Fantasy vs Historical, which is better? Ok... Fight!
As makers of historical weapons for over 40 years we have strong feelings about swords and how they are made. Although we specialize in making historically accurate pieces, the line between the two is sometimes not as clear as one or the other. Many swords from the past, have design elements rooted in fantastic imagery that is similar to some modern fantasy designs.
This sword has anamorphic details that lend it an air of fantasy.
The history of weapons is a fascinating subject and the variety of designs from the past often exceed modern stereotypes as to what constitutes an authentic piece. Over the years we have learned to pay attention to what challenges our beliefs about historical reality. In fact, we've put together several lectures over the decades on this topic.
We have also surprised clients who have sent us fantasy designs of their own conception by sending them historical examples of their idea from hundreds or even thousands of years in the past. For example, an excited customer sent a sword design with a curled point and was astonished when we pointed out it was a traditional design from thousands of years ago. In most cases the old saying that nothing is ever new has a bit of truth to it.
Sometimes historical designs that appear fantastical are illustrated in medieval sources depicting the distant past or foreign lands, as if to emphasize how strange those times and places were. If there are no surviving physical examples of these weapons we might conclude that they are historical fantasy pieces! Although, before consigning these to the fantasy bin of history, we must remember that absence of surviving physical evidence is not necessarily evidence of their non-existence. A famous example of this is the two-handed choppers of the Romance of Alexander with their full knuckle guards and reversed edged blades that are depicted alongside historically accurate armor.
Romance of Alexander, Bodleian 264
Another characteristic the historical maker turned to was the size of the object being made. Modern fantasy pieces create depictions of weapons of very great size quite often. This is most common in video game and anime swords today, but historically it is easy to find examples from the past.
An anime sword depiction
Ottoman Janissaries with huge weapons, a gun and a bifurcated sword.
A giant Talwar
These giant weapons are sometimes oversized to indicate power in the society of the foreignness of those who bear them, or their legendary strength. Other times these large weapons reflected the great stature (either physical or cultural) of the person who wielded them. A famous example is the sword of "Grutte Pier" a 15th C Frisian Pirate of great physical size and equally large reputation. At this point it is impossible to say if the weapon was so large because of his preferred style of combat, or because it was useful for putting fear into the hearts of his victims. Other over-sized swords from the same period appear to have been intended as parade or bearing swords, more symbols of might than true weapons -- a function little different from that of today's fantasy swords.
Sword of Grutte Pier is 213cm or 6.9 feet long.
There is beauty and elegance of function in both the simple knightly swords of the high medieval period and in the ornate and symbolic forms with which they coexisted. In the contrast/dichotomy of these ideas there may be some tension, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It's only when we focus on a limited aspect of the social and physical functions of these pieces that draw hard and fast lines. Practical design did not limit artistic expression in the past, nor must it today. Rather the two ideas married together produce truly unique and superior results. The best example of late is this great exhibit, Reflections by Peter Johnson.
It is good to ponder what the folks of the past would have thought when they first saw a Type X cross hilted medieval sword, or a Type XV blade, or a complex hilt, or a narrow thrusting sword, or heaven forbid a two-handed great sword designed to impress. The fantastical was a valid explanation for many of the things they saw in the world around them. In fact, these kinds of symbols were a central element of medieval European life. The kings crown, the bishops mitre, the crucifix; all were ornately symbolic.
The basic form of the weapon can also be altered to meet the expectation of the customer or artisan working on the piece. The best designs have a tendency to become common in appearance in the population of items left to us as they are the ones that worked well, and people desired. But we do see many examples, here and there, were someone has tried something different and it has gained some local appeal and we are left with these pockets of design choice scattered about in the surviving pieces. One example is the ring pommel on Irish swords, another is the "pretzel" guard on what appears to be a style localized around the Danish power base.
Danish "pretzel" guards Nationalmuseet Copenhagen, Denmark, image by Carl Koppeschaar
One of the best ways I have heard it described is by our brother in the sword Peter Johnson.
“This is from a time period when fantasy (or mythology and symbols) was a respected field of learning. Displaying the fantastic was not so much an expression of escapism as a way to show an understanding of the mysteries of the world.” Peter Johnson 2010 MyArmoury.com
Different design components were often used by period makers such as floral and faunal embellishments. Here we have a sword of a Danish Bishop with floral and shell motifs gilded and quite impressive.
Gilt hilt image from Peter Johnson
One of my particular favorites is the sword of Saint George in Köln with a relatively simple form of sword embellished with enamel work on the pommel and an elaborate grip. The beautiful sword is one of the best surviving 14th century swords and many would not expect it to be adorned with a beautiful butterfly.
Image by Lutz Hoffmeister of the Saint Georg Sword in Köln
Above, we see the sword of Francis I of France It has been detailed, gilded, and enameled to make an impressive display. In this kind of royal 'bling' we see the influence of the best artists of the day.
Sword with with anatomical arms holding jewels.
The embellishment of pieces for recognition can be seen in a large group of surviving two handed swords for the ducal and civic guards of Brunswick. They are similar but not identical and many are numbered and have inscriptions. They are excellent examples of how a design is used to identify power and prestige.
Two-Handed Sword of the State Guard of Julius of Brunswick-Lunüneburg, 1574. Germany, Brunswick, 16th century. overall: 186.1 cm (73 1/4 in.); blade: 132.1 cm (52 in.) The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Severance 1916.1508
Finally, we will close with another favorite piece that illustrates the depth of time this activity of the fantastical has inspired and been desired by humans. This piece is one of many items found in an elaborate copper age, high-status grave complex in Spain. It included not only this dagger, but spear and arrowheads all crafted from clear quartz. In addition to the quartz blade it features a carved ivory grip and is an exceptional weapon. This weapon certainly inspired and captured the fantastical thousands of years ago, and would not be out of place in today's fantasy literature. Would this not be exactly what a character in a Conan story might have carried?
4,500 year old quartz crystal dagger with ivory hilt. Found in a Copper Age-era tomb in Valencina de la Concepción, Spain.
In an upcoming post we will exhibit several pieces that we have made over the years that capture the fantastic nature of historical pieces. Stay tuned. Thank you to those that have taken images of some of these amazing pieces so we could share them with you, Peter Johnson, Lutz Hoffmeister and Carl Koppeschaar.
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.