Saturday, February 9, 2013

Swords - Parts and Pieces of a Masterpiece by Scott Higginbotham

Swords populate the world of English history and the books we love.  Whether your favorite character(s) went on Crusade, haunted the tourney circuit, lived through the Anarchy, or strolled the courts of intrigue under the shadow of a Tudor, a sword was an everyday staple.  Some were ornate and ceremonial and rarely saw the heat of battle, while others were the difference between life and death or glory and shame.

This weapon was much more than simply a sword-shaped piece of steel.  There were many parts and pieces that made a sword both a formidable weapon and work of art.  Balance, weight, its edge, the grooves along the blade, the handle (grip), the scabbard, the crossguard, and the pommel all played a small, but vital part in a sword's construction and long-term use.  When these disparate chunks of leather and steel were crafted together as a whole a masterpiece was the result; they could even become an extension of your character.

The Pommel
Pommel varieties - Scott Higginbotham
Lion Rampant - Scott Higginbotham
Designs were varied and range from functional to beautiful.  Rampant lions, sunbursts, crosses, or jewels would be etched or embedded into round, octagonal, ring, swallowtail, or fishtail pommels.  Additionally, coats of arms, Latin inscriptions, or filigree patterns could adorn that hunk of steel and, for some, price was not a constraint nor were the artistic touches.

Length & Balance - Scott Higginbotham
When it comes to function, the pommel of a sword acted as a counterweight to rest of the sword, resulting in a balanced whole.  A long blade provoked the need for something that could equalize and distribute the weight.  A knight or some other stripe of gallant, while the epitome of fitness, could still become weary swinging a sword  at a practice dummy on some fine and mist-shrouded English morning. 

Sunburst Swallowtail - Scott Higginbotham
Pommels could knock an opponent senseless when in close quarters.  A fight or skirmish in a tight room or a winding stone staircase left little room for maneuverability.  When thrusts, jabs, swings, and parries fail and an attacker's odorous breath becomes overwhelming the flares and mass of a swallowtail could quickly end a fight with a downward thrust to the head or the back of the neck.  

Additionally, the pommel served as a means of securing the full tang of the blade; the tang being the thin, unsharpened part of the blade that passes through the grip seen through the ring below. The round retainer at the end could be screwed or otherwise made fast to the tang.  Swords of lower quality had the tang ending in the grip, while those of a higher caliber passed entirely through.  This method of construction could help prevent defeat and embarrassing situations - imagine a penniless knight fighting for honor, prestige, and a lady's favor at a tourney, only to have his cheap and blunted blade sail through early morning sunshine (reflecting the day's warmth and brightness, of course) and knock his love-interest squarely on the forehead with the flat of the blade.

Visible Tang - Scott Higginbotham

Much more could be said about swordmaking and crafting, however, it is these tidbits on this small portion of the sword that add color to the history we love, read, and write about.  A more vivid description in our novels can add symbolism, intrigue, depth, or breathe fresh life into your protagonist. The statement- The red garnet cross embedded in the pommel of Bertram's sword caught the sun's rays, reflecting its dazzling brilliance and reminding him of his vow, points to a variety of avenues an author could explore.  A great beginning or ending?  Or a game-changing segue? Perhaps the key to a mystery?  Ah, the possibilities!

More to come on sword construction!  Swords, armor, Tudor, Renaissance, and many high quality historical clothing articles can be found at 

Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For A Thousand Generations, where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.