Swordology | Episode 4: How Pommels Influence Your Sword
Florentine sword makers, Malleus Martialis, bring you the fourth episode of:
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 our fourth episode of Swordology, we’re going to continue our journey through Oakeshott’s classification.
This time, we’ll look into sword pommel typologies and pommel fashions – from a fresh perspective.
Swordsmiths + Fencers
The perfect sword is not an extension of the user’s hand: it is an extension of the user’s thought.
At Malleus we are proud swordsmiths. And our love of fencing has aided our craft. Being both swordsmen and women and swordsmiths, we can wholeheartedly say that swordsmanship is our beating heart – but it’s a heart ruled by the head.
We refine metal to produce the keenest trainers, but we’re compelled to keep our minds equally sharp. The more we know and share about our understanding of swords, the better informed we’ll all be. And this way we can share our passion with the wider world.
There is an unwritten code of conduct for swordsmen and women. And for us that code includes a moral duty to keep up the tradition by also expanding the research around the classification of swords and sword components. We don’t do it alone. We collaborate with researchers and fellow craftsmen to make sure that we share a common language. And that this language is inclusive of everyone interested in the subject, from the enthusiast to the scholar.
In our last post we wrote about the purpose of the European sword pommel. We said that pommels mostly act as a counterbalance to the weight of the blade. But we showed that’s not all it does.
The hollow pommel structures, rings, and flat plates, we shared, all demonstrated that counterbalancing weight is not the pommel’s sole purpose.
So now let’s look at how the pommel can affect movement.
HOW DOES A POMMEL AFFECT SWORD HANDLING?
Strip a sword back to its essence and it is simply a long, thin spring which is held close to one end.
The pommel helps to move the center of gravity, or the point of balance, by tuning where the vibration is in that long, thin spring. It acts as a mass damper, if you prefer.
Anyone can make a long spring, and anyone can put a counterbalance on the end. It is the skill of the artisan smith to make a pommel that complements the style of the blade.
If the pommel is too heavy, the whole sword can feel weighty and move sluggishly. Too light, and the sword feels like it has no substance. The perfect sword is responsive, agile, and precise.
Ultimately, how the sword handles is greatly influenced by the weight of the pommel.
Technically then, a pommel only needs to be a metal blob – the weight at one end of a sword. Some sword pommels are simple balls, but if it were that simple, why are so many pommels that use different shapes and with different construction materials?
The answer is simple: fashion.
And that leads us onto one of the most important aspects of how pommels influence your sword.
HOW POMMELS INFLUENCE YOUR SWORD AS A FASHION ACCESSORY
We can all agree that a medieval sword was and is a weapon. A weapon of war – symbolic of attack and defence – used in moments of terror when swords were drawn. But swords are so much more.
A man or woman’s sword might never be drawn in anger or fear.
But a swordsman would continue to wear or display their sword nevertheless.
Why? Because swords are objects that resonate through society. And you can see that resonance in a sword’s design.
Sword design goes beyond its function. It can act as a statement about the owner’s identity.
And when worn, the pommel at the top of the sword belt, was one of the most visible parts of the sword.
The pommel reflects the taste and fashion of the wearer more than any other part of the sword.
So, it’s not surprising that pommels became as much a fashion statement as the clothes that were worn. Fashion is very much the reason that pommel design changes so much over the centuries.
And it’s also how pommels influence your sword choice.
SWORD POMMEL CLASSIFICATION AND BEYOND
We often refer to Ewart Oakeshott when talking about sword and pommel classification. But he wasn’t alone in his quest to study and classify weapons.
Oakeshott’s work was influenced by Dr. Ada Bruhn-Hoffmeyer. Dr. Bruhn-Hoffmeyer was a brilliant Danish archaeologist, museum curator, and weapons expert, who was also the founder and editor of the famous Gladius magazine.
Bruhn-Hoffmeyer considered pommels – and crossguards – to be even more important than blades:
“The shape of the pommel, the length of the tang and the shape and length of the guard or quillons are the most important aids to the period and provenance determination of the sword. In this respect, the blade is secondary in importance, because in the majority of cases blades were mass-produced in great blade centres, whereas the hilts mostly are individual work, carried out in accordance with the owner’s personal ideals and pecuniary circumstances, and also according to the intended purpose of the weapon: ceremonial, coronation, magistracy, public authorities or war.”
Despite working in the 1960s, Bruhn-Hoffmeyer’s hilt-centric approach remains important for academics to this day. Primarily because blade classification remains far more contentious than hilts.
As we’ve stated here, the conventional pommels classification is divided into two groups. To these two groups, contemporary sword historian, James Elmslie added a third.
We can visualize all three groups by representing them in this way:
Using Oakeshott’s vision as a foundation, we adapted the “Group” notion (explained here). Through this, we built an archetypal method to visually organize medieval pommels and matched the alphabetical sequence given in the classification as closely as we could.
THE “ARCHETYPES” SYSTEM
Geometry precedes the Creation of things, eternal as God’s Spirit; indeed, Geometry is God Himself, providing Him with the archetypes for the Creation of the world.
Kepler, Harmonices Mundi, 1619
All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule.
Carl Gustav Jung, Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche, 1960
Dr. Fabrice Cognot, Ph.D., says that considering pommels in isolation might give a false reading. He rightly observes, ‘the evolution of the guards, too, cannot be separated from that of the whole which they form with the blade and the pommel’. And Cognot’s theories tie up with the “Families” concept by Oakeshott.
How Does Malleus Classify Pommels?
The Malleus swordsmiths don’t disagree. But we also believe that if we analyze the sword parts separately first, we’ll follow a more logical pathway to the whole. It’s our belief that this combined system and combined groupings lead to a firmer conclusion.
