Early Finger Rings on Guards, Why?

As part of our exploration of the development of European swords, this week we address the history of finger rings on cross guards. The finger ring is an iconic part of complex hilted swords and is a fundamental aspect of the development of later sword forms. At around the same time the knuckle bow emerged on sword hilts we also see the development of the forearm or branch into a recurved ring. In period this hilt defense was sometimes referred to as the eyes of the hilt or the Pas d'âne, today it is often called the finger ring. 

It is often assumed that the purpose of this hilt design is merely to protect a finger placed over the cross, but that is only part of its function. This bar also provides an anchor for a back sweep, a bar that curves from the finger ring down to the base of the opposite quillion. This bar protects the thumb when it is placed on the side of the guard. 

Custom Elector of Saxony style hilt with simple back sweep

Simple back sweep on custom Arms & Armor Sword. 

Longsword with simple back sweep

Simple back sweep on longsword and a fore-ring off two hilt arms. Custom Arms & Armor Sword.

One Finger Ring

The earliest example we have seen of a single ring on a sword is an example from Spain. The sword in this example is held by the king with his finger extended over the crossguard. While this ring appears quite tight around the finger, it is definitely an arm of the guard coming forward down the blade and used here to protect the index finger.

Grant Cronica de Espanya 1377-1396 forearm

Grant Cronica de Espanya 1377-1396, Aragon, Spain

While rare, surviving examples of this feature do exist, the foremost being Item IX.950 in the British Royal Armories. Once part of the Sultan's arsenal at Alexandria, this sword has an Arabic inscription added at the time of its possible capture in 1432. This would indicate the swords working life started prior to this date.

Item IX.950 from the Royal Armouries Leeds, UK

Two Finger Rings

In the last decades of the 15th Century the single finger ring with or without knuckle bow, becomes more common and it can be found in many examples of both double and single edged swords of this period. The first datable example of a hilt with a set of two hilt rings in the same plan as the blade occurs on another altarpiece. The “St. Michael” altarpiece Luton Hoo by Bartoneu Bermejo from 1468. 

“St. Michael” allotropes Luton Hoo by Bartoneu Bermejo.

St Michael

“St. Michael” allotropes Luton Hoo by Bartoneu Bermejo hand detail.

Here we see the two forearms coming down from the guard and the finger placed over the guard. This is also an excellent example of the tassels often used to adorn medieval sword grips.

Sword hilt from Pastrana Tapestries

In 1471 we see the earliest indication of a more fully developed hilt in a tapestry showing two quillons, two hilt arms and a side ring or port attached to the ends of the arms and perpendicular to the blade. Source: Pastrana Tapestries of King Alfonso of Portugal at the capture of Tangier. This is particularly interesting as it shows many of the fully armoured knights with this hilt style in hand in a mass combat.

Swords in use from the Pastrana Tapestries
This tapestry is an excellent example of how you can use art to date a number of developments in weapons and armor. As the weaving can be dated to shortly after the event it gives a detailed sample of many forms in development in a variety of areas.
You can see the similarities of these hilts to our  Serenissima Rapier, a sword not usually associated with knightly combat by modern observers.
The use of the forearm to protect the finger seems to have been popular in multiple regions after the example of the tapestries from Pastrana. Here we see in 1473, just two years later, a depiction from Pinturicchio's Saint Bernardino Releases a Prisoner. A soldier is depicted sheathing or unsheathing his sword with the forearms clearly depicted.
Pinturicchio, Saint Bernardino Releases a Prisoner 1473 St Bernardino sword
In "Rapier and Smallsword" Norman suggests that, with this hilt type evolution, we start to see a stratification of its use in society, with finger rings becoming appropriate to some social groups, but not to others. For example, the pictorial evidence indicates developed hilts being used mainly by infantry men in Italy, while depictions on the Iberian peninsula favor Men at Arms and infantry equally in their use of the newer style. This may indicate some of the ideals of the time as to what is fashionable and what was not and the constant flow of fashion between the strata of society which you see in all human culture.
One conclusion from such a wide regional depiction to this development is that it almost certainly occurred earlier than the 1470's. This mid 15th century development of the hilt is something we continue to research and keep a watch for additional examples of this evolution in the sword.
Also check out the History of the Knuckle Bow 

divider swords

Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography.  He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.

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