St Martin's History of the Sword

In today’s blog we look at one of the key tools in the scholarship of the sword. Studying the form and development of swords can be difficult if we only have pieces out of context and undated to work from. The art that was created in the same context as the swords is one of the most important guides to how swords evolved. I was reminded how strong this tool is when recently working on our blog about the sword of St Martin we created. In fact, using St. Martin as point to connect the medieval world creates an interesting way to look at the history of the sword.

 St. Martin's cutting of his cloak Book of Hours from France dated about 1440

Image our reproduction was based on from a Book of Hours from France dated to about 1440

St Martin of Tours was a very popular Saint of the medieval period. His decision to slice his cloak with his sword to help a beggar is illustrated in many formats and styles across a millennium. This act of charity inspired some of the best artist and patrons over time to illustrate swords of a soldier in some detail. This gives us dateable benchmarks to compare the swords that have survived and help build an understand of development. Let's take a look at how this works.

 St. Martin with a broke back seax splitting his cloak

Manuscript image dated 972 

Arms & Armor Inc. custom seaxs

Seax by Arms & Armor Inc.

Martin lived in the 4th Century and while born in the far west of modern Hungary. He would live in the regions of modern Italy and France through much of his life. Some of the earliest depictions, showing him with a blade cleaving his cloak, depict large seax type knives rather than what most today classify as swords. The image above shows an illustration clearly showing a broke back seax from 972. The image below shows a larger Frankish style seax being used.

St. Martin uses a large war knife to cleave his cloak

Illustration from the Sacrament by Varmondo, 11th Century.

As the 12th century begins, we find more swords of the early forms of what we consider today to be the medieval style of sword. In the image below we see a wheel pommel and short straight guard. We also have the blade represented with a wavy center line, this is a devise often seen on images of this period and may indicate a pattern welded fuller in the blade.

early wheel pommel sword used by St. Martin

12th century Benedictine manuscript of St Martin 

Early Medieval Sword by Arms & Armor Inc.

Early medieval sword by Arms & Armor Inc. 

St. Martin with sword inlaid with text 1130

Medieval sword probably representing inlaid letters in blade 1130, Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, Cod. bibl. fol. 58, Bl. 107r

The image above from 1130 shows a sword of similar form, round pommel and short guard, but here the blade is shown with letters in the blade. This is probably indicating inlaid letters as seen in some of the Frankish blades of the period and in the tradition of pieces like the Ulfberht or Ingelrii inscriptions. These would have been high status embellishments to the sword of the day.

Stained glass of St. Martin with sword showing tri lobed pommel.

France, 1220-30 Stained glass Musée National de l'Age Médiévale, Paris

In the stained glass above we again see an early medieval sword. This piece appears to have a tri lobate pommel and again is shown with the distinctive wavy line down the blade. This piece is similar in form to our Morgan Bible Dagger.

Morgan Dagger by Arms & Armor INc. with black grip

Morgan Bible Dagger

St Martin's sword has evolved from the early depiction of the seax and is quite recognizable as the 12th and 13th century swords in form and detail. The use of art to form ideas about the evolution of materials does need to be done with a critical eye as we will see later artist begin to depict what they perceive to be more ancient forms in figures from the past but we cans see here in these examples how one can help place developments into their appropriate times and context with support of the information found in the art of the period.

  St Martin of Tours Fresco , 13th Century Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons

 Fresco from Cathedral Vieja de Salamanca 13th Century, Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In our last picture in this part of our discussion we see a fresco of St. Martin. It depicts a sword guard showing the developments of form that will become common place, with a slight peak in the center down the blade and down turned ends. This fresco from the 13th century still shows a single handed sword with shorter grip and round pommel but it is certainly a medieval sword. 

Watch for part 2 13th C and beyond.

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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