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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Fri 18 Jul, 2008 8:33 pm    Post subject: "Shining Like A Sword"         Reply with quote

Right now I'm reading through a book called "Little Sermons on Sin" which is a translation of the mid 15th century work by Alfonso Martinez de Toledo. In this work, he spends most of his efforts criticizing the evils that arise out of love- which is to say, courtly love as medieval people understood it- which is more in line with what we would now consider to be infatuation or lust. Like so many other clerical treatises related to the subject, Alfonso devotes a large section of his book denouncing women and their many vices.

In his section on women as gossips, he gives a lengthy hypothetical speech by a woman who is gossiping about another woman's clothing. Besides providing an excellent description of 15th century clothing (even if it's exaggerated to the point of describing only the most wealthy of queens or empresses), there is an interesting section where he makes mention of a sword in an analogy:

"[Her] gloves [are] trimmed with marten which she uses to polish her face, with that toilet water [note this is referring to a ladies' toilet or vanity, and not outhouse water] of hers, until it shines like a sword."

I find this analogy interesting, insofar that Alfonso specifically selected a sword for his analogy of a shiny object. This would suggest that, at least by the 15th century if not earlier, swords were polished until their surfaces were quite shiny. And because this work is theological, rather than being a romance, it's probably more reliable as a source of information about the appearance of actual 15th century swords.
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Anders Backlund




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PostPosted: Sat 19 Jul, 2008 1:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The swordsmen of old liked their shinies, eh? Wink

Makes sense to me, anyway. I always kinda assumed polishing was part of the maintenance.

The sword is an ode to the strife of mankind.

"This doesn't look easy... but I bet it is!"
-Homer Simpson.
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Sun 20 Jul, 2008 4:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think the interesting thing about this text is that it suggests that swords were quite shiny. One of the complaints sometimes made by customers about higher end replica swords is that they're too shiny. Now, obviously, the text in question that I"m quoting does not give us any specifics about how shiny a sword from this time would be. That having been said, I think it's significant that the author specifically chooses the simile of a sword as a comparison for the shinyness of women's faces, and he uses the same simile more than once in that section.
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Jean Thibodeau




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PostPosted: Sun 20 Jul, 2008 5:19 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If a period sword is still shiny it's hard to tell how shiny it was when new as the only reason it is still shiny would probably be that it has been kept that way by repeated cleaning or polishing plus the suspicion that some 19th curator or current owner went overboard cleaning it.

Probably a nice patina in period was more a sign of neglect or at best a sword put away for decades in an armoury or hung over a fireplace ?

So it's quite possible that a period sword that is still shiny, but got to us today without any " special " attention as in repolishing, would be looked at sceptically ! I guess a sword kept under some exceptional conditions like sealed in a dry or airless atmosphere might still have it's original shine or a very light patina one could chemically clean in a completely non abrasive way to reveal the original level of finish: Shiny, satin or mirror polish ?

You can easily give up your freedom. You have to fight hard to get it back!
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Allen W





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PostPosted: Mon 21 Jul, 2008 6:11 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

That's an interesting find but I think the weight of evidence (that of paintings) favors a darker though clearly reflective surface. This would probably have been easier to maintain than a bright polish. However brighter polishes might have been employed immediately prior to a muster inspection or especially a tournament where you wanted your strokes to be clearly visible to an audience.
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Christopher Gregg




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PostPosted: Mon 21 Jul, 2008 7:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I would also think that "shiney" by today's standard might be a bit more satinesque than mirror-like back in the day. Perhaps a noble's sword would be more glamourously detailed and polished than a common soldier's weapon?
Christopher Gregg

'S Rioghal Mo Dhream!
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Michal Plezia
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PostPosted: Mon 21 Jul, 2008 8:30 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Polished steel is much more resistant to rust.I saw some artwok showing water-powered polishing wheels.Making an abrassive paste shouldn't be a poblem.

There was also a XV century painting showing mirror fininsh of the breastplate.If it is not an artist's imagination they realy knew how to do it.And if something was known I can't believe that they didn't use it.Maybe it wasn't popular.Maybe it was expencive.But if they knew how to do it-they certainly did it.

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Polish Guild of Knifemakers

The sword is a weapon for killing, the art of the sword is the art of killing. No matter what fancy words you use or what titles you put to
it that is the only truth.
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Anders Backlund




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PostPosted: Mon 21 Jul, 2008 2:03 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

To make my opinion a bit clearer: if people in the times of swords and swordsmanship were capable of polishing a blade to a high level of shine, I'm not sure I see any reason that they wouldn't. Because, seriously, humans on average have always liked shiny stuff. Remember that we're talking about the same people who thought putting a golden hat on a guy's head gave him divine right to tell everyone what to do.

(Okay, so I'm exaggerating, but you get my point. Looking awesome was important back then.)

That's not to say all swords would necessarily have been made very shiny, but it wouldn't surprise me at all it was considered an ideal.

The sword is an ode to the strife of mankind.

