As we often encounter the opinion that swords of the Early Middle Ages are rare, exceptionally discovered finds, we decided to create a paper that would try to estimate how many European swords from the period of 9th-11th century we actually know. This is a relatively common question in both academia and reenactment, to which there is no clear answer; for academics, numbers are interesting (not only) when creating distribution maps, while reenactors are interested in how many swords were among the population at that time and to what extent they can be used in today’s reconstruction.
There is currently no summary list or catalog, and we are forced to work with well-revised collections and more or less accurate estimates. The following list includes swords that fall into Petersen’s, Geibig’s, Kirpičnikov’s or Kazakevičius’s typology and can be dated to the period 800-1100. In some cases, overlaps are possible on both sides of the timeline, which we tried to eliminate as much as possible.
The number of Norwegian swords of the period is one of the biggest questions to be asked when studying Early Medieval militaria. The exact number is not known, which is understandable given the extraordinary amount. By 1917, when Jan Petersen was creating statistics for his groundbreaking work, at least 1773 single-edged and double-edged swords were known, with 245 single-edged blades lacking hilt components (Petersen 1919: 6, 56). A significant shift in research was brought about by Per Hernæs, who in his work, which focuses only on south-eastern Norway, states that by 1979 there had been an increase of 690 new swords in this region (Hernæs 1985: 36). Geibig’s work makes no revision in this regard (Geibig 1991), but Jakobsson’s study adjusts the numbers of some specific types and states the number of 1773 swords with hilt (Jakobsson 1992).
The absence of current numbers gives room for estimates and speculation. Researcher Gavin Archer estimates the number of Norwegian swords at 2500+ (Archer 2019), conservator Vegard Vike and researcher Steven Blowney equally calculate 3000 (Blowney 2016; Vike 2017). Aanestad estimates about 3500 swords, with at least 1598 swords being stored in the KHM Oslo and the Bergen and Trondheim Museums collecting a similar number (Aannestad 2018: 147, 151).
At this point we would like to present our observations. While some types, such as type E (Jakobsson 1992: 209), G (Vlasatý 2020b), S (own unpublished research) or W (Vlasatý 2020a), have grown since Petersen by units of pieces, types H and M, which were numerous already in Petersen’s time, are now about 100% more numerous and have the greatest opportunity to influence statistics (Vlasatý 2019). A significant increase in new pieces was also recorded in type C, which is referred to as the tenth of all Norwegian swords (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 169), as well as type Q, which lacks a proper revision. It is very probable that types C, H, Q and M are represented in Norway by about 1200 pieces, while the increments of other types do not exceed 25% compared to Petersen’s numbers. The only exception for which we have published records is the L type, which has increased from 14 to at least 45 since Petersen (Aksdal 2017: 84-5). If we apply Hernæs’s conclusion that by 1979 the number of new swords had increased by 71-81% compared to 1917, throughout Norway, the number of swords would be between 3030 and 3212. Taking into account the swords found over the last 40 years, we tend to lean towards concluded that the number of 3500 expressed by archaeologist Aanestad is not far from the truth. However, this number also includes single-edged blades without components, which can make up about a seventh (500 pieces) and which can partially be dated into the 8th century.
The Swedish collection is perfectly revised by Fedir Androščuk, who mentions 648 swords from the period 750-1100 from the territory of today’s Sweden, while 31 blades are single-edged (Androshchuk 2014).
From Finland we know over 400 pieces of swords and their fragments, which can be dated to the Viking period, some of which may have an overlap with the Migration Period or Crusades times (Moilanen 2018: 71). In a private conversation, Moilanen told us that the number is still growing, mainly due to new detector finds, and that the list of swords from 9th-11th century certainly exceeds 400 pieces.
In 1991, Alfred Geibig collected 347 swords from West Germany dated to the 8th-12th century (Geibig 1991). Such a list is missing for the former East Germany. Jiří Košta collects data on 486 from the area of today’s Germany in his internal database. Taking into account Geibig’s chronology, it will probably not be a mistake to assume that about 350 swords dating from 775 to 1100 may come from Germany.
Russia, Belarus, Ukraine
The most complete sum of swords from these countries so far is Kirpičnikov’s work, which collects 109 swords (Kirpičnikov 1966a). In well-researched sites like Gnězdovo, there has been a significant increase in the number of swords – for example, we now register at least 27 pieces (Kainov 2012), compared to Kirpičnikov’s 12 swords from Gnězdovo. We officially know 9 swords from Belarus (Plavinski 2009: 82-3). In a personal conversation, Sergei Kainov estimates that the number of swords found in the 9th – 1st half of the 11th century from Old Russia (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) exceeds 300. The number of swords from the Kaliningrad Oblast and northeastern Poland, which can be dated to 9th-13th century, it is set up to 100 (Kazakevičius 1996: 126), but it is not possible to determine exactly the number of swords from the Kaliningrad region in the observed period.
