Three Swords from the Higgins Armory Museum
An article by Alexi Goranov
The wealthy Worcester industrialist John Woodman Higgins spent a lifetime acquiring arms and armour. In the 1930s he commissioned the construction of a new building to house his collection. Upon his death in 1961, his collection and the museum were opened to the public, and a public board has governed the museum since 1979. The museum houses more than 8,000 pieces, with the European collection consisting of about 3,000 armours and components, 500 swords and daggers, 1,000 other weapons and accessories, tapestries, woodcarvings and other items. Additionally, there are around 1,000 weapons and armour pieces from Africa and Asia.
The Higgins Armory Museum prides itself on being one of the few museums in the northern hemisphere dedicated entirely to the collection, preservation, and study of arms and armour. Since one of the aims of this museum is to further research and education, its staff helped me find swords of interest in the museum stock room and allowed me to study them.
Currently, the museum owns about 15 swords dated to the 14th century or earlier. These swords are in excavated condition and as such are not recommended for much handling. Since I was interested in actually handling swords and measuring them in detail, I had to select examples that were in a well-preserved state. Luckily, the museum possesses many such swords dated to the 15th and 16th centuries. I chose to study three: a hand-and-a-half 15th century sword (HAM# .75), a 16th century single-handed sword with complex hilt (HAM# 3846), and a bearing sword from the 14-15th century (HAM# 3133).
Single-hand swords were also in use during the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the tendencies of the evolution of the sword during this time was the development of more thrust-oriented blades and complex hilts that provide extra protection of the hand. This underscores the transition from the sword to rapier. The HAM# 3846 sword only displays the latter characteristic of having a complex hilt, for its blade is very cut-oriented. The parallel edges and the heavy blade can deal serious cuts. The robust edges could withstand use against armoured opponents without taking much damage. This sword can be termed a "typical" renaissance war sword.
A much less discussed, but always present type of sword is the so-called "bearing sword." Its purpose is rather simple: to display the wealth and importance of particular noble during parades. These swords were used from the early days of the Byzantine Empire until the 18th century. The bearing sword often looks like a typical sword in shape, but its size is often as much as doubled. These swords usually possess enormous blades that could be seen from afar and are lavishly decorated to illustrate the taste and possessions of the noble. The HAM# 3133 sword is an example of a typical bearing sword that would have been used during processions and various ceremonies.
Included here is a detailed record of the three studied swords, each of which is presented with the comments provided by the museum first followed by the author's own observations.
HAM# .75 Blade: German; Pommel: Perhaps Italian
Museum Description: Steel double-edged flattened section blade tapering gently at 1/2 its length becoming lozenge section to spear point. Both forte faces have brass inlaid stylized "A" crossed at their apex. Restored cross-guard, arms curving towards blade and expanding into squared terminals. These are deeply chisel-roped on obverse. Two-stage wooden grip wrapped in dark brown leather with spiraled cord beneath. Iron square flattened hexagonal section pommel with traces of black paint. Pommel possibly 15th c. Italian. Restored composite possibly 19th century.
The flats on the blade displayed some rippling and unevenness, but it is hard to judge whether the blade was made like that or this occurred during the centuries of storage. The blade also had a minor bend one third of its length below the guard. Around six inches from the guard, spanning the width of the fuller on each side, is the maker's mark, inlaid in brass. There is a similar mark on a German rondel dagger from the 15th century.
If this sword were to be judged only by the measurements provided below, one may walk away thinking that this is a large and fairly heavy sword. After all, 3.4lb (1548g) is a substantial mass, and a Point of Balance of 7 inches from the guard seems to make this sword very blade-heavy. However, when I first handled the weapon, I thought that it was certainly less than three pounds. Its 39.4 inch blade moved swiftly and easily from guard to guard. It was rather surprising to see its actual weight after I handled it for awhile. This is one of the perfect examples where simple statistical measurements do not give an accurate view of the whole picture.
