Love my sword more than you

Sutton Hoo sword

Early C7 sword from Sutton Hoo ship burial. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Inspired by Jon Jarrett, who is now enthusiastically blogging large numbers of long-past seminars, I thought I should weigh in and give readers a brief account of some seminars from the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar summer term programme. The first one of these I went to was by Sue Brunning of UCL and the British Museum on “‘Precious iron’, ‘friend in war’: swords with character in Anglo-Saxon England”, which took the vague clichés I had been aware of about the emotional importance of swords to early medieval warriors and placed them on a far better evidential basis. She was talking about the concept of artefact biography and stressing how important the life history of an object was: thinking not just its manufacture, but about its ownership, circulation, repair, modification and end.

Sue’s work draws on images, texts and material objects, though there’s something of a mismatch between the sources: most of the archaeological evidence comes from the earlier Anglo-Saxon period (fifth to seventh century), when furnished burials are common, and most of the textual evidence comes from the later period. In this paper, Sue was specifically talking about swords as having “character”, both in the sense of individual features that made them distinctive, and in the sense of having a reputation (as implied by someone behaving “out of character”). There’s good evidence of individual swords having distinctive visual appearances: Anglo-Saxon wills, such as that of Athelstan, the son of Ethelred the Unready refer to several different swords by their appearances (e.g. “notched swords”, damaged and unrepaired). Descriptions of hilt ornaments appear in poems such as Beowulf as well as in wills. Swords could be individually recognisable, especially since all components could be replaced or augmented individually (Customisable swords with “go sharper” stripes?) Meanwhile archaeological studies of wear on sword hilts shows asymmetrical patterns, suggesting that the (two-edged) sword was always put back in the scabbard the same way round. Many pommels have different faces, with a plain face that is more worn, implying that the patterned face is shown off more, on display to the viewer.

Although named swords are common in poetry, they don’t appear in prose or official documents and the archaeological evidence is ambiguous: it’s not clear whether the runes found on some swords are names of the sword or its owner. Possibly names were more informally given, and might be changed: Sue suggested the parallel of owners naming cars today. What we can see, however, is swords with histories. They appear in poems such as Waldere, but also in official documents: Duke Hugo gives King Athelstan Constantine’s sword, which would be 600 years old, and Athelstan’s will refers to a sword of Offa that would be 200 years old. Old swords were not considered redundant. Some swords show severe signs of wear, and have been repaired and modified, with fittings changed or ornaments and inscriptions added to a previously undecorated sword. At this point, I must admit that I did start thinking about the old joke from a Stanley Holloway monologue.

‘Ere’s the axe – that’s the genuine axe, Sir,
That’s given Royal necks some ‘ard whacks.
Tho’ it’s ‘ad a new ‘andle and perhaps a new head
But it’s a real old original axe.

Sue also mentioned ring swords, with a ring attached to the hilt – these could be added and subtracted: metallurgical analysis can sometimes show where a fitting hole for a ring has been put and later removed. Sue suggested that sword rings possibly represented oaths sworn to a lord and might be a visual representation of a warrior’s career, something that reflected on the character or reputation of the wielder. We perhaps need to think of swords and men as being in partnership, sharing a reputation. And these were long-term relationships. There are burials in Kent where the sword is enfolded in the body or arms. No other weapon is touched like this in these graves, suggesting a relationship that extended even beyond death. Swords did not just have an economic value, but a symbolic character.

As you will gather, Sue’s talk was an excellent one, and implicitly made a good argument for interdisciplinary study, something that has recently been called into question. There is a strand of military history that tends to downplay literary sources on warfare, see them as fanciful, far removed from the practical logic of combat. But Sue’s paper, moving between different types of sources, shows common elements to Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, where weapons are more than simply means of attack and defence. If a modern day solider can still write a book called Love My Rifle More than You, and say of a modern-day mass-produced weapon: “I love my M4…Gun in your hands and you’re in a special place”, how much more potent a character must a handmade “battle-beam” have had?

14 thoughts on “Love my sword more than you

  1. I /wish/ I’d heard this: it sounds fascinating. There’s a wealth of pertinent material in Old Norse skaldic poetry attributed (sometimes reasonably safely, but not always so) to C10th and C11th court skalds operating around the Scandinavian North Sea and Irish Sea domains. One of the nice things about this corpus is that you often get a range of different treatments of the same basic theme. So, although there are plenty of pieces fetishising swords, the one that sticks in my mind is a stanza attributed to the C11th Icelandic mercenary Sighvatr, from his time in the service of Cnut. The stanza recalls an occasion on which Cnut gave Sighvatr and another poet, named Bersi, gold-hilted swords: but that wasn’t all, and tellingly, the common gift of a sword did not in this case establish parity between the two mercenaries. This is what Sighvatr’s supposed to have said:

    ‘When we met Knútr, Bersi, the splendid king, liberal with great deeds, decorously bedecked the hands of both of us. To you the very wise ruler gave a mark or more of gold and a whetted sword — but half a mark to me. God Himself has his will in all things.


