The Sword Geek

It's all about the swords. Except when it isn't.

Medieval Reproductions? Not so Much.

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I refer to my work as ‘in the style of’ the medieval and viking period, rather than as reproductions. This is because I don’t do precise reproductions of specific medieval or viking era pieces; I make pieces that largely reflect the style and conventions of these pieces. Blades that by their appearance, weight, balance and handling are consistent with medieval swords, knives and daggers but do not precisely duplicate a specific piece or the construction of the originals.

The fact is that almost nobody, and certainly no sword manufacturer, makes reproductions of medieval swords, knives and daggers. Most frankly don’t know the difference, but for those that do claiming otherwise isn’t intellectually honest; it is disingenuous at best and deliberately deceptive at worst.

OK, that’s going to require some clarification. I used to refer to my work as reproductions, and at the time I honestly thought that the term was appropriate. But as the years went by and studies progressed it became obvious that what I and other makers were doing were not really reproductions. We used modern materials, modern methods and seldom precisely copied an existing period artifact directly. Small features like the way the base of the blade merged with the tang, the way fullers terminate and other fine details did not reflect medieval practice, and to some extent the market would not have tolerated it if they did. Many medieval features would be seen as sloppy craftsmanship rather than a reflection of historic practice.

Take an average medieval knife, the sort carried by commoners. Modern reproductions are made out of tool steel forged and/or ground to the form of these blades. A medieval knife would have a wrought-iron blade with a thin strip of steel welded to the edge, or if it were intended solely for eating might have a blade made entirely of iron. Many recreators would love to have such an authentic blade, but unless one sets up a production line and develops efficient ways of creating these they would be very expensive. Some modern reenactors would pay this, but most wouldn’t.

The finish of these knives was typically quite crude; medieval technology to produce a fine finish existed but was expensive, and these knives needed to be affordable by the masses. Handles were finished with files and rasps; few modern customers would tolerate the resulting appearance. It would be viewed as crude and badly crafted, and by modern standards it was. But it got the job done and was affordable at the time. Finishing a handle with files and rasps is more labor intensive and takes longer than using a belt-grinder or other modern tools. More added expense.

To do a proper reproduction of a medieval commoner’s knife would mean the result was expensive and by modern standards crudely finished. This is not what the vast majority of modern customers want, or would buy.

With Medieval swords it gets even worse; they were made every which way in quality ranging from barely adequate to excellent even by modern standards. Typically the tang and first couple of inches at the base of the blade were fabricated from wrought iron, scarf-welded to the (nominally) steel blade. Modern swords are made from a single piece of steel, which requires changes to the design of the shoulder of the tang among other things. Properly peening the tang over the pommel is hugely more difficult with modern steel than it was with wrought iron, and necessitates heating the steel to, essentially, forge the peen. This introduces all sorts of problems, but we manage.

Reproducing the medieval construction of the tang alone is problematic; last I checked genuine wrought iron was expensive and hard to come by. Then the welding, and blending the weld… things are getting expensive again. It’s when we get to the blades that things get really expensive…

There were a number of methods of producing steel blades for medieval swords. That’s a subject for it’s own article, if not a book or two. Suffice it to say if these processes aren’t done on an industrial level they would multiply the cost of swords. The term ‘ruinously expensive’ comes to mind. The end result would often not be satisfactory to a modern user either. So, hugely more expensive and in all likelihood not as good. The market for such things is extremely limited, and blade makers and manufacturers have to pay the bills just like everyone else.

As a result what we modern makers do is an approximation, not a reproduction. That’s the bad news. The good news is that properly done modern swords, knives and daggers are better than their medieval equivalents. If you reproduce all the functional qualities and use better materials, better heat treatment and tempering and a better finish the result is, well, better.

Mind you there are individuals working to do truly authentic reproductions, and I applaud their efforts! Such work is valuable and informs our understanding. What it is not is commercially viable; these efforts are are undertaken for the purpose of experiment and education, and we should support and appreciate the efforts of these individuals. They are truly making ‘reproductions’ and we all benefit from their work.

As for modern swords, knives and daggers they can be very good indeed. They can mimic the form, weight, balance, edge-geometry and dynamic qualities of medieval blades with superior materials and finish. At their best they are modern, improved approximations of their medieval counterparts. But reproductions? Not so much.

September 25, 2016 - Posted by | Podcast