A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
Spotlight: The Rondel Dagger
An article by Alexi Goranov
Daggers have been the warrior's companion since the first stone tools were made. In the thousands of years daggers have been in use they have undergone many changes in form and shape. There is surprisingly little available information about the use of daggers during the 11-13th centuries even though examples dating to that period have been found. There are almost no depictions of knights wearing daggers until the early- to mid-14th century. Towards the middle of the 14th century, however, not only did daggers reappear being worn by all classes but there was also a dramatic increase in the number of styles and types of daggers in use. Generally there were five new types of daggers in use during the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance. These differed mostly in the shape of their hilt: Ballock daggers have hilts with two globular protrusions at the base of the hilt; Baselard daggers have symmetric hilts resembling the letter "I", Quillon daggers have hilts with sword-like guards (quillons) and pommels; Ear daggers have a peculiar-looking hilt with two protrusions of the grip instead of a pommel; and Rondel daggers usually have two round plates (rondels) in place of pommels and guards.
The rondel dagger's blade varied in size and shape. They were designed primarily for stabbing, but also retained a functional edge (or edges). During the 14th century both single- and double-edged blades could be found. Harold Peterson, author of Daggers and Fighting Knives of the Western World, contends that during the 14th century the short (~ 7-9 in) double-edged blades were the most popular. Due to the limited number of actual surviving 14th century rondel daggers most conclusions have been reached about them by studying effigies. The drawback is that the shape of the dagger's blade, usually depicted in its sheath, is often hard to discern. During the 15th and 16th century single-edged blades were more popular, as judged by the surviving numbers, though double-edged blades were still in use. Towards the end of the 14th century very long blades of up to 15 or 16 inches could be found on rondel daggers. In the 15th century new blade shapes were introduced: an equilateral triangular cross-section and on a rare occasion thin, square blades foreshadowing the emergence of the stiletto.
Both single- and double-edged blades usually tapered acutely in profile towards a very sharp, often reinforced point. Blades tapered distally as well, and on those the author has personally examined, the taper began almost immediately below the guard. Blades were sometimes gilded and engraved to add to the visual attraction of the dagger.
The defining characteristic of the rondel dagger is its hilt, and more specifically its guard(s). The great variety of blade shapes pales when compared with that of rondel hilts. The earliest rondel daggers had only one discoidal guard between the blade and grip. The top of the hilt featured a separate pommel or a globular expansion that was part of the grip, or the grip flared widely and was capped with a metal plate. Many such daggers are depicted on effigies. Towards the end of the 14th century, the classic hilt with two discoidal guards emerged and became the most popular version, though the single rondel guards could still be found during the 15th century.
Towards the end of the 15th century the trend of the top guard being larger than the guard at the base of the grip (a feature seen as early as the 14th century) was taken to an extreme, especially in central Europe. The pommel guards were sometimes so large that the dagger could not be held in any other way than the icepick grip.
The grips were initially of straight, cylindrical form completely enclosing the tang, and were likely made from a single piece of wood, horn or bone. The grips of the higher-quality daggers were almost always fluted, spirally carved, or engraved in some manner. By the end of the 14th century scale construction of the grips became popular as well. In these cases the tang was as wide as the grip and two scales were attached to it with one to four rivets passing through the grip. The rivets usually had large heads that were often decorated. In some cases the rivets were shaped like a hollow tube. H. Peterson notes that, at the time of his writing, such types of rondel daggers had so far been found only in England.
There are examples of scales affixed without rivets but using metal plates (and possibly glue) to secure the scales to the guards. Towards the middle of the 15th century rondel daggers with grips swelling in the middle appeared. There are examples of such daggers from England and France. A grip tapering from pommel to guard became popular towards the end of the 15th century.
The widespread use and great variety of form of the rondel dagger makes it very hard to assign a given variety to a specific location. There are two cases, however, where one might be able to make such an assignment. One is the rondel dagger with grip pierced by hollow rivets. These seem to have been popular in England even though that says little about where they may have been made. The second case is the so-called "Burgundian dagger." These were developed in the 15th century and are characterized by a pommel rondel that has a domed or mushroom-shaped, often fluted top, straight or convex, but always carved, grips of wood or horn and sometimes brass for decoration. These types of daggers are depicted in the famous Burgundian tapestries, which is what links this type to that geographical area. Again, this says little about where these daggers could have been made.
There are no surviving examples of 14th century rondel dagger scabbards but there are many effigies and monumental brasses which show such objects. These suggest that the scabbards were most likely made entirely of leather with metal chapes at the tip and metal lockets at the throat of the scabbard, which reached to the guard but rarely encased the lower rondel. Usually the body of the scabbard and the metal lockets and chapes were decorated with some tooled design or engraving.
A number of 15th century scabbards survive and these lack almost any metal parts and in many cases the throat of the scabbard encloses the lower rondel of the dagger. In the 16th century the scabbards became more like the 14th century ones, with metal chapes and not enclosing the lower rondels, but were more ornate and elaborate.
Rondel Daggers in Use
Surviving treatises of 14th and 15th century fighting masters describe how the rondel dagger should be used in individual combat. These treatises show the dagger being held in the "icepick grip," point down as well as in the "hammer grip," with the point up. The treatises also demonstrate that the rondel daggers's edge could be very useful in delivering severe cuts. These treatises could not be applied to all surviving rondel daggers equally. These treatises mostly deal with duels, which had little in common with mass battles.
