Sutton Hoo sword

Early C7 sword from Sutton Hoo ship burial. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Inspired by Jon Jarrett, who is now enthusiastically blogging large numbers of long-past seminars, I thought I should weigh in and give readers a brief account of some seminars from the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar summer term programme. The first one of these I went to was by Sue Brunning of UCL and the British Museum on "'Precious iron', 'friend in war': swords with character in Anglo-Saxon England", which took the vague clichés I had been aware of about the emotional importance of swords to early medieval warriors and placed them on a far better evidential basis. She was talking about the concept of artefact biography and stressing how important the life history of an object was: thinking not just its manufacture, but about its ownership, circulation, repair, modification and end.

Sue's work draws on images, texts and material objects, though there's something of a mismatch between the sources: most of the archaeological evidence comes from the earlier Anglo-Saxon period (fifth to seventh century), when furnished burials are common, and most of the textual evidence comes from the later period. In this paper, Sue was specifically talking about swords as having "character", both in the sense of individual features that made them distinctive, and in the sense of having a reputation (as implied by someone behaving "out of character"). There's good evidence of individual swords having distinctive visual appearances: Anglo-Saxon wills, such as that of Athelstan, the son of Ethelred the Unready refer to several different swords by their appearances (e.g. "notched swords", damaged and unrepaired). Descriptions of hilt ornaments appear in poems such as Beowulf as well as in wills. Swords could be individually recognisable, especially since all components could be replaced or augmented individually (Customisable swords with "go sharper" stripes?) Meanwhile archaeological studies of wear on sword hilts shows asymmetrical patterns, suggesting that the (two-edged) sword was always put back in the scabbard the same way round. Many pommels have different faces, with a plain face that is more worn, implying that the patterned face is shown off more, on display to the viewer.

Although named swords are common in poetry, they don't appear in prose or official documents and the archaeological evidence is ambiguous: it's not clear whether the runes found on some swords are names of the sword or its owner. Possibly names were more informally given, and might be changed: Sue suggested the parallel of owners naming cars today. What we can see, however, is swords with histories. They appear in poems such as Waldere, but also in official documents: Duke Hugo gives King Athelstan Constantine's sword, which would be 600 years old, and Athelstan's will refers to a sword of Offa that would be 200 years old. Old swords were not considered redundant. Some swords show severe signs of wear, and have been repaired and modified, with fittings changed or ornaments and inscriptions added to a previously undecorated sword. At this point, I must admit that I did start thinking about the old joke from a Stanley Holloway monologue.

‘Ere’s the axe – that’s the genuine axe, Sir,
That’s given Royal necks some ‘ard whacks.
Tho’ it’s ‘ad a new ‘andle and perhaps a new head
But it’s a real old original axe.

Sue also mentioned ring swords, with a ring attached to the hilt – these could be added and subtracted: metallurgical analysis can sometimes show where a fitting hole for a ring has been put and later removed. Sue suggested that sword rings possibly represented oaths sworn to a lord and might be a visual representation of a warrior's career, something that reflected on the character or reputation of the wielder. We perhaps need to think of swords and men as being in partnership, sharing a reputation. And these were long-term relationships. There are burials in Kent where the sword is enfolded in the body or arms. No other weapon is touched like this in these graves, suggesting a relationship that extended even beyond death. Swords did not just have an economic value, but a symbolic character.

As you will gather, Sue's talk was an excellent one, and implicitly made a good argument for interdisciplinary study, something that has recently been called into question. There is a strand of military history that tends to downplay literary sources on warfare, see them as fanciful, far removed from the practical logic of combat. But Sue's paper, moving between different types of sources, shows common elements to Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, where weapons are more than simply means of attack and defence. If a modern day solider can still write a book called Love My Rifle More than You, and say of a modern-day mass-produced weapon: "I love my M4...Gun in your hands and you're in a special place", how much more potent a character must a handmade "battle-beam" have had?