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Forum Index > Historical Arms Talk > Symbolic meaning to a knight's sword Reply to topic
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Troy Grange




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PostPosted: Fri 20 Aug, 2004 7:20 pm    Post subject: Symbolic meaning to a knight's sword         Reply with quote

Wanting info books or articles on symbolic meaning of the sword to a knight. For instance when a knight would pledge his sword. He was saying i give you my word my honor my life, but that was symbolized by the presentation of his sword. I would like to study out these and any other symbolisims of the sword.
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Mark Moore




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PostPosted: Fri 20 Aug, 2004 7:44 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Troy, to the best of MY knowledge, when a man was knighted, he was given rank and priveledge in his society. When he took his final oath, he pledged his lifetime of service to king (or queen), country, and God. His sword was his symbol of faith, being typically cruciform. He would use the sword as an altar wherever he was, whenever he felt the need to profess his loyalty and faith...even if only to reassure himself. Powerful tool, the sword. MCM
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Alexi Goranov
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PostPosted: Fri 20 Aug, 2004 10:04 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

With the danger of sounding overly cynical, I think that the view that knights prayed in front of thir swords as if they were religious symbols is wishful, romantic thinking. It belongs in cheesy hollywood movies and not in the history books.

At the very least we need to account for the many European swords that do NOT have cruciform hilts.

How many period illustrations are there, that show a knight praying in front of the sword? I have not seen any, but I have not looked for them either. However, I know of period illustrations of praying 13th century knight with his sword (with cruciform hilt) on his belt, not in front of him as a an altar.

Sometimes I wish the whole concept of the knighthood were not over-romanticized (sp?)and idealized. It just does not do justice to the complexity of the dynamic historical reality of the time.

If however, there is plenty of evidence (think period illustrations and writings), then let's discuss it. This would not be the first time I have made bold but erroneous statements on this forum.

Swords were/are symbols of many things: power, nobility, death, destruction, elegance, austere beauty, wealth.........etc. but in my opinion I do not think that swords symbolize faith, at lest not in general.

Alexi
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Jeff Johnson




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 5:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Put me on the "Cynical" side too. The earliest you see this sowrd-as-a-cross bit is the victorian romanticising of chivalry.
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Steve Fabert




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 8:16 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeff Johnson wrote:
The earliest you see this sowrd-as-a-cross bit is the victorian romanticising of chivalry.


I have looked through all the illustrations of the Maciejowski Bible, and do not find a single one that depicts any ritual or religious use of a sword. Whenever swords are unsheathed they are either held at a 'shoulder arms' position by a figure who is apparently observing the action, or they are being employed in warfare or homicide. Only one scene shows a parading row of men with shouldered swords, carrying the head of a fallen king as a trophy. Despite the presence of dozens of ceremonial/religious events and hundreds of swords in these illustrations, there is no sign anywhere of any religious significance to possessing a sword, or any ritual act involving a sword.

Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts seem to be without any depiction of swords used as religious objects. I have seen three woodcuts where a monarch or nobleman holds a sword in the usual position of a sceptre, apparently as a sign of power. Otherwise swords are present but are treated with general indifference if they are not being used to strike a blow.

Swords were imbued with personalities and supernatural significance in legends and sagas. But within Christian feudalism, it appears that they were treated as no more than valued and useful tools before Romantic literature. Without Sir Walter Scott it would appear that a sword was mostly just a weapon when in the possession of anyone but a ruler, in continental Europe.
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Troy Grange




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 8:40 am    Post subject: more specific/ symbolic meaning of a knights sword         Reply with quote

I have enjoyed the feed back that i have gotten so far on my post. I thank you all for any and all info. The reason i am studying this topic is for a ceremony involving a sword,pledged as a offering of loyalty,but also in the pledge,the symbol of the sword personifys the man, as to say,this is truly who i am. I have read some information on heraldry. the info i read talked of a knights arms being a symbol of who they were. the knights horse and sword were his most valuable possesions. not in the sense of money but in the symbolism of who they were. I know the coat of arms in heraldry identified a knight and his kingdom or sometimes even covenants of alliances. the arms of a night were so symbolic of who he was they were passed down from generation to generation. I have some info on armor and coat of arms. But i am specificly looking for some kind of literature on the sword and its meaning to the person that bears it. i want provide the ceremony with some acurate and historical words or meanings that were spoken in medevil or renisance times. Thank you before hand for everyones input.
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Bill Grandy
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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 9:12 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I've always been on the more cynical side based on the exact reasons brought up in this thread, though I've never felt I had any hard evidence either way to back up my feelings.

