart, and from the drawing it can be concluded that there were at least 7 wrappings on the preserved part of the scabbard. The absence of straps and the presence of imprints in the remains of the wood-textile composite indicate that the wrappings were attached outside the covering, where they could have more easily perished. We do not know their original form; apparently they were narrow leather or textile straps, the exact method of tying them is unknown. In Gay’s original drawing, the wrappings appear as simple lines, but from Post’s photograph it appears that these lines may have been woven into crosses at the bottom of the object, similar to iconography. In light of this discovery, it appears that the purpose of these straps was to hold the scabbard together, provide additional protection, hold the slider, and secure the side (bottom) strap from slipping. In addition, the only known photograph shows two modern mounts, namely a wire at the level of the center of the slider and the strap at a distance of 1/5 from the current end of the scabbard; these mounts prevented the scabbard from disintegrating.
Unfortunately, we cannot give any more detailed information on the subject of the lining and the possible gluing or coloring of the cover. In Notker’s Life of Charlemagne, bright white linen is used to cover the scabbard that is hardened with shining wax so that the final scabbard offers a protection to the leg of the wearer (Androshchuk 2014: 107).
Western European iconography depicting wrapped sheaths.
Geibig 1991: Abb. 29.
Attachment system of the baldric
The fitting found together with the sword is exceptional and allows a closer classification of the set, which is otherwise datable to the period of the 2nd third of the 9th century to the beginning of the 10th century. At the outset, it should be noted that the value of the find also includes the fact that the sword was found together with the fitting. Carolingian sword fittings are very rare with swords and are found exclusively outside the Frankish Empire, where there are no sword burials in the 9th-10th century. The finds therefore come from countries that are not an integral part of the empire – in the territory of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Great Britain (Wachowski 1992: 25, Tab. 4), Sweden (Androshchuk 2014: 110-2) and Austria (Robak 2013 II: 66).
Fittings can be rated based on shape and decoration. The shape corresponds to one of the variants of oval fittings mentioned by Wachowski (1992: 22, Ric. 11) and which is part of his type II.2, the center of usage of which he places in the second half of the 9th century (Wachowski 1992: 19-22, Ric. 14). In Ungerman’s revision of Wachowski, the fittings can be assigned to type A, which refers to all sets with trefoil fittings, which, according to the author, can be assigned to roughly the middle of the 9th century (Ungerman 2015: 259, 261). Robak (2013: 114-6; 2018: 155) assigns the fitting to asymmetrical oval fittings and considers it the oldest type of Carolingian sword fitting (type I), which, together with the trefoil fitting, began to be used at the turn of the 1st and 2nd quarter of the 9th century and subsequently, during the second third of the 9th century, it developed into a roof-shaped fitting (type II).
The plant decoration used on Carolingian fittings is a feature typical of the 9th century (Košta – Lutovský 2014: 120-1; Wachowski 1992: 91-95; Westermann–Angerhausen 2006). An excellent work for closer dating is that of Monika Lennartsson, who places the fitting in phase STG IV, which in absolute dating corresponds to roughly the 2nd quarter of the 9th century (1997/1998: 494). In a personal conversation, Robak places the fitting in the beginning of the 2nd third of the 9th century (personal discussion with Zbigniew Robak). The fittings can therefore most likely be dated before the middle of the 9th century, to the time of the creation of the mentioned iconographic sources.
It is, of course, questionable whether Gay’s original drawing, which places the fitting on the side of the scabbard a few centimeters below the level of the slider, truthfully depicts the original position. In the available photo, the location Gay chose is oval-shaped imprinted, so we assume that the fitting was actually located at that place. Other imprints from other fittings cannot be detected on the scabbard. Nevertheless, the following description should be understood more as a suggestion. If the position of the fitting is correct, it was certainly riveted on a separate leather strap that formed the eye, which was put onto the scabbard from below (see Robak 2018: Fig. 10-11) and then probably secured by the wrapping to avoid slipping into an unwanted position. The opposite end of the strap was riveted to the non-preserved trefoil fitting. The purpose of the preserved fitting on the scabbard was to create a second fixation point and therefore hold the scabbard at the correct angle. The absence of another fitting located at the level of the slider indicates that the strap, which came from the other arm of the trefoil fitting towards the scabbard, was simply passed through the slider and probably ended with a buckle. The remaining arm of the trefoil fitting was used to attach a strap to which a metal strap-end could be riveted.