That’s why Malleus Martialis developed a complementary method of learning the pommel forms which sticks to clear dating: the “Archetypes” System.
So when we began to address pommel classification from our perspective we chose to follow the Jungian concept of “Archetype” (from the Greek word “arkhétypon”, which means “original model”) as archetypes are the core of human imagination.
Similarly, the medieval world was rooted in archetypes and analogies, representing the idea of the world as a whole – they connected the material and spiritual realms. And that connection was at the heart of medieval thought.
“Archetypes are universal organizing themes or patterns that appear regardless of space, time, or person. Appearing in all existential realms and at all levels of systematic recursion, they are organized as themes in the unus mundus, which Jung described as ‘the potential world outside of time’.”
John A. O’Brien
The Healing of Nations, 2017
Hence, in order to visually divide pommels using similar criteria, we identified 6 archetypal figures from which the pommels have developed through the centuries.
The Malleus Method
|Form||Years||Archetype||Oakeshott Types||Description||Color code|
|1||A.D. 900-1200||The Seed||A, B, B1, C, D, E, F||A branches into other typologies, up to F. Characterized by the almond design which every variant is based upon.||yellow|
|The Wheel||G, G1, G2, H, H1, H2, H3, I, I2, J, J1, K, K1, W||G branches into the other typologies, up to K + W, which appears to be the merge of the seed and the wheel form.||red|
|3||A.D. 1200-1400||The Crown||L, L1, M, N, O, P, Q, Z||L descends directly from D and F and branching from M to Q + Z, which appears to be linked to P and K. Also, the Q form is linked to the wheel archetype. Characterized by wedges, lobes, or pointy ends.||violet|
|4||A.D. 800-950, then 1300-1400||The Solid||R, S||R branches off into S.The sphere can date back to the Byzantines. It returned during Renaissance as a common pommel form. R can be found very early and then later in 14th c., with S briefly following that time.The faceted sphere, found in two-handed swords (not included here), can be seen as a link between the “solid and the “tail” archetype. The late 15th c. squared Venetian pommels merge into the wheel and the solid archetypes.||blue|
|5||A.D. 1300-1500 ->||The Tail||T, T1, T2, T3, T4, T5, T6, V1, V2, V3, U||From the solid archetype, T branches into the other sub-forms. We consider T1 and T2 as the forerunners of U and V typologies.||green|
|6||A.D. 1400-1500->||The Cap||AA, BB, CC1, CC2, CC3, DD1, DD2, EE||This form is exclusive to one-edged weapons.||orange|
How Do Fashions Affect Pommel Design?
Early Medieval Pommel Fashions
The medieval sword developed out of the Viking-age swords of the ninth to eleventh centuries. They then spread over Europe with individual styles being present in some areas.
Likewise, the first medieval pommels reflect those of the Viking age. They either take the “seed” forms which dominate the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Or, less often, we find the earliest forms of the “wheel” pommel which are simple discoid shapes.
“Seed” pommels tend to be seized along with the handle to lock the hand in tightly against the hilt for a firm grip. We see this most often on longer swords for wearing while on horseback.
“Wheel” pommels can be tricky with a cutting sword since the interplay with the heel of the hand and the pommel can drive the edge off-line.
To provide hand clearance, comfort, and to align the edge, the pommel is occasionally twisted around by some degrees.
The largely static hierarchical societies that dominated Western Europe in particular meant change was gradual. We find that fashions in pommels change at a similar rate to those of clothing and society – but they do change.
High Medieval Pommel Fashion
As the thirteenth century progressed, so does the rate of change in pommel design.
Social change accelerated and technological advancements begin to appear. The earliest “tail” pommels were most likely developed to allow new ways to grip the sword. It meant a swordsman or woman could place their hand on the pommel to better enable it to be used as a pivot, like a ball-and-socket joint.
Late Medieval Pommel Fashion
In the fifteenth century, these developments evolved further to the styles so distinctive of the closing end of the century. These were very thrust-oriented.
The Challenge of Pommel Design for the Artisan Swordsmith
In each design and each shape, the artisan has to balance the sometimes contradictory requirements of how a sword handles and the fashion of the time. On one hand, this means managing the pommel’s weight or mass to improve the handling characteristics of the sword. And on the other hand, it means considering the form which suits martial techniques used by that particular sword style.
Subtle differences in shape or weight of the pommel can dramatically alter the handling characteristics, and how well the sword works in the hand.
We see the evolution first of more elaborate shapes of pommel – e.g. the “seed” (or brazil nut after Oakeshott) morphs into the lobated “crown” forms, and the “wheel” pommel develops chamfered edges and raised centers. These innovations each reflect the gradual development of martial techniques, within which the pommel’s details influence how the sword was used.
These developments in pommel design have continued through the centuries.
And Malleus Martialis is proud to carry on the tradition to this day.
Next month, we’ll start taking a closer look at crossguards.
Share our 4th Swordology episode with other sword enthusiasts and help them get to know more about sword classifications!
SEE YOU NEXT TIME!
- Fashion Dog MEME
- Pommels’ illustration: Peter Johnsson, Oakeshott’s pommel classification for AA.VV, The sword – Form and Thought, 2015 – Illustration updated in 2021.
- Archetypes: layout by Eleonora Rebecchi using Peter Johnsson’s illustration
- Copper alloy “Brazil-Nut” Pommel: Wikimedia Commons
- Malleus Martialis “Tiberto” One Handed Estoc with the offset pommel
- Gladius Magazine
- Ada Bruhn Hoffmeyer, Gladius, II (1963), pp. 5-68
- F.Cognot, 2013, L’ARMEMENT MEDIEVAL. LES ARMES BLANCHES DANS LES COLLECTIONS BOURGUIGNONNES. Xe-XVe SIECLES
- 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