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all you need to know about swords Tag

Understanding medieval pommels

Swordology | Episode 3 : 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

Third grouping

Elmslie’s additions to Oakeshott’s medieval sword pommel system added a third tier to the pommels system groupings.
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 the adjustments of the classifications by Oakeshott himself and new authors over time, you can see how difficult it is to use the alphabet system to identify pommels in relation to the sword blade types so using a grouping system seems to be the best option.

We’ll go into that in the next blog post; in the meantime, 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 blades mounted on later swords or if you found a gorgeous crystal pommel on a battlefield (unlikely, but HAHA!), you’d be tempted to snatch it for your personal liturgic reliquary, don’t you?!

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
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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