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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Late Anglo-Saxon and "Viking" Swords

The Gilling Sword (C 9th) **

From the late 8th Century C.E. the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian sword began to change. The parallel-sided broad blade became less common and the more tapering style of blade more common. Simultaneously, there was a move away from the composite metal / organic hilts of the Migration towards simpler, and possibly more robust, solid iron hilts and pommels. Many of these English swords had a downward curved lower guard and an upward curved pommel-guard suggesting a more dynamic cut and thrust style of sword-play.

With particular reference to the elegant Petersen Type L sword, it is worth discussing their form and function.

**image (right) property of Vintagedept@flickr


The Blade
The swords of the so-called ‘Viking Age’ evolved from those of the Migration Age. All these weapons had an average blade length of about 78-81 cm. (that is around 30-32 inches) excluding the tang. Blades became more tapered, bringing the balance point closer to the hilt.  Even so, the swords became slightly heavier and the fuller on each side of the blade became increasingly pronounced. 

Twist-welded blades continued to be made at least into the early 10th century CE.  however, over the course of the 9th century, with improvements in the manufacture of good quality iron and steel, blades were increasingly made plain, with a core of laminated wrought-iron with carbon-steel cutting edges fire-welded on. 
Such swords of Continental origin were sometimes decorated with twisted iron inlays forming letters. These iron inlaid inscriptions often take the form of names, ULFBERHT and INGELRII are the most common. Sometimes these are associated  with the Latin inscription ME FECIT indicating these may have originally been makers’ names. However, as these names remained in use for a couple of centuries as inlays, they may better be regarded as trademarks intended to indicate the workshop which produced the blade and thus proof of quality. This was important, as it was no longer possible to study the quality of the pattern in order to determine the quality of the work. 

Just as today, where the marketplace is awash with fake designer goods, the wide degree of variations in letter formation and spelling would suggest that, if the trademark hypothesis is correct, rampant counterfeiting prevailed. Today, ending up with a ersatz Gucci bag is merely unfortunate but to our sword-wielding ancestors, a poor-quality sword which failed catastrophically in the heat of battle could be a matter of life and death. Caveat emptor indeed !
For the blades with inlaid names, a geometric pattern was often seen on the opposite blade face. Inlays of circles, lines and curved symbols were also seen.
These inlays, fire-welded into the surface of the blade, are often formed of twisted wire made from the very phosphorus-rich iron which had, hitherto, been used in pattern-welding; the silvery ferrite providing a good contrast.
By the second half of the 11th Century C.E.  these designer labels had been simpler  inlaid inscriptions, most commonly consisting of various corrupted spelling of IN NOMINE DOMINI, ("In the name of the Lord,") probably reflecting the surge of pseudo-religious fervour in that time of the earliest Crusades.

The Hilt
Anglo-Saxon swords of this period most often are equipped with a curved lower guard of stout iron. This design innovation is important in that it better protects the sword-hand / wrist by catching the blade of an enemy’s weapon and preventing it slipping onto the grip. It also allows more wrist movement, for a swifter style of sword-play. In this later period, swords were increasingly used for thrusting as well as for cutting strokes. The Scandinavians copied the curved form quite widely but the fashion did not survive the coming of the Normans and we find that, post conquest, swords were again produced with straight guards. These were, though, considerably longer. This design was less elegant but equally functional. It was also slightly simpler to manufacture but the compelling reason was probably ‘religious’, in that the upturned sword now mimicked a cross.   

The Grip
No grip from this period survives, so we can infer that it was of organic composition ; usually of  shaped wood, although bone, horn and leather would also have been used. There is no evidence from England of any sword having a wire-bound grip in this period. The grip would have normally been of oval cross-section, inferred from surviving silver binding strips. Very occasionally, the whole grip was encased in metal (as in the Fetter Lane sword - although this beautiful example is early, being dated to the 8th Century CE.)

The Pommel
Lobed Pommel
From the 9th Century onward, the flat composite Upper Guard and triangular pommel-cap was replaced by a simpler, very functional iron pommel-guard and pommel-knob. From the 9th Century, many pommels were lobed; shaped with three or five lobes, the central one usually being slightly taller and being separated by indentations. These were sometimes accentuated by strands of twisted silver or gilt wire. 

Viking Sword Xray
Slightly earlier, some ‘Viking’ swords were equipped only with a simple bar pommel and it has been fancifully suggested that the lobed pommel originated in the practice of tying an amulet of some sort in a bag onto one of these. Lobulated pommels on a straight pommel-bar are more a feature of ‘Viking’ swords. English swords, as has been alluded to earlier, most often had an upward-curved pommel-guard and so the pommel-knob base needed to be curved also. These most often were three-lobed and often decorated with silver and niello. Another smaller group (10th Century) have a more dome-shaped pommel.

 Later still come the pommels which R.E. Oakeshott called the ‘tea-cosy’ and the ‘brazil-nut’. These, though, are true pommels and totally lack any pommel-bar. This former is first found in 10th Century Norse graves but is found widely across central and eastern Europe. It was popular as it was more comfortable to hold than the tea-cosy (as the author can confirm). By the 11th Century, the simple heavy disc pommel became the fashion.

Straight-guard (Pb*)

Brazil-nut Pommel ( Pb*)
Domed Pommel (Pb*)
Unlike the obvious riveting of the early period sword-hilts, it is not always obvious what is holding the hilt together. As finds have proved, sometimes hilts came apart. If this happened during combat, the effects can only be imagined. Even a loose, rattling hilt would have been a huge disadvantage. As the entire upper hilt structure; pommel-bar and knob were made of iron, most methods of attachment relied on sweating the bar of the pommel on to the tang and then attaching the pommel-knob by (a) peening the end of the tang over the knob or (b) riveting the pommel and pommel-guard together, or occasionally (c) riveting a semicircular strip of soft iron to the pommel-bar through a hole in each side. This then served as a support for the hollow pommel-knob (see illustration). The first method (a) was most common with Petersen’s Type ‘L’ swords. 
The ugly peened-over end of the tang was occasionally covered by a silver cap. Method (b) is seen in the ‘Westminster Sword’. Method (c) would seem to have been common in ‘Viking’ swords. None of these techniques seem to have been perfect, for there are plenty of swords found from the 8th to 10th cent, with no pommel cap, just the curved upper guard still on the blade, the pommel cap having fallen off. 
Late Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sword-hilt construction methods
The brazil-nut and tea-cosy shaped true pommels were fixed directly to the tang. One presumes this was done by heating the pommel, hammering it gently onto the cold tang then allowing the pommel to cool and shrink onto the tang, hopefully fixing it firmly in place.

Evidence
Skerne Sword (c10th). Deposited in River Hull
Although some Viking swords have been recovered from inhumations, by this time the English were no longer being buried with weapons. Most late Anglo-Saxon swords have, in fact, been recovered from rivers. This is true all over Europe; large numbers of swords and other expensive weapons have been found preserved in anoxic river silt. This has been good for us, a thousand or so years later but it poses a question because far too many have been found to have been due to accidental loss. All this points to a persisting sacrificial custom. Deposition of swords in sacred rivers and lakes has been a West European practice from as early as the Bronze Age. Although grave deposition seems to come to an end around 700 CE with the advent of overt Christianity, the ritual deposition of weapons seems to continue in the form of river offerings, perhaps indicating that the new religion had still not taken a firm hold on the warrior-soul.  

(Many images kindly provided by Paul Binns Swords)

1 comment:

D. Edward Bryant said...

Interesting. I never even knew of what was presented here.