What is a Sword Furbisher?

Our post today delves into the finishing of swords and hilts in the 16th century. In our previous posts on historical finishing of swords 1, 2, 3 we were working from images of the medieval period that have survived to today, research on originals and limited descriptions we find in text descriptions.

I had a colleague reach out with a source that spoke directly to some of the techniques and practices used by craftspeople of the 16th century. He had worked on the project, and I was unaware of this excellent research. It is an amazing thing when you find a voice from the past speaking to your area of study with practical and clear information. I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Tavares for this work, Arms & Armor Ms. Fr. 640 and help.

Ms. Fr. 640

The manuscript Ms. Fr. 640 dates from 1580 and was written by an anonymous author from Toulouse. He describes the processes and materials used by the craftspeople of the weapon and armor industry and directly to this post the work of the Furbishers, a group how had formed their own Guild.

- Fur"bish*er (?), n. [Cf. F. fourbisseur.] One who furbishes; esp., a sword cutler, who finishes sword blades and similar weapons.

Websters 1913 edition

While a modern definition of the position describes it generally, the detailed description provided by our anonymous author from the last decades of the 16th century open a unique view into how this industry worked and functioned. It is clearly a different picture than is often depicted in movies or popular fiction today. It is not a singular craftsperson working alone in a shop creating a piece from raw materials to finished masterpiece.

Cutlers shop medieval

In Ms. Fr. 640 the furbisher is clearly defined as a retailer and refiner of swords. They would receive semi-finished blades, hilts and materials and fit and finish to need. They would be supplied by multiple craftspeople with components for these weapons. Some coming in varying stages of completion or finished. In the example of rapiers, they could be obtained in at least 6 different forms.

detailing rapier hiit at Arms & Armor Inc.

Detailing hilt in our shop 

The furbisher would then do the remainder of the work from the finish filing to fancy finishes or just fitting and assembly dependent on what was being made. Blades and scabbards were also obtained in similar fashion for the completion of all a sword customer could want. But all coming through a series of craftspeople and trade. This flow of pieces to a final assembly and sale would have allowed multiple variations for the purchaser and given the furbisher control of how the item was completed.

Check out Arms & Armor Rapiers

Check out our Rapiers  

We will be looking at a  lot of the descriptions in this research in future posts as we examine the historical methods in comparison to today’s work and customer preferences. One thing becomes clear though. While our industry today has a tendency to concentrate all aspects into one operation, the medieval and renaissance craftspeople were working from multiple sources of materials and worked elements. This allowed specialization of the many techniques and skills needed to be broadly spread across artisans rather than having to rely on many skills resting on one person or a few to create a piece.


Article cite for above link to Furbisher Article

Tavares, Jonathan. “Arms and Armor in Ms. Fr. 640.” In Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, edited by Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano. New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020. https://edition640.makingandknowing.org/#/essays/ann_308_ie_19. DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.7916/9rye-d152


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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