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Simulacri di Armi Antiche e Coltelleria
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Swordology

Understanding medieval pommels

Swordology | Episode 3 : Pommels Part 1 – Understanding Medieval Pommels

Florentine swordsmiths, Malleus Martialis, bring you our third episode of: Swordology A new series of blog posts that gives you details about sword classifications, sword anatomy and museum highlights to initiate you into the world of swords in an accessible way. If you have the desire to learn...

Florentine swordsmiths, Malleus Martialis, bring you our third episode of:

Swordology

A new series of blog posts that gives you details about sword classifications, sword anatomy and museum highlights to initiate you into the world of swords in an accessible way.


If you have the desire to learn the ways of the sword then we have the expertise to help you. In our third episode of Swordology, we’re shifting our focus to medieval sword pommels. So if you’ve ever wanted to peek into the private world of pommels, you’re in the right place. You’ll find out how such a small element can have such a big impact. 

Have you ever seen all those numbers and letters describing a medieval sword? If so, you’ll have seen the “pommel system” in action but you may not know what the numbers mean. No problem. We’ll start by introducing you to the “pommel system” in a way that everyone can understand. 


The Functionality of The Pommel

The first thing to learn is the function of a pommel. If you thought pommels only serve to balance a sword, you’d be wrong. And if you thought that a bigger pommel means better, you’d be wrong, too. Perfect balance is needed in all things, including a sword.

Pommels are an important component of the sword which can counterweight the blade when the weighting is precisely calculated, but they also help the hand to align.

And, when the going gets tough, they can be used to club your opponent. As various medieval masters at arms said: throw it at your opponent or use it as if it was a war hammer!

In terms of material, historic metal pommels were not only made of iron but with copper alloys. Technically, this makes the pommels made with bronze or brass heavier, because of the density of the material. But assuming all pommels are heavier is wrong – in fact, our swordsmithing ancestors often made them hollow.

Medieval sword pommels

An example of a hollow pommel formed from sheet steel/iron. Collection of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, photograph by J.G.Elmslie

 

Swords are also artistic and ornate symbols of power and so you’ll find pommels that are made of materials other than mere metal, such as this one:

Medieval Sword Pommels

Magnificent isn’t it? We were so awestruck when we came across this stunning rock crystal pommel that it was like finding the Holy Grail.

Yes, it’s beautiful but let’s look at the brains that classified it.

The Gathering  

We’ll eventually cover pommels from other ages, including AVB Norman’s Classification, but as we’ve already introduced you to Oakeshott’s classification – with Elmslie, Aleksić and Johnsson’s additions, it seems obvious to start with what you already know.

Ewart Oakeshott needed to categorize the huge variety of medieval sword pommels that covered the period from the 10th century to the beginning of the 16th century.

As with the blades and cross guards, he started with the Viking-like typologies and divided them into 25 main forms and corresponding subtypes.

Elmslie widened Oakeshott’s classification with the inclusion of single-edged blades and their related pommel forms, and Aleksić and Johnsson respectively added subtypes and enhanced the original illustrations.

This is the updated entire typology illustrated by Peter Johnsson:

The Pommel System

Medieval Sword Pommels

Oakeshott divided his medieval sword pommels into two main groupings related to sword families, using the alphabet to organize them. Here’s how that looks:

First grouping

Generally dated from 950 to 1350 AD, some of these shapes can be also found until the 16th century and they’re usually related to Group I – Blade Types X-XIV. This first grouping includes:
A, B, C, D, E, F and their relative subtypes
– L, M, N, O, P, Q, S, W and relative subtypes, defined as infrequent.

Second grouping

Generally dated from 1350 to 1530 AD, they are related to Group II – Blade Types XV-XXII.
– G, H, I, J, T, U, V, Z and relative subtypes

Elmslie’s additions to Oakeshott’s Classification

Elmslie’s additions to Oakeshott’s medieval sword pommel system added a third tier to the pommels system groupings:

Third grouping

Generally dated from 1430 to 1600 AD, they are related to messers.
– AA, BB, CC1, CC2, CC3, DD1, DD2, EE include all the known variations of messers’ pommels.

With so much editing and adjustment of the classifications by Oakeshott himself and several authors over time, you can imagine how difficult it is to use the alphabet system. And the struggle to identify pommels in relation to the sword blade types is a really difficult one.

That’s why we decided to enrich Oakeshott’s system by dividing and naming medieval sword pommel categories according to archetypes. This helps us to determine and remember the forms that can be ideally related to period’s fashion.

