Medieval Sword Glossary

blade refers to the "working" part of the sword, being essentially a form of the inclined plane. While the blades of medieval Europe are generally straight and have two sharpened edges, single edged forms are also known, particularly from the Viking Age. Outside of the European Middle Ages, a diversity of blade forms may be encountered including curved double edged blades such as the shotel, curved blades with the cutting edge on the convex side of the curve such as the saber, curved blades with the cutting edge on the concave side of the curve such as the yataghan and undulating double edged blades such as the keris. Non-edged blades also exist, such as the estoc. Very early blades were often of Bronze, with the transition to iron and steel occurring at about 700 to 500 BC.

crossguard (see also lower guard or quillon) refers to the element of the hilt adjacent to and perpendicular to the blade. While a straight bar of iron or steel with a central inletting for the tang of the blade to pass through was commonly employed, variously curved and tapering forms are also encountered. In some Migration Period swords, the crossguard will be composed of a sandwich of organic material such as wood, horn or bone between two metal plates.

edge is the term applied to the sharpened cutting part of the blade where the two relatively flat faces of the blade intersect at an acute angle to form a variant of the basic tool known as the inclined plane. Most European medieval swords, as well as their predecessors, are symmetrical about the long axis and have two edges which begin at or very near the crossguard and join at point (the distal most tip of the blade). In swords which are made in a composite or piled structure, the hardest steel (highest carbon content) will be applied at the edge. Such hardness as permits a superior edge in terms of cutting quality carries with it an increased brittleness. The swords of this period were used directly against the opponent's body or shield and would not have lasted long if employed in the edge to edge manner so popular in swashbuckling movies.

ferrule refers to metallic, often bronze, bands or rings overlying and retaining the opposite ends of the grip. On much later swords, ferrules of intricately interwoven wire are termed Turk's heads, a metaphor remaining from the time when turbans were in style in Turkey.

forte is a term applied to the third to half of the blade nearest the hilt, where strength is greatest.

fuller refers to the central shallow on a straight double edged blade and or to lengthwise grooves such as may otherwise be seen on the face(s) of a blade. Aside from decorative intents, the purpose is to minimize blade weight with a minimal sacrifice of strength, much like an I beam. ("Blood gutter" is a misnomer which should generally be avoided by those seeking to avoid giving the impression of ignorance).

grip refers to the portion of the hilt assembly covering the tang which is grasped by the sword bearer's hand. Grips may be contoured for security and comfort and or after fashion. A core of wood or horn usually forms the bulk of the grip, although metal is not unknown, covering the narrower tang. Wood and horn were likely chosen for their shock absorbing capabilities as well as for workability. In medieval European contexts, most often this core is a single cylinder of wood, painstakingly hollowed out to snugly fit over the tang. In other examples, two wooden halves join in the plane of the edges of the blade. The core of the grip was usually covered with leather; coverings of metal plates, wire and fabric are also sporadically encountered.

hilt refers to the handle of a sword to collectively include the guard, grip, pommel, etc. The styles of hilt are often the basis of classification of swords, as is the case with the Viking Age, and provide clues as to where and when a particular sword may have been hilted. Just as old sword blades might be rehilted to suit the tastes or changing fortunes of owners, hilt components would likely be reused when blades were no longer serviceable.

langet refers to an extension of the crossguard towards the blade which overlies the base of the blade, leaving room for the mouth of the scabbard to slip in-between. This is usually a feature of later swords and, besides being a decorative element, may serve both to secure the sword within the scabbard as well as acting as a rain guard.

lower guard is a term generally used in conjunction with hilts of the Viking Age or Migration Period and refers to the crossguard (or hilt element between the forte of the blade and the grip). Among Viking Age swords iron is most frequently encountered as the base metal of which the lower guard is made, although it may be covered with bronze, silver or gold, often applied in narrow strips. Solid bronze lower guards may also be found. In some cases the lower guard will be of iron, while the upper guard and or pommel will be fashioned of a softer metal. See also upper guard and crossguard

