The Bruhn-Hoffmeyer Typology of Medieval Swords
An article by Alexi Goranov, with illustrations by Michael Harley

The modern student of the sword has a daunting task in comprehending the variety of historical swords that existed. One of the most obvious ways to do this is to create a typology that describes and orders common characteristics of these weapons so that comparisons can start from a common frame of reference. Any such system is imperfect to some degree as it is a modern, artificial attempt to classify something which was not intended to be classified. On the other hand, sword typologies, when done with enough care and thoroughness, are very useful.

Click to enlarge
Middelalderens Tvaeggede Svaerd, by Dr. Ada Bruhn-Hoffmeyer

Although Dr. Jan Peterson and Sir Mortimer Wheeler had developed and refined typologies for Viking swords by 1927, Dr. Ada Bruhn-Hoffmeyer was the first scientist to approach the medieval sword in a systematic fashion. Unfortunately, very little of Bruhn-Hoffmeyer's writing is available in English. In this article, we present a summary of this pioneering researcher's life and work.

Ada Bruhn-Hoffmeyer was born in 1910 in Roskilde, Denmark and from an early age showed great interest in archaeology. She earned an M.A. in archaeology in 1936, then worked in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen, during which time she made several research trips throughout Europe. In 1939 she became an assistant at the Tøjhusmuseet (Royal Armoury) in Copenhagen. In 1942, she was promoted to curator of the arms and armour department. From then onwards, she concentrated her research on medieval weapons. In her 1954 doctoral dissertation, Middelalderens Tvaeggede Svaerd (The Double-edged Sword of the Middle Ages), Bruhn-Hoffmeyer proposed the first, simple typology of swords dated between 1100 and 1550, using data from more than 500 swords in various European museums and collections. With this work, she set the stage for the detailed and more comprehensive studies to follow.

As with all pioneering work, the Bruhn-Hoffmeyer Typology was not the final word on the subject. The typology she proposed was not complex enough to describe the full set of characteristics present in medieval swords. Its critical shortcoming was its exclusion of different blade forms and properties. Although Bruhn-Hoffmeyer noted and elaborated on the blade development of the medieval sword, she believed that between the 12th and 16th centuries blades did not vary enough to justify using them as descriptive tools. Like Dr. Petersen, she offered a detailed description and classification of sword hilts, revealing local and temporal variations in style and fashion.

Bruhn-Hoffmeyer's work would have been pointless had the scientific community not acknowledged her efforts. Fortunately, most major sword-related publications in the second half of the 20th century refer to her work. And so, we come to the work itself.

The Bruhn-Hoffmeyer Typology
The Bruhn-Hoffmeyer Typology contains two major divisions: Romanesque Swords (1100-1550) and Gothic Swords (1350-1550). The Romanesque sword group contains subdivisions I, II, III, and the Gothic swords contain subdivisions IV, V, VI, and VII.

The pommel is the basic characteristic of this typology and is signified by Roman numerals. The guard, a secondary determinant, is represented in subtypes by lowercase letters a to e.

Romanesque swords
I. Swords with tea-cozy pommels and a few lobated pommels. Transition from Viking to medieval sword
II. Swords with Brazil-nut pommels and straight or slightly curved guards
IIIa. Swords with disc-pommels and straight guards
IIIb. Swords with disc-pommels (or occasionally spherical pommels) and curved guards
IIIc. Swords with thick disc-pommels and straight guard
IIId. Swords with thick disc-pommels and curved guards

Gothic swords
IVa. Swords with flat pear-shaped pommels and straight or curved guards
IVb. Transition to octagonal pear-shaped pommels or special forms of fish-tail and block pommels
IVc. Swords with octagonal pear-shaped pommels and curved or straight guards. Transition to two-handed swords
IVd. Thrusting swords with octagonal pear-shaped pommels and long ricassi. Transition to two-handed swords
IVe. Swords with plain pear-shaped pommels and curved or straight guards. Transition to two-handed swords
Va. Swords with spherical or apple-shaped pommels and curved or straight guards. Transition to two-handed swords
Vb. Swords with spherical or apple-shaped pommels and horizontal S-shaped guards
Vc. Swords of Landsknecht type with straight guards
VI Swords with various shapes of pommels, pretzel-shaped guards
VIIa. Swords with degenerate, oblong pommels and side rings
VIIb. Swords with low, biconical pommels and side rings
VIIc. Swords with high, biconical pommels and side rings

