swords

Where do Misconceptions About Medieval Swords Come From?

Most misconceptions about ancient Greek and Near Eastern swords come from peer-reviewed books by professional researchers who never opened a site report or spent time really seeing what was behind glass in museums. But the people who really like medieval swords are worried about misinformation too, and they blame some different culprits. Recently, several of them have given talks or written essays where they blame the same three sources. Because their comments are mixed up with other things or scattered across different places, this week I have gathered them together.

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How to Hold Bronze Swords

A Destreza Training Sword (with the proper wooden grip!) from Darkwood Armoury held parallel to the arm with a finger hooked over the crossguard in a ‘rapier grip’

All martial arts can be divided into three types, the traditional which have passed from master to student until the present, the historical which died leaving detailed instructions by a practitioner, and the prehistoric which died without leaving such instructions. Just as prehistory in Mongolia extends much later than prehistory in Iraq, prehistoric martial arts can be more recent than many historical or traditional ones.

People trying to reconstruct prehistoric martial arts such as Plato’s hoplomachia or 17th century Polish sabre fencing pay a lot of attention to the ergonomics of weapons. If a spear was balanced towards the butt, it probably was not meant to be thrown: if a sword builds up a lot of rotary momentum when it is swung, it was probably designed to move in circles rather than back and forth. Good weapons were expensive objects, and outside the Roman and some Chinese armies there were no committees forcing warriors to use one type of weapon, so we can take as an axiom that common long-lived forms of weapon were well designed to meet their users’ needs. If they were not, they would have fallen out of use.

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Paradoxes of Sword Design

cross-sections of six swords near the guard
Cross-sections of six swords near the hilt. From Peter Johnson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” at Arctic Fire 2012 https://youtu.be/nyAc5HbUuqw?t=2630

In February, I started to think seriously about swords after sketching the swords from Ghalekuti (which I will blog about one day). I am the “armour” sort of historical fencing person not the “swords” sort (thanks Steve Muhlberger) and I don’t have access to many originals in good condition. A group of European and American bladesmiths and engineers have been thinking about how to describe swords and how they want to move. The names I know best are Michael Tinker Pearce, Vincent le Chevalier, and Peter Johnsson; other people would mention Angus Trim and George Turner.

Swords are simple objects, but designing a specific sword requires trading off all kinds of goods against one another. The longer sword is more of a nuisance to wear and slower to draw, the stiffer sword may not be as effective in cutting, the more complex hilt limits how the weapon can be held. These seemingly simple objects hide a lot of engineering that you can slowly train your eye to see and your arm to feel.

This is a topic where not much has been formally published, but two great web resources are “Understanding Blade Properties” by Patrick Kelly and Peter Johnsson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” from Arctic Fire 2012 (warning: YouTube). Peter Johnsson is probably the most charismatic speaker discussing these ideas today and he has his own theory of how the medieval cruciform sword was designed. Because his talk is 80 minutes long and on a scary Google website I want to call out two things which I noticed.
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Bonus Content: Why do We Think Iron Shatters Bronze?

Armed with the power of HITTITE IRON, reedy doctor Sinuhe breaks general Horemhab’s sword! From scene 12 of Sinuhe: The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz director, 1954)

Most people interested in ancient weapons know that early iron swords were not any better than bronze ones. But they don’t always know where the idea comes from, or how we know about the properties of early edged weapons. If you want to find out, the article is available in Ancient Warfare XI.6 (The Decelean War) from Karwansaray.

But in a little magazine article, I was not able to include all the references which I wanted. So what if you want to learn more?

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A Sword is a Two-Edged Gift

A long, straight, two-edged dagger of solid gold with a hilt cast into ram's heads
A golden akinakes in a private collection. “Said to be from Hamadan” (ancient Ecbatana), first documented in 1956. 41.27 cm long, 817 g. For details, see Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia p. 233 no. 430
Courtesy of Samira Amir https://www.pinterest.com/samiraamir/

A time long ago- maybe in Darius’ Ecbatana, maybe in the bazaars of Tehran around the time Mosaddegh was overthrown- someone made this golden dagger. The classical sources let us see what such gifts could mean.

For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.8

I don’t know whether Xenophon was correct about that last point: lots of Persians in sculptures from court or cemeteries in the provinces wear golden bracelets and silver torcs (and in fact, in the sculptures at Persepolis the subjects are giving the king jewellery rather than the other way around). But he knew that gifts were a serious matter.

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