The Albion Mark Peter Johnsson Museum Collection
Sword of St. Maurice of Turin
A hands-on review by Steve Maly
St. Maurice is a popular saint, widely revered in Western Europe. He is often depicted as a Caucasian or as a Moor (though it has been suggested that this may be confusion with the term mauri, a Roman description of all North African peoples), though always as a foot soldier in full armour. He was alleged to be the Primicerius of the Theban Legion at Agaunum (in modern Switzerland), martyred along with his soldiers sometime around AD 287-303 for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods in thanksgiving following a battle. The first accounts of his martyrdom appear in a letter by Eucherius, bishop of Lyons
A sword housed in Turin is one of them. It is purported to be the sword used to behead St. Maurice, though this is obviously a sword of the early 13th century, and not the 3-4th century. This misnomer is reminiscent of the anachronistic depiction of Biblical stories in the Maciejowski Bible (also 13th century), as it was the custom in the high medieval times to relay stories of ancient times from a contemporary point of view, using current dress, arms, and armour. As a result, a "modern" sword was attributed to an event that occurred nearly 1,000 years earlier. Whether this sword had been dedicated to the cult of St. Maurice (and then assumed to be the sword of St. Maurice) or a deliberate fabrication is unknown, but it was kept with the other relics of the saint. Since 1858 this sword has been displayed in the Real Armerķa in Turin. Along with St. Dunstan and Michael the Archangel, St. Maurice is the patron saint of swordsmiths.
Ewart Oakeshott classified the Sword of St. Maurice of Turin (SOSMT) as a Type XII. It is large for a dedicated single-handed sword, though it is well within the known variations for this type. It is of similar size to the sword found in the tomb of King Sancho IV of Castile1 (d. 1298). The sword of King Sancho IV, along with the sword of his brother2 who died in 1270, sets a firm known date of the Type XII as the last half of the 13th century. However, there are some examples that fit this type found in the Winchester Bible (circa 1170), though the swords are vaguely depicted. The Type XII is also found in monumental sculpture from 1200-1280, being the most depicted sword during this era. In The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Ewart Oakeshott notes that the SOSMT is difficult to classify. The wide fuller is nearly three-quarters the length of the lenticular blade, and while it is within the variation for this type, it could be argued that this blade is nearly a Type X as it exceeds the usual two-third fuller length typical for this type. The Brazil nut pommel is common to the 11-12th centuries and was popular on Type Xs of the period. The cross cannot be definitively dated, as this style was in use through the latter half of the 15th century, and early examples are noted on Scandinavian examples from the early 11th century. However, as has been the case more than once, swords have been classified and then reclassified as the typology has evolved. As the typology provides general guidelines, Oakeshott decided that the SOSMT has more characteristics in common with a sword of Type XII than of Type X.
In 2001, Albion Armorers embarked on a daunting venture in creating the Albion Mark Peter Johnsson Museum Collection, faithful re-creations of surviving historical swords. The decision to recreate this particular sword was announced in October 2004, with the prototype blade following a year later. Peter Johnsson had the opportunity to go on his own pilgrimage to honor the swordsmiths and armourers of Medieval Italy in November 2001. Peter notes that:
An important place of worship on this pilgrimage was the Real Armerķa in Torino (Turin), where a sword dedicated to Saint Maurice is on display. It is one of these "Mona Lisa" swords, who most every one who has a slight interest in the history of medieval European swords knows, or at least instantly recognizes, published numerous times, whenever the history of Medieval warfare is discussed.The original is noted to have significant "wear and tear," including a crack and slight bend across the blade, a slightly "squashed" pommel, and a slight bending of one arm of the guard. It is unclear if this damage occurred during the working life of this sword or after it was designated as a relic of St. Maurice, occurring in the hands of a reckless caretaker. Perhaps this damage is what led to the sword being "retired" from the battlefield and being designated as St. Maurice's. Peter (in a personal communication, November 15, 2006) noted that:
These moments when you get to see and experience a sword for the first time are charged. It is a moment of surprise and recognition combined. To take in the physical presence and dimension of the weapon as you see it through the glass will forever change any notions you previously had. The feeling was as if the original owner had placed it in the vitrine and just left the room. That notion clashed with the knowledge that I had in front of me a surviving piece of the 13th century. Wrapping my fingers around the grip awarded me with an experience that would have been a familiar everyday thing for the warrior who used this sword some 750 years ago.
This is all rather sentimental, and I hope you excuse my indulgence. In my work, it is essential to be charged with these rather objective and personal experiences alongside the exact measurements and documentation. This provides the energy when I later try to make justice to these weapons in reconstructions and inspired pieces.
The feeling when the curator opens the vitrine and hands you the sword is hard to describe. With this sword in particular, there is a strong presence, an overwhelming feeling of power: a dominating character. The weapon is in a very good state of preservation. There is just some surface patination but the steel is uncorrupted. It is quite as useable today as it was in the 13th century I think you could use the edge to sharpen a pencil: it is still that sharp. The heft of this sword surprised me. It is not what you would describe as an agile sword. It has weight and mass, but it did still not feel cumbersome. The blade is shaped carefully, with only small undulations from wear and resharpening. The fit of the guard is impressive. One of the tightest-fitting examples I know. The pommel seems to have been re-peened at some time, as it is slightly compressed at the top. In all, the sword gives ample proof of being a high-quality fighting weapon.
