The Crossguard #1: Not A Christian Symbol?

There are many questions and myths to sword. This is the first article in a series of posts on the development of hand protection in regard of sword fighting. It is a nice tradition to start article series like this with some myth busting. So allow me to hold up to this tradition and let us talk about crossbars as Christian symbols.

Lazy Reader’s Summary:

The crossguard in cruziform design had very little or nothing to do with the Holy Cross. There is no evidence in artifacts or in documents (Chronicles of the crusaders and Teutonic Order) that the design was done with the intention to resemble the cross. By design, I mean the process of creating a sword in the form that resembles the cross. There are always exceptions. There had been swords created in the style of the 10th century resembling crusaders swords to reach back in history as a symbol, and there are symbolic swords for rituals for modern Masonic organization.

That the cruciform symbolism of the sword’s blade and crossguard was recognized is undeniable, but it was done in the same way as we would do it today: just from the looks of it.

Disclaimer

Before we continue on our journey, I must admit, that I cannot be sure of the evidence. The high number of “Viking” style swords emerging in recent times, since Historical Sword Fighting became prominent and the TV-Series Vikings was announced in 2012, can only lead to the conclusion, that a large amount of fakes are on the market. The fakes are sometimes excellently done and they get certified and sold in auctions of which I took my data here. Of the swords depicted here, three are suspicious to be not originals from my personal point of view and after consulting experts. They are nevertheless sold in auctions for a high price as valid finds. I marked them in the description of the image as such.

Common Myths

There are many myths partly resulting from 17th-18th century historians and popular science regarding the cross and the sword. Let us look at some.

The Crusader Sword Was Designed As Cross
I read this in some “Templar” Websites and in boards, of no scientific claim. There is no scientific work supporting this claim. Nevertheless, it drove me to start this article.

I dare to say that, the extended quillons on a straight double edge sword, were first introduced with a religious reason in mind, representing the punishing Christ’s tongue, as a double edge sword in the Apocalypse, also with a better practical hand defence, stemmed from its spiritual meaning.
This is an actual quote from a board in which I presented the first versions of this article. I will not comment it. It stands for a non-scientific thinking close to Creationism. As it is based on faith and not facts, commenting it would useless.

The act of conferring knighthood sometimes involved a ritual where the sword was blessed and conferred upon the knight. The items blessed and put onto the newly made knight were specific, and not every weapon a knight might use received this treatment. The sword had a special place in the ritual because of its dual role as both a crucifix and a weapon.
Another direct quote stating a common thinking. It was actually the other way round. When a young man was knighted, he got a sword. The sword (not any other weapon) made him an adult with the right to have land and a household based on the current law of nearly every country in Europe (i.e. Bayrischer Landfriede 1244). Knighting was mostly combined with pilgrimage. A true knight was either made on the bridge over the Tiber in Rome or better at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When this was done (or in preparation of it) the sword was decorated with a cross on the pommel, hilt or blade. This cross was not a Latin cross (unequal arms) but any variant of the Greek cross (equal arms), but it was most likely blessed during the process of adding it to the weapon.

And then he kneeled adown, and made his oath upon the cross of the sword, that never while he lived he would be against errant-knights.
This is from a 15th century text combining the French Romances of King Arthur. Swearing on the sword is also found in other literature like Shakespeare. Swearing on a weapon like the sword is a very old ritual from Africa to the Huns. The idea that the crusaders or noble knights used the outer form of the sword as a replacement of the cross is again a 19th century theory, valid as much as their fantasy about pagan rituals with swords. Swords of knights (see above), especially those of an order, and the swords of kings had been decorated with crosses. With a much higher probability it was preferred, to take a oath on the (blessed) cross in the decoration of the sword. I added multiple examples of such decorations in this article. To those many more in the handguard are found frequently.

Other decorations made on special occasion like the knighthood had been reflected by “exchangable” medallions or emblems (with religious or other meaningful content) to be put into the pommel. Most of those emblems made from material like bone, soft metal, or easy to cut stones are lost and only the empty pommel is left.

Two swords from the Fricker collection

The Sword and the Cross

The Holy Cross itself in the Latin form came up the second century. It did not became a widespread symbol in Northern Europe until the Renaissance. The Christian symbols in swords found up to the 13th century in Northern Europe had been in the Greek style with equal arms (and various styles of endings and arms), or with a longer vertical line, but the crossbar exactly in the middle of the long line.

The Crusades to Jerusalem (which legends in much later times helped to establish the Latin Cross) have little eye-witness documentation (see my article on the The Tafur: the Man-Eaters and their Famous Shield and upcoming article on the shield named “Talevar”). In none of the documents, even not in the thousands of verses in the Chansons de Geste, the crusaders see the Holy Latin Cross in their weapon.

