Sue Brunning on early medieval swords

An eight year-old girl called Saga Vanecek found a sword while playing in a lake somewhere in the south of Sweden during the summer of 2018. She was crawling in the water looking for stones to skim when her hand and knee suddenly felt something long and hard buried in the clay and sand. She pulled it out and, as it emerged, she immediately realised it was a sword: «I pointed it up to the sky, put my other hand on my hip and called out, “Daddy, I’ve found a sword”. I felt like a warrior», she recounts.

The sword was estimated to date to the 5th or 6th century AD. It was still in the remains of its wood and leather scabbard.

There was something particularly fascinating around the story of this find: the inkling that the event should not have to be only attributed to the masterful skills of Chance and that the will of another latent force −namely, the very own will of the sword−had also been at play.

The charisma emanated from the presence of a sword could be so awe-inspiring that sometimes they were believed to be living beings. Therefore: did the girl find the sword or did the sword have the girl carry out the find?

In a time of full of fight vindication of the merits of women, the fortuitous finding of an old sword by a little girl, crowned by that playfully triumphant pose she stroke to announce it, could appear as a loud and clear metaphor purposely devised by Fate. It was a metaphor that could be interpreted as the sound of some revolutionary roar coming from the Past, claiming it still has the power to breathe (new) energy into the Present.

The impressive potential of such energy illuminates the questions raised by Sue Brunning in The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe, a captivating study on early medieval Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian swords. Gifted with a sensitive and vigorous intelligence, which allows her to clearly see  that nothing is lifeless, Brunning might be regarded as someone who−as Saga Vanecek was− would be unhesitatingly chosen by a sword to be its wielder.

«If we begin to believe that it is not the man who approaches the table, but the table that approaches the man, that it is the objects that light up the lamp and not the lamp that illuminates the objects, our minds are seized with vertigo.» (Pierre Mabille)

You are Curator of the European Early Medieval and Sutton Hoo collections at the British Museum.  What attracted you to the early medieval period and why did swords become a specific source of interest for you?

I have always been interested in the past and at school it was the grand narratives of the medieval period – kings, queens, monarchs, battles, the usual clichés – that I enjoyed the most. I decided to study History at University and in my first year I took a module about Bede and the early medieval period, on which I had never really heard much about before. Here I discovered a familiar yet strange world, with a vigorous art populated by animals and strange beings, where the lines between myth and reality, human and non-human, were blurred. It completely captured my imagination and I was hooked for life.

My interest in swords grew partly from my love of fantasy and historical films and books. I noticed that swords always played a special part in these stories: they often had names and magical properties and shaped the characters’ destinies. So, my first reading of Beowulf was revelatory because it contained echoes of all these things and was surely one of the sources for my favourite stories. This combined with a growing fascination with artefacts and the relationship between human beings and the things they own. I wanted to explore why swords were so special in society.

For most of us, swords are silent objects on display in museums. However, they are not mute at all. They can tell us a lot about social, cultural and even human aspects from a time that was probably very different from the one we are now living in. In your own words: «They are loud with information about people from the past.»

Yes, I think so. One of my favourite things to do is to examine an artefact’s condition: look for signs of use, damage, repair and so on, as I do with swords in the book. Then, I use that evidence to reconstruct the human behaviour that caused those changes to the artefact’s physical being. From there, I think about the mental processes that may have motivated the action, behaviour or treatment – and, within that, I think it is possible to access information about people in the past whose realities, world views and priorities were in many ways different to ours, but not so much that we cannot find a way to connect with and understand them. That process of research is, for me, like a real time machine.

You underline the fact that the research on swords has developed over the recent years and a more holistic approach to it is finally nascent. What has led to the emergence of these new or renewed approaches?

The influence of certain theoretical approaches to material culture has been important in this. Many originated in Anthropology but have influenced other disciplines, particularly Archaeology.

These approaches, which cover issues like heirlooms, artefact “biographies” and “agency”, have encouraged us to look at the broader social contexts and meanings of artefacts. They have taken us beyond more traditional methods like typology – but that is not to say that those forms of analysis are no longer helpful because, indeed, they provide the foundations for how we understand artefacts, including swords. As my book explains, a good understanding of typology enables us to find swords which are fitted with parts of different types, and are thus likely to have been modified over time. From there, we can start to think about why that may have happened and we gain a broader picture of the sword’s role in society.

