Spotlight: Oakeshott Type XII Swords
An article by Patrick Kelly
Throughout much of the European continent's early history, the cut was the preferred method of attack. While there were isolated incidents of thrusting designs being used, swords dedicated to the cut were the norm. Even the roman gladius, a sword that was used in a method of combat that focused on the thrust, was a capable cutting instrument when required. While these cutting designs served well for centuries they did not exist in a vacuum. Throughout its history the sword was an ever-changing instrument that was adapted to the requirements of the age. Like the sword, armour also continued to evolve and change. These instruments of offense and defense played a cat and mouse game of evolution until the very moment of their obsolescence.
Sometime during the high Middle Ages a subtle evolutionary change began to occur in sword design. It was realized that the older designs dedicated to the cut could be improved. The blade began to exhibit a noticeable taper in its profile as well as a shortening of its fuller. These changes resulted in significant improvements in several areas. While this new design was still dedicated to the cut, the blade's increased taper also gave it a much more serviceable point. The shortening of the fuller also aided in maintaining the right distribution of mass needed for decisive cutting as well as effective point control during the thrust. The end result was a sword as capable in the cut as its predecessors, yet was also far superior in the thrust. Ewart Oakeshott designated this design as the Type XII in his typology.
Oakeshott characterized the Type XII as "having a broad, flat, evenly tapering blade, generally with a good sharp point and tending to widen perceptibly below the hilt." The fuller will be well defined, generally extending from below the guard for two-thirds to three-quarters of the blade's length. Examples with double or triple fullers have been encountered. The blade's cross-section will be of lenticular design and the blade will typically be from thirty to thirty-two inches long. The grip will be a bit longer than previous types, usually measuring around four and a half inches. The style of guard is not a defining feature of the type, with almost any style being possible. However, a short, straight guard is the most common, often with a round or octagonal cross-section. The pommel can also be of nearly any type, but is most commonly a thick disc with strongly beveled edges (designated by Oakeshott as Type I).
In comparison to other medieval designs, there are a large number of surviving Type XII swords. While this fact undoubtedly attests to the type's popularity, it can also result in difficulties being encountered when categorizing swords in terms of type. This is why Oakeshott believed the Type XII to be one of the hardest swords to classify. Many swords that appear to be of Type XII designation may be, in fact, of Type X or even Type XIV. Due to continued sharpening throughout their working life, many swords will exhibit more profile taper, or a different profile altogether, than they possessed when new. Fuller length can also be an issue. A sword that is otherwise a clear Type XII may feature a fuller that runs nearly the full length of the blade (originally a Type X perhaps?), thereby confusing the issue.
As of yet, no sword has been found that can supply a firm date for this type's earliest use. Only one sword has been discovered that can be dated with any definitive accuracy. This sword was found in 1943 in the tomb of Sancho IV, King of Castile and Leon. Due to its find place it can be dated to no later than 1295: the date of Sancho IVs death. A similar sword was found in the tomb of Sancho's elder brother, Fernando de la Cerda, who died in 1270. However, this sword cannot be firmly identified as a Type XII due to the fact that it is still in its scabbard. In the Zweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zurich, there is a sword that makes the task of assigning a start date for the Type XII even harder. Since this sword features a hilt of classic Viking pattern, it has always been assumed that it is a sword of that period, yet its blade is also of quite obvious Type XII design. Can this sword be considered the starting point for the type, or merely an abnormality? When the aforementioned issues are combined with the Type XII's obvious popularity it is easy to see why assigning a date for the type's introduction is so difficult.
A subtype of Oakeshott's Type XII is, in its own right, a design as classic as the Type XII itself. This design would seem to indicate that a more effective sword was being sought that could defeat the improving armour of the period between the years 1275 and 1325. This is a sword of similar overall design yet of greater proportion. It shares many of the same pommel types and guard styles as the Type XII, yet the blade tends to be much longer, most commonly ranging from thirty-seven to forty inches in length but still of lenticular cross-section. The grip will be correspondingly longer as well, usually from six and a half to nine inches in length. Known as "grete swerdes," these powerful and massive weapons were the beginning of the medieval longsword. It is believed, due to its representation in regional artwork and commentary, that the type has its origins in the areas of Europe that fell under Germanic influence. It also seems that the type began to appear in the mid-13th century as a counter to the improving mail defenses then coming into use. Oakeshott originally classified these swords within his Type XIIIa, however, he later determined there were a significant number of these swords that featured a pronounced profile taper to their blade, as well as a fuller length more similar in proportion to the Type XII. Oakeshott designated this subtype as the Type XIIa.
