The Evolution of European Sword Design – From the Romans to Normans

My aim with this topic is to examine the development of European swords through the Medieval period and into the Renaissance, along the way looking at all the details that change throughout that timeframe. I also intend to look at the possible reasons behind the gradual transformations of the sword, be they caused by changes in technology, society, combat styles, or even fashion.

Today I will tackle the first part of this period up until around the 11th to 12th century. Before we go straight into the Early Medieval period however, we do need to find where our starting point originates. Like many things in Medieval Europe, the influence of the Romans is never too far off, and in the case of swords it is no different. The Roman Empire is famous for its use of the ‘gladius’, a relatively short sword with an acute point optimized for stabbing. While this makes for a very deadly weapon when used in a well organised tight formation of troops, all of which would have used the very large ‘scutum’ shield, this sword isn’t incredibly well suited in other situations. A different type of sword started to enter Roman service that was particularly favoured by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries in the early Imperial period. This was the ‘Spatha’, a longer, narrower sword that is more optimised for cutting, and was seemingly inspired by long Celtic Iron Age swords. Initially the spatha was a cavalry sword, suited to the job due to the longer reach it afforded the wielder; up to 100cm as opposed to the 65-85cm of the gladius. Eventually however, in the later Imperial period from around the 3rd Century AD, and until the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the spatha became the primary sword of the infantry. There is still debate on the reasons for this change, with possible theories stemming from the shift in demographic of the Late Roman Army. It appears that more Germanic peoples made up a greater portion of the armies, many of whom even commanded whole legions of their own culture. This may have caused the fighting style to change, with looser formations, lighter more manoeuvrable shields, and these longer swords to take advantage of the greater freedom and space in the melee. Additionally, these Germanic people could have simply chosen to fight with weapons more familiar to them, as the spatha is more similar to Northern European swords of the time. Whatever the reasons, it is ultimately this change that would be the basis for the vast majority of European sword development through the medieval period.

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Examples of gladius and spatha hilts from the 1st to 3rd centry AD

Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire, and until around the 8th Century we have what is known as the Migration Period. Throughout these few hundred years we see very little change in the basic design of the sword from the spatha. The migration period sword is still somewhat different in that the guard and pommel shapes change slightly from the more rounded Roman styles. Initially the guard and pommel pieces seem to become more minimal, with some being simple flat bars, ovals or discs, resulting in swords that have almost no pommel and simply a bar to help retain grip. Early on in this period most of the hilt construction appears to consist of organic materials, generally wood, as well as perhaps some horn and bone elements, very similar to Roman swords. As we move closer to the early medieval period the guards and pommels seem to feature metal more prominently, especially on the more ornate examples that are also heavily jewelled. The metals are mostly gold, silver or copper alloys, although these metals survive much better than Iron, so this could be skewing our statistics. The metal on these swords is mostly in the form of ornate plates covering parts of the grip, or plates in the pommel and guard construction that from a sandwich around a core of organic material.

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Examples of Migration Period sword hilts from 300-400 AD

It is later in the migration period, more specifically going into the Vendel period and the time of the Merovingian dynasty, that these swords start to change again in subtle but significant ways. We start to see pommels changing in shape due to end caps being fitted over the flat bar piece that already exists. The reason for this change is fairly straightforward and is most likely to do with the way sword hilts are constructed. Every sword is made as a single piece in essence, with a thin bar section continuing from the bottom of the blade called the ‘tang’, which is where the sword is held. This keeps the whole sword from having any significant weak points where any joins could be. From there the hilt is basically just slotted onto the hilt in order to make the sword more comfortable and easy to hold. With the previous migration period examples the tang was mostly fitted straight to the plate at the pommel end of the hilt, with the affixing method such as rivet or simply the peened tang being exposed. What we get in the later migration period is the appearance of larger end caps on top of this plate, which seemingly started to be used as a way of adding more decorative elements to the hilt without the fragile materials interfering with the strength of the construction. The prominent example of this pommel style is known as the ‘pyramid pommel’. These pommels, and the swords in general, are amazing examples of craftsmanship of the period, with gold elements holding finely shaped garnets in the cloisonné technique, and sometimes added filigree and different textures added under the stones to give different reflections. It is from these end caps that we start to see pommel design turn into the familiar shapes of the Viking age.