The massive blade has a lenticular cross-section that reaches all the way to the point, which is quite sturdy. The fuller is of medium width and depth. It could well have been made both wider and deeper, something that would have resulted in a substantially lighter blade. The blade alone weighs some 1.83 pounds (830 grams): a weight like those found on great war swords with longer and heavier hilts. My impression is that the bladesmith was working with this as his goal. The sword of Saint Maurice is not the result of a botched attempt. It is intended to be just what it is. The subtle shaping and careful finish all speak of craftsmen who are very much aware of what they are doing.
The sword of Saint Maurice is a no-nonsense weapon of great character, but what made the strongest impression on me was the craftsmanship of the artisans who made the blade, hilt, and scabbard centuries past. It bears witness to their pride and accomplishment. They most probably made it as part of a larger delivery of swords, perhaps intended as weapons for warriors heading for the Holy Land.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Albion Armorers of Wisconsin.
The SOSMT is made to be used exclusively a single-handed weapon and is awkward when attempting to use with two as the pommel is not particularly helpful in this regard. When holding this sword for the first time I was struck by the sheer mass and authority of this "beast". With the point of balance 9 inches from the guard this is not an agile sword for quick directional changes or sudden stops and the blade presence definitely encourages follow-through. It certainly telegraphs its intentto cutwith authority and malice. Holding the sword statically, one can appreciate the heft of the blade, but put the sword in motion, and it shines.
The sword tracks well through the cut, though this is certainly aided by the blade presence. I intentionally attempted to twist the blade during the swing, but found it difficult and tiring to do, as in this manner the sword is particularly unforgiving. It is certainly easier on the wielder to maintain the sword in the plane of the edge when swinging than not. Looping the index finger over the cross aids somewhat in point control, though I find that it slightly detracts from the authority of the cut. I found the "hammer grip" to be more effective for devastating cuts.
Due to the mass of the blade, this is a sword that improves in performance as it gains momentum. I found that I needed to take an extra step or swing in a longer arc to get the sword "up to speed" for the cut. It should be effective in a passing cut, and not as efficient in close quarters as it needs room for effective swings. This sword would be most effective as a cavalry sword as one could use the momentum of the steed to take advantage of the mass of the blade. This is truly the weapon of a mounted 13th century knight, making powerful cuts as he passes on his steed or on foot from behind a great kite shield.
Of the original, Peter notes that the swordsmith's "intention was to make a large weapon for a powerful fighter who was equally skilled in horsemanship and swordsmanship. This is a sword that would deliver few but terrible strokes: a great lethal sweep as the knight thunders by on his charger."
Fit and Finish
Upon examining this sword it is evident that it is meant to be a working sword without the frills or "bells and whistles" of a ceremonial or dress sword. That said, it still has appeal due to the clean lines and simplicity of its construction. The Sword of St. Maurice of Turin is a visually imposing sword. The wide, long blade and simple cross and pommel suggest authority.
The grip differs from the typical reproduction sword on the market today in that it does not have a simple leather-covered wooden core. The typical production blade will have either a wooden core hammered onto the tang as one piece or sandwiched around the tang after the pommel and cross are in place, then wrapped with leather. Instead, the SOSMT has a triple layer wrapping of linen around the stabilized birch core that is then covered in leather. This feature is based upon research with the original sword. Peter Johnsson noted that the original grip has a textile that had been glued or shellacked to the wooden core. Upon close examination, he determined that the grip in its current form would not have held up to the wear and tear of a working sword, and the textile covering may have been the base for a more durable outer covering now lost. Albion decided to recreate the SOSMT with this in mind. The grip is covered with fine leather that is then treated with beeswax. It was decided not to dye the leather but to leave it with its natural color, which will darken and develop a pleasing patina with time and the effects of sunlight.
The finish of the blade is of particular note as well. The sword has a well-defined fuller that shows evenness and symmetry along its length. However well the blade and fuller are executed by Steve Fisher, Albion's CAD designer and CNC programmer, what draws the eye to the blade are the engravings. In matching the original, there are engravings on both sides of the blade in the fuller: H+H on one side and +H+ on the other, a religious invocation of some kind, perhaps a reference to the Holy Trinity. Steve and Peter worked closely to make sure that the engravings do not have the crispness and sterility of computer-driven technology, but the slight unevenness of the lettering in the original, which Peter describes as "well-developed handwriting that has been done with some haste." Even though the lettering is ultimately engraved by the CNC machine, I believe they reached their intended goal of making the letters look as if they had been engraved by a human hand.
The Sword of St. Maurice of Turin is the first sword in the Albion Mark Peter Johnsson Museum Collection Hallmark Line in my collection. It is an impressive recreation of a sword of so much legend. It is a practical, unforgiving weapon, meant for powerful, calculated blows. It is not a sword for those who desire speed and agility of the later longsword, but it is a quintessential sword for the knight of the Crusading era.
Of the original, Peter states, "I remain grateful for the opportunity to get to know this magnificent weapon, even if the meeting was a mere two hours. It is ever humbling to see work of such quality, but also tremendously inspiring. Spending a couple of hours with a sword like this can provide impressions to last years." I certainly share Peter Johnsson's appreciation and adoration for this very special sword, and for his faithful recreation of this impressive weapon.
About the Author
Steve Maly is a Physical Therapist in Oklahoma City. He has been a fan of "sword movies" all of his life and began actively collecting in 2001. He enjoys and collects swords of all eras, but primarily focuses on European examples from the 11-14th centuries.
1. Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword, XII.7
2. Ewart Oakeshott, Records of the Medieval Sword, XII.5
Records of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
St. Maurice and the Thebian Legion, by Woods, David (1999), University College Cork, Ireland
Sword in the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Photographer: Steve Maly