Presented here is a sampling of authentic Type XII swords:
By the shape of its 30" long blade, this sword is undoubtedly a Type XII. However, the hilt is definitely of Viking form. Oakeshott states that there is no value in using the type as a means of establishing a date. It must be assumed that this is indeed a late Viking sword. Perhaps it is the earliest example of the type?
This sword, circa 1298, is one of the finest to have survived from the Middle Ages. Some areas of the 36" blade are heavily corroded, while others are perfectly preserved. It is believed that this sword may have belonged to Sancho's father, Alfonso el Sabio. Consequently it may date to twenty years before the time of Sancho's death. The sword's scabbard also survives in a state of excellent preservation.
This sword was found in a stone "cist" in 1888 while railway work was being conducted on farmland at Korsoygarden in the Hedmark district of Norway. The hilt represents a late surviving transitional Viking form. It can be dated to the period of no later than 1150, or earlier than 1100, by the runic inscription on the fillets still present on the tang of the nearly 35" long blade.
Known as "The Sword of Santa Casilda", this sword has a 30 inch long blade. The grip is covered with red leather. Guy Laking considered it to be a replacement, but Oakeshott considered it to be original. While other authorities dated this sword to circa 1300, Oakeshott believed it to date from a century earlier due to its style of decoration. Described by Oakeshott as "Sweet and well-balanced in the hand as it is beautifully proportioned."
This sword, circa 1225-75, is river-found with very little pitting and is in very good condition overall. Its blade is 32 inches long.
This sword and its 33.5 inch long blade are in extremely good condition, having been kept in the Schnutgen Meseum since 1929. The grip was restored in the 18th century, at which time it was covered with morocco leather. The pommel features an unusual heraldic display in the form of a butterfly, done in the unusual colors of white, purple, and yellow. This example dates circa 1320-50.
Oakeshott refers to this sword as "outstandingly important" and dates it circa 1100-50, despite other scholars dating it to nearly 200 years later. He refers to another sword, XII.3 above, that is nearly identical. Inscriptions on the 32" long blade, in two distinct letterforms, closely match other 11th-12th century examples. Detailed analysis of these details can be found in Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword.
Presented here is a sampling of authentic Type XIIa swords:
This sword is in excavated condition with scattered deep pitting over its surface. It is dated circa 1300-50 and has a 36 inch long blade.
In near pristine condition, this sword (circa 1300-50) retains its original grip of wood, bound with cord and covered with leather. There is a latten dagger mark inlaid on each side of the 35 inch long blade. This corresponds to two other swords: the Great Sword of Edward III in St. George's Chapel, Windsor and a large War Sword of Type XIIIa in the Museum of London. This indicates that all three blades were made in the same workshop.
This example dates from 1350-1400. Other than the perished grip, it is in near perfect condition. The 35.5" long blade bears an Arabic inscription incised into the fuller that states, "Inalienable property of the treasury of the marsh province of Alexandria, may it be protected."
Due to the considerable pitting on all surfaces, this sword from 1250-1350 was probably excavated or was part of a river find. The 43.25" long blade bears several inlayed marks on both sides, possibly of latten or brass. The pommel features unusual decoration in the form of rosettes that have been stamped on the central flats of its face.
Type XII and XIIa Swords Found in Art
The best source of Type XII images is without a doubt the Maciejowski Bible made in approximately 1250. Many of the swords illustrated therein seem to indicate a full length fuller; this might seem to indicate a Type X. However, most of the illustrations feature far too much profile taper to be a true Type X. Given the period of the Bible's manufacture they are far more likely to indicate swords of Type XII design. There is also an Apocalypse in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge that was made around twenty years earlier that features illustrations of the type. Many of the illustrations from the Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 can be interpreted as being of Type XII design.
