Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On Viking Age KNIVES

The following from a (long winded) post related to an ongoing discussion on the Dark Ages Re-creation Company list on suitable knives for the Viking Age...

> All the ON knives I've seen or seen pictures of have been single edge -
> Romans had double edged daggers and there is a Merovingian short sword /
> fighting knife that I think is double edged, and some very short double
> edged swords / long daggers from immediately post-Roman Briton. This
> doesn't seem to have carried over into the Scandinavian world / Viking age.

> I haven't seen any good sites discussing ON period fighting knives, but
> there is some interesting martial arts work being done in the US these days
> on Bowie knife techniques which could be very similar due to similar blade
> size & clip point shape....
> (Steve)

Just from a technical standpoint - and based on real sloppy memory. Much to my embarrassment, I find I have NO reference images on my own web sites! You should also check the earlier blog entry discussing general knife construction.

Most of the VA knives are short - in the 4 - 6 inch range. They almost all without exception have no cross guards. As I may have mentioned, these are grouped in two types:

Woman's knives are long thin triangles, tend to be relatively thin - maybe 3/4 of an inch or so at the handle. Think of a kitchen paring knife. As might be expected, these blades are lighter and more suited to food preparation and textile working. Expect the 'hanging pouch' type of scabbard.

As a base blade for these, the Russel 'Ripper' blades are about perfect. These as finished blade blanks (no handles) can be had from Atlanta Cutlery or Log Cabin Sport Shop (my past supplier). Cost is about $8 US plus the shipping. The Russels will have to get their full tang ground down to a thinner width. The best version of this I've made up is Bera's knife (ask to see it this weekend).

I've got one of these two - but its from the pre DARC days and has an etched blade and the full width tang with riveted slabs. (Those with long memories will remember the days when I had sold hundreds of these in Ealdormere!) Not suitable on four counts...

Mens knives tend to be the seax shape. Basically a straight edge, with a diagonal line down from the back that creates the point. The back may slope slightly upwards from the handle to the start of that diagonal. There are some that have the back parallel to the edge, or even sloping down slightly from the handle (more on this).

Now, within the seax type - there would appear to be 'kind of' three general size and shape ranges:

Small Tool - these tend to the four inch range. Generally the blades have the parallel back and edge, although there may be some widening to the tip. As might be expected, these are by far the most common. They represent the basic tool type - a more robust knife than the classic womans blade , as suits heavier general working tasks. Again expect the hanging pouch scabbard.

Heavy Hacking - There are a range of samples that run from the top end of the small tool range (about 6 inches) up to maybe 12 inches plus. These blades are wider and thicker, and generally tend to the shape that is tapers wider from the handle to the start of the diagonal line. Again generally the straight edge, but more likely to have a slight upwards curve near the point. (This is a function of the forging process by the way.) This style of blade is most likely to be worn across the back - with two suspension loops holding the blade parallel to the ground.
The construction with the width just back of the point places the greatest mass forward - such blades would hit heavy, but not move fast. Note again the lack of any guard for the hand. These blades are great for splitting kindling, but basically too awkward for any other purpose that that - or fighting. Steve's comment about parallels with the American version of the ancient 'clip point' shape are well taken.

'Knife / Sword' - The last class is much longer - with samples ranging closer to 18 to 24 inches (there is one in the British Museum that is closer to 30 plus inches!) These are more likely to have a slight taper from the handle to the start of the diagonal - and are relatively narrow in proportion to the great length. Although the length puts them into the range of short swords, they remain single edged and without guards. (I actually can't think of any artifact samples that we would consider a 'short sword' from the Viking Age.) I have seen one artifact sample that was locked inside a sheet bronze scabbard. (My own 'Serpent's Tongue' is based on that artifact.) The scabbard had two suspension loops, but the length was such that it would have been only practical to wear the blade on a baldric. The blade hangs edge UP - as seen with Oriental short swords.
Taken altogether, this suggests a light, fast moving and extremely sharp cutting blade. Likely useless against armour, but quite effective against 'street clothes'. I'd suggest looking to Japanese technique as a model.

So the long and short (da!) of it is that we should be looking to smaller knives in the two distinctive sex linked blade shapes, ideally with pouch scabbards. Good references are the 'Knives and Scabbards' book in the London Museum series and the "Ferrous Metalwork' book in the York series. There are supposed to have been something like 500 knives uncovered in Dublin at Woods Quay - but that has not been published yet.


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