The best sum of swords from Great Britain is offered by Gavin Archer, who records 101 swords from England, 3 from Wales, 14 from the Isle of Man and 36 from Scotland (Archer 2019; Żabiński 2007). Elsewhere on this site, we pointed out 114 cast components from the period, with about 15 pieces overlapping with Archer’s list (Vlasatý 2018). Surely we will be right if we determine that the number of known swords and their components exceeds 250.
The list published by Lech Marek lists about 80 swords, which can be classified in the period 9th-11th century (Marek 2004: 106-115), but unpublished revisions of Polish researchers speak of up to 140 pieces from this period.
Mati Mandel collected about 40 swords dating to the period 9th-11th century (Mandel 1991), but Mauri Kiudsoo in the light of new finds speaks of more than a hundred swords from the territory of present-day Estonia.
According to Walsh, there are 90 swords in Ireland dating back to the Viking Age (Walsh 1998), and although the typological determination is problematic, the number of pieces seems accurate (Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 67).
A set of Czech and Moravian swords dating to the period 9th-11th century is revised and includes 87 pieces (Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2019: 26, 30, 33).
Out of a significant number of swords from 9th-13th century, Tomsons picks 80 that can be put in the period before the Crusades (Tomsons 2018: 274).
Kazakevičius organized 170 Lithuanian swords from the period 9th-13th century (Kazakevičius 1996: 126). A more precise chronological division of the pieces is not very possible, but it can be assumed that with the elimination of the large group of Curonian swords that the Tomsons place in the Crusades period, the number of swords will decrease significantly and will definitely be lower than the number of Latvian swords. According to Jiří Košta’s database, the number is around 75.
The list, created by Kornél Bakay, includes 68 swords from 10th-11th century (Bakay 1967), but is somewhat outdated. Jiří Košta records up to 76 swords from this period from Hungary.
Belgium and the Netherlands
Jiří Košta’s database records up to 5 swords from today’s Belgium and about 60 swords from the Netherlands, which were usually published in Ypey and the Knol-Bardet team (Knol-Bardet 1999; Ypey 1984).
Jiří Košta’s database records up to 61 swords from the territory of today’s France, which were published in various books and articles, usually in Geibig’s work.
Androščuk sets the number of swords from today’s Denmark at 54 (in the case of one sword, he makes a mistake and names it twice, so the correct number is 53; Androshchuk 2014). Anne Pedersen names a number of 52 sword that only come from graves and that includes single-edged blades of the 8th century as well (Pedersen 2014: Find list 1). Androščuk’s list is thus probably more accurate.
The territory of the former Yugoslavia
In Jiří Košta’s database we can find at least 44 swords – 9 from Serbia (Kovács 1994-1995; Vinski 1983), 27 from Croatia (Bilogrivić 2009; Radić 1991), 8 from Bosnia (Zekan 1994, Sijarić 2004).
In her work, which takes into account the new finds of recent years, Marjatta Ísberg has collected 27 swords and their components (Ísberg 2020: 106), thus expanding the list published by Eldjárn, which includes 22 pieces (Eldjárn 2016: 323).
Slovak swords from the monitored period are among the poorly revised. Kristián Jócsik, who plans to create an updated inventory, currently has 27 pieces in sight, not counting swords outside Petersen’s typology.
At least 14 swords come from the territory of Romania, which fall within the period defined by us and which can be assigned to the monitored types (Pinter 1999 and Jiří Košta’s database).
Austria and Switzerland
Austrian swords are among the poorly revised. Although Erik Szameit published two Austrian swords from the 9th century (Szameit 1986), Jiří Košta currently leads up to 12 pieces from the 9th-11th century. In the case of Switzerland we register 6 swords (Geibig 1991).
In his monograph, Jotov mentions two non-Byzantine types (Jotov 2004: кат. No 422-3), while he published another third piece elsewhere (Jotov – Pavlova 2004: кат. No 62).
