In the collections of the National Museum of Denmark sits a 13th-century axe with unusual features. A new study suggests that it was an attempt to create a versatile medieval weapon.
The study, “On the wings of an axe: Understanding a unique axe from Denmark through inter-object citation,” by Gustav Hejlsesen Solberg, appears in the latest edition of Scandia: Journal of Medieval Norse Studies. It focuses on item D234/1992 in the collection of the National Museum of Denmark, which was discovered in 1992 near the town of Nykøbing Sjælland, about a hundred kilometres from Copenhagen.
Solberg, a graduate student from the University of Copenhagen, tells Medievalists.net that he was shown the item by a museum curator, and he soon became interested in it. “…this mystery, this unknowing grew on me more and more,” he explains. “And I started to think about it more and more. It became an interesting discussion point between colleagues and enthusiasts. I’d show it to archaeologists and blacksmiths but no one had seen anything like it.” In the article, the item is described this way:
The axe is thick on the backside, while the blade is relatively thin (5mm). The broad blade of the axe is 16,7 cm long and slightly tilted forward. The forward-tilted angle of the blade results in there being 9,9 cm from the back of the hammer to the bottom tip, while there is 10,8 cm from the back of the hammer to the uppermost tip of the axe. The blade itself is also slightly warped and uneven, which made it difficult to determine whether this was a bill-like axe (from Danish Bredbil and German Beil Axt), where the edge is ground exclusively on one side. On the back of both the horn and the beard of the axe, are located two wings with small gaps between them and the neck of the axe. The bottom one is angled further away from the neck, than the top one. The top horn of the axe also seems to be slightly larger than the bottom one, while the bottom one has a more pronounced curvature.
The shape of this axe, in particular its ‘wings’, is highly unusual and it could be difficult to see what purpose this item had. Solberg believes that it was made specifically for warfare and perhaps was a one-of-a-kind weapon. Because this axe is heavier than the usual Danish axes, it would likely be held with two hands instead of one. This would have allowed for greater force to be used in slashing with its blade. However, it was also very suitable for stabbing, while the hammer on the back of the axe could be effective at striking armoured opponents. Meanwhile, its bottom wing “also allows the warrior to hook opponents’ shields or weapons and move them around to the advantage of its wielder.” These all point to a very versatile weapon.
Solberg also believes that because we have never seen a weapon like this, it could be termed a “failed experiment.” He tells Medievalists.net:
While I might think this would’ve been a great weapon, the fact that it is unique and it did not become common, points to the fact that it wasn’t. Though social factors like tradition, fashion and so on, do have an immense impact on people’s choices, I still think that on the battlefield the best weapon would’ve been preferred and chosen. This was the case for the Danish Axe, but not D234, therefore it must have been a failure of design.
Solberg’s research examines the use and effectiveness of Danish axes, which were used throughout the region from the Viking Age to later parts of the Middle Ages. As a battlefield weapon, it could be quite deadly, an example of which comes from an account of a battle in 1262 on the French-German border. A chronicler notes how:
…the men of Strasbourg moved against the bishop and thus entered the battle. The Strasbourgers had arranged to have made for themselves battle-axes, which the French call “haches danaises”(Danish Axes) with which the burghers assaulted the bishop’s men so strongly that neither shield, nor helmet, nor armour, nor any other kind of protection could defend against them.
As part of Solberg’s research, he has created a video to record the results of tests made with reconstructions of 12th-century axe designs:
The article “On the wings of an axe: Understanding a unique axe from Denmark through inter-object citation,” by Gustav Hejlsesen Solberg, appears in Scandia: Journal of Medieval Norse Studies. Click here to read it.
See also: The Viking Axe
Top Image: Photo courtesy Gustav Hejlsesen Solberg