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How to make swords talk: an interdisciplinary approach to understanding medieval swords and their inscriptions

How to make swords talk: an interdisciplinary approach to understanding medieval swords and their inscriptions

By John Worley and Thomas Gregor Wagner

Waffen- und Kostümkunde, Vol.55:2 (2013)

Cawood sword -Sword with curved medieval-style guard and lobed Viking-style pommel. Inscribed on both sides of the blade. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust
Cawood sword -Sword with curved medieval-style guard and lobed Viking-style pommel. Inscribed on both sides of the blade. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust

Introduction: In 2009 we published an article that presented four inscribed medieval swords. Of the swords that are the focus of the article, three were found in Central Uppsala and one in Karlstad in Sweden. We offered a detailed description of the swords, a possible interpretation of the inscriptions as well as a comprehensive comparison with several other European specimens. The sword inscriptions were treated just like any other medieval inscription. We found that very little academic work has been done on the subject. Medieval epigraphic theories and methodologies were applied to the inscriptions and possible interpretations were offered. We proposed that these inscriptions were invocations to divinities and saints in order that the wielder may gain favor in battle. We proposed two new inscription groups as well as call for the beginning of a new academic discipline we refer to as Sword epigraphy. In the present article we want to explain in detail the methods we used for the documentation and interpretation of medieval swords and their inscriptions. Our hope is that this article will serve as a guide for others in the field or perhaps help us to evolve our methodologies so as to better understand the medieval sword phenomenon.

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It is our premise that if one is to understand the meaning of a historical or archaeological artifact it is important to understand its context as well. That is to say, we try to understand the object, the time period from which it came and how the whole picture fits together. In accordance with the theoretical framework of Lorraine Daston, our medieval swords can be considered “talking things”. Their “loquaciousness” derives from their mythical and material properties as well as from the cultural purpose for which they were produced. Interpreting historical items in this manner is a task not without its fair share of complexity. We would suggest that the most fruitful way to approach such a spider web of interdependency is by way of an interdisciplinary study. A study that utilizes a hermeneutic methodology and checks the feasibility of the proposed hypotheses by way of a dialectic relationship with the objects of study. Given the importance of clearly defining such complex terms, we shall explain exactly what we mean.

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By hermeneutically we mean the Heideggerian understanding that all human knowledge is based upon interpretations. Or as Hodder has written: “Hermeneutics involves understanding the world not as a physical system, but as an object of human thought and action”. The primary rule of hermeneutics “is that we must understand any detail such as an object or word in terms of the whole, and the whole in terms of the detail”. Such an interpretative holistic point of view means that an object is an inseparable part of the society that created it. Whatever the object is, be it a coffee cup, a sword, or St. Paul’s Cathedral, it is a reflection of the complex psychology of the society that produced it. It is completely and inseparably a “child of its time” and can only be understood as such.

Click here to read this article from Museum Gustavianum

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