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Thursday, 16 August 2012

The 'Long-Seax'

The ‘Long-Seax’ : the Saxon Cutlass.

In the 8-10th century in Europe there was a flirtation with long-bladed singled-edged seaxes. These weapons had a long grip, permitting two-handed use and lacked any hilt. They would have been more economic in the use of good quality steel in their construction and easier to forge than a conventional sword due to only having one cutting edge.

In addition, such a well-pointed weapon would have had a better chance of piercing a mail byrnie or the fabric battle-shirts used at the time than a sword, which was invariably a hacking weapon in this period. This unusual but fascinating weapon demands further study.

Large fighting-knives have always featured in the Germanic weapon array and have evolved to meet changing tactical / social needs. In the 6-8th Centuries, the war-seax evolved from a short dagger-type knife into the ‘Narrow Seax’ (Schmalsaxe) as typified by the two Staffordshire Hoard saxes. It then evolved into the heavier ‘Broad Seax’ (Breitsaxe) and then into the Long Seax.

Replica of the 'Northolt Manor Seax', a broadseax, and predecessor to the later Longseax. 
In the early Anglo-Saxon Period, the seax was generally the companion weapon to the Sweord, much as the Wakizashi was to the Katana in Medieval Japan. The wælseax (killing knife) would have been utilised in situations where there was insufficient space to swing a sword, such as in the shield-wall. It also might have been used, again like the Wakizashi, in situations where custom insisted that the longer weapon be left outside the hall with the healðegn.

The Longsax was the longest of the saxes. The blade was also somewhat narrower and slightly lighter than its immediate ancestors. This made it an impressive killing-tool having sufficient mass to give weight to a blow and an impressive agility, particularly if used in a two-handed grip. Thus the langseax provided provided a reasonable alternative to a conventional two-edged sword at reduced cost. Grave deposition in Continental Europe adds evidence to this hypothesis: prior to the introduction of the Longsax, graves show weapon-sets of sword plus broadsax. Later; if the grave contains a Longsax, it is on its own. Interestingly, this is the time also when swords start to be made with other than pattern-welded blades; becoming more plain and functional. Simultaneously, seaxes, hitherto often plain, become more decorative with beautiful twist-welded blades, precious-metal inlays and decorative inscriptions. It would seem that the sax took over from the sword as the weapon of display. 

The famous 'Seax of Beagnoth' (previously 'Thames Scramasax') carrying the entire Anglo-Saxon runic Futhorc, and the (presumed) owner's name Beagnoth ("Ringbold"). 
It is unclear (other than cost) why a warrior would opt to carry a Longsax rather than a sword but it must have been an advantage in some tactical situations. The weapon was slightly lighter than a sword and might well have been more useful in loose skirmishing-type fighting where opponents lacked shields.
The Longsax must be distinguished from the single-edged Viking swords native to Norway and dating from the 9th Century. These are distinguished by having a typical sword-type hilt.

The Anatomy of the Long Seax

The Longsax generally had a blade length of 50 to 80 cm (19.5 to 31.5 inches). It had a blade width of between 43 to 52 mm (1.7 to 2 inches) and a thickness, at the spine, of 6-9 mm (0.24 to 0.36 inches). The edge was generally straight, or curved slightly towards the tip. The back either curved gently, or with a sharp angle towards the tip, which is located below the centreline of the blade (Wheeler types III/IV).

Replica of the 'Seax of Beagnoth', showing 'broken-back' and armour-piercing tip
The English ‘broken back’ langseax blades had a distinctive shape, unique to England whereby the profile of the back was angled from the tang outwards and then sharply in towards the point. Later ones feature a shallow rounding towards the point. 

When of twist-welded construction, the pattern was most often a two-core twist creating a herringbone effect (called "Wyrmfáh or Atertanum fáh in Old English). The pattern welded band lay between the back which was layered wrought iron, while the cutting edge was formed from hard carbon-steel.

Longsax showing pattern from twist-weld construction

Most Longsax blades had a tang of around 20 cm or 8 inches. The simple hilt would have been of wood, horn or antler and, as with most other seaxes, was held in place by friction alone. Long-saxes do not seem to have had any guards, which suggests than the long haft gave a sufficiently secure grip. Personal experience with a longsax equipped with a red-deer antler haft confirms this. The resultant grip is around 20-25 cm (8-10 inches). The weapon can be used one-handed if gripped close to the blade but is much more manoeuvrable if used two-handed. Here, the most natural grip involves grasping the handle nearest the blade with the dominant hand and placing the non-dominant hand behind. 

Longsax sheath
The Longsax was worn in a sheath at the hip suspended by two straps from the belt. This explains the Old English names ðéohseax (thigh-sax) and hypeseax (hip-sax). The Old Norse term for this weapon was probably ‘heptisax’. (see Sword Words)

The long-seax did not survive the Norman Conquest but its descendants can be seen in the Medieval falchion and the Cutlass of the 18/19th century. It is an interesting fact that most of the English long-saxes have been recovered from rivers, presumably having been ‘ritually deposited’. Perhaps, however, the longsax was a favoured weapon of the Navy formed by Ælfred the Great. Certainly it is a much more swashbuckling weapon than a sword!

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