But if swords were considered more tools than symbolic items to the typical man-at-arms, that brings up the question of why it was in use when supposedly other weapons are so far superiour on the battlefield?

A recognized expert on arms and armor once said on another forum that the main reason swords were popular was only because of their religious symbolism, because otherwise soldiers had better weapons for hand to hand combat. I had stepped in saying that many weapons were used based on the situation, and that the sword was a very versatile weapon for multiple situations. It was hard for me to believe that for hundreds of years people only used the sword because of it's status symbolism, and not for any practical reason. The gentleman blasted me and called me an idiot, amongst other things.

So if there is little evidence for swords as religious icons, and the evidence of it being a symbol of status really only applies to those already in power, why use it if it supposedly is an inferior weapon? Just a thought.
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Kenneth Enroth




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 10:27 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

On this supposed superiority of other weapons I believe that it is more a theoretical superiority than a practical one. If it takes two weeks to teach a peasant how to use a spear then two weeks of training is all he is going to get before being sent on the field.

Battles were not fought every day. If you assume the lifespan of a sword is 50 years, how many field battles would be fought with that sword during that time? Not very many i think. In the meantime it would still be worn as a sidearm and being practised with. The owner reaching a high degree of proficiency and familiarity with his weapon. The polearm users would just throw their weapons in a corner after the battle and go back to plowing the fields.

Even today instructors in tactical knives stress that the best knife for self defense is the 3,5 inch tactical folder ready in your pocket not the 10 inch bowie back home in your closet.
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Bill Grandy
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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 10:58 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Kenneth Enroth wrote:
On this supposed superiority of other weapons I believe that it is more a theoretical superiority than a practical one. If it takes two weeks to teach a peasant how to use a spear then two weeks of training is all he is going to get before being sent on the field.


Though throughout history it was not just peasant militias that used polearms, but trained soldiers, knights, men-at-arms, etc.

IMO, polearms are fantastic formation weapons. I think we all agree that the sword definately wasn't the first weapon on the field. But when the enemy breaks the line and closes, in cramped spaces a polearm just isn't as effective as a sword.

So I don't think it really is so much a matter of training as it is a matter of practicality.

And on a similar tangent, now that I think about it, the scepter is a symbol of power and rank... yet we don't say that maces were carried only for symbolic reasons.
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Steve Fabert




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 12:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Bill Grandy wrote:
. . . that brings up the question of why it was in use when supposedly other weapons are so far superiour on the battlefield?
So if there is little evidence for swords as religious icons, and the evidence of it being a symbol of status really only applies to those already in power, why use it if it supposedly is an inferior weapon? Just a thought.


There is no need for just one weapon for all fights and all combatants. A soldier always needs to have the right tool handy for the immediate task at hand. It's more of a rock, paper, scissors situation than a linear comparison.

A knight's 'primary' weapon for most of the middle ages was the lance. But not all combat occurred in an open field where the opponents rode toward one another. In a melee fight a lance is essentially useless after the first pass. So swords and maces were necessary once there was a general mixup. Daggers were indispensable once the footing became so bad that it was more of a wrestling match. Different weapons were useful for each phase of the fight.

A good long sword is a very functional weapon for a horseman fighting disorganized opponents on foot, and it remained in use for that purpose up to the Great War in 1914. Sword versus firearm is not a fair fight if both sides are still face to face, but that's not when it was used. Remember that most killing on the battlefield occurs after one side breaks and runs. A weapon that is used to strike down a fleeing foot soldier is always useful to the victor.

Archery and firearms remained auxiliary forces as long as they had only limited rate of fire and finite ammo supply. Since there is no need to reload lances, swords, or maces, archers and musketeers needed to be able to run or fight with swords after they had 'shot their bolt'.

Massed polearm formations came and went from the time of Alexander up until the Napoleonic era. The usefulness of polearms depended on the ability of the wielders' formation to remain together. A single footsoldier carrying a polearm was pretty vulnerable to both more nimble and heavier opponents. Artillery made the polearm obsolete in the end, not any competing individual weapon.