Our “archetype” categories are:

1 – The Nut: A, B, B1, C, D, E, F + N  [yellow]
2 – The Wheel: G, G1, G2, H, H1, H2, H3, I, I2, J, J1, K, K1 + W [red]
3 – The Lobe: L, L1, M, O, P, Q, Z  [violet]
4 – The Solid: R, S [blue]
5 – The Scent-Stopper: T, T1, T2, T3 ,T4, T5, T6, V1,V2, V3 [green]
6 – The Cap: AA, BB, CC1, CC2, CC3, DD1, DD2, EE [pink]

Whether you’re a sword specialist or an amateur, the main thing to remember is that there are always ambiguities in classification. Dating sometimes can only be approximate because of the adaption that a historic sword may have undergone.

For example, you can find older pommels mounted on later swords and if you found a gorgeous crystal pommel on a battlefield (unlikely, but HAHA!), you’d be tempted to snatch it for your own sword or your liturgic reliquary, too!


We know you’d love to learn more about pommels, so next time we’ll dig deeper into typology and answer questions and misconceptions concerning pommels.

Share our 3rd Swordology episode with other sword enthusiasts and help them get to know more about pommel classifications. 


Credits:

This post was written with the collaboration of James Elmslie and Peter Johnsson’s illustration of the classication. Thank you both so much!

  • Hollow pommel: An example of a hollow pommel formed from sheet steel/iron. Collection of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, photograph by J.G.Elmslie.”
  • MEME: Wikimedia commons – King Arthur’s knights, gathered at the Round Table, see a vision of the Holy Grail. From a manuscript of Lancelot and the Holy Grail (c. 1406). Attributed to Maître des cleres femmes. – This file comes from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b84920806/f114. King Arthur’s knights, gathered at the Round Table to celebrate Pentecost, and see a vision of the Holy Grail. The Grail appears as a veiled ciborium, made of gold and decorated with jewels, held by two angels. From a manuscript of Lancelot and the Holy Grail.
  • Crystal Rock Pommel:  Public domain from the MET  https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/29117
  • Pommel designs: Peter Johnsson, 2021
    Bibliography:
  • Oakeshott E., the Sword in the Age of Chivalry
  • Oakeshott E., Record of the Medieval Sword
  • AA.VV, The sword – Form and Thought, Exhibition Catalogue, Solingen Klingenmuseum 2015

Swordology | Episode 2 : Understanding the Oakeshott System

Florentine swordsmiths,  Malleus Martialis, bring you our second episode of   Swordology A new series of blog posts that brings you details about sword classifications, sword anatomy and museum highlights to initiate you into the world of swords in an accessible way. We’re pledging to serve up some of...

Florentine swordsmiths,  Malleus Martialis, bring you our second episode of

  Swordology

A new series of blog posts that brings you details about sword classifications, sword anatomy and museum highlights to initiate you into the world of swords in an accessible way.


We’re pledging to serve up some of those key sword secrets you’ve been craving. And we know you won’t be disappointed with our second episode. This time, we’re focusing on the super-famous Oakeshott Classification. Don’t know what that is? Read on and we’ll have you covered. 

Have you ever wondered about all those numbers and letters describing medieval swords? If so, we’ll introduce you to the whole system in this post. Don’t worry, we’ll be gentle. Why start with Oakeshott? Not only is it an important classification in the sword world, but at Malleus Martialis, we’re huge fans of this sword typology!

Are you ready? Let’s meet the person behind the classification and dive into the details.


Mr. Ewart Oakeshott

In our first Swordology episode, we gave a general introduction to sword typologies and classifications.

Within that post, you found out that Malleus Martialis mostly use the Oakeshott classification system for our medieval blades.

The man who gave his name to the classification was Ronald Ewart Oakeshott.

Born on May 25th, 1916, in Ruislip, London, Oakeshott got introduced to swords quite early in life. His uncle had a collection of antique swords that fired young Ewart’s imagination.

This collection had such an impact on him that it sparked his own interest. Soon he started to collect swords himself. As he could acquire antique swords quite cheaply in the early 1930s and 1940s, Oakeshott managed to expand his collection.

He was frustrated, however, by the lack of information about these swords. He was a man of spirit so he began to research them himself.

After studying at the Central School of Art in London he worked as an illustrator, which became very handy for illustrating his books about medieval weapons and supported him while he continued his sword research.

His lifelong dedication to history and research was interrupted by WWII (1940 to 1945) during which he served in the Royal Navy. His work as a commercial artist continued after the war until 1960 when he became a full-time researcher and writer.

He founded the Oakeshott Institute in 2000 which is still running and members are still recruited. He left his collection of more than 75 swords to the organisation after his death on 30th September, 2002, in order that they would be available for further study by future generations.