    • Thanks for the quote. Norse literature always seems to me to have more of the flavour of the real to it than other early medieval traditions: a pragmatic streak to the heroism. But maybe that’s a stylistic illusion. What I liked about this talk was its mix of sources, so you couldn’t just say this is all poetic nonsense. But at some point I do need to check what Carolingian poetry says about swords: there’s a lot of Carolingian war poetry, but it’s less emotional about lordship than Old English verse, so it may also be less effusive abouit emotional attachments to swords.


      • Oh, that’s just typical French/Continental reserve, when compared with the usual English emotional outbursts. These cultural/racial traits are universally true, don’t you know?


      • No, you have misunderstood the cultural reference points completely. The logical French with their Cartesian rationality recognise that a sword is just a cleverly worked lump of metal. It is is the English who reveal their sentimentality by treating their sword like a pet.


  2. I fancy even the changing preoccupations and trajectories of poetic nonsense can tell the careful reader something that one might not otherwise know about the past… The skaldic court material has often been written off as useless because it’s inflated, encomiastic, preserved in much later sources, and above all hard. Much of the really interesting praise poetry is therefore still waiting to be properly mined as a historical source, despite plenty of excellent recent work. It reflects the interests of a narrow social world, maybe, but there’s simply masses of information in it — as long as one focusses on the reference points of things and concepts, and the changing language used to define them, rather than sticking with misleading narrative data.

    As for continental reserve, it’s worth noting that one of the first cultural investigations of Old Norse literature (published by Thomas Bartholin in 1689), was an account of heroic laughter in the face of peril. When a taciturn normannus with a weapon laughs, it’s time to leave town. When tears the size of hailstones course down his cheeks, it’s already too late. I’m not sure where one places that on any English-continental spectrum.


    • Historians of late antiquity are now making a fair amount of use of panegyric: I went to a seminar yesterday where Erica Buchberger was looking at ethnic terminology in the poetry of Venantius Fortunatus, for example (I will blog about this eventually, but I’m still months behind on IHR seminars). So there is interest in some of that type of work.

      I expect the problem would be dating skaldic verse. It’s really difficult doing anything meaningful historically with a source if you can’t be sure what century it’s from: all your conclusions may be completely undermined if someone re-dates the thing. It’s the big problem with historians using Beowulf, and when I was wanting to discuss Waltharius and how it demonstrates Carolingian values, I had to spend weeks ploughing through 150 years of argument about whether it was actually Carolingian or not.


      • Skaldic praise poetry’s different from the anonymous eddic poetry, which is not readily dateable or contextualised. There are self-evident problems with late manuscript preservation, but since the 1980s a substantial body of scholarship has grown up on the surviving corpus of praise poetry that can be identified with known poets composing for known rulers in dateable contexts. Those who deal with this stuff can be a great deal more confident about the historical contexts of much of this material than an Anglo-Saxonist might be about dating Beowulf to within two centuries of its origin… The obstacle for historical scholarship has actually been the non-availability of authoritative editions and translations accessible to non-Scandinavian readers. Thankfully this problem is now being rectified with the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages project, and I think we’ll soon begin to see quite a lot of new scholarship engaging with this material — not least on such matters as the changing conceptualisation of prestige artefacts in elite culture. It’s a goldmine.


  3. I was watching a program last night where they were recreating a Viking sword, a type inscribed with Ulfberh+t. The sword maker suggested that sometimes they could have used bone as the carbon source for strengthening the blade. (He used charcoal on the show.) He talked about how using bone may make people see the sword as having some of the qualities of an ancestor or an animal like a bear (or a boar or wolf). Given the name on the sword he was recreating, a wolf might be likely — even if just a little bone was mixed in with carcoal. They could have cremated the wolf and used the mixture of bone and charcoal to temper the blade. Anyway, adding bone carbon to a sword could certainly give it personality.


    • That’s an interesting suggestion. I think the very drama in the way a sword is made (the white-hot metal, the hammering) might also encourage the sense of it as an individual (in contrast to say, the moulding of arrow heads and axe heads or the stamping of coins).


      • There’s a /highly/ speculative but still rather interesting (pay-walled) paper on the business of using animal bone in turning iron into steel, by the Norwegian archaeologist Terje Gansum, written after he’d worked with a blacksmith:

        ‘Role [sic!] the bones – from iron to steel’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 37.1 (2004), 41-58.

        The abstract is freely accessible, and gives you the general gist…


  4. This is a fascinating conversation. Can anybody help me with information as to whether early medieval British (as opposed to English) warriors named/personalised their swords? Am I right in assuming that the Excalibur thing is way too late to be of any relevance to sixth/seventh century Britons?


    • I’m not at all well up on early British sources or archaeology, but a quick look at the Google Books version of Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature first published in the 1960s, certainly suggests that it’s not just Anglo-Saxons who are putting inscriptions on blades (she’s got Danish and continental sources, and one with a Celtic name). I think Excalibur first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth, so relatively late, but named swords are quite common in the literature of several different medieval cultures – there are a lot in the Song of Roland, for example. So I think it’s likely that the same thing is happening in the British world, though you’d need someone who knows about early medieval Welsh/Scottish literature to tell you about specific examples.


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