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Matters at the sharp end – or a few words on the 12th century sword
John FitzGilbert Marshal, the hero of A Place Beyond Courage spent much of his time on the battlefield in both military and organisational roles. As an accomplished soldier and a male of the Anglo Norman aristocracy, John was expected to be proficient in the use of the weapons of the time.
Perhaps the most iconic weapon of his period – and often a misunderstood one is the sword. I often see written in novels and even in some historical sources that should know better that the medieval sword was an enormous instrument, brutal of construction that the average person would be unable to lift, let alone wield – think Conan the Barbarian for the musculature required.
This notion is a fallacy owing more to fantasy novels and Hollywood than the truth. While the later Middle Ages did spawn some rather spectacular two-handers, the swords of John Marshal’s period were items of austere grace and beauty, perfectly balanced, forged with loving skill, and weighing in total no more than three pounds. If a man had to fight up close for his life, he needed a weapon that was easy to wield in battle and tireless in use. Think tennis racket rather than stodgy iron bar.
That is not to say that everyone could fight with a sword. There was a skill to its use and much practise required to learn the strokes, counter strokes and footwork, and yes, to develop the strength and coordination to wield one with enough dexterity to be a danger to one’s enemies and protect one’s own life. The cost of a good sword also put owning one outside the reach of the peasant in the field and the artisan in the street. The sword of the 12th century was a weapon and status symbol of the aristocracy. Frequently depicted on seals, it symbolised the right to rule and administer justice. In the 12th century in Normandy, courts were held as ‘Pleas of the sword’ just as they were held in England as ‘Pleas of the crown.’
Swords of the 11th and 12th centuries sometimes had inlays in tin or silver down the blade. Often the inlay had a religious meaning. One might find the saying INOMINEDOMINI (in the name of God) for example. Sometimes the maker would inlay his own name. Just before John Marshal's time, there was a famous sword maker who adorned much of his work with his own name INGELRIí. Owning an INGELRIí blade must have conveyed as much status factor on the owner of the weapon as owning a Rolls Royce today.
Sometimes there were inscriptions on the hilt too. The Sword of St. Maurice bears the inscription Cristus Vincit, Cristus Reinat, Cristus Imperat, on the cross of the hilt - a war-cry used by the hosts of the third crusade and also a liturgical chant.
Swords were often family heirlooms, passed down from father to son and refurbished as the need arose. So sometimes a sword might be discovered with an 11th century blade but the grip and the decoration of the fittings might be 100 or even 200 years later.
Sword grips always had a hard core, usually made from wood, bone or horn. These were then covered according to personal taste and fashion and might be replaced many times over the period of the sword’s use. Grip materials included coloured leather, fabric, silk cord and silver wire. Sometimes they even involved elaborate needlework.
Above the grip came the pommel. Again the shape varied with time and fashion, but might come in a disc shape, a scallop-shell shape or something resembling a brazil nut. The latter was very popular and this could well be because it is so comfortable in use. It gave a firm support to the hand and also acted as a fulcrum to help the upward swing of the sword. I own a replica 12thC sword myself and it has the brazil nut style of pommel!
The sword scabbard always had a wooden core and was individually fitted to suit the sword in question. The wood might then be faced with leather and brass fittings attached. Sometimes the fittings were decorated with gold, silver and enamel if the sword belonged to a person of really high status.
We don’t know what John Marshal’s sword looked like exactly, but from the evidence available, we can make a good guess at its appearance, and one thing is for certain – he would have cared for it diligently and kept it very sharp indeed.
Want to read more? Sourcebooks is giving away one copy of A Place Beyond Courage to one US or Canadian reader. To enter, just leave a comment on this post answering this question: What is your favorite medieval weapon? Mine would have to be the bow or crossbow! Then fill out the rafflecopter below. Additional entries are available but not required. Good luck!