Sue Brunning and the Quest for the Perfect Sword

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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

the cover of Sue Brunning's book "the Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe"

Archaeologist Sue Brunning has a new book on the sword around the North and Baltic Seas. In an interview she brings up a way of thinking about the parts of a sword which is worth pondering:

There are common features that all swords had to have in order to be swords.

First, a blade – which I describe in the book as the “body” of the sword because it is the part that “does the work”, from a physical point of view; it is usually concealed beneath “clothing” (the scabbard) and only those most intimately acquainted with the sword would see and come to know its finer details. The blade also, like a body, became the repository for history, reputation, character…

Second, a hilt (or handle), which I describe as the “face” because this was the focus of a sword’s visual identity – it was the part that most people could see and come to recognise, as it was not concealed by “clothing” like the blade was. Hilts, like faces, had unique features manipulated by their owners; they could be altered to shape their identities in a desired way; and eventually, as we all know, they would show signs of ageing – wear patches, like wrinkles.

Next, the scabbard – the early medieval sources disagree to some extent over how essential this component was, but in reality it was quite important. It enabled you to carry the sword on your body, as well as keeping it bright and sharp thanks to the fur lining.

Within these three basic components, there was huge scope for customising your weapon in how it was decorated, the materials that were used and so on. This was a way to make your sword your own, or – I would argue – its own!

– Sue Brunning, “Sue Brunning on early medieval swords,” un trabajo tartamudo, 31 January 2020

I think that thinking about all three parts lets you understand swords much better than focusing on just one. If you aren’t a sword person, you might be surprised to learn that the standard typologies of Viking swords and rapiers just consider the hilts- which is like assigning cars a typology based on the bumper and paint, but the hilt is the easiest part to divide into groups and the people writing the typologies had never used a sword.

Roman swords in the 200 years after Augustus have fairly small and plain blades, but the scabbard are rich in finely worked brass and silver. And while swords and spears were as common in the early Roman empire as long guns are in rural Canada- Cicero, the gospels, and Petronius agree on that- soldiers were the only ones allowed to wear swords in public. The rich scabbards let soldiers communicate their wealth and taste at their own expense: Chaucer shows you how to size up someone using their clothes and knives and purse (the fancy scabbards also carried on a Celtic tradition, but that is another story). The army probably defined standards which blades had to meet (Cassius Dio accuses unruly Judeans of manufacturing weapons which would fail the army test and then stockpiling them), but how much bling a soldier wore was his own business.

As the Roman empire falls apart and wearing swords came back into fashion, scabbards are plain but elaborately gilded and silver hilts appear. These have nothing to do with the function of the sword as a weapon, but everything to do with communicating who the wearer is and impressing onlookers. In a world where nobody can enforce who is allowed to wear a sword except by smacking people around as they meet them, communicating that you don’t just wear ‘a sword’ but ‘a sword worth more than I will earn in a lifetime’ is important. The rich hilts fall out of fashion with the rise of the cruciform sword around the year 1000 and the decline in sword-wearing in civil life. But when Europeans start wearing swords in public again in the 16th and 17th century, they go back to lading the hilts with as much ornament as they can afford.

Fencers tend to think of swords in terms of how well they work in single combat, but fighting is a tiny part of what swords are actually used for. People who have played with spears in mock battles tell me that most kills happen when someone with some skill and some experience gacks someone who has not noticed them: strike like a snake, withdraw, and hear them fall while you look for the next mark. People who have to carry their weapons everywhere almost always chose something smaller and lighter than is ideal for a fighting weapon. Big knives which serve as brush-cutters, like bill-hooks and machetes, have blades designed to defeat the local foliage not human bodies (and common knives and farm tools have probably killed more human beings than any purpose-built sword or dagger, because most violence is private and people use what they have). Christian Cameron is convinced that hunting hangers are relatively short because the scabbard of a long sword drags on brush and gets scratched up and a hunter spends much more time moving through brush than finishing off wounded animals.

And even in a fight there are horses and darts. Its not a good idea to evaluate a horseman’s sword while you are on foot. Martial arts for foot combat often teach tactics and rules of thumb, such as ‘only close in after you have gained control of their weapon’ and ‘a sword can’t cut plate,’ which are wrong or impossible the moment horses are involved. A sword is an excellent weapon, but in the ancient world if someone is running around with just a sword they will be shot down with spears or stones like Alcibiades. So you need a shield (or to wrap your cloak or jacket around your arm) and as soon as you have a shield, a lot of the features of European swords from 1500 to 1800 start to seem less useful. A shield which you can hold at the end of your arm protects your sword hand, so it does not need a long cross hilt or a basket hilt. And in a society where most free men carry a spear at all times in public, as classical writers, Anglo-Saxon laws, and 16th century Norwegian court records describe, adding a few inches of length to a sword is not as big an advantage. My sword might be bigger than yours, but any spear is going to be even longer. Its very easy to pick a scenario where your skills and favourite weapon are effective, then proudly announce that science and logic show that your favourite weapon is best in this scenario.

This is even before we get into swords as symbols and things of power and objects of art and gifts to the gods (there are archaeologists who suspect that most swords made in the bronze age were thrown into a river or bog or buried in a hoard, and a Chinese dynasty had to limit the weight of metal deposited in graves leading to the construction of ‘sword-like objects’ for funerals). People have a sword to do a job, but they have many swords because swords are cool.

So when you try to understand a type of sword, its good to consider all three parts and all the things that sword does. Looking at it as just a tool for fencing is like looking at a human being as a tool for turning calories into United States Dollars (Purchasing-Power Parity, 1990). And for a fencer to say that a sword is best if its best for fencing in their preferred scenario is like an armourer saying that a hammer is best if it helps them shape metal, while a Canadian carpenter prefers one that lets them drive and pull nails and a movie director says that it has to look as badass as possible.

Sue Brunning’s book The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe: Experience, Identity, Representation (Boydell Press, 2019) ISBN 9781783274062 is available from Boydell and Brewer and Bookfinder

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4 thoughts on “Sue Brunning and the Quest for the Perfect Sword

  1. Evan says:

    “the hilt is the easiest part to divide into groups and the people writing the typologies had never used a sword.”

    This comment seems unfair. The most famous typology comes from Ewart Oakeshott, who owned a large personal collection of swords and definitely wielded them, as he talks about their balance and feel in some of his books (definitely in _The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry_, but I don’t have a copy on hand to find an exact citation).

    Oakeshott expanded an existing typology that had been developed by Jan Petersen primarily for Viking swords, and Petersen’s original typology included separate types for single- and double-edged swords. His typology was not only about the hilts. A partial translation into English is available here:

    http://www.vikingsword.com/petersen/

    1. Sean Manning says:

      But Petersen/Wheeler and A.V.B. Norman, who wrote “the standard typologies of Viking swords and rapiers,” focused on the hilts. Geibig and Oakeshott are different beasts for sure, as are Inall (an excellent functional typology!) and the people working on European bronze swords.

      Part of it is the purpose of the typology: do you want to understand what a sword can and can’t do, or use it to assign sites to a period or culture? If you have the second kind of goal then focusing on hilts could make sense.

  2. russell1200 says:

    The Society for Military History had a lengthy review. The reviewer seemed to agree with your assessment.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thank you! I will see if I can download the review next time I can visit campus. I hope I can get a copy of her book but right now I am busy looking for work and doing administrative things for the book. I think its good that today we have field archaeologists, and more ‘imaginative/theoretical’ archaeologists, and fencers like Roland Warzecha and Thegn Thrand and they all see early medieval swords from different perspectives.

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