Is the conception of the sword in Northern Europe a specific cultural construction or is it possible to find any connections linking it to the ancient Mediterranean context or other foreign ones?

The more I researched and studied swords, the more struck I became by the recurring theme of swords being special. In every culture that used them, they are special.

Certain constants emerge cross-culturally and temporally: they are costly; they require great skill to make; they become symbols of power; they acquire fame. An expansive, comparative study that explores the reasons for the elevation of swords in society would be fascinating and I would love to see my findings contextualised within it – in order to see what is, or is not, shared across time and space when it comes to these weapons. For instance, I have a side interest in Japanese swords and culture and recently visited the incredible swords housed in the National Museum of Japan in Tokyo. There are curious parallels between how swords were regarded in early medieval Europe and Japan which I would love to explore more in depth. Also, I was fascinated to see a long line of people processing along the cases in the gallery, admiring the swords with reverence, showing the power these weapons wield over us in the 21st century.

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An essential aspect to understand the sword is the fact they were the only weapon exclusively devised for warfare. You explain that spears and arrows could also be used for hunting and axes were conceptually understood as a tool, whereas the sword was an object whose sole purpose was to fight and kill other human beings.

Yes, this I believe to be a fundamental point when seeking to understand how people viewed these weapons in their society. It imbued swords with such powerful symbolism, and once you think about it, it cannot be ignored – that power looms over everything. I think of it every time I handle a weapon at the British Museum, where I work. To me, it is almost as if they hum with a silent power, and must be treated carefully and respectfully for what they are, and what they may have done. I feel this element must have been a factor in the early medieval period, too.

The sword was also a ritual element. Was this notion that it was a tool made to inflict death somehow connected with the fact it was also a representation of power? Or, in these ritual contexts, was it essentially regarded as a political symbol – not seen as an object that could violently end a person’s life? (I realise that perhaps it would be more accurate to rephrase the question in order to ask you about the notions of death and the very act of killing in the early medieval context.)

I feel it was both and more besides – there was no single answer. Instead, I think it would have very much depended on the context in which the sword was being used, who was using it, against whom it was being used and if this event was taking place in private or public. These things would certainly help to shape the symbolism of swords. I also do not feel that the political and ritual realms would have been inextricably bound together at this time: separating them is more of a modern interpretation. In the UK at least, my model of experience is the separation of religion and state. It can be helpful to think about whether that model is the best one for interpreting what we see in the early medieval sources.

Throughout the book, you emphasize the idea of the intense psychological and emotional bond that the wielder had with their sword. Though the substance and depth of this bond might be too obscure for us to reconstruct, in your conclusions you point out to a factor that any contemporary reader can immediately grasp and intuitively relate to in order to figure it out somehow: the trauma caused by the act of killing.

Your words create a very vivid visualisation for the reader: early medieval conflicts comprised hand-to-hand fights in which warriors would lock eyes with their opponents and hear their voices. The foe stood only a few centimetres from the wielder’s hand. The blow of the sword would cause a spray of blood that would soak the warrior’s face and body.

As you explain, anthropologists have shown that stressful ordeals cause humans to turn towards possessions that carry a particular relevance to them. In this case, this object would be the sword, which would be perceived as a sort of comrade to rely upon. This feeling is expressed in some poetic fragments, where the sword is referred as «mighty help», «comforter in battle», «friend in war»…

Obviously (and thankfully) we cannot know exactly what it felt like to fight with a sword in this period, but most of us will have experienced fear or uncertainty to various degrees of extremity. At those times we often seize upon things, objects, songs that give us comfort – because of the memories associated with them, places or people or times in our lives – and they help us through. So, imagine when that situation is a matter of life or death and the thing you seize upon is the very one that will decide between those two outcomes! As someone prone to keepsakes, finding evidence for the existence of a similar attitude in the early medieval period really resonated with me!