point refers to the sharp tip or end of a sword blade, opposite the hilt (or handle). Cutting swords, such as those of the Viking Age, will be balanced for an effective cutting or slashing stroke and usually have rounded, sharpened, spatulate points. Such swords were used against an opponent defended by shield, helmet and light body armour including components such as chain mail, leather or padded fabric. The development of heavy plate armour was so effective against the cutting sword that the manner of use of the sword adapted towards the thrust, in which case a strong sharp point became the most critical feature in sword design. Cut and thrust swords include a sharp and robust point along with two long sharp edges, however, the balance will usually have been shifted back towards the hilt to favor maneuverability over momentum. Late in the medieval period, specialized swords called estocs or tucks appear which are essentially a tapered steel rod, triangular or square in section, extending from hilt to a sharp point. While the triangular cross-section, if hollow ground, would permit three narrow edges, albeit useless for cutting, the square cross-sectioned blades were edgeless.

pommel refers to the finial, disc or knob which terminates the uppermost (as worn vertically) part of the hilt and which is opposite the blade. The pommel serves to reinforce and secure the user's grip on the hilt and also serves as a counterweight to the blade, bringing the center of gravity closer to the hilt. While pommels are found on bronze swords and may be prominent on Hallstatt or Roman swords, interestingly, in the Migration Period many swords lack a pommel, per se, with the upper portion of the hilt being formed of a tang button securing an upper guard to the tang of the sword. Viewing the sequence of development through the Migration Period into the Viking Age, it appears that in this context pommels may have re-evolved through a continuous enlargement of this tang button. Earlier Viking Age swords will have both a pommel and adjacent upper guard, but in later examples the upper guard and pommel become fused to form a single element which retains the name pommel and it is this from which the later medieval forms develop. The schematic depicts a pommel such as may be seen on a late Viking Age sword. By the early Norman Period, brazil nut and disc shaped pommels better contoured to comfortably secure the grip will be adopted. As a generalization, the counterbalancing function becomes increasingly prominent as the medieval era progresses. At the very end of the medieval period, tang buttons reappear as a hilt feature and secure pommels which are pierced or slotted to slide onto the end of the tang. While pommels formed of wood, bone, stone and crystal are known, metals such as iron or bronze are most frequently encountered.

quillion is the term for each of the projecting limbs of the crossguard; the typical European medieval sword has two quillons. The part of the crossguard extending around the tang of the blade is referred to as the quillon block.

ricasso refers to an unsharpened area at the root of the blade immediately adjacent to the guard and forming a transition between the sharpened portion of the blade and the tang. While late medieval blades, particularly those formed by stock removal (grinding), may have a short ricasso, ricassos are usually a feature of Renaissance and later blades, and should raise suspicions in the context of an earlier blade style. The area of the ricasso is likely slightly thicker than the sharpened part of the blade and may be of the same width or narrower or wider. Fullers usually do not extend into the ricasso. Maker's marks may frequently be found on the ricasso.

tang refers to the unsharpened end of the sword blade which, in use, is covered by the grip and other components of the hilt or handle. The tang will usually taper in width and thickness from the area of the lower guard or quillion block towards the pommel. The heat treatment of the tang will favor malleability (or bendability) over the brittleness which accompanies increasing hardness. In some cases, the tang will even be of different composition and welded to the root of the blade. Maker's marks may occasionally be found on the tang.

tang button (tang nut) refers to a retaining device mounted on the end of the tang in order to hold the hilt in place. In some cases the tang button will be firmly affixed to the tang, in others, the end of the tang will have been peened (expanded) over the tang button to hold it and the hilt assembly together and in place. Not all European medieval swords will have a tang button; in many cases the end of the tang will have been peened directly over the pommel. In other cases the pommel will have been sweated (joined by heat) to the end of the tang. In the case of Viking Age swords having both a pommel and an upper guard, the upper guard will have been fixed to the tang in one manner or another and the partially hollow and often decorative pommel then riveted or otherwise affixed to the upper guard.

upper guard, like lower guard, is used in the context of Migration Period and Viking Age swords and refers to that element of the hilt adjacent to the grip but opposite the blade, and lying between the grip and pommel (on those swords where pommels are also present). The upper guard is usually shorter than the lower guard and decorated in a similar manner.

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29 April 2001 ~ v1.04 ~ Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Lee A. Jones