Original Scabbards of Medieval Swords, Part I
Some of the best preserved original sword sheaths: 1200-1350 (organic materials).
These finds provide us with invaluable knowledge and information about the details, techniques and materials used during this period. These are really rare, genuine finds, especially when it comes to those most commonly used scabbards, known today mainly from schematic illustrations in manuscripts and slightly more detailed sculptures.
1. Sword known as 'St Maurice of Turin sword' with scabbard, 1200-1250.
The sword of St Maurice is now preserved in the ex-capital of the old States of Savoy: at Turin in the Real Armería. Its name come from the patron saint of the House of Savoy, Saint Maurice.
2. Sword of Fernando de la Cerda, 1255-1275.
In 1943 the tomb of Fernando de la Cerda was opened in Royal Monastery of Las Huelgas, Burgos, Spain, more than six centuries after the Prince's death. His mummified hand was still holding the sword he had been buried with in 1275.
3. Sword of Cangrande della Scala, 1291-1329.
The sword found in the tomb of Italian nobleman, lord of Verona, Cangrande Della Scala (d. 1329) and currently preserved in the Castelvecchio Museum.
It is worth to mention that these are not only scabbards from this period. But these are the most complete ones and representing the most common styles of belting.
There is still circa 10-12 other finds like this, in various condition.
Supplement: decorating scabbard leather before 1300
We have very few of them, that is a fact. We also have a rich ornamentation of leather goods from an earlier period, including a lot of knife scabbards, which also gives us some tips and entitles us to decorate sword sheaths, maintaining the style and techniques used for the period. Almost everyone had a knife with, they were worn on a daily basis and the scabbards were so small that they were a kind of 'element of clothing'. That's why they were decorated. Swords were carried less frequently and for a specific purpose, also, on a separate belt. It is true that they were rarely decorated scabbards, and if so, rather in a simple way.
We have examples of decorating sword sheaths in some manuscripts from circa 1135. These are schematic details that certainly testify to the existence of scabbard ornamentation. These are manuscripts from the period: 1135-1300. But we also have preserved scabbards, such as the Waterford scabbard, 11th century, or the scabbard of St. Hadrian, 1200-1250. 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.
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.
Some examples of the best preserved original swords with scabbards: 10th - 13th century (jewelery and metalwork techniques).
Thank you all for such a great interest in the subject of the original sword sheaths, especially those ordinary combat examples that have survived in a very good condition to this day.
As a supplement to the previous post about sword scabbards (made with organic materials, more ordinary ones), I provide a list of the most famous preserved scabbards made in the period of the 10-13th century with metalwork and jewelry techniques.
The graphic has the inscriptions of the swords shown here. I believe most of them are well known to everyone, but sometimes we do not realize how early they were made or what their historical context is.
As you can see, sword scabbards were actually decorated in every period of the Middle Ages, with various techniques. Of course, the most common decorated ones were the swords of rulers or of swords attributed to saints, ceremonial swords, gifts, famous swords, etc. In any case, important swords were simply decorated, valued and treated as symbols, used in the ceremony, stored as valuable souvenirs and symbols of power, etc. It is quite understandable.
It seems very interesting to use the rich ornamentation of the entire handles and scabbards, with clear references to heraldry, Christian religious motives, sometimes also from old beliefs and older ornamentations.
Various sophisticated ornamental techniques were used to decorate, including repoussé, engraving, studded with precious stones, gold or gilding, silver, copper and other alloys were used. Durable materials were chosen to ensure a long service life of the objects. Therefore, for the most cases, leather was abandoned in favor of metal. Often, old blades that were of value were mounted with the addition of whole handles or scabbards.
It is worth adding that nowadays this type of decorations, although original, are very rarely used and reconstructed. This is both due to the ceremonial status of a given sword, and the very expensive costs associated with recreating this type of decoration.
In the second set presented here, I chose some of the most representative swords and scabbards, the most famous and lavishly decorated. There are also other examples (incomplete, or with elements added significantly later) that I will try to show in other posts in the future.
Research and design: Maciej Kopciuch, 2022.
(sources: mostly museums websites, Wikipedia, private collections, internet).