Swords possessed a specific individuality, not dissimilar to the uniqueness we attribute to human beings: they had distinctive features; warriors would develop emotional attachments to them; they would also construct their own biography – which was directly linked to their “body”, so to say, since each physical element of a sword is explaining an episode of its life. They would even be given a name and, just as we revere sage elderly people, an old sword was highly respected.

In some contexts, you note, the image of a wielderless sword might have been a metonymic representation of a warrior; while in others it might have suggested the fact the sword itself was bestowed with a life of its own. They were metaphorically compared to animals, persons, forces of nature…

Yes, I think the evidence is there to suggest that swords were thought by some to be like living things; in some cases as part of a warrior – like an extra limb – and in other cases, as “beings” in their own right. This ambiguity appears to intersect with early medieval ideas about the boundaries between different types of being, humans, animals and perhaps artefacts also, which today seem like distinct categories but in the past may have been more mutable. That may seem strange to us, but I think we can relate to such thinking. In the book, I use the example of a car. Those of us who own a car over many years spend a lot of time with it, building journeys and memories, and relying on it for important things. After a while, we come to see it as a character with its own little ways. It is not such a big leap to feel that it is somehow “alive”.

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What was the “anatomy” of the sword?

There is no generic “anatomy” of an early medieval sword: each one is an individual, which is part of what makes them so fascinating to study, because you come to recognise them on sight − like to recognise friends or celebrities! That said, there are common features that all swords had to have in order to be swords.

First, a blade – which I describe in the book as the “body” of the sword because it is the part that “does the work”, from a physical point of view; it is usually concealed beneath “clothing” (the scabbard) and only those most intimately acquainted with the sword would see and come to know its finer details. The blade also, like a body, became the repository for history, reputation, character…

Second, a hilt (or handle), which I describe as the “face” because this was the focus of a sword’s visual identity – it was the part that most people could see and come to recognise, as it was not concealed by “clothing” like the blade was. Hilts, like faces, had unique features manipulated by their owners; they could be altered to shape their identities in a desired way; and eventually, as we all know, they would show signs of ageing – wear patches, like wrinkles.

Next, the scabbard – the early medieval sources disagree to some extent over how essential this component was, but in reality it was quite important. It enabled you to carry the sword on your body, as well as keeping it bright and sharp thanks to the fur lining.

Within these three basic components, there was huge scope for customising your weapon in how it was decorated, the materials that were used and so on. This was a way to make your sword your own, or – I would argue – its own!

On the text of an Anglo-Saxon will you quote in the book we read: «the sword with the silver hilt which Wulfric made». Then, the figure of the «sword polisher» is mentioned in a fragment from a law passed by Alfred the Great you also refer to. What is known about those who crafted and repaired these swords?

While the swords themselves can tell us quite a lot about how they were made, where the materials came from, how long it may have taken, how many resources were required and so on, it is very difficult to get to the people behind these processes. We can glean a few things from various sources. A smith called Weland was important in Germanic mythology, and is depicted on the Franks Casket and mentioned in the Old English poem Waldere as the maker of a powerful sword called Mimming. Later sources claim that he was enslaved by a king and forced to make items, although it is difficult to know how far this reflects the working situations of real-life early medieval smiths.

Another mystery surrounds the number of smiths that would have been involved in making a single sword, since the methods and abilities involved in making an iron blade were quite different to those required for making hilt pieces. Was there a degree of collaboration between blade smiths and jewellers, say? And were there particularly prized smiths who could make an entire sword?

Experts do agree, however, that smiths were likely to have been viewed with both fear and respect, based on their mastery of skills that the average person would have found difficult to understand. Certainly, witnessing the creation of a blade is an awesome and intimidating experience: the heat, the sparks, the noise, the smell, the glowing metal, the steam when it is quenched – to me it seems like a kind of magic, and I suspect it has always been so to some degree!

 Archaeologists recover swords from burials and from watery settings. What is the reason for the latter, why were swords discarded in these places?

We do not know for certain, but there are too many examples for the phenomenon to be explained as entirely accidental. This means, according to the usual cliché, that such behaviour is usually described as “ritual”, which I think it probably was, but there would have been a vast and complex web of motivations – there was not one reason. Perhaps the closest we can come is that depositing, or offering, a sword to a river may have been a means of gaining something in return or in gratitude for services already rendered. From there, we can speculate endlessly: divine favour, victory in battle, freedom from conflict, protection, luck, the air of power and superiority over enemies or neighbours…

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The position of the sword in the composition of a burial tableau is a key to understand the strength of the link between an individual and their sword.