The Type XIIa is not as clearly represented in period artwork. Many of the illustrations that indicate a grete swerde can be interpreted as either a Type XIIa or a Type XIIIa. A figure on the Tenison Psalter, manufactured before 1284, shows a sword that may possibly be a Type XIIa. While Oakeshott designated this sword as a Type XIIIa, he did so prior to creating the Type XIIa designation. The illustrated sword shows a bit more profile taper than is common to the Type XIIIa. It is this author's opinion that the sword may in fact be a Type XIIa. There is also a figure on the canopy of the tomb of Edmund Crouchback in Westminster Abbey, circa 1296. Though the sword is shown in its scabbard, it is of grete swerde proportions, and does show a definite profile taper to its blade shape.
A Sampling of Available Reproductions
The Type XII and Type XIIa are just as popular today as they were long ago. Consequently, there are many swords available on the modern market. These swords range from very accurate high-quality recreations to mid-range and low-end examples. Many of the lower cost examples lack several of the features that define the types. Blades will often feature a shallow diamond or even hexagonal cross-section rather than the correct lenticular design. Fuller length and shape is a defining characteristic of the Type XII. Those found on reproduction blades can often be too narrow or too long. As such, they cannot be considered correct for the type. However, even these can give the modern collector and practitioner a reasonable impression of the type at a lower cost.
While the English company Raven Armoury does not feature a sword on their Web site that is clearly of either type, the author has examined several swords in the past that serve as nice reflections of the type.
Angus "Gus" Trim offers several swords in his production line that approximate the two types. The following models represent the Type XII: AT1314, AT1316. The Type XIIa is more frequently covered with the AT1313, AT1317, AT1319, AT1321, and the AT1415.
Castle Keep of the Isle of Skye, Scotland provides a Type XII Sword in their standard line of offerings.
The DT5120 from Del Tin Armi Antiche uses XII.7 above as its inspiration. The DT2121 and DT2131 look to be Type XII and the DT2142 Type XIIa. None of these are to be considered exacting representations of the type.
Museum Replicas Limited does not currently have an example in their production line that clearly represents either type. However, they do offer their Transitional Viking Sword (like XII.7 above) as well as their Late 13th Century Sword of War. (Catalog #84, pages 33 and 45) Both of these swords may be looked upon as a loose interpretation of the Type XII and XIIa respectively.
High quality swords of either type can be had from custom makers such as Patrick Bárta of TEMPL Historic Arms, Vince Evans, and Peter Johnsson.
These examples should not be seen as definitive or all-inclusive of what is available in either the production or custom fields. However, they do serve to illustrate the continued presence of this type of sword, from the battlefield of the high Middle Ages to the modern replica market.
The Type XII and XIIa were, and remain, classic sword designs. Their widespread representation in period artwork attests to their popularity from the late 12th to the mid-14th century. In the case of the Type XII, no other sword is as widely illustrated in contemporary artwork. While the Type XIIa is not as extensively illustrated, swords of the type are clearly mentioned in many period accounts of combat. While they cannot be considered the pinnacle in sword design they were a definite step towards that end. The Type XII showed marked superiority over previous designs in both handling and performance. At the same time the Type XIIa helped to introduce a new type of sword that would remain a mainstay on the battlefield, in various forms, for as long as the sword remained a front-line weapon. If any swords can be considered classics of their age, it is Oakeshott's Type XII and XIIa.
About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.
Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Sword in the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Records of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Sword in Hand: A History of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: A Facsimile & Translation of Europe's Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, Royal Armouries MS I.33 (Royal Armouries Monograph), The
Medieval Sword & Shield: The Combat System of Royal Armouries MS I.33, by Paul Wagner, Stephen Hand
Historical Guide to Arms & Armor, An, by Stephen Bull
Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge, John Miles Paddock
Sword Illustrations © 2004 Peter Johnsson
The list of available reproductions contained in this article is not meant to be all-encompassing. It is, however, a good representation of what was available at the time of this article being published.