In the optimistic scenario, we can work in Europe with about 6000-6500 swords from 9th-11th century, falling into Petersen’s, Geibig’s, Kazakevičius’s and Kirpičnikov’s typologies. It is very probable that the estimate set for Norway includes a considerable number of swords from the 8th century and that the estimate for Germany, on the contrary, includes swords that are difficult to date to the range of 11th-13th century. However, we believe that the estimates for Great Britain, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine are undersized and will actually be significantly higher due to the numerous detector finds. For a number of countries, minimum numbers have been chosen that do not reflect new and as yet unpublished findings.
Even if the number of swords is in the range of 5500-7000, we are talking about a huge number of weapons that reflect the low percentage of all originally produced swords. Jiří Košta estimates that the number of swords produced in the period of 9th-11th century ranged from about 500-2500 thousand, which raises practical questions about production capacity, raw materials, standardization and production norm, but also about the owners of factories and their customers. It is believed that the owners of the production complexes were the rulers who regulated the production and distribution among the faithful and the guests. Swords are thus products that carry information about the manufacturer – they are the brands created by specific rulers (Košta 2020: 42), and we are at the very beginning of their identification.
Reenactors can use information about the number of swords when theorizing about their costume. At the request of readers, we will present a practical example from Přemyslid Bohemia of the 10th century.
According to Žemlička, Central Bohemia could be inhabited by a population of 22,000 people around 935 (Žemlička 1997: 36), while in the 11th century the population increased and the whole of Bohemia was inhabited by about 450000 inhabitants around 1050 (Žemlička 1997: 18). As the price of complete gear is estimated at 1.5 to 2 kilograms of silver – in coins of 1950-3250 denarii, while for one denarius one could live a modest life for a whole month – maintaining a professional army was costly and included a maximum of 1.8% of the population (Lutovský 2006: 99; Žemlička 1997: 37). While during Wenceslas’ reign there are an estimated 370 professional fighters subordinate to the prince (Žemlička 1997: 37), during the Boleslav era the professional army expanded to 2000-3000 (Žemlička 1997: 37) or 3000-6000 men (Třeštík 2006: 16).
The number of Czech swords, which can be dated to the period 800-1000, is set at 22 (Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2019: 30). These are almost exclusively Petersen swords of the X and Y types, while other types of swords, characteristic of the 10th century, are almost completely absent. In relation to the above population estimates, we can suggest that if the swords we have represented 1% of the surviving material, roughly one in five warriors in the 10th century professional army would be equipped with a sword. As for all the force of Bohemia, Žemlička estimates that the professional army made up one tenth of the Czech army (Žemlička 1997: 37), and if that were the case, the sword would be available to an average of one in fifty in the army. The problem, however, is that the swords were not evenly distributed and that they were kept in larger numbers in the noble families, in other words, that the users of the swords owned more than one piece, and warriors with two swords for a hundred others are more likely.
However, this is a theoretical assumption that archeology rather does not confirm. According to Profantová, the number of axes in Bohemia of the same period is 79 (Profantová 2019: 279), and it should be noted that a number of detector finds of axes are forever lost and will not be published. From abroad we can mention 109 Old Russian swords compared to 211 axes (Kirpičnikov 1966a; Kirpichnikov 1966b). In neighboring Poland, where axes are well published, we find a ratio of about 140 swords to 891 axes (Kotowicz 2014; Kotowicz 2018). In the case of Gnězdovo, we record 62 battle axes compared to 27 swords (Kainov 2019). As far as the spear is concerned, a maximum of 17 pieces are known in the Czech Republic (Profantová 2019: Tab. 6). This may seem surprising, but it is true that spears were probably not traditionally buried in Bohemian graves and that they were not processed perfectly in press. In some regions of Europe, spears are the most numerous weapons and in well-researched areas spears are always more numerous than swords – for example, in the graves of Birka we know 53 spears compared to 30 swords (Thålin-Bergman 1986a; Thålin-Bergman 1986b), in Iceland 81 spears compared to 27 swords (Androshchuk – Traustadóttir 2004: 6), in Russia we register 290 spears and 109 swords (Kirpičnikov 1966b), while in Gnězdovo alone 34 pieces are known compared to 27 swords (Kainov 2019). As another example we can mention the spears from the Carpathian Basin, represented by 231 pieces from 9th-11th century (Husár 2014), while the number of swords from the same region is about 130.
Therefore, if we look at the archaeological picture, depending on the geography and quality of material processing in print, the following ratio of swords, axes and spears is applied – 1 : 2-6 : 1-3. In the light of this ratio, the sword appears to be every fourth to tenth cold weapon of 9th-11th century. Such a conclusion does not contradict the written sources, where a shield, a spear and a shorter weapon – an axe or a sword – are considered the battle minimum.
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