This sword, in my opinion, is either a Type XIIa or Type XIIIa according to Oakeshott's typology for medieval swords, which in any case is of only limited application for later weapons. Its profile does taper, but only minimally. The pommel is of a type not easily categorized by Oakeshott's typology.
HAM# 3836 German
Museum Description: Composite, steel, double-edge straight blade probably cut down form two-handed sword. Both faces with medial group of three crude deep narrow pointed fullers from shoulders to mid-point and an isolated shorter fuller at one edge. On obverse are traces of large edged orb mark. Blade tapers to spear point. Leather-covered ricasso. Steel guard form rapier, of type now identified with group from Schloss Ambras. Straight cross-guard. Recurved perpendicular to plane of the blade with swollen conical terminals. Large arms of the hilt bent to fit present blade and supporting an asymmetrical pair of open side rings swollen at middle. Three-branch inner-guard with a thumb-ring. Iron wire-wrapped, restored wood grip with recessed faces and tapering to pommel. Large globose steel pommel with a short wide base, and slightly tapering to a short flattened button. Hilt, Circa 1560-1570. Cf. HAM# 208.2.a. See Norman & Barne, The Rapier and Small-Sword, 1460-1820, pp111, 223, 243; Duffy, European Weapons & Daggers, plate 21(d).
This blade's three fullers are slightly uneven and wavy, which is why they were termed "crude". The middle fuller extends an inch farther toward the point than the other two. The etched maker's mark is on only one side, at the top of the middle fuller. It consists of an orb (two concentric circles with a diameter of approximately 1.25") topped with a stylized cross. There was no sign of inlays. This mark is reminiscent of similar orb marks on German blades from the mid-16th century. At least seven similar, but not identical, marks are present on 16th century swords in The Wallace Collection.
The grip is heavily soiled and worn, but very comfortable. Its wire-wrap is still very tight and there is a Turk's head knot at each end. The grip is of roughly round cross-section, with four grooves on each side that give it a more rectangular shape.
This sword has a massive presence when held. It is solidly built, with a very stiff blade and a Center of Percussion (CoP) at approximately mid-point on the blade. I am tempted to describe the blade of this sword as an Oakeshott Type XIII due to its broad, lenticular cross-section and lack of profile taper.
HAM# 3133 Blade Only German (probably Passau)
Museum Description:Steel. Very long double-edged blade, edges curving gently to a rounded point. About half its length of both faces is decorated asymmetrically with brass inlaid cross motifs within narrow framing borders. Both faces have stylized running wolf design reminiscent of Passau-made blades. A 1983 examination of the MMA records showed that this as ex-04.3.61. At the time the photograph was made the sword blade was with a hilt. The MMA records showed the sword as "German, 2nd half of 15th c. style" but noted as modern. It was an MMA purchase in 1903 from the di Dino collection (his F.5) with funds from the Rogers fund. Note by JWK suggest that the sword appears to be an original.
The blade features three fullers that merge into two about halfway down the blade. The two remaining fullers terminate about three inches from the tip. Small cuts made for inlays are still clearly visible, but much of the brass inlay has fallen out.
The following statistical categories are based on the documentation recommendations of the The Oakeshott Institute.
The study of medieval history, warfare, and weapons takes various forms and shapes. Reading the primary and secondary literature, discussing matters with peers, studying the ancient martial arts, collecting accurate replicas of period weapons, and studying original surviving weapons are all examples of our struggle to understand our history and past and experience a little part of it. None of these examples of approaches to studying history are supreme by themselves when compared to the others. It is the combination of a few of these approaches that helps us further and deepens our understanding. Luckily, museums are keen on furthering our understanding of arms and armour. Consequently, they readily provide us with the means to test and improve our current understanding of the sword by allowing us to study surviving examples. It's my hope that the trend of people taking advantage of what the museums have to offer will only increase.
About the Author
Alexi is a doctoral student in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.
I want to extend my gratitude to Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng and Cristina Bauer of The Higgins Armory Museum for allowing me access to museum items and for all their valuable help and comments.
Photographs taken by Alexi Goranov and reproduced by permission of The Higgins Armory Museum.