In today's blog we examine the tangs of several Medieval and Renaissance swords from The Oakeshott Institute collection. Contrary to many modern assumptions about how these swords ought to be made, medieval sword tangs were frequently quite thin, soft, and included welds. We then explore what these facts tell us about medieval sword production. Blades were often produced by large smithies, and then shipped to cutlers in quantity. These cutlers would then assemble blades and hilt components per the customers request. Or if the blades were ordered by an armoury fitted with a hilt of their choosing, in quantity.
This is a very different process from that envisioned by many modern sword lovers who have a rather romantic idea of working with an individual smith to create the perfect sword just for them. Of course, we are happy to work with you to make you the perfect sword (check this link to start a custom order, or this link to view some custom pieces we have made), but it is likely to be rather far from the experience of most medieval knights, let alone common soldiers who were often issued arms.
Part of the reason for this misapprehension is likely due to preservation bias in museums and other collections, in which it is often the fanciest pieces from the past that have survived intact to the present. For example, the arms and armor of the Emperor Maximillian are well curated and preserved, but are by no means representative of most items from the period.
We think it is useful to consider how common weapons were made and used, rather than just bespoke pieces for elites, especially since it is these common weapons that probably saw the majority of actual combat in period.
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.