Think of the variety of personal weapons in use today. Pistols and SMGs serve useful functions, as do heavier fully automatic weapons. Each is useful at the right place and time. Older alternative weapons have not been abandoned just because semiauto rifle fire is generally more versatile. Same thing must have been true five hundred years ago.
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Aaron Justice




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 7:38 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Are there any examples of blades or hilts being encribed with Bible verses or just plain oaths to God? If there were that would be strong evidence of a knights passion and conviction.
How can there be a perfect sword when PEOPLE come in all shapes and sizes too?
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Alexi Goranov
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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 8:19 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Aaron Justice wrote:
Are there any examples of blades or hilts being encribed with Bible verses or just plain oaths to God? If there were that would be strong evidence of a knights passion and conviction.


We are not saying that the knight were not passionate or religious, just that the swords were not used as crosses or altars for religious purposes.

Indeed there are swords inscribed with religious verses, or embellished with religious pictures, etc. That could be interpreted many different ways: to remind the knights what they were fighting for; as a sign for asking for divine protection; as a fashionable ornamentation, etc.......My guess is that there is more than one correct answer to this.

Also remember that swords very often saw more than one user/owner, so the next guy who owns a sword might or might not care much about what the previous owner inscribed on it.

In other words, swords mean different things to different people, so trying to summarize the symbolism of the sword and generalize it is futile and dangerous.

Alexi
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Aaron Justice




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 8:44 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well, my reasoning is not that they used their swords as makeshift crucifixes, but that their ornamentation of them probably took the place of the archetypal "knight with his helmet off in some grass laden forest kneeling with his sword planted in the ground illuminated by a beam of light." Makes for real nice imagery though.
How can there be a perfect sword when PEOPLE come in all shapes and sizes too?
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Sat 21 Aug, 2004 8:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Aaron Justice wrote:
Are there any examples of blades or hilts being encribed with Bible verses or just plain oaths to God? If there were that would be strong evidence of a knights passion and conviction.


There are many examples of this. "In Nomine Domino" was a common inscription on blades. The Vienna St. Maurice sword has "Christus Vincit, Christus Reinat, Christus Imperat" on its hilt. And there are plenty of others.

Happy

ChadA

http://chadarnow.com/
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Steve Fabert




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PostPosted: Sun 22 Aug, 2004 2:53 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Aaron Justice wrote:
Well, my reasoning is not that they used their swords as makeshift crucifixes, but that their ornamentation of them probably took the place of the archetypal "knight with his helmet off in some grass laden forest kneeling with his sword planted in the ground illuminated by a beam of light." Makes for real nice imagery though.


Only if you assume that medieval sword blades were made to the specifications of the end user can you impute the blade inscription to the knight, rather than to the smith. Blade inscriptions predate Christianity, and most knights were not literate - in feudal times only priests were taught to read in Europe. Once the inscriptions become recognizably Christian, they tend to be misspelled on the blades where they appear, proof that the smiths were not literate either.

Swords were often buried with the dead bodies of their owners in both pre-Christian europe and later. That's the main reason we have access to so many that bear inscriptions. But I know of no direct proof that this was a Christian religious ritual, rather than a continuation of the pre-chrsitian practice of including prized possessions in the grave.

I am not saying that swords were never used in real life as described in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, just that any ritualistic uses are not clearly illustrated in the works that were produced during medieval times. If the practices were very commonplace they would have appeared in print or sculpture at the time they were important. So the use of swords in medieval religious ceremonies, private or public, was most probably not at all common.
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Kenneth Enroth




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PostPosted: Sun 22 Aug, 2004 3:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If mostly the priests were literate perhaps they decided what could be inscribed on sword blades. To remind the knights they were fighting with God on thier side. If so it wouldn't be so much the zeal of the owner that decided the inscription. The owner could be a swearing, drinking thug but he had the blessing of the church on his blade.
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Steve Fabert




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PostPosted: Sun 22 Aug, 2004 3:59 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Kenneth Enroth wrote:
If mostly the priests were literate perhaps they decided what could be inscribed on sword blades. To remind the knights they were fighting with God on thier side. If so it wouldn't be so much the zeal of the owner that decided the inscription. The owner could be a swearing, drinking thug but he had the blessing of the church on his blade.


The priests did all the reminding personally in the middle ages, when masses were said at least daily. They did not need to put unreadable inscriptions on tools to remind knights that they were required to act with the blessings of the Church. I am not aware of any references for the regulation of swordsmiths by the church, or any medieval church rules encouraging the placing of religious inscriptions on everyday objects.