One feature of rondel daggers that unites them all is the rigid blade and very acute point which underlines their primary function: to stab. The slim, long blades were capable of piercing mail and finding the small openings in the foe's plate armour. Indeed, many period illustrations show soldiers attacking foes with rondel daggers, almost always with a stabbing motion. One of the functions of these daggers (and daggers in general) was to mercifully kill the seriously wounded. From that function stems the alternative name for daggers: misericordes.
Presented here are examples of authentic rondel daggers:
Dating from the early 15th century, this English dagger measures 13 3/16 inches long. The rondels each consist of two metal plates. The single piece grip is spirally carved and is a modern restoration.
Another early 15th century English dagger, this has a scale grip and hollow rivets. It has a single-edged blade and composite lower rondel at the base of the blade. The overall length is 19 3/4 inches.
This dagger is in excellent condition despite being found in the River Thames. The button-shaped upper rondel and rounded lower rondel are each made of single pieces of iron. Similar guards have been found on other examples from the Thames and are now in the Museum of London. The spiraled grip is perfectly preserved and is reinforced with bands of iron and twisted brass wire. The 19 1/2 inch long blade is double-edged and of flattened diamond cross-section.
Sharing rather similarly shaped rondels as the previous example, this late 15th century dagger has ones made from latten. No grip is present, but the tang has three forged holes. The 15 inch long hollow-ground blade is triangular in cross-section and has a short false edge.
This mid-15th century example is French. It has a 15 1/2 inch long single-edged, hollow-ground blade. The rondels are equal in size. A single rivet holds the scales to the tang.
This dagger's blade is 12 1/8 inches long and is triangular in cross-section. The square grip of composite construction has two sides of stag horn and two sides of gilt copper. The guards are cylindrical and made of brass. This piece is German from the middle of the 15th century.
From the first half of the 16th century, this German sample has a 10 3/4 inch long hollow-ground blade of triangular cross-section. The grip is a tapering cylinder of slightly convex form with the upper rondel larger than the lower one.
This piece is possibly of English origin and dates from the mid-15th century. It has a single octagonal, composite (iron and wood) rondel and double-edged blade. The grip swells in the middle. The wooden part of the rondel guard is held in place by rivets piecing the metal part and another rivet that goes through the tang. Two wooden plaques, each fastened with an iron bar, are fitted into the rondel guard and the octagonal pommel. The pommel features a hole reminiscent of the ring-hilted weapons peculiar to England. Weight (as preserved): 5.5 ounces; Overall length: 12 1/4 in; Blade length: 7 1/4 in; Rondel diameter: 1.29 in; Blade width at guard: 0.82 in; Blade thickness at guard: 0.23 in.
The hilt components are made of latten with a wooden grip. The upper rondel is octagonal in shape and the lower one is a rounded rectangle. The stiff blade of diamond cross-section is 9 1/2 inches long and the overall length is 13 1/2 inches
This is an English example found in the River Thames dating from the early 15th century and measuring 19 inches long. The grip is a modern replacement. The rondels are faceted six-sided discs.
A Sampling of Available Reproductions
Arma Bohemia offers various rondel dagger models made by different smiths. They also offer the option for fully custom-made weapons.
Del Tin Armi Antiche offers two 15th century rondel daggers: the DT2155 and DT2156.
Interknife offers both a short and a long rondel dagger.
Kris Cutlery once offered a basic rondel dagger. Though this model has been discontinued, it is a good example of the classic form and may still be found on the used market.
Lutel is a well-known supplier of arms to re-enactors in Europe. Their lineup includes four rondel daggers, models 10001, 10002, 10007, and 10037.
Museum Replicas Limited has introduced a rondel dagger to their product line, replacing several discontinued models that once were in their catalog.
Pavel Moc offers several models of rondel daggers.
Rondel daggers did not simply disappear in the mid-16th century but rather changed a great deal to give rise to new dagger types. H. Peterson speculates that some rondel daggers lost part of the lower rondel, became globular and bent toward the blade in the manner of later Landsknecht daggers. The very thin triangular or square blade seems to have inspired the stiletto.
The existence of many reproductions of rondel daggers on the modern market strongly suggests that today's collector, re-enactor, and student of medieval arms recognizes the weapon's importance. Rondel daggers were not the only type in use during the 14-16th century period but they appear to have been very popular. Hopefully, new finds and more careful examination of extant pieces will help us further understand and appreciate these remarkably elegant and beautiful weapons.
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.
Daggers and Bayonets, by Logan Thompson
Daggers and Fighting Knives of the Western World, by Harold L. Peterson
Wallace Collection Catalogue of European Arms and Armour, by J. G. Mann
Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a mass grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 10501350: Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia, by David C. Nicolle
Complete Encyclopedia Of Arms & Weapons
European Swords and Daggers in the Tower of London, by Arthur Richard Dufty
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Illustrated History of Arms and Armour, by Charles Ashdown
Medieval Arms and Armor : A Pictorial Archive (Dover Pictorial Archive Series), by J. H. Hefner-Alteneck
Knight (DK Eyewitness Books), by Christopher Gravett, Dk
Arms and Armor : A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-Century Sources (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
I want to thank Cristina Bauer and Jeffrey Forgeng of The Higgins Armory Museum for allowing me access to HAM# 1999.02.2 and for answering my incessant questions.
Photographs are copyrighted by Deutsches Historisches Museum, The Higgins Armory Museum, Peter Finer, The Museum of London, The Royal Armouries, Leeds, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and The Wallace Collection
Illustrations by Nathan Robinson