People often ask us how they can learn more about swords. This is a fraught question because there are many different questions you can ask about historical swords, and what you are trying to learn will influence where you should search for answers. Today we have a couple of recommendations for folks interested in researching when and where certain styles of sword might have been popular, how they were worn, and what types of other equipment they were associated with.
A big problem in the study of existing historical swords is that there isn't usually any context that is truly known about the pieces. Medieval swords in museums and private collections often do not have a traceable history of where they were found, where they might have been made, or how they were intended to be used. There is only so much you can learn from an object without context. Even swords with inscriptions or makers marks, such as the following that is inscribed on a rapier in the Oakeshott Institute collection, "Alonzo de Sahagun me fecit in Toledo MDLXXV" only tells us so much. The latin inscription translates to "Alonzo de Sahagun made me in Toledo in 1585". We do not who bought and used the sword, how they envisioned it working, nor why they preferred the particular sword over others. Few swords beyond truly exceptional pieces owned by royalty or ceremonial pieces preserved in-situ for centuries or millennia have any provenance we can truly know.
Arms and Armor Edward III Sword, even though it's royal, how much do we really know?
For this context we need history and art history in combination with archaeology. A highly accessible resource for those trying to understand the context, history, and geography of medieval swords are the searchable websites called "Effigies and Brasses", "Manuscript Miniatures" and "Armour in Art".
Effigies and Brasses is a searchable database of sculptural tombstones and associated representational monuments from the Middle Ages. They are searchable by year, tags such as 'sword' or 'helm', and geography. For example, a search specifying the years 1350-1370 with the tag "sword" turns up around two dozen funereal effigies with swords from across Europe, including the two I've included below. The first is the effigy of Sir Hugh de Prouz who died in 1350 and is buried in St. Cuthbert's Church, Widworthy, Devon, England. The second is Albrecht II von Barby who died in 1358 and is buried in Saxony.
Both of these images show us at least partial swords in association with the martial equipment with which they were used by prominent warriors of the time. We can see the size and profiles of the blades, and parts of the hilt of the sword in the von Barby monument. We can also infer that these swords were designed to complement and/or exploit the weaknesses in the types of armor that these knights are wearing, giving us clues about how they were meant to be used. The next step in researching swords from this period might be to attempt to identify the swords in these pictures by their place in the Oakeshott typology, and then to compare those results with swords in fechtbuchs and other manuscripts from the period.
Utilizing the same search terms, 1350-1370 and the tag "sword" in Manuscript Miniatures gives use dozens of examples of manuscript marginalia from the period depicting swords in use, such as the 1350 Italian example below featuring knights fighting with baselards and a cruciform arming sword with a disc pommel and dual fullers in the strong of the blade. Aside from the fullers, the sword resembles something like our Duke of Urbino type XV Italian arming sword, that dates from within a couple decades of the piece depicted.
A final resource searches paintings and fine art in the same way. Utilizing the same search we are presented with several sculptures and frescos depicting armed men of the period. The first likely depicts armored Austrian or German knights, with one holding a scabbarded longsword, the second is in the Basilica of St. Denis in France and depicts an armored man with what might be a falchion or messer on his belt, and a second with an arming sword in his hand.
These are only a few resources for those wanting to learn more about the context of medieval swords, but exploring them will give you many hours of interest and joy. You can also check out all of our past blogs, and our product descriptions to learn more about the characteristics and history of medieval European 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.