Remember that before Luther common people in Europe did not carry scripture verses around with them, as an aid to solitary contemplation of religious ideas. Rosary beads were used instead to permit the recital of traditional prayers. Since the Reformation, Protestants have been taught to read the Bible themselves rather than relying solely upon priests to teach them its contents. Only a Protestant knight would have spent significant time in solitary contemplation of religious issues. A medieval Catholic knight would have had more than enough time to contemplate religious issues during mass, and would not have been encouraged to engage in independent ruminations, with or without an inscribed sword.
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Steve Ouellette




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PostPosted: Sun 22 Aug, 2004 8:45 am    Post subject: Meaning of Knighthood         Reply with quote

There are many different homage ceromonies and I suppose they are all old and obscure. Homage wasn't dropped in Quebec until about 1900 and I'm told my great grandfather who emigrated from there commented on it.
Knighthood as a homage ceromony seems pretty consistant. Your lord would humiliate you in some way-usually a slap or a blow from the flat of a blade and you took it like a good boy. Your lord would declare you knighted and tell you that you were never to suffer that kind of humiliation again. You might submit to the church also but that was not allways part of the ceromony and you can judge for yourself how serious the knights took it.
The knightly code is a large tangely subject but the giving of knighthood is only; Obey me and don't take any abuse from anyone. What we call knighthood today (Order of the Garteretc) is beyond knighthood.
For trying to get a feel for what the "code" was I like to read Morte De Aurthor by Malory. There are great ideals in this long book that, from what I can tell, Malory never troubled with in his real life.
The topic of wether the sword was used as a cross I'd say that nearly everything that people owned had some kind of talismatic significance-christian or not. The armies of the times seem well supplied with preists and it isn't unusual to read of masses held during lulls in battle or multiple masses before battles. The brigands of the times (Many were knights down on their luck.) would demand forgiveness and blessings from captive priests even while looting the priest's church and town. I havn't read of an instance where knights couldn't find spiritual solace-in Europe anyway.
Yak Yak Yak. Well I guess it's time to go to church See ya

In times of peace, the wise gentleman sharpens his sword.
Sun Tzu
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Jeremy V. Krause




PostPosted: Sun 22 Aug, 2004 8:47 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

This is all very interesting to me,
I agree that the symbolism of the sword is a complex matter that should be viewed within the historical context. I strongly believe that the sword was SUPPOSED to have a highly and exclusive religious significant to the formal knight.
During the consecration of a knight his sword was gurded to him by the priest to serve as a TOOL to defend the Church, the poor, and strike down heresy. I do not know the Latin but this is what was emphasized, along with the importance of armor to protect this man with the grace of God. There is a well known verse in the bible which speaks to this- "put on the armor of Christ. . . " Alas as I am a Catholic I am not as familiar with the Bible as I would like. Traditional priests and nuns still say this verse when they put on their vestments/habits.
So the sword was not seen as holy but as a tool to do holy things. It was not used as a cross, but I would guess that this functional shape was not missed as looking sort of like a cross. When relics were placed in the pommels these relics were indeed seen as holy.
I believe that in the medieval period that the people in general, including the knight, felt rather disconnected from the ideals of the Church and its relationship to God. I have been to a Tridentine Mass, adopted in the 16th cent., which is virtually the same as that celebrated during the high middle ages and one sees a profound distance from what happens between the Priest and God and the people who are there mainly to observe. Now this disconnection was not dogmatic in that it was taught officially by the Church, but practical in that this is the way people felt.
I believe that this rambling has a real purpose to bring us to the ideas in the medieval knight's head. He felt disconnected from the affairs of the divine. His sword was SUPPOSED to be a tool to do holy things, but did it- well that's another matter.
Jeremy
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Alexi Goranov
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PostPosted: Sun 22 Aug, 2004 2:32 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Knowing what went through the minds of knights is next to impossible. So knowing how they perceived and thought of their swords is very hard, especially since these perceptions are different for different people.

Now we are trying to interpret the little that is left from the period artefacts and writings, and we are bending these interpretations through the prism of our own beliefs/prejudices/convictions. That is of a very limited use to anybody. We speak past each other, and no one will change their beliefs, no matter what anyone else says. So what we end up with is A LOT of writing but little communication.

IMO, if we stick with what the knights did or did not do with their swords, we at lest have a chance of an informative discussion.

Cheers,

Alexi
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