History of the Medieval Sword

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A History of the Medieval Sword

The Medieval broadsword is representative of a distinct period in military history when the use of a sturdy and practical fighting weapon was crucial on the battlefield.  These wide-bladed, double-edged broadswords were designed primarily for hacking and cutting in the melee of battle and for several hundred years, it was the primary weapon of offense for both the knight and ordinary soldier of the Middle  Ages.

Most examples are relatively plain in design and were produced with mortal combat, rather than public show in mind.  Existing and genuine swords are now extremely scarce.  Most are found in museums or established collections, but the collector can still occasionally purchase these swords from specialist auctions and reputable private dealers.  They do command very high prices, but the acquisition of one can be viewed as a unique window into a time when the carrying of such a highly prized and expensive blade, conferred both status and power.

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Historical Background

The typical style of the “Knightly Sword” that has entered into our imagination was firmly established by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In general terms it comprised a long, broad-bladed sword with double fullers.  A plain cross-bar hilt with wheel, brazil nut, ovoidal or mushroom-shaped pommel finished this profile.  This basic sword design had remained virtually unchanged since the time of the Vikings, and over the next three centuries, there was little need for change.

Some blades are encountered with inlaid decoration, mostly in the form of large lettering or symbols, normally of a religious or mystical nature.  Pommels of this period can also be found with inset heraldic devices, denoting particular royal or noble families.  Rare specimens have pommels of agate, inlaid gold, or rock crystal. Before the fourteenth century, soldiers wore a heavy chainmail vest and leather jerkin for protection.  This configuration allowed a relatively easy route of entry for a sword through the natural gaps provided between chainmail links.  The emphasis was thus laid on producing a sword that was both broad-bladed and a slashing weapon.  Lighter and shorter swords (falchions) could also do this work but when plate mail began to appear in the 1400’s, the slashing and cutting swords of a previous generation were unable to penetrate between the enclosed metal plated that now enveloped the soldier.  A new type of sword blade was urgently needed.  It had to be both heavier and stronger (especially at the tip) to enable a powerful, downwards-thrusting movement from the combatant directly into the armour or in a place of vulnerability.  Blades therefore became longer and narrower and with the penetrating effect of a thrusting spear. The grip was also extended to allow two-handed and consequently, more powerful operation.

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Collecting Medieval Swords

Any serious collector of ancient and early swords will tell you that the scope for forgeries is great.  For many years there has been a lively market both in their production and retailing. It is relatively easy to fake these swords as most genuine examples are in very poor condition, some just retaining the blade and lacking any hilt.

It can be quite simple to age and corrode a new blade using specific chemicals.   The result can be a sword that appears many centuries old.  A recent phenomenon is the use of 19th Century  Sudanese Kaskara broadsword blades.  They are very similar in profile to Viking and medieval blades and with carefully added ageing, they have been known to sell as original Viking or Medieval blades, particularly on internet auction web sites.  A “rule of thumb” when buying medieval swords is that if it appears to be very cheap, it is more than likely to be a fake.  An original Viking or Medieval broadsword in so-called “good” condition (and most original examples are definitely not in “good” condition as they tend to be excavated swords with considerable corrosion) would be worth upwards of $15000, so if you see a “Medieval” sword for sale at a couple of thousand dollars, just think to yourself why is it going for such a cheap price?  Maybe the seller just doesn’t know what he has and I am going to get the bargain of the century!  Unfortunately, life tends not to be like that and invariably, the seller knows exactly what he is selling.  It’s an old and maybe clichéd phrase but one that has served me well – CAVEAT EMPTOR.

© Article by Harvey Withers - antiqueswordsonline.com

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