"This doesn't look easy... but I bet it is!"
-Homer Simpson.
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Jeff Pringle
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PostPosted: Thu 24 Jul, 2008 2:27 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

A literal mirror-finish reference is Theodoric the Ostrogoth’s praise of some tribute swords as related by Cassiodorus from ~480ad; that is translated and dissected in Davidson’s book “The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England” at the start of the section “the telling of the sword:”

The Letters of Cassiodorus, written for Theodoric [r.493-526], by his secretary Cassiodorus.
5.1 King Theodoric to the king of the Warni:
“…So resplendent is their polished clarity that they reflect with faithful directness the faces of those who look upon them…”

Interestingly, he also says the special polishing compound they have in their country will bring them fame as fine swordmakers, so highly polished equates with good and by inference dull = not good, so both finishes must have been extant:

“…The metal is ground down by your grindstone and vigorously burnished by your shining dust [polishing compound]until its steel light becomes a mirror for men; this dust is granted you by the natural bounty of your land, so that its possession may bestow singular renown upon you. Such swords by their beauty might be deemed the work of Vulcan…”

Al Kindi makes a lot of references to polishing in his 8th century study of swords made in different regions (from the Rhineland to Sri Lanka!), but unfortunately nothing (that I recall) about degree of polish like above. He does mention patterns in some wootz blades showing up during polishing, it is one of the ways of determining quality; and that the Frankish swords did not show their patterns until he etched them.

In general, a polished finish is going to resist corrosion better than a satin finish because the surface is less ‘open’ - Because the scratches that make up the surface are so much smaller there is less chance for contaminates to get caught and sit on the surface to initiate rusting. An oil or wax coating will also form a better (more uniform) protective layer on a polished surface. A sword with a highly polished finish is going to look good longer and be easier to maintain than one that is a rougher finish.
...and two more cents, many modern polished blades look bad because they are polished with high-speed buffers, it is a visibly different polish than pre-electric polished finishes.
Big Grin Wink
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Jean Thibodeau




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PostPosted: Thu 24 Jul, 2008 3:27 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It's not so much that mirror polishing wouldn't have been favoured in period it's only that finding an original with it's original mirror finish seems improbable: If untouched the original finish would probably no longer shine and if still shinny it would be due to continuous maintenance. If the maintenance was without interruption it would have had to have been done in the same way as the original finish in period to be considered " original finish ".
You can easily give up your freedom. You have to fight hard to get it back!
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Marc Pengryffyn




Location: Canberra, Australia
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PostPosted: Sun 27 Jul, 2008 7:30 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

G'day Y'all,

I'm new here, and just getting used to this great website. I hope this is of interest.

Culhwch and Olwyn, one of the stories in the Mabinogion (a medieval collection of Welsh tales), has mention of King Arthur's steward, Cei, getting the better of a giant by pretending to be a sword furbisher. I'll quote the passage, because I think there are a couple of interesting things in it relating to sword polishing. I'm quoting from the Jones and Jones translation, if anyone's interested.

****

" [Wrnach the giant speaks] 'For some time I have been seeking one who should polish my sword, but I found him not. Let this man in.' ...[Cei is brought into the court]

Said Wrnach , 'Why man, is this true which is reported of thee, that thou knowest how to furbish swords?' 'I do that', said Cei. The sword was brought to him. Cei took a striped whetstone from under his arm. "which dost thou prefer upon it, white-haft or dark-haft?' 'Do with it what pleases thee, as though it were thine own.' He cleaned half of one side of the blade for him and put it in his hand. 'Does that content thee?' 'I would rather than all my dominions that the whole of it were like this.'... [various other parts of the plot occur]

The furbishing of the sword was done, and Cei gave it into the hand of Wrnach the Giant, as though to see whether the work was to his satisfaction. Said the giant, 'The work is good, and I am content with it.' Quoth Cei, 'It is thy scabbard has damaged thy sword. Give it to me to take out the wooden side-pieces, and let me make new ones for it.' And he took the scabbard, and the sword in the other hand. He came and stood over the giant, as if he would put the sword into the scabbard. He sank it into the giant's head and took off his head with a blow. They laid waste the fort, and took away what treasures they would."

****

The two extant manuscripts of this text date from the mid to late 14the century, but the consensus of scholars is that the tales date from about the 12th century. They would have been created for an aristocratic Welsh audience very familiar with all aspects of weaponry. Now, apart from how to deal with pesky giants, I think there are a couple of things here of interest on the topic of sword polishing.

First, Wrnach the Giant hasn't been able to find anyone to polish his sword. Within the context of the story, he's the equivalent of a local lord or baron, and very wealthy. This, with his obvious pleasure at the job Cei does on his sword, and the fact that Cei does the work in the hall as if it were an entertainment, suggests to me that good sword polishers were probably a bit thin on the ground.

Second, there is the mention of the 'striped whetstone'. But, no polishing powder or buffing materials are mentioned. Possibly an artistic elision, but I do remember reading....somewhere.... that Wales produced some of the most prized whetstones in the British Isles, so maybe that's what the author focusses on as a matter of national pride.

Thirdly, Cei asks Wrnach if he wants the sword 'white-haft or dark-haft'. I don't have the original welsh handy, so I can't give a better discussion of what that terminology might mean, but it does suggest that the selection of a brighter or darker finish was a personal choice, and that brighter finishes were not necessarily always wanted.

Fourthly, there is Cei's comment that Wrnachs ill-fitting scabbard has dammaged the blade, although it isn't clear whether the wood has been rubbing on the sword, or whether it's been letting in water. Just confirmation that a good scabbard is important to sword maintanence...

Sadly there's no way of telling from the text just how good the polish was that made Wrnach so happy. If Cei only used a whetstone, it can't have been anywhere near a mirror finish, and Wrnach must have been pretty easily pleased. But then, maybe the author just left out all the tedious details about buffing compounds etc, which his audience would have assumed. Alternatively, since the heroes in these tales are pretty universally endowed with magical or superhuman properties, maybe the audience understood that Cei *could* produce a high polish with just a whetstone. I don't think we can know.

Obviously, this text only reflects a particular place in a particular time, but I hope its of interest.

Marc P

Tradition is the illusion of permanence.
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