Thursday, 22 May 2014

Twilight of the Seax

We recently received this most interesting question from a reader;
“I noticed that seaxes seem to be absent from the Bayeaux tapestry. So far the latest depiction I have found is an illumination from France showing a warrior carrying a seax-shaped knife from ~890 CE. Is there any consensus on when the seax may have been abandoned as a fighting weapon? If there is evidence that seaxes were carried in the 11th c. what form would they be? Are there any examples?”
The demise of the seax as a weapon is an interesting topic and one we have not discussed before. We therefore thought this question warranted a full reply.

The Killing-Knife or wælseax (defined as having a blade longer than 18cm) seems to disappear from military use during the 11th century. The so-called ‘broken-back’ (insular form) seax seems to have been in use from 800-1100 CE. Certainly the Bayeaux tapestry shows no warriors armed with large war-knives, although one can be sure that every man at Hastings would have carried a short-bladed utility-knife.

The Bayeux Tapestry:  Spears, swords, clubs, maces, bows, but no seaxes!?
 The lack of any representation of larger knives on the Bayeux tapestry may be due to the difficulty of depicting them by embroidery on this scale. However, I note that a number of even smaller items are depicted with good definition. The lack of any depictions of seaxes could be explained as a result of a lack of familiarity, on the part of the designer, with 11th Century English warrior accouterments, but this is difficult to believe if we are to accept the assessment of most scholars that the tapestry was the work of English artisans within a generation of the events depicted. The most reasonable assessment seems to be that the large war knives which feature prominently in the archaeological record from preceding centuries were significantly "out of fashion" at the time of Hastings. There are many reasons why this may have been the case.

It is thought that the large single-edged war-knife became progressively more redundant as swords became lighter and handier to use. As good steel swords became proportionally more affordable and available, there was less need to economize by using a single-edged primary weapon. During the 11th and 12th centuries, warriors seem to have been armed with swords and only carried small utility knives. The ‘dagger’ (in various forms) only re-appears with the advent of plate-armour when knights needed a weapon to finish off opponents which could be slipped between the plates of the harness. During this period we also see the reappearance of what is, to all intents and purposes, a small war-seax in the archer’s and common man’s ðwittle (thwittel). This simple single-edged knife, famously made in Sheffield, is mentioned by Chaucer.

A Shefild thwittle bare he in his hose.”

The Middle English name derives from the Old English ðwítel which derives from ðwítan - ‘to cut’.
It is possible that the Hurbuck-style long-seax influenced later English Falchions and that, in Europe, the medieval Lang Messer and Renaissance Große Messer may have evolved from the long tradition of Germanic heavy saxes.
My own opinion is that the heavy whittle-tanged knife is not a continuous tradition but just a good handy design. After all, the classic Sami knives; the small puukko, larger leuko and sax-sized väkipuukko have remained essentially unchanged in design for over 1000 years. The English broken-back seax shape is one which reappears in the 19th century as the Bowie Knife and the later bayonet.

Thus I would suggest that the seax never really became extinct but was constantly evolved to suit changing circumstances.


Richard Bendall said...

I suppose of course that there is the chance that seaxs were rarely used in combat but were buried alongside their owners perhaps as a sign of status. I remember reading somewhere that ownership of a seax was the sign of a freedman or ceorl but I imagine that is a gross simplification.

From a utilitarian point of view, a short single edged weapon may have been considerably less useful than fighting with a single handed spear or an axe. I'm not sure and I'm certainly no expert on Anglo-Saxon weapons but it would seem a logical possibility.

Bert Suzan said...

And what about tenth century?
The question talks about end-ninth century, you talk about eleventh century.
I’m studying tenth century Ottonians and find it very hard on the seax(warknives) topic.

Maby,this middle man with the red shield has a possible seax handle just below the shield

And I think Utrecht psalter has some kind of lang-seax/braed-seax image. This was end of ninth/beginning tenth century I assume.

Then stays the question when did the spatha sword take to upper hand as secondary weapon behind the spear, as pictured in the image still the first weapon.


Æd Thompson said...

@Bert Suzan. To clarify, the above article discusses the decline of the seax with respect to Britain, in particular, and focuses on the 11th-12th centuries because the position of the war-seax in the context of 10th century England is most certainly not in doubt. There exists an abundance of seax finds confidently dated to the 10th century from England, especially concentrated around London and the river Thames. The dating of these finds is not in question, with the distinctive decoration of many (including the Sittingbourne seax, and the runic inscription of the Seax of Beagnoth / Thames Longseax) facilitating relatively precise dating. In the case of one relatively famous silver-inlayed broken-back "common seax" find - Honey Lane - the item had been deposited with a stamped coin that allowed absolute dating of the deposition to the very start of the 11th century, confirming the manufacture of such weapons in the late 10th.
The position of the seax on the other side of the Channel during this period is a different question. Historically, particularly in Germany, seax finds have received rather more study than in the UK, and there is far more research out there, albeit often difficult to access.

Many unanswered questions remain with regard to the prevalence of swords and seaxes during this period, and even depictions such as the Bayeux tapestry give us a very unreliable picture. As in later centuries such artworks lavish disproportionate attention on depicting the elites on the battlefield.