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21.05.05 Deutscher et al. (eds.), The Sword

The Medieval Review

21.05.05 Deutscher et al. (eds.), The Sword


The reviewed book is the fruit of a conference that took place in the Deutsches Klingenmuseum Solingen in 2015. It was published in the Armour and Weapons series, which, until recently, had been releasing works devoted to military matters of the medieval and early modern period. In this case the chronological scope is much wider. The range of research issues concerning swords is an axis of studies on military equipment in multiple regions of the world, due to the practical, prestigious, and symbolical significance of this category of armament, which was reflected in this book.

The volume consists of 16 chapters, grouped into four parts, devoted to: typology (I), metallurgy and production (II), symbolic meaning (III), and fighting techniques/swordsmanship (IV). Among the authors one may find archaeologists, re-enactors, conservators-restorers, and historians, which fairly announces the versatility of the studies on swords.

The first part is opened by a paper by Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, discussing a topic of the holistic approach towards the classification of swords (exemplified by 14th- to 15th-century artefacts). The author postulates abandoning the traditional, evolutionistic approach and using a multidisciplinary approach instead, and one has to concur with that. It seems that results of the metallographic research and practical issues (combat techniques) should also be taken into account as the basis for the ideal typology; however, I will take the liberty of staying sceptical about the possibilities for creating an exemplary classification. Of course, I wish to have classifications that are simple, clear, and beautiful for myself and fellow scholars, but we are dealing with the creation of human hands and not physics, after all.

The next chapter, by Stefan Mäder, compiles depictions of sword pommels known from the archaeological record with the ones from an as yet undervalued iconographic source, the Utrecht Psalter. A proposal for corrections in the chronology of some types of swords on this basis is interesting; however, it has to be remembered that the dating of the Psalter is not entirely certain, and one needs to take into account the anachronisms in iconography, too. What is more, the depictions are far from precise, but nevertheless--of course--worth analysing.

Next in line, the work of Daniel Jaquet raises the matter of terminology of the two-handed, late medieval and early modern (1400-1600) swords used in fencing (German: Fechtschwerter). The author tries to correct the inaccuracies and misunderstandings in the field of nomenclature of similar forms, starting from the written sources, which he juxtaposes with the objects identified in collections. However, the number of these examples is sparse, so the presented results can be acknowledged only as an introduction to the actual research.

The second part opens with a paper by Ulrich Lehmann, Stefan Roth, and Claus Lipka, devoted to the contemporary reconstruction of a sword from the Merovingian necropolis Beckum I, grave 68 (first half of the 6th century). The starting point was the metallographic analysis of the blade, which allowed an indication of the pattern welding and the hardening of the cutting edges, generally rating the weapon's quality as high. Manufacturing a successful replica became an occasion for tracing production techniques, with a range of very interesting practical observations. Some departures from the old-time techniques to speed up the production process were avowed by the authors, but these have not influenced the credibility of the final result. Worth paying attention to is the enormous consumption of resources: 16 kilos of iron were used to produce a sword weighing 1.1 kilogram; bloomery smelting and smithing processes consumed additionally 600 kilos of charcoal.

Very interesting and clear reflections on the topic of production techniques of the early medieval VLFBERHT swords were presented by Ingo Petri. Thanks to the non-destructive research of over 50 swords, he undermined the idea that this weapon had been manufactured with crucible steel imported from Asia, indicating that it was possible to produce steel with a high carbon and low slag content locally, so the origins of the raw material for blades lie in Europe. Interesting notes refer to the causes for the development of the VLFBERHT sword form, in connection with the changes in shield shapes.

In the next chapter, Holger Becker presents a successful study of a sword from Bonn, discovered in the Rhine. What is shown here are the circumstances of discovery (an accidental find from 2003, during the extremely low water level), the process of conservation (including the organic parts of the scabbard), typological (XIIIa-type blade, J-type pommel according to Oakeshott) and chronological analysis, manufacturing techniques, as well as the historic and iconographic background, enabling Becker to narrow the chronology to the last third of the 13th century. It is a pity that no attempt to verify the place of discovery with archaeological means has been undertaken (possible during the drought in 2003, but also later, with the application of the methods of underwater archaeology) which would have allowed new data to be gained about how the sword ended up in the river.

Meanwhile, a paper by Florian Messner and Ulrike Töchterle presents a sword discovered in the grave of Oswald von Schrofenstein (died in 1497), in a church in Landeck (Tirol). One may find here an accurate description of specialist studies of the sword and its typological analysis.

The most capacious third part begins with a paper from Jan-Heinrich Bunnefeld devoted to swords from the Early Bronze Age in the Nordic circle. One will not find many original ideas here, especially in comparison with the book by the same author (Älterbronzezeitliche Vollgriffschwerter in Dänemark und Schleswig-Holstein Studien zu Form, Verzierung, Technik und Funktion, Mainz 2016), which should be blamed on the relatively brief dimensions of the text. However, the author successfully summarises the newest state of research on swords in this matter, including the context of the burial rituals, the functional element (taking into consideration the construction of a weapon, traces of sharpening, etc.) or the social context (using ethnographic sources, but only those in German). Besides, he reasonably departs from the irrational, but until recently widely used, paradigm regarding a basically ritual character of war in the Bronze Age. From the point of view of the researcher of later epochs, these observations seem to be more or less "re-inventing the wheel," but the studies on every epoch have their own dynamics of development.

