Simplicity of medieval battle swords
Sword doesn`t need to have a complicated shape or decorations to be effective. In the hand of a skilled warrior - simple, straight, well crafted blade - will be deadly...
When we are watching swords in museums, we often admire decorated items, high level of handicraft and beautiful style of ornamentation. Many of them were made as works of art, but not all. Actually this is a small part of medieval finds – but most exhibited in museums because of their beauty . Mostly there were common very simple tools, everyday objects and weapons without decorations. There is also a difference between our definition of Art – and medieval meaning. Some simple curvatures and shapes can be perceived as art by us today – while they were basic and usual in the Middle Ages. A lot of exhibitions in museums is designed to call attention to beautiful decorative objects, localized in privileged places. There is nothing surprising in this – these exhibits are important and admirable. But – in my opinion – more interesting are simple everyday objects. Because they tell us the story of common people - their life and death. Swords are no exception – when we see highly decorated sword – usually it is some gift or ceremonial sword, not used in battle or even not intended to fight. For example, the sword of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria and Duke of Burgundy (1459-1519). This is a highly decorated sword in every detail, but not intended to fight. The craftsmanship is very high, but what can we learn about the simple men from such an object? Archeologists say that the more we learn about those people examining their bones, toilets or simple tools - than decorated ceremonial attributes or insignia, used only occasionally. There are also many swords which were made first at battle swords, decorated later and adapted to be ceremonial – as for example the famous Charlemagne coronation sword “Joyeuse", with its sheath made in 13th century and the earlier blade. The same situation we have with Polish coronation sword, called “Szczerbiec" from 13th century but the blade could be earlier and looks like it was taken from a simple battle sword. Sword known as “St Maurice sword" from Vienne has decorated motives probably made for the coronation of Emperor Otto IV in 1198, but the blade could be much older. The second sword known as “St Maurice sword" is now in Turin and it is definitely a simple battle sword which has only added decorative sheath made around 1434-38. It also has its legend which makes it unique. There are also many other important, famous swords with interesting history and functions – some of them were made first as simple battle swords – and some of them were designed for special occasions and to show the status of the owner, but not for fighting. All of them are interesting, but the medieval sword was first of all a weapon and a symbol, not work of art, not made for decoration. Recreating them today we can treat like an art because this is a past and forgotten craft. That way we should not simply make copies of swords, which is not so difficult with modern technology help, but recreate them with understanding of their functionality and purpose.
There was a turning point in the Middle Ages when swords became very simple – and second one, when they again began to be decorative. These two moments are very interesting – mostly not enough considered when talking about medieval swords. From 11th century we can see in Europe mostly simple battle swords without any decorations. Their design and construction is kept to minimum required for maximum functionality. This is the key to understanding a real sword which doesn`t need any decorations to be effective. Of course there are still decorated items and also swords – but not so many as before and later, after 15th century. This is the most interesting period in my opinion – from 11th to 15th century – full of changes, wars, crusades, battles, legends and tournaments, full of so many dramatic events shaping the face of the world. It was a time that needed a large amount of effective weapons. There were several factors that contributed to change in swords appearance at this time. Most important of them are:
- the number of armed conflicts in Europe, including crusades – increases the demands for weapon production
- changes in the battle tactics and armor, the role of cavalry – causes the modification of weapon
- dissemination of Christianity – decorating weapons is seen as immodest and associated with pagan motifs, the sword form became similar to a shape of the cross
- technology development – increases the number of production centers
Sword doesn`t need to have a complicated shape to be effective. Doesn`t need a special shape of the blade, pommel and guard and any decorations – all of this does not matter on the battlefields. In the hand of a skilled warrior a simple, well crafted blade will be deadly. I encourage you to appreciate the ordinary battle swords. Their simplicity is the essence of what they have been designed for.
However, this simplicity of most common battle swords from 11th-15th centuries is delusive when we will try to recreate them. “No decorations'' – doesn't mean it is easy to work. The geometry of swords is difficult and hard to recreate. In my opinion it is more interesting than any decorations: those shapes, proportions, cross-sections and angles...
We can find this all in museums, in simple swords – just when we give them a little more attention.