We are often asked when a specific style or technology first emerged. Sometimes this is easy, but more often it is not. It is rare for a simple line of progression to exist in the adoption and development of historical styles, and the further back in time we try to go, the murkier the facts tend to become.
In this blog we examine the early history and development of the knuckle bow as an element of medieval and Renaissance swords. The knuckle bow is the portion of the guard that extends back from an arm or the block of the guard protecting the fingers of the sword hand. This can be a simple extension of the guard arm or a separate bar that anchors into the guard. It can go from the block all the way to the pommel or hang in space in front of the knuckles.
Some examples of knuckle bow forms on custom single edged swords
The earliest examples we can find are in art. The first development is the forward quillion being curved back to protect the hand and the rear quillion turned towards the blade creating an S shape. These S shaped guards are mounted on falchion type blades that are single edged in the earliest depictions.
A very early depiction of knuckle protection is, however, the opposite of this. It is seen in a 1367 fresco by Bartolo di Fredi. It shows the tang of a broad bladed falchion like blade curling around the hand and coming forward towards the point to guard the fingers. This detail is seen in working knives for a long time in Italy and might be a militarized version of such a tool.
1367 Fresco from Collegiata, San Gimignano, Italy
Other early examples we have found of the guard forming a protection for the hand are examples in the Romance of Alexander, two versions, one English manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford ( Ms Bodl. 264) the other a French example (BL Royal 20 B). Both of these are shown in the hand of kings and may well indicate that these were high status swords in the early 1400's when this artwork was created.
Drawing of Saladin by a Paduan artist. 1435
Early Guard Shapes
The earliest example we have found showing a forearm of the hilt being shaped non symmetrically with an expressed intention to guard the fingers is from a french Book of Hours from 1440 (MS.M 63)
Here we see the guard mounted on a double edged diamond-sectioned blade. This example is notable in its right angle bend a form that will become common over time on both double and single edged weapons.
Arms & Armor custom falchion with right angle style knuckle bow
Another interesting example is housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Dating from around the year 1490, this Italian Falchion is influenced by swords of the Middle East in its style. In this case, the knuckle bow resembles the earlier S-shaped quillions, but with the addition of another down turned bar from which it diverges, tying it into the later styles that preserved a quillion while adding a knuckle blow.
Although the earliest pieces, like those above, tended to be single-edged swords, the knuckle bow became more common on swords with double edged blades as the 15th century came to a close. Sideswords and early rapiers very often featured complex hilts that included knuckle protection. Several of these can be scene in Italian art of the 1490's. Our Serenissima Rapier, pictured below, is an excellent example of the adoption of the knuckle bow to diamond sectioned single-handed swords in the first half of the 16th century. As you can see, as above, in some cases the knuckle bow developed into a separate part of the hilt from the earlier repurposing of the front quillion.
Arms and Armor Serenissima Rapier ~ 1530-40
In other cases, such as that of our German Rapier from around the year 1600, the main bar of the knuckle bow remains a swept qullion augmented by additional side bars protecting the hand.
Arms and Armor German Rapier, ~1600
We are always on the look out for more information about topics like this. If you know of early examples depicted in art or surviving examples please share with us and we can update this post firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Sometimes this research leads to little puzzles. We have an example of that here. There is a reference to an art work dated 1435 that depicts one sword with knuckle guard, quillons and hilt ring in the “Mary Magdalen” altarpiece at Klosterneuburg. We have not been able to find this piece of art. If anyone has knowledge of it we would be very interested to hear of it.
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.