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Modern reproduction of the Sutton Hoo sword featuring a typical pyramid pommel
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Gold pommel end caps from the Staffordshire hoard.

Overall it appears that the place of the sword shifted somewhat in the migration period, with it becoming a more high-class weapon that only the very elite could afford. Gone were the days of the large standardised army of the Roman Empire. Small groups and petty kingdoms could scarcely afford to outfit many of their troops with this expensive weapon. Instead we see the spear return to prominence, if it ever left. Much less Iron was required for spears, and they could be far more effective in a basic shieldwall of less disciplined troops than the sword. This could explain why so many examples from this period are so incredibly ornate, when earlier and later swords are generally far more utilitarian.

From the migration period we move into the early medieval period. Possibly also referred to as the ‘Viking age’ or the ‘Carolingian period’. Many of the examples of swords that we will see in this period are commonly known as ‘viking swords’, although very similar styles were used across Europe, such as in Francia and Britain prominently. Again the changes we see are rather minor in overall appearance, but they set some significant precedents that develop later into the medieval period. The first point to be made is that there certainly were the ornate styles of Migration period sword being used well into this time, just as these ‘viking swords’ could be seen after their time of prominence too.  The most striking change we see as we advance in time is that the guards and pommels of swords start to be made entirely of iron or steel. There would still have been many rich examples featuring precious metals and other decoration, but for the most part the organic elements are now confined to the grip alone, which is usually made of leather wrapped wood, or sometimes made of bone, horn, and even wrapped in wire. The hilt styles of these swords appear very similar in shape to earlier examples, with flat bars against the hand on both ends, resulting in a very secure grip on the sword. The pommels are also still made with an added end cap, often still hollow, covering the end of the tang. Although they do start to simplify, with less individual parts until they combine into a single piece as this period comes to a close.

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Wheeler’s typology of viking age sword hilts. The types are in roughly chronological order.

An important part of the development of swords is of course in the quality of the steel being used for the blade. While I couldn’t possibly go into all the details of the metallurgy and smithing processes that combine to make a good sword, now is a good point to mention the basic approach to swordsmithing in this period, as a big change is about to occur. Swords of this early medieval period are famous for having very intricately made ‘pattern welded’ blades. The term ‘damascus steel’ is commonly used for this style of blade construction, but in this case is a misnomer. From the Roman period, through the migration and early part of the Viking age, pattern welded sword blades, and those of other weapons, were very common. This method is essentially a way of making a high quality blade that is strong, flexes but does not bend, and has few weak spots. This was a necessary technique due to large quantities of quality iron not being readily available, as well as the ability to melt steel in order to homogenize it into a uniform structure not being prevalent. So what pattern welding does is it allows you to take pieces of steel of differing qualities and form them into bars or rods and twist them together into various patterns, some of which can be highly decorative as well as functional. The different steels are then ‘forge welded’ together, basically meaning they were heated to a high temperature and hammered into shape until they fuse together. Early forms of this technique had been done for hundreds of years, possibly even by early Celtic smiths, through a method known as ‘piling’ which is mostly just forge welding various pieces together at random or in simple lines. The point here is that by the early Medieval period, pattern welding techniques had been around for centuries and had essentially been perfected. A smith making these complex patterns had reached the peak of forging technology. The significant change that happens in this period is not to do with forging technology, but with smelting technology, which is the earlier stage where the metal is extracted from Iron ore and refined. What actually changed here is the type of furnace being used in this process, going from a type called a ‘bloomery’ to the new ‘blast furnace’, essentially allowing for higher temperatures. This change is commonly thought to have happened around 1000 AD, but it appears to being around 800 AD, so essentially the entirety of the ‘Viking age’ is covered by the slow process of pattern welded swords being replaced by new single steel swords. Many methods did carry on further however, such as the use of forge welding different steels together, notably done to have a softer or more flexible body to the sword, with harder steel on the edges. It is important to mention that the majority of this change comes out of the Carolingian or Frankish Empire, and frequently the high quality swords made there were sought after in surrounding regions, including Scandinavia. This continues to include the famous swords inscribed with the name ‘ULFBERHT’ that seemingly denoted the highly advanced steel being used.