The Oakeshott System of Categorisation – Deconstructed

“So the following typologies are based purely and simply upon an aesthetic standard, form and proportion being the only criteria. This may seem to be a serious archaeological heresy; the only excuse I can offer for it is that it works.”

The sword in the Age of Chivalry, 1998, p.22

Ewart Oakeshott knew what he was doing. He was defying the traditional system, knowing that this was the only way for him to create a fluid system. And he would avoid the rigidity of previous dating and classification systems.

Oakeshott’s specialism was medieval swords but because the medieval period covers such a long time span, approximately 476 A.D. to 1453-92 A.D., it meant that swords of this period changed considerably, both in hilt and blade form. So Oakeshott started to focus on the sword as a whole.

Because he felt no need to limit his classification to the hilt or blade alone, Oakeshott’s classification system took on a more perceptive approach. This meant his classification had greater consistency. He began using this method by expanding Petersen and Wheeler’s typology of the Viking sword and never looked back. Oakeshott’s method changed the way we look at swords from then on.

Oakeshott Classification, with additions and updates by Johnsson, Elmslie, Aleksić. Image courtesy of Peter Johnsson, also featured in “The sword: form and thought” catalogue, Solingen, 2015.

Types

His “spiritual predecessors” mainly focused on hilt styles, so Oakeshott added two transitional types, VIII and IX, pointing out the links between the Viking and medieval sword aesthetics.

Adding to Petersen and Wheeler’s Viking types was merely the beginning. From there Oakeshott continued his classification system by establishing some archetypical medieval sword blade forms called types – starting at type X and continuing up to type XXII.

Occasionally you might find a letter after the Roman numerals: these are the subtypes and are additional branches of the single typology.

Groups

Oakeshott may have publicly stated that his main focus was aesthetics but he recognised that form was absolutely bonded to function. In recognition of this, he divided swords into two groups based on their intended functional purpose:

Group I (Types X-XIV) 

This sword group typically features wide, flat blades with lenticular cross-sections, optimized for cutting and swordsmiths developed them to be effective against mail armour.

Group II (Types XV-XXII) 

This sword group have with acute points and reinforced cross-sections, diamond and hexagonal shaped, which has a stiffening effect on the blades for thrusting purposes. These were created by military designers to use against wearers of plate armour.

Sword Families

 

Malleus Martialis approach Oakeshott’s typology blade first. After that, we find cross styles and pommels follow. And for specifics, we refer to Records of Medieval Sword, 1991, where Oakeshott introduced families to recognize trends in fashion throughout the sword development.

This type of observation is at the heart of this work and should be the first thing to focus on when using this typology.

Oakeshott conceptualized all the components of sword families – which we’ll shortly have a look into – and thereafter named them from A to M.

These families act as a compass when identifying a region or date as it can be hard, and sometimes impossible, to only use the single components to date or find the place of origin of a sword.

Parameters

The examination of the blade, pommel, cross-guard and grip allows a sword to be categorised into four frames of reference for description and comparison. This allows the grouping of these swords into families of similar styles.

Oakeshott never considered his typology system to be complete or absolute- the typology was only meant to be a reference point to show common or average sword types. With this in mind, you’ll sometimes find some extant examples that don’t fit into a type.

Oakeshott created his institute so that the Oakeshott system could develop. And by harnessing that legacy, researchers like Marko Aleksić, Peter Johnsson, James Elmslie and, to some extent, we at Malleus Martialis expanded the classification.

Blade Forms

The parameters that define the blade itself are blade length, fuller length, tang length and cross-section.

Pommel Forms

There was a wide variety of pommels in use during the Middle Ages, which is why Oakeshott created a separate typology for them. He grouped them into 25 basic types: letters A-Z excluding the letter Y for reasons unknown. Some of the letters have a numbered subtype: 1-5. Pommel classification poses the same problem as the blades insofar as there are so many variations that they sometimes don’t fit into a category.

Cross Styles

The cross or cross guard separates the grip from the blade and is grouped into 12 basic styles (Style 1-12), with sub-categories appearing in letter form. Again, there are so many variations and decorations that these are just starting points and there are no absolutes.

It may seem as though there are many ambiguities, but that in itself shows you how complex the parameters around certain typologies are and how much more research and discussion is yet to come.

Grip Construction

Another helpful parameter that can be used to aid the identification of medieval swords is their grip construction. Often these parts don’t survive the passage of time, due to the fact that they are mostly made of organic materials.

When they do survive, though, the construction and form can be important indicators in a sword’s identification, such as its place of origin and date.

