Leather decorations before 1300
REGARDING THE DECORATION OF SWORD SCABBARDS BEFORE 1300: LEATHER TOOLING
As we know, historical sources and preserved examples of sword scabbards indicate that leather ornamentation becomes more popular among European knights after 1300.
At the same time, a popular opinion is that leather ornamentation was not present before. This cannot be agreed with.
We actually have many examples and sources that show ornaments in an earlier period. You also need to look at the broader context, such as, for example, knife sheaths, which are mostly richly decorated all the time. Of course, knife scabbards are not the same as a sword scabbard, both the design and purpose are different. In the Middle Ages, everyone had a knife with them. It was both a tool and a weapon, and it was perfectly normal. The knife in the scabbard was almost an integral part of everyday clothing. That is why they were decorated so often. On the other hand, the sword, carried on a separate belt, was taken in times of need: on the road, on official occasions and during wars.
According to sources (e.g. the trial of Joan of Arc, 1430-1431), significant knights and noble persons had several scabbards for one sword. It can be assumed that it was a common practice to have an ordinary scabbard taken on military expeditions, and another, decorative, used occasionally. Such customs were, for example, in ancient Japan or in the Middle East. Of course, the scabbards of the swords were worn out more often or simply lost and had to be replaced with new ones.
However, the Middle Ages are the times when items were decorated, and important items in particular.
It can therefore be concluded that sword scabbards in the 11-12th century were decorated less frequently, or not at all. Even though we have a lot of finds of original knife scabbards, it is a bit different with sword scabbards. Another reason for this is that the scabbard of the knife is small, most often it is simply made of a piece of leather and is easy to decorate. Sometimes metal fittings were added to them. On the other hand, the scabbard of a sword requires processing of a wooden core, stiffening the structure, sometimes additional layers of linen, the whole thing is larger, dyeing and an integrated belt, often with fittings, were used. The whole thing was distinguished and noble in itself, because not everyone could afford an expensive sword.
One must also take into account the factor of the spirituality and worldview of the people of that period.
Since the 10th century, Christianity has spread in Europe and decorating weapons in old ornaments (geometric patterns, animals, mythology, symbolism, etc.) is undesirable and sometimes forbidden due to the references to old pagan styles. A modest and austere style is preferred, preferably no decorations. All this changes over time, but in the 10th-12th century you can notice a change in style. On the other hand, weapons usually contain simple crosses as a symbol of protection and trust in God.
However, in the nature of medieval people, the need for decoration and individuality is slowly winning and making itself felt more and more. Christian symbolism still dominates, but from the 13th century decorations appeared more and more boldly. These are simple compositions containing simple lines, then geometric motifs, religious symbols, heraldry, plant and animal motifs return, but in a new style of the mature Middle Ages.
The leather on the scabbards was decorated primarily with the simplest method, i.e. kneading and cutting natural leather, previously soaked. Stamps were also used for repeating patterns. The stamps were made of metal, bone and wood. At the end of the 13th century, metal fittings were used to attach belts.
But let's go back to the decoration of the scabbards in the 11-12 centuries...
We have examples of decorating sword sheaths in some manuscripts from circa 1135. These are schematic details that certainly testify to the existence of sword scabbard ornamentation. These are manuscripts from the period: 1135-1300. But we also have preserved scabbards, such as the Waterford scabbard, 11th century (simply decorated with geometric patterns such as lines, dots and circles), or the scabbard of St. Hadrian, 1200-1250 (decorated with a simple spiral floral pattern painted on the surface). Even on the scabbard of Fernando de la Cerde 1255-1275, we find straight lines along the scabbard and on the upper part, that are part of the decoration of the leather, so this is an original example which survived.
Note that in many of the illustrations in the first half of the 14th century manuscripts, we already have many decorated sheaths clearly visible. I don't think this practice comes suddenly. It has probably been done for many years or decades but it was not common, but it was not common and also probably too subtle to depict these little decorations in schematic miniatures in the manuscripts.
Due to many years of studying the source materials from the period 900-1450, I can say with full conviction that decorating sword sheaths in various ways was practically all the time present. Obviously, this was more common in the later period, from around 1300.
The absence of enough surviving examples to define this practice as common does not mean that it did not exist earlier.
However, the situation is slightly different in the context of contemporary sword scabbard designs and customer expectations today. Most often, we want to have at least some decorations that will refer to a given era, place, order, religious symbolism or heraldry. It seems to me that it could have been similar also in the past, because it was important for these people, as can be seen in other finds.
Personally, I am a supporter of moderation in decorations from this period (before 1300). However, it does not seem a 'crime' to make decorations that are closely related to the style of the era and come from the knowledge of the context of the period or region.
Maciej Kopciuch, 2022.