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Excellent examples of pattern welded blades. Made by Patrick Bárta at templ.net

Having covered the material changes of the sword going through the early medieval period, we should finally look at some of the significant changes that occur in the shape of swords and their hilts again before we get to the High Middle Ages post 11th century. The development I mention here is most likely linked to changes in combat techniques that also come from the Carolingian Empire. The whole period I have covered here, from the Roman Empire, through the migration period and the early medieval, has always featured the sword alongside its best friend; the shield. Not just any shield however, but specifically the centre-gripped or boss held shield, a shield held in the middle in a single fist, protected by the metal dome of a ‘boss’, the Viking round shield and the Roman scutum are good examples. Eventually this type of shield gave way to the strapped shield in its various forms, with straps attaching the shield to the forearm. There are several reasons why this change of shield may have taken place, one being the ability to free the hand while still retaining the shield being more suitable for cavalry, an element of the Frankish army that became more prominent in this period, as they were credited with being the origin of the medieval knight. Also, the centre-gripped shield, while being more manoeuvrable in certain ways, and more offensive and allowing for greater reach, it could be easily manipulated by the opponent by pivoting the shield around the wielder’s gripping hand. The first strapped shields of this period came in a dome shape which could glance off attacks rather than being pivoted, and the strapping to the arm also helped with this. Ultimately this type of shield would appear to be more useful and sturdy in tight formations of troops, as the face of the shield could more safely be pointed toward the enemy while giving greater cover to the formation from missiles.

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9th Century manuscript image showing dome shields held close to the body.

So why is all this detail on shields relevant to the use of swords? Well the key point here is that these new shields being strapped to the arm were no longer held forward along with the sword hand in combat. Also previous shields would essentially do most of the work in creating openings in the opponent’s defences, and then the sword would be quickly used to exploit them. The strapped shield can no longer function this way, which both leaves the sword hand now more vulnerable, and the sword now being made to do more of the work in combat, rather than just waiting for the time to strike. Dealing with that last point first, the sword would now be more likely to encounter other swords and weapons, and result in opponents entering a ‘bind’, where swords are used to apply pressure on and manipulate each other. This is what you may think of when you imagine proper ‘swordfighting’. So how does the sword adapt to this? First of all we can see the shape of the pommel and guard changing. The pommel will start to become more rounded, and smaller in some cases, allowing the sword to be gripped more comfortable in a more forward position with the blade more in line with the forearm. This allows for the swordsman to exert greater pressure in the bind, as well as attack with the point more easily. The previous method of gripping the sword in more of a right angle to the arm, while seeming more secure in the hand, had a weak point at the grip itself when attempting to apply pressure rather than going for the quick chop. The grip will also change overall by becoming slightly longer, as well as both the pommel and guard starting to curve away from the hand in some examples, all of which gives the hand more room to grip the sword more comfortably in this more forward position. Lastly, to deal with the issue of vulnerability of the hand, the guard of the sword will now truly become a crossguard. Early examples begin to have slightly longer guard pieces, until they eventually become much longer, as well as thinner to help reduce weights as they get larger.

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Examples of late 10th to 11th century swords. Made by albion-swords.com

It is these developments all together that start to bring us towards the ‘arming’ sword of the high middle ages, the most prominent of which we may know of at the period around 1000 AD would be those famously wielded by the Normans, such as in the Bayeux tapestry. The improvement in smelting technology gives the appearance of a single-steel sword, and the new requirements in combat and use of different shields start to lengthen the grip, change the pommel first into slightly rounded or ‘brazil nut’ shapes, before the iconic circular pommel, and then the true ‘crossguard’ comes into existence.

With this important transition taking place, I will stop there. Keep an eye out for my next post on this topic where swords start to evolve more drastically and rapidly throughout the rest of the medieval and following renaissance period, including changes to the overall shape and length of the swords, the first longswords and two-handed swords, and various blade types meant for specific purposes.

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2 thoughts on “The Evolution of European Sword Design – From the Romans to Normans

  1. I’ve been looking for a good article on the evolution of European swords, and this was the first one that really got its information right. Thanks for the interesting read!

    Like

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