Weapons of Princes, Weapons of War? An experimental analysis from pattern-welded swords from northwestern Europe, 400-1100 AD

Weapons of Princes, Weapons of War? An experimental analysis from pattern-welded swords from northwestern Europe, 400-1100 AD

By Sebastiaan B.M. Pelsmaeker

Master’s Thesis, University of Groningen, 2010

Abstract: Swords have always been considered special, especially in the early middle ages. However, what was the true value attributed to these weapons? And the famous pattern-welded blades from this period, were these mere pieces of decoration and status?

In this thesis the early medieval swords are examined in detail, using several methodologies. Both an archaeological and a historical analysis are made, compiling most of the relevant evidence regarding the creation and use of these weapons. In addition, two swords are experimentally reproduced and tested to determine their qualities. One of these swords is of a regular mono-steel type, the other is a complex pattern-welded blade.

Many conclusions and several theories are presented in this thesis concerning the use, value, construction and origin of these swords. The experiments have shown that it is very likely that pattern-welded swords were highly functional weapons, whose popularity is not merely the result of their unique beauty, but equally of their high quality.

Introduction: Tales of heroes and monsters seem to dominate the early middle ages, a period of violence and chaos, but also of art and craft. The perfect blend of both craft and violence is of course the weapon of legends: the sword. Many swords from the early middle ages still exist and these weapons are a testament to the craftsmanship of ancient metalworkers. Foremost of all is the pattern-welded sword, whose beautiful patterns have been forged into the steel itself. These blades were honored and passed down through the generations, maintaining an ever growing legend and history. The well-known Quernbiter and Hrunting are but two of these swords, famous for their hard edges and supreme flexibility. Naturally, not every warrior was able to afford such a princely weapon, which could only be crafted in a slow and painstaking process by a master-smith. These warriors made-do with simpler, mono-steel blades.

However, were these pattern-welded blades truly so wondrous or were they mere pieces of decoration; symbols of wealth and status? In this thesis a study shall be made to answer the question: “were pattern-welded blades of a higher functionality than mono-steel swords or did the patterns serve a purely decorative purpose?” The reason for examining these swords is the ongoing discussion regarding the function of these inspiring blades. Many times the evidence has been revisited, but no definitive conclusion to this argument has been reached. To present some new insight to this discussion it was decided to try an experimental approach; hence this thesis.

In addition to this main question, several secondary aspects of both ironworking and swordsmithing will be examined. Most importantly a chaîne-operatoire will be established for the creation of a sword. In addition estimations shall be presented of the time and materials involved in both bloom- and swordsmithing. Other, more direct questions which will be treated here are: “why did pattern-welding become popular and when did it fall out of use?”, “to what kind of tests were swords subjected, and how well do the replicas hold up to these?” and “might there have been other considerations to which pattern-welding owes its popularity, like for instance an established savoirfaire?”.

Chapter 1: The Archaeology of Swords

  • Introduction
  • The decorative use of pattern-welding
  • The constructional use of pattern-welding
  • The construction of pattern-welded swords
  • The analysis of pattern-welded swords
  • Gilmour’s structural types
  • Conclusion

Chapter 2: The History of Swords

  • Introduction
  • Description of swords in contemporary texts
  • Construction of swords in contemporary texts
  • Testing of swords in contemporary texts
  • Conclusion

Chapter 3: The Experiments

  • Introduction
  • 1. Working the bloom
  • Consolidating the bloom
  • Piling the bloom
  • Chemical analysis of the bloom
  • 2. Forging the swords
  • Step 1: selecting and preparing the materials
  • Step2: welding the stock together to create rods
  • Step 3: twisting and squaring the rods
  • Step 4: welding the parts together to create sword-blanks
  • Step 5: forging the sword-blanks to shape
  • Step 6: rough-grinding the blades
  • Step 7: heat-treating the blades
  • Step 8: fine-grinding, polishing and finishing the blades
  • Step 9: making the handle-parts
  • Step 10: peening the handle and blade together
  • 3. Testing the blades
  • Testing the cutting ability of the blades
  • Testing the edge retention of the blades
  • Testing the flexibility of the blades
  • Conclusion

Click here to read/download this thesis from the University of Groningen

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