For purposes of this post, I will focus on the medieval sword of Western Europe, namely England and France and Scandinavia, from the 10th to the 13th century.
The sword was an instrumental weapon for the knight during the Middle Ages. As most combat was conducted up close hand-to-hand, you did not go into battle without one. Since they were expensive — swordsmiths fabricated swords in the High Middle Ages entirely out of steel or with steel edges and an iron core — only the most wealthy could afford such weapons, and the wealthy were the nobles, the knights in society. Commoners, when the king raised the levies, carried whatever they could find into battle: spears, small axes, knives, sickles, scythes.
One typical sword in use during this period was a type based on “Viking” design. Ewart Oakeshott classified this sword as a Type X design. Oakeshott developed his classification system based on previous typology work done by Dr. Jan Peterson and Dr. R.E.M Wheeler in the early 20th century. In his book, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Oakeshott describes the Type X as:
A broad, flat blade of medium length (average 31″) with a fuller running the entire length and fading out an inch or so from the point, which is sometimes acute but more often rounded. This fuller is generally very wide and shallow, but in some cases may be narrower (about 1/3 of the blade’s width) and more clearly defined; a short grip, of the same average length (3 3/4″) as the Viking swords. The tang is usually very flat and broad, tapering sharply towards the pommel. The cross is narrower and longer than the more usual Viking kind–though the Vikings used it, calling it “Gaddjhalt” (spike-hilt) because of its spike-like shape. Generally of square section, about 7″ to 8″ long, tapering towards the tips. In rare cases curved. The pommel is commonly of one of the Brazil-nut forms, but may be of disk form.
This type of sword was well used throughout the Viking Age and remained in use until the 13th century.
Since steel was scarce in the early Middle Ages, swordsmiths made their swords mostly of iron. Northmen, for example, made the core of the sword by twisting iron rods and then hammer welding them together. This process is known as pattern welding. This gave the swords impressive flexibility and resiliency. After the swordsmiths had created a strong iron core, they then added strips of steel to give the blade a sharp edge. The swords from the 10th to the early 12th century were designed primary as cutting weapons. On both sides of the blade, a fuller ran down the center of the blade. While some people think of the fuller as a blood groove, to channel the blood off the blade, this idea is simply a myth. The primary purpose of the fuller was to make the blade lighter, easier to wield, and more flexible, so that it would bend and not break under impact. In the 13th century, swords were very similar to the blades from the previous three centuries, but they were made longer in order to extend the reach for knights on horseback.
Another important feature of the sword was the pommel. The pommel is a piece of metal attached to the end of the handle, which was often fashioned from wood that was bound with wire and then wrapped in leather (the crossguard was usually made of iron and could be decorated with silver inlay, for example) . Pommels came in all different shapes, but the most common forms were polygonal, disk-shaped, or Brazil-nut. Pommels made the blade easier to wield, as they served as a counterweight to help balance the blade. This counterweight at the end of the sword also produced more force and momentum for the swordsman when he drove his blade down into his target.
One other interesting note about the Type X classified sword: many of these swords bear an inscription denoting the maker of the blade. The most common name found is
ULFBERHT. This inscription first appears on swords in the Viking age and continues to be found on swords dating from the High Middle Ages. It’s possible the ULFBERHT constitutes one of the earliest forms of brand recognition.
Oakeshott, Ewart. The Sword in the Age of Chivalry. Boydell Press, 1994.
Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.
“An Introduction to the Sword.” Myarmoury.com <http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_swordintro1.html>.
“Arms and Armour – Part 5 – Swords.” Regia Anglorum <http://www.regia.org/sword.htm>.
“Oakeshott Typology.” Wikipedia.org <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakeshott_typology>.
*image retrieved from www.medievalsociety.org