The following sections give brief comments on each of the types above based on Bruhn-Hoffmeyer's descriptions:

Transition to Romanesque Swords—Circa 1100-1250
Click to enlarge
Group I: Swords of the transitional period
These are weapons dated after 1100 which retain the characteristics of some Viking swords and do not fall into any of the other categories. The swords of the transitional period are usually dated 1100 to 1150. Some of these swords have pattern-welded blades, and some do not. The "tea-cozy" is the most typical pommel Bruhn-Hoffmeyer used to illustrate this type. She also noted that the blades of these post-1100 swords tended to have broader edges and narrower fullers.

Click to enlarge
Group II: Swords with brazil-nut pommels
These are the most common of hilt types during the period 1100 to 1250. This group includes such famous examples as the swords of Saint Maurice in Vienna and Turin, the sword of Charlemagne, and the sword from Rouen in Chateau Gaillard. Bruhn-Hoffmeyer noted that the shape of the brazil-nut pommel evolved with time, with later forms having a virtually straight upper edge (for example, the Sword of Saint Maurice in Turin). The last development of the brazil-nut pommels gave rise to the cocked-hat pommels which are also part of this group.

Romanesque Swords Proper—Circa 1150-1500
Click to enlarge
Group IIIa: Flat disc pommel, straight guard
This group is roughly dated to 1100-1300, and is not a highly represented category. The earliest examples, discovered in the mid 20th century by Jorma Leppaho, were dated to mid 11th to early 12th century.

Click to enlarge
Group IIIb: Flat disc pommel, curved guard
Swords with spherical pommel are also included in this group. The category is fairly uncommon. One of the best known examples is from the Musee de l'Armee.

Click to enlarge
Group IIIc: Molded wheel pommel, straight guard
This is one of the most common groups. The difference in pommel shape from the previous two groups is that the molded pommels are thicker and often have chamfered edges or central bosses. In addition, the rivet block is more characteristic of this and later groups.

The swords in this group fall into three chronological sub-categories. The first of these is characterized by a short grip, heavy cutting blade and large side panels on an almost spherical pommel. The second sub-group has a longer grip, smaller pommel side panels and more clearly defined central boss. The third sub-group features a well-formed and pronounced central boss in the middle of the pommel.

Click to enlarge
Group IIId: Molded wheel pommel, curved guard
This group is less common but shows more variation in style. Dr. Bruhn-Hoffmeyer describes the swords in this group in terms of blade shape: either with a slender thrusting blade of the "Sempach" type or with an acutely tapering blade which starts very broad at the hilt and has a pronounced median ridge. Alternatively, Dr. Bruhn-Hoffmeyer separates the swords in this group into English/French or Italian categories. This is based primarily on the shape of the guard. The guards in the English/French group have a gentler curve, while the guards in the Italian group have a straight guard with ends turned down sharply.

Gothic Swords—Circa 1350-1500
Click to enlarge
Group IVa: Swords with flat, pear-shaped pommels and straight or curved guards
These were most prevalent in Denmark and Switzerland, but some are from Germany, Italy, England, and Sweden. The swords of the "Sempach" hilt family belong in this group.

Click to enlarge
Group IVb: Transition to octagonal pear-shape pommels. Special forms of fish-tail and block pommels
This type was mostly popular in Denmark. A few have been found in Scandinavia, and a single example was found in Bavaria. This group has swords larger than Group IVa and often has a longer hilt.

This group also includes two special forms: the block and fish-tail pommels. The block pommel is a rare type from around 1375-1400. The fish-tail pommel has Continental and Western European influences, and had not been found in Denmark at the time Bruhn-Hoffmeyer published her thesis.

Click to enlarge
Group IVc: Swords with octagonal pear-shaped pommels, curved or straight guards. Transition to two-handed swords
This group is the most abundant and characteristic of the Gothic swords. The guards are usually curved, but specimens with straight guards exist. Most of the swords in this group are very large cut-and-thrust types and have long grips. Slender, more thrust-oriented blades were popular in Southern and Western Europe. The swords from Denmark that fall in Group IVc have such long grips and peculiar proportions they almost warrant their own group.

