Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cutting Through a Medieval Notion or Two

by Scott Howard

To those with  a jaded view of history, the Middle Ages was a dark period, seething with swarms of brutish thugs, toothless peasants resembling a human shaped piece of mud, and nobles living lavishly while villages burned.  Books and movies have overplayed this notion, thus depriving the world of the learning and reforms that sprang forth from this period.  Looking at something as simple as a sword can uncover our eyes and show us new worlds that we may have overlooked - worlds we didn't like, because we didn't understand them.   

Indeed, history has chronicled baseless acts and the ruling class thumbed their nose, or wrinkled it in distaste, at those beneath them, but the fact that, we, as modern people, could trace our past to the "lower classes" should say something about their character, their skills, and determination to pass on whatever legacy they possessed to the next generation.

Modern metallurgy has come a long way.  The medieval blacksmith was a part time brute hired by the local baron to produce arms and armor and completely void of skill, right?  The swords and arms they produced were lucky to survive a melee or a season of campaigns.  They were simpletons who could only dream of producing a sword with triple fullers, tapered blade, leather wrapped grip, fishtail pommel, and a crossguard that resembles a ribbon.  The physical balance of the sword that only modern science could produce mustn't be overlooked.

KHM Wien A 141 - Ceremonial sword of the Rector of the Republic of Ragusa, 1466
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

These notions beg a few questions, though.  Are museum pieces such as the Ceremonial sword of the Rector of the Republic of Ragusa, (1468) mere flukes that they lasted for so long?  Or were medieval blacksmiths expert craftsmen whose reputations went alongside a lord and his retainers during the campaign season?  Were they more modern than thought?

Judging by the sheer volume of swords used during the Crusades and sundry great battles of the Middle Ages appearing in photos of personal and museum collections, the evidence clearly points to the latter.  It is astounding to see how closely modern replicas mirror their medieval predecessors and how well preserved the small details are - visible fullers, etchings and designs on the blades, the intricacies of the pommels, the variety of crossguard shapes and sizes, and even remnants of leather grips.

Space does not allow for the breadth of information on forging blades, the grinding process, and how, even in the mire of what we call the Middle Ages, there were skilled artisans and specialists that knew what would stand the test of time.  An intimate knowledge of the crystalline structure of steel was unknown, but centuries of craft passed through the generations more than made up for that lack.  

Moreover, there were strong guilds that ensured a level of quality concerning any product a blacksmith would produce.  In addition to arms and armaments, they repaired or made tools, farm implements, and sundry other products that were not a mere cobbling together of steel and luck.  If that were the case you would never be able to balance a close replica of a typical medieval sword in one hand for any length of time, nor would you be able to twirl it, toss it, or survive for a day in the life of a medieval knight.  

For more information and ingenious ways of forging and grinding quality sword steel, follow the link here.  To experience a daily dose of medieval and replica pieces, whose existence points to something other than preconceived notions of knowledge and skill, follow the link here.

~ Scott Howard Higginbotham
A Soul’s Ransom

Scott Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and 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.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.

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