Oakeshott did not describe grips in detail, so there is no lettered or numbered typology, but wrote about them in The Sword in the Age of Chivalry.

Two main grip constructions to know are:

The Sandwich Method – two halves carved to fit the tang.

The Bored-through Method – the grip is shaped and then is bored straight through. The tang is then heated and the grip is forced down onto it. By burning through the wood, a perfect fit is achieved.

Here at Malleus Martialis, we like to add the Scales Method – two scales that are riveted on the tang.

Grip Construction

Unclassified & Complex Hilts

It is inevitable that in formulating a typology it will be found that there are objects which cannot be put into a specific group or category. This is particularly true in the case of swords.

Records of the Medieval Sword, 1991, p. 221

Oakeshott didn’t classify everything. He understood it would be naïve to think that classification could be set in stone. And predicted that new information would come along which might throw new light on a sword’s type. He knew a cross, a blade or a pommel could have a strange shape. And that variants of swords, especially from the end of the 15th century, were likely.

When the limits of classification and if a sword type proved ambiguous he, like us, consider them as unclassified. In this case, we could use adjectives to define a variation or search elsewhere to find different typologies.

To show you what we mean take the example illustrated below. We’ve classified this as “curved style 8” to define the cross because even if it’s curved like a style 7, its combined components match more precisely with style 8.


We know you’ll be buzzing with the new information you’ve learned about the Oakeshott system. So share this post with other sword enthusiasts and let them know about sword classifications too!

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the different types of the Oakeshott classification system. We’ll help you develop your Oakeshott obsession even further.

See you next time!


Credits
  • Ewart Oakeshott, Wikimedia commons
  • Oakeshott Classification, with additions and updates by Johnsson, Elmslie, Aleksić. Image courtesy of Peter Johnsson, also featured in “The sword: form and thought” catalogue, Solingen, 2015.
  • The Oakshott Families: Image courtesy of Eleonora Rebecchi
  • Grip construction methods: Image courtesy of Yuexin Huo and Valentina Lauria with Eleonora Rebecchi
Bibliography
  • E.Oakeshott – Records of the Medieval Sword, 1991
  • E.Oakeshott – The sword in the age of chivalry,1998
  • AA.VV, The sword – Form and Thought, Exhibition Catalogue, Solingen Klingenmuseum 2015

What Are Sword Typologies

Swordology | Episode 1 : What are Sword Typologies?

In a new series of blog posts, Florentine swordsmiths, Malleus Martialis, bring you: Swordology An introduction to sword classifications, sword anatomy and museum highlights to help you understand the world of swords so much better. If you’ve always been intrigued by swords and wanted to know more about...

In a new series of blog posts, Florentine swordsmiths, Malleus Martialis, bring you:

Swordology

An introduction to sword classifications, sword anatomy and museum highlights to help you understand the world of swords so much better.


If you’ve always been intrigued by swords and wanted to know more about them, we’ll be bringing you all the details you’ve been craving. We’ll help you find out all there is to know about swords, provide insights into how to interact with them, “how tos” and much more. 

If you have heard names like Oakeshott or Peterson but always wondered what people mean when they talk about Type XVIII swords – don’t worry. Our first Swordology post will enlighten you about sword types and classifications so you’ll never feel unenlightened again


Sword Typologies and Classification

What are sword typologies and why do they need to be used?

Typology is a system of dividing swords into groups based on the aesthetic and functional attributes they share. However, it’s important to state first that classifications are not universal, they’re created in a more organic way.

When looking at a sword to decide on its classification, we rely upon different definitions left by several scholars. Ewart Oakeshott, Elis Behmer and Alfred Geibig, to name merely a few, all used different systems to recognize groupings, types or styles through the centuries and these act as a reference point for a sword’s classification.

Despite the difficulties arising from the process, typology remains an extremely important process, which allows swordsmiths and researchers to define a sword and categorize it in as precise a way as possible.

The way of presenting a sword’s type, through the shared method, is to use the name of the scholar, followed by the type of the blade and/or hilt parts.

To show you what we mean, let’s use the classification:

Oakeshott Type XV with a style 8 curved guard and a J1 pommel. 

With that definition in mind, we find it is our very own Belladama that is being described.

What Are Sword Typologies?

Sword Typologies

By using the sword typologies we have a way of categorising swords without the need for long explanations all the time. But it is important to note that typologies are artificial constructs that are often imperfect and are not to be taken as absolutes.

There are exceptions among artefacts that are hard to categorise as they don’t fit into standard typologies. As a result, this doesn’t make these artefacts “wrong”, but unique.

While we have several sources to refer to when discerning a sword’s typology, this process can be harder to determine with historic weapons.

