Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Single-Edged Viking Sword

The Single-Edged Viking Sword

While most Viking-Age swords are of the classic straight two-edged design, about 20% of those found in Norway are single-edged (Geibig XIV). These weapons cannot really be classified as long-saxes as they had orthodox sword-hilts. Single edged Viking swords were still in use at the end of the 9th C and early 10th C. Their nearest Medieval equivalents would be the Falchion and the großes Messer. An interesting weapon, the single-edged sword is worthy of study.
Berserkr by Albion Armouries, Single-edged Viking Sword (wikimedia commons)

‘Single-edged Viking sword’ is a clumsy term but unfortunately it is not clear what the Norse called them. There are a few candidates : Höggsax (Hewing Sax), Sviða and Skálm /Skolm ( from the Proto-Indo-European *skel- ‘to cleave’). Of the three, Sviða, which is glossed as ‘cutlass’ in the Old Norse Dictionary, will be used below.

The hilt deign of the Sviða is unremarkable, being identical to the two-edged sverð. Most have a Petersen Type H hilt, with a stout lozenge-shaped iron lower guard (8.5cm - a little under 3½inches, in width) and a rounded iron upper guard capped by a triangular pommel-cap. The grip’s length was about the same (9cm).
Some think the Sviða was developed from the sax rather than as sword variant. Certainly the spine of the blade is thicker than the width of a normal sword, making it a little heavier. A strong spine is required in order that the blade not break during a cutting blow, making it more rigid. It is clear that this is not a weapon optimised for thrusting but for slicing, helped by the slight curvature at the tip. It would seem that such a heavy single-edged weapon, like a falchion, has more cutting power than a normal sword. However it seems to have been optimised vs. unarmoured opponents and may well have been less effective against ring-mail.
The sviðas thus found averaged between 30 to 38½ inches (77 - 97cm.) in length. The blade is triangular in cross-section. Most were not of twist-welded construction and it is suspected that most were of local manufacture, given the lack of parallels or similar items elsewhere.

These weapons are almost all of simple contruction, with one exception. This was the example excavated in 1909 from a burial mound at North Arhus Farm, Hjartdal Parish, Telemark, Norway, which had a beautifully made twist-welded blade with a shallow, broad fuller. This measured 36 inches (91cm) with a blade length of 29½ inches (75cm). The blade is 2 inches wide (5cm) and the weight around 2¾lbs (1.25kg). It is perfectly possible that the blade was made in Continental Europe and then hilted in Norway.

"Hersir" by Albion Armouries, displaying Petersen Type-H hilt (wikimedia commons)
Why a warrior would prefer this weapon to a standard sword is unclear but it must have been a matter of personal preference. A straight-bladed cutting sword is less efficient than one with a slight curve such as the Byzantine paramerion, which the Norse warrior may well have been aware of.
It is, though, most likely that the sviða was a local Norwegian response to the need for a cheap multi-purpose but unsophisticated weapon. Made from material extracted from relatively poor-grade iron-ore and utilising 50% less expensive steel than a classic sverð, the single-edged sword would have been cheaper to manufacture. The inelegant design argues for its invention far from the ‘‘cutting edge” of European metallurgy in the Rhineland.
“You cannot forge a good sword from bad iron.”
(old Turkish Proverb)

1 comment:

Richard Bendall said...

I've heard an interesting theory regarding the use single edged swords, relating to maritime/naval warfare.

Essentially, when fighting on a ship with sail the single, forward facing edge and blunt back facing edge make it less likely that the expensive sail will be damaged during fighting, if it hadn't been retracted in time.

Considering these swords are almost exclusively Norse in provenance it makes a certain degree of sense as the Norse were arguably the most naval orientated of the Scandinavian kingdoms.

A thought just occurred as well that this paralleled with the widespread use of the cutlass in 18th and 19th Century Naval Warfare!