In this video, where you talk about the Sutton Hoo sword, you draw attention to the fact that the sword’s placement might suggest that the anonymous (and, here, absent) warrior was left-handed.  You mention the certain taboo historically associated with left-handedness and how relevant you consider that this feature was not “corrected” when the body was laid to rest. You offer a very interesting interpretation about the emphasis given to this left-handedness, as a likely testimony of superior fighting prowess.

Yes, I strongly suspect that being left-handed was a significant advantage in combat – partly because I have some minor experience of this in boxing training! Like me, most boxers are right-handed and are therefore used to facing other right-handed boxers. So it can be alarming when you are paired with a left-handed boxer because everything is opposite: the way they stand, their balance, where their strongest punches are coming from. You have to do mental gymnastics very quickly to counter this, and often by that point they have already gained the upper hand. My coach regularly trains us in the left-handed stance because of the advantage you gain from this.

I think it could have been the same in early medieval sword-fighting. I could not find any contemporary written accounts and only limited artistic evidence – but later fencing manuals certainly discuss it. Indeed, Gérard Thibault of Antwerp, who wrote a fencing manual in the 17th century, included in it a chapter called «On Facing the Left-handed Swordsman».

Many re-enactors have told me how they expect sword strikes to come from certain angles, so when they come from the opposite angle – from a left-handed fighter – it is a nightmare! Obviously boxing and sword-fighting are different styles of fighting, but I think the principles are comparable. In this light, we can see how the individual who owned the Sutton Hoo sword may have been viewed as even more formidable in society.

You also draw attention to the presence of swords in female burials and to the connection of women with swords. Actually, the relationship between swords and women is a topic repeatedly underscored in your book, stressing the fact that it is a field which needs more thorough research.

Yes, especially in light of the woman buried with weapons at Birka in Sweden, a case which I discuss in the book. Since my book went to press, a fuller journal article has been published about this controversial grave, which appears to address a number of the criticisms levelled at the researchers who studied the burial.

I would not be surprised to find more early medieval women buried with swords in future, since, as I remark in the book, I believe the notion of a «warrior» encompassed a far broader church of people than simply “men of fighting age and ability”.

I feel we are still too wedded to the modern definition of this role, and this inability to think about it more broadly has been a source of some of the conflict between those discussing the woman at Birka. This is why further research around the issue would be very valuable. Now could be the perfect time to do so, in the context of the widening debate about gender fluidity, “male” and “female” roles and notions of mutable identities. Perhaps our social experiences and discursive skills are now up to the task of opening our minds on the matter!

Yes, you also insist on the fact that another topic demanding further research is the definition of «warrior» as a social identity.

Indeed, yes – I feel that too much emphasis is still placed upon the notion that «warrior» as a term signifies an armed person (and a male) in the past, with the assumption that that person actually had to be a fighter. In my view, this is our definition and not theirs.

Everything I looked at when researching the book showed that not to be true, and that the early medieval concept of «warrior» had a far broader meaning and relevance in society. When we understand that, the term becomes unshackled and perhaps less problematic as a definition; it is not limited in the ways it still is today, but can be applied more carefully and correctly. From there, we get a much better understanding of the past worlds that we are studying.

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Therefore, you hint at the need to reassess the possible existence of female warriors.

I feel that having a broader understanding of warriorhood may help to dismantle the continuing controversy surrounding the description of women as “warriors” in the past, because it will no longer be the “be all and end all” to “prove” whether or not they fought in battle.

The matter becomes moot, because warriorhood was about more than the physical fight. Not all struggle was on the battlefield, and the qualities associated with fighting, physical strength and so on had a broader application in early medieval society.

In Anglo-Saxon iconography swords are a symbol of authority and elite. An interesting aspect that you highlight, and which is perhaps related to the profound respect bestowed on old swords, is the fact that illuminators did usually represent “outdated” swords. This seemed to be deliberate, as these “old-fashioned” swords appeared next to more “state-of-the-art” warfare gear.