The scabbards depicted on pages 22r, 47v, 58v, 158v and 165r of the Stuttgart Psalter (WLB Cod.bibl.fol.23), created in the 820s, are close analogues of the described system. The scabbards shown on these pages are provided with two visible straps, one passing through the visible slider to the front of the waist and tensioning the upper part of the scabbard forward, the other encircling the scabbard in close proximity to the slider and securing the lower part of the scabbard. The two straps meet at one point in a trefoil fitting, which is hidden in the folds of the garment on the wearer’s back. Scabbards are associated with swords, the pommel of which is too schematic to determine, but it is a K, Mannheim or similar type (Bilogrivić 2009: 147-8). The only difference between the Paris find and the depicted scabbards is the use of fittings on the side strap.
The closest analogy is probably the sword with a scabbard, which is depicted on page 80r of the Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32), which was perhaps created in the 820s or 830s. The scabbard is shown in a similar manner to that described above, although somewhat more schematically. The sword that the scabbard connects to has a semi-circular pommel, very similar to the X / N type.
Stuttgart Psalter (WLB Cod.bibl.fol.23), 47v, 58v, 158v a 165r.
Source: Stuttgarter Psalter 2020.
Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32), 80r.
Source: The Utrecht Psalter 2020; Robak 2013: Rys. 24.
To get a better understanding of the proposed look, we asked two artists to render the sword in its scabbard. The first illustration was created by painter Klára Sedlo. It represents the sword in a view from below, at an angle that can be seen in the illuminations.
The second rendering was created by the graphic artist Tomáš Cajthaml, who depicted the sword in a horizontal position. A proposed diagram of baldric attachment was added as well.
The Paris find from the Gay collection is exceptional and its value can be summed up in the following points:
The sword and scabbard set can form a good starting point for dating the earliest X and N type swords, which revolutionize early medieval weaponry. We do not know whether the younger sword set applied the older fittings, but the scabbard and strap stylistically correspond to the 2nd quarter of the 9th century. If we consider the scene from the Utrecht Psalter to be a scene of a sword with a semicircular pommel, there is no reason not to consider the same dating for the entire set. The existence of the N type before the mid-9th century was only speculated until recently; Jiří Košta literally said in 2014: “The first occurrence of type N swords can hypothetically be dated before the middle of the 9th century” (Košta – Hošek 2014: 249). A revisional survey of the N type sword from Kostice, Moravia also pointed to a dating before the middle of the 9th century (Košta et al. 2019: 212-3).
The well-preserved scabbard shows significant similarities to scabbards depicted in 9th century iconography. The find confirms that iconography is a reliable source in this regard, which can be used when theorizing about the original appearance.
The sword and scabbard set with a Carolingian fitting is an extraordinary phenomenon in the territory of the Frankish Empire, to which it is difficult to find a parallel.
A well-preserved scabbard slider is a rarity in the Early Middle Ages.
I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.
I received assistance in the creation of this article, which should be duly acknowledged. Therefore, I would like to thank Aleksandra Ščedrina, who alerted me to the find and discussed a number of details with me. My thanks go to Jiří Košta, whose comments sparked my interest in writing the article and it was he who provided me with the necessary literature. I would like to express my gratitude to Šimon Ungerman and Zbigniew Robak, who willingly discussed the fitting with me. In the last, honorable place, I want to thank the painter Klára Sedlo and the graphic artist Tomáš Cajthaml, whose illustrations breathed new life into the find.
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