Click to enlarge
Group IVd: Thrusting swords with octagonal pear-shaped pommels and long ricassi. Transition to two-handed swords
These swords differ from Group IVc only in the shape of the blade. These swords are mostly of Danish origin and have a very long, thick ricasso.

Click to enlarge
Group IVe: Swords with plain pear-shaped pommels
Usually, these swords have straight guards, long grips, and cut-and-thrust blades from Passau, although some clearly have blades from Solingen. Pictorial representations suggest Germanic origin and frequent use by executioners and landsknechts.

Click to enlarge
Groups Va-c: Swords with spherical or apple-shaped pommels from circa 1470-1510
These groups are characterized by long grips and cut-and-thrust blades from Passau.

Group Va has curved guards. Group Vb has S-shaped guards and is contemporary with Va. Both groups are of Danish origin. Group Vc has straight guard and side rings. It is of German origin and was popular among executioners and landsknechts.

Click to enlarge
Group VI: Swords with pretzel-shaped guards from circa 1480-1500
The heavy blades of this group usually are stamped with Passau marks. These swords are found only in Denmark and Norway, and have variable pommel shape.

Transition from Gothic Swords—Circa 1500-1550
The swords in the last group reppresent the transition to the rapier. Their blades are slender and more thrust-oriented. Their grips are shortened and their guards become increasingly elaborate.

Click to enlarge
Group VIIa: Swords with long, degenerate pear-shaped pommels, circa 1500
These swords, primarily Danish, often have ring guards.

Click to enlarge
Group VIIb: Swords with low, biconical pommels and side rings and/or finger-rings
The Gustav Vasa sword belongs to this group.

Click to enlarge
Group VIIc: Swords with high, biconical pommels
These swords are close to Group VIIb and are derived from the old pear-shaped pommels of Group IVc and Group IVe. The type, probably of Germanic origin, is commonly depicted on aristocratic tombstones.

Unfortunately, modern sword enthusiasts know little of Dr. Ada Bruhn-Hoffmeyer's work, in part because it is largely inaccessible to the English-speaking community and in part because it was largely supplanted by the Oakeshott Typology. Her work should not be viewed as outdated or isolated from later scholarship, however. Her exhaustive cataloguing and documentation of medieval swords has been, and still is, a standard reference work for serious researchers. Rather it should be considered as complementary of and supplemental to newer and more complete theories of the medieval sword. Even though her ideas might not have been formulated in the most complex or complete manner, the validity of her observations still stands.

About the Author
Alexi is a postdoc 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.

All illustrations contained within this article were created by Michael Harley.

Additional Information
Bruhn-Hoffmeyer, who married E.F. Hoffmeyer in 1951, was a prolific writer, submitting papers and articles to magazines, journals and encyclopedias. Not only a pioneer within her field because she was a woman, she also spent much energy developing programs that would expose people, especially children, to medieval arms and armour. She was the first to recognize the need for special exhibition facilities for children, and the Tøjhusmuseet still has a special section in which children can handle reproduction armour and other items.

Internal strife at the Tøjhusmuseet led to Bruhn-Hoffmeyer's retirement in 1959, and from 1962 she and her husband lived in Spain. In 1963 Bruhn-Hoffmeyer became director of the Instituto de Estudios sobre Armas Antiguas in Cáceres. This position resulted in several books on Spanish arms and armour, most notably Military Equipment in the Manuscript of Scylitzes in Biblioteca Nacional (1966, Arms and Armour in Spain (2 vol), 1972 and 1981) and From Medieval Sword to Renaissance Rapier (1980). She also wrote Gammelt Jern (Old Iron) about the collection of one of Europe's foremost sword collectors (Dane E. A. Christensen,) served as editor of the French language Gladius journal, and was an honorary member of several academic societies. She passed away in 1991, having achieved more than many of her male colleagues.

Middelalderens Tveæggede Sværd, by Ada Bruhn Hoffmeyer


All contents © Copyright 2003-2017 — All rights reserved

Open a printer-friendly version of this page

You must be logged in to access all the features of
Your name: I forgot my password
Register for an account
Password:  Log me on automatically each visit
Why register? See our Membership Plans for details.