It might seem easy to describe a sword based on its anatomy, but factors such as its adaption for warfare, trade and fashion can potentially obscure its original form. This makes the dating of a weapon’s manufacture, use and retirement problematic or even unreliable.

By using sword typologies, we can also recreate swords that are in certain parameters in a given time without reproducing an extant piece.

We can make educated guesses about what a specific configuration would have looked like and opt for certain properties and functionality depending on the intended use. We can do this whilst maintaining important parameters like ratio, point of balance, and weight close to extant examples.

What sword typologies are the most important to know?

Some of the most famous and widely used typologies for swords are listed here:

  • Petersen – typology of the Viking sword, introduced in 1919 and simplified by Wheeler in 1927
  • Oakeshott – categorises European swords of the Middle Ages to the Industrial Age, introduced in 1960
  • Behmer – late antiquity to early Middle ages, only concentrates on the hilts, introduced in 1939
  • Geibig – Viking blade types, 1991
  • Elmslie – focuses on single-edged blades, 10th – 16th century, 2015
  • Norman – only analyses the hilts, from the Rapier to the Small-sword, 1460-1820, 1980

What Are Sword Typologies?

Why should we still look at originals when we have sword typologies?

Besides original swords being awesome, as stated before, typologies are no absolutes, they need to be updated or extended when new artefacts are found. Also, some typologies describe forms from a certain time period for which we have no physical proof and written records can only go so far in describing a physical item. It’s important to cross-reference typologies on paper with original swords to accurately define a new weapon’s category.

What should we look for when inspecting original swords?

Original swords hold a myriad of clues to the expert eye. On them, we find details which allow us to link original swords to new models. And when inspecting the originals we try to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What makes a sword special?
  • Why was a sword built a certain way and how was it made?

Besides being a weapon, we also look at swords as pieces of art, with their different and sometimes unique styles, and we try to incorporate them into our works. Also, we collect the data not provided in the typologies: weight and point of balance, for example, that is essential to our craft.

What classifications are we mostly using at Malleus Martialis?

Here at Malleus, we mostly use Oakeshott and Elmslie for medieval swords and Norman for Renaissance swords. The typologies of Oakeshott and Elmslie are mostly covering the medieval sword types, Norman focuses on the later swords with an emphasis more on the hilts than on the blades themselves.

Knowledge is power – if you’d like to deepen your knowledge of sword typography you can invest in some books. 

To find out more detailed information, we recommend reading:

  • Behmer, Elis / Meyer, E. A. (Übers.): Das zweischneidige Schwert der germanischen Völkerwanderungszeit. Stockholm, Svea, 1939.
  • Geibig, Alfred: Beiträge zur morphologischen Entwicklung des Schwertes im Mittelalter : eine Analyse des Fundmaterials vom ausgehenden 8. bis zum 12. Jahrhundert aus Sammlungen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Neumünster: K. Wachholtz, 1991.
  • Grotkamp-Schepers, Barbara / Immel, Isabell / Johnsson, Peter / Wetzler, Sixt. Das Schwert – Gestalt und Gedanke : Ausstellung 26. SEP 2015-28. FEB 2016. Solingen: Deutsches Klingenmuseum, 2015.
  • Norman, A. Vesey Bethune, and C.M Barne: The Rapier and Small-Sword : 1460-1820. London [etc: Arms and Armour Press [etc.], 1980.
  • Oakeshott, Ewart: Records of the Medieval Sword. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1991.
  • Oakeshott, Ewart: European Weapons and Armour : from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. Guilford ; London: Lutterworth Press, 1980.
  • Petersen, Jan: De norske vikingesverd : en typologisk-kronologisk studie over vikingetidens vaaben. Kristiania: i komm. hos J. Dybwad, 1919.
  • Pierce, Ian G.: Swords of the Viking Age. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002.
  • Tzouriadis, Iason- Eleftherios: “What is the Riddle of Steel?”: Problems of Classification and Terminology in the Study of Late Medieval Swords: Deutscher, Lisa, Sixt Wetzler, and Mirjam Kaiser. The Sword  : Form and Thought : Proceedings of the Second
  • Sword Conference 19/20 November 2015 Deutsches Klingenmuseum Solingen Woodbridge, UK ;: The Boydell Press, 2019, p. 3-11.
  • Wheeler, Robert Eric Mortimer: London and the Vikings. London: Lancaster House, 1927.

Tell us what you loved about our first Swordology post.
Share this post with other sword enthusiasts and let them know about sword classifications!
Next time, we will take a closer look at Oakeshott and his sword classification.

See you next time!


 

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