That does seem to be the case, yes. The Bayeux Tapestry contains a very interesting example of this (although I should say that not everyone agrees with me on this point). In one scene, a Norman infantry soldier is shown fighting with one type of sword in his hand, while wearing another type of sword in a scabbard at his hip. This second sword has a three-lobed pommel, a type that was popular a century and more earlier. We see this pommel recur in many 11th century manuscripts, and it always seems to be wielded by significant individuals – the implication being that old swords were special, worth keeping. I was able to trace this archaeologically, where there seemed to be little concern to “blend in” modifications or replace heavily worn sword fittings.

Looking at literature, poems and wills describe swords with long histories, even that age made a sword better. The sense was clear: ancient swords were preferred over new swords. When trying to interpret this, I could not get away from the thought of “age equalling experience”. An old sword was seasoned and dependable; its hilt had a familiar feel, its blade had a familiar weight; its history gave it meaning. A new sword might look shiny, but had no track record or credentials (yet). What would you rather take into battle or receive as a gift?

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Their increasing availability made the swords from later periods more generic, less charismatic. Still, the memory of the swords as an object bestowed with special powers, with a unique individuality, persisted over the centuries – up until the present, I would say.  You note that it is important to remain open-minded about future discoveries. Do you feel a somehow unexpected history is awaiting to be written?

I am rarely surprised by “surprising” discoveries from this period! The Staffordshire Hoard taught me that. It was found after I had already argued in my PhD thesis that early medieval swords in Britain only ever come from burials and rivers, they were never hoarded, rarely turn up as stray finds and are hardly ever found in Mercia. Overnight, we gained a completely different context for, and treatment of, swords that had to be explained. It is certainly possible that something as dramatic as that may happen again, but my prediction is that scientific techniques will begin to identify more individuals buried with swords that defy the modern definition of «warrior» that I mentioned above – and in light of the weight of that evidence, perhaps we will then, finally, be more comfortable applying the far broader definition that I believe existed in the early medieval mind.

Which is your favourite sword of the period?

My favourite sword is in the collections I curate at the British Museum, but you may be surprised to learn that it is not on display, nor it is very ornate. It was found in a grave at a 6th-7th century cemetery in Faversham, Kent known as “King’s Field” due to the amount of gold that was found there. It has a plainish silver pommel with some gilding along the lower border and the top. The sword was clearly old when it was buried, as the sparse decoration and gilding is badly worn. On the front, if you look very closely in the right light, you will discern the ghost of an Old English rune that looks like an «F» with the cross-pieces angling downwards. This is the aesc rune, named after the ash tree. The Old English Rune Poem, which gives the meanings of all the runes, says this about the aesc rune:

«The ash is extremely tall, precious to mankind,

strong on its base: it holds its ground as it should,

although many men attack it

(Translated by Margaret Halsall.)

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The poem was written down long after the person carved this rune into the sword, but if the meaning of the aesc rune was even slightly similar, the relevance of this imagery to a warrior facing battle is extremely tangible. I feel I gain an eye-opening insight into what it felt like, on an emotional level, to face such things and it really brings the past to life for me. This sword and many of the other ones in my book show how the things we own take on powerful meanings and come to be more than simple tools or possessions. They are participants in our world, and have lives of their own.

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Sue Brunning, The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe. Experience, Identity, Representation, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2019.


Illustrations.

1. British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.V/1, fol.39r, 2nd quarter of the 11th century-3rd quarter of the 12th century. © The British Library Board

2. Old English Hexateuch, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV, fol. 58v,
2nd quarter of the 11th century-2nd half of the 12th century. © The British Library Board

3. Stora Hammars I, Lärbro, Gotland, Sweden. © Gotlands Museum

4. Sword from Mound 1, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, Great Britain, 6th century. © Trustees of the British Museum

5. Figurine of a Valkyrie, Hårby, Funen, Denmark. ©The National Museum of Denmark

6. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 56, 11th century. © Bayeux Museum

7. Pommel with inscribed runic letter. King’s Field, Faversham, Great Britain. © Trustees of the British Museum

8. Sue Brunning.