The next chapter is devoted to a sword from a grave in Lanuvium. Fabrizio Savi not only revisits here an old discovery of a burial of a young man from the beginning of the 5th century BC, who was buried along with sport (sporting disc), hygienic (alabastra, strigils, leather pouch for sand), and military equipment (muscle cuirass, helmet, pole-weapon mounts, single-edged machaira). The heavy and long (nearly 90 centimetres) sword was acknowledged as an equestrian weapon, which is also supported by the lack of greaves and shield. The added value of this work is the analysis of terms used for similar swords in Antiquity. It concludes with reasonable inferences, that the oldest, short (30-50 centimetres in length) machairae/kopides had appeared in the Balkans in the first half of the 7th century BC; the next phase of their development were the long examples (up to 110 centimetres) from central Italy, dated to the 6th century BC and used by the equestrians; at last, at the twilight of the 5th century BC occurred the shorter, Iberian falcatas. The author pronounces for the identification of the xiphos as a shorter, two-edged sword with a straight blade; on the other hand, the one-edged machaira was supposed to differ from kopis by a slightly less curved back and usually larger dimensions.

In a chapter devoted to Capestrano-type swords from a time span between the end of the 7th century BC and the first half of the 5th century BC, Vincenzo d'Ercole recognises this weapon as a possession of high-ranking individuals (the "Italic Kings" mentioned in his title), and at the same time he briefly visits the fighting technique, mostly, however, analysing iconography occurring on scabbards of these swords (chape and mouth-locket), acknowledging them as the "storytelling swords." It is a pity that nowhere to be found is the information about dimensions of this weapon, which has a distinct significance for reconstruction of its function. One can also notice the poor quality of illustrations (mistakes in the layout of figures 2 and 3, disastrous background in figure 5).

Among the regions of the world where a sword played a distinctive role there has to be a place for Japan. Michael Mattner presents the topic of Kagarasumaru (the Little Crow), blades forged in the 9th century AD, which became the legacy of the Taira house, the strongest in the 12th century Japan. The author attempts to answer why only a scant number of them have been preserved. He refers to this issue from the symbolic, technical, and military points of view, although the most important arguments, in his opinion, are all related to the first sphere. Even if not completely convinced, I encourage the readers to familiarise themselves with this paper.

Two subsequent texts touch the issue of medieval swords. Robert W. Jones is engaged with three falchions, their function and symbolism, recognizing that the latter refers to Antiquity-- comparing the Roman gladii, which does not appeal to me due to the diversity of forms-- representing brutality and finding application on mythological grounds. In the next piece, Nicole Mölk interestingly presents the mixed impacts of multiple cultures that were crossing paths Sicily in the decoration and transformations of the form of the ceremonial sword of King Frederic II.

The last part is devoted to sword fighting techniques. One can find here an extremely promising introduction to a research project devoted to swords from the Late Bronze Age in Europe (Raphael Hermann, Andrea Dolfini, Rachel J. Crellin, Marion Uckelmann). Diligently manufactured replicas used in experimental combat, appropriate research objectives before the experiment, and, last but not least, the analysis of destruction traces on the preserved swords from the epoch--all of this seems to be leading to quite fascinating results, a sample of which is seen in the text. One can learn here, e.g., how risky sword-on-sword combat was (the destructs have developed on both weapons), especially flat parrying. It seems to suggest that this kind of fencing was not that often chosen as a tactic.

The next paper refers to Egenolff's Fight Book from the 16th century. Matthias Johannes Bauer traces the malapropisms and mistakes which had been made during the manufacture of subsequent copies, significantly decreasing the credibility of this particular source for the studies on past fencing.

The volume is closed by the quasi-essayistic chapter, written with passion by Henry Yallop. The text refers to cavalry weapons: the Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sword. What is shown here is the astonishing consistency of the way of combat and form of weapon, both originated by the same man, Le Marchant. After his death the above-mentioned solutions were abandoned, which does not stop the author of the chapter from acknowledging that "never again would one man's thoughts on military swords and swordsmanship have such a profound effect on the form of a sword that was so widely issued and used for such a length of time" (235).

To conclude: in the book one can find a range of engaging works, representing diversified aspects of studies on swords. Especially interesting seem the results of experiments with swords from the Bronze Age and the reconstruction of the sword from Beckum, but those readers interested in other epochs should also be satisfied. The exception is--and it is undoubtedly a deficiency of this work--the lack of chapters devoted to swords of Roman and Barbarian (Celtic, Germanic, Sarmatian, Hunnic) origin, which creates a large gap in the time spectrum presented. It seems even the more severe, because the knowledge in the topic of the above-mentioned swords is very vast, altogether in the research on technology of their production, the symbolism, use in burial and sacrificial rituals, as well as fighting techniques.