Dating of medieval swords
Historical background: DATING OF MEDIEVAL SWORDS
How do we find today the dating of medieval swords? There are three main sources to date original medieval swords finds:
Their idea allow us to easy check the dating by description and form of each type. We should notice all actual typologies are modern tools and like all other scientific sources, swords typologies are in constant development. It`s an important clue, mostly for professionals because require extensive knowledge and always leave room for interpretation.
- ORIGINAL MEDIEVAL ARTS
Especially these with known dating of creation and origin, like: effigies, manuscripts, coins, seals, paintings and sculptures. Comparing with existing original swords, finding analogies and similarities is also very usefull.
- LABORATORY TESTS
Laboratory testing of residual organic materials and metallographic tests can give useful informations and help in determining the composition, type of materials used and technological aspects, which can be important guidelines for determining the dating.
Broad knowledge and experience allow, with a high degree of probability, to establish dating at the first inspection of the original sword, in most cases also to determine the origin and quality of the weapon (...and if it is not a modern fake or 19th century stylized object).
All three of the above criteria are used to confirm the expected dating, exclude mistakes and ambiguities and find new typological peculiarities. In this way, our knowledge results from the analysis of sources and all assumptions require confirmation.
We know that many swords have been used for more than one generation, sometimes the whole hilt, grip or scabbard was replaced, and inscriptions added. That is why both the overall picture and every detail are very helpful in order to get to know the history of the object.
We must also notice in how various states the swords are found. Some of them are just remains, piece of rust and such are the most finds. However many of them was stored in houses or castles through decades or even centuries and their condition is very good. That is why the state of preservation is not the final criterion when determining the age.
We must bear in mind that in the same period swords of various types were used, as well as distinguish the style of the region.
Therefore, only a broad knowledge of medieval art, history and weapons allows to determine the dating of the sword, but it will always be a certain time interval, usually 50 years, which in the Middle Ages roughly corresponds to the age of one generation. It makes it easier for us today to determine dating (for example: 'the first half of the 12th century' means years 1100-1150). For some cases we date some swords in a century (for example, simply: '14th century'), when we know the existence of such swords from historical sources in the long term.
In some cases, we can determine dating with more precision, for example when we know the period of rule of the person for whom the sword was made (for example: sword and scabbard of Fernando de la Cerde 1253–1275, infant and heir to the throne of Castile), or if there are some details on the sword to connect it with some historical events or rulers (inscription or heraldry marks).
We can also associate the dating of a given sword with inscriptions, techniques used to make them, or with crafting marks. However, also in these cases it will be a certain interval, also not less than several dozen years.
We do not have any laboratory tools for metal dating. We can laboratory date organic material such as wood or leather. However, for most swords, these are residual and contaminated materials. However, these are expensive tests and often do not give unambiguous and accurate results. It seems prudent to use wider field of historical sources that are known to us to date. This in turn requires extensive knowledge and a historical context. That is why we are constantly improving the methodology of dating, and the best results are achieved by a multifaceted approach to the subject by the researcher.
It is still the safest and scientifically justified dating to 50 years range for new finds, sometimes even about 100 years. Especially when we realize that some objects were produced in the same form for a long time (sometimes 200-300 years for some simple buckles).
It is so little that it gives the possibility of linking with a given ruler or period of reign. This, in turn, allows for the definition of a broader historical context of the find.
In its present form, however, I would not rely on the most popular typologies for exact dating. It only specifies the scope. Typologies are a tool for professionals who also know a broad historical context to recognize the object correctly and suggests its dating.
Nevertheless, it seems that we can today determine the dating of swords and new finds quite precisely and unquestionably, at least with an error limit of several decades. The constantly updated database of finds and new technologies will probably reduce the error limit for a given find in some time.
I sincerely hope that creating a more accurate tool based on the detailed classification and analysis of the finds can help a lot. This is one of my goals and the subject of my research work for many years.