Peter the Hermit and crusaders depicted in the Histoire Universelle, c.1286

The cross variants prominent in the crusades are all seen in the coins created to finance the crusades. None of it bears the Latin cross. Only in later centuries (starting in the 13th), in which the cross got a “pointy foot”, the idea of the sword and the cross became visible for 19th century researchers. The findings in the region suggests, that this “pointy foot” was not the sword, but from the crosses carried with them to be used in processions and to be put in use, when the battle was over and the region was declared Christian. Casted crosses of this kind had been produced in large amounts.

Byzantine Bronze Processional Cross, 8th-9th century, Christie’s Auction Oct. 2012

The first connection from the sword as a symbol to the cross was made by the Orden de Santiago, founded by Pedro Fernández de Fuentecalada (b. c. 1115 – 1184), which was established as a Spanish-Portuguese order in 1170, separated in a Spanish and Portuguese branch (Ordem Militar de Sant’Iago da Espada) after the first success on Portuguese soil in the crusade against the Spanish Saracens. The order is known as  Order of St. James of the Sword. The first depiction of this order is made in the 13th century in the Tumbo menor de Castilla (see image below).

Tumbo menor de Castilla, 13th century

The manuscript displays the founders (donating a house) and the flag of the order in the left corner. The flag shows a knight holding the lance like Tau-Rho Cross (staurogram) in the left arm and the sword in the right hand. The sword itself does not have a straight crossbar, not resembling the Latin cross. The book also shows the Chi-Rho monogram cross, A-W (Greek Omega), letter S on base (lower part not visible). There is no Latin cross seen in documents on this order up to the Renaissance. Between the 13th and 15th century the link between the cross and the sword was made. Depictions of the modern symbol of the order, having the dimensions of the Latin cross are found in the 15th century (e.g. portrait and tomb of Álvaro de Luna).

Álvaro de Luna, 15th century portrait

The Crusades in the East of the Teutonic Order had not seen the sword as a cross. From the chronicles of the Teutonic Order in the Latin or the German poetic version, of which the letter went endlessly quoting the Bible about weapons, there is none verse mentioning the sword as a visual symbol of the cross. The cross of the Teutonic order was not the Latin cross, it was a cross of either equal arms (vertical and horizontal), or on shields of vertical and horizontal equal arms. It did not resemble the sword at all.

“On The Sword” in the chronicles of the Teutonic Order by Nicolaus von Jeroschin: Die Kronike von Pruzinlant, Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, HB V 95 

The sword was seen as a symbol of might in most cultures and therefore seen as well in the Christian martial culture as such a symbol. The connection between the outer form of the sword and the Latin cross was drawn in some regions, especially Spain and Italy in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. To be more precisely in the early 13th century in Spain and early 14th century in Italy. A good example is to be found in the fightbook of Philippo di Vadi

PIglia la spada in mano virilmente
Perché l’è croce e è un’arma reale.
Insieme acorda l’animo valente.

Philippo di Vadi, MS Vitt. Em. 1324 , Vatican Archives MS, 1480s, [4v.3], Ragion de spada. Capitolo III.

“Hold the sword manfully in your hand, because it is the cross and is a royal weapon. Together they match the valiant soul.” This view reported here by Philippo di Vadi on the outer form of the sword as a cross was encouraged by the Latin cross becoming the prominent form in the Roman Catholic Church since the 13th century.

Later this viewpoint was exported in other regions, mostly driven by the expansion of the the Catholic Church. This expansion was stopped harshly in the Thirty Years war and the reformation, in which symbolism was attacked generally.

Nevertheless, the idea of the cruziform analogy of the outer form became the favoured viewpoint of 18th and 19th century history interpretation. That happened long after the sword was designed with a straight crossguard. This design happened in centuries in which the Latin cross was just a minor Christian symbol, and other Christian symbols and crosses had been more prominent.

Who invented the Crossguard?

Nobody invented the crossguard, it was probably developed in the early Bronze Age during some centuries. But these crossguards had not the typical cruciform look, that everyone in the Christian influenced world has in mind if talking about “crossguards”. It is the straight long steel crossbar, that marks the symbolic idea of the crossguard.

Some think that the western large crossguard is a Christian symbol, and that it came up, when Christianity was becoming military popular. They assume, that larger crossguards appeared with the First Crusade in the 11th century. But this is utter nonsense. The large crossguard came up at least thousand years before the First Crusade. The Parthians, who had been known for their high quality steel production capacity, built crossguards very much alike those used in some parts in Western Europe around the 10th century. And to some extent the crossbar was always present in the region, in which Christianity never played a central role.

Graves, Crypts and Parthian Weapons excavated from the Gravesites of Vestemin, G. Karamian, K. Farrokh, M. F. Kiapi, H. N. Lojandi

The following table with values in cm and the upper image are from an excavation done in Vestemin, Iran. The swords in this table are dated from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE by a coin found in a level over the swords belonging to the 3rd century.

Total lengthCrossguardBlade lengthBlade thicknessWidth of blade at center
sword 174.010 x 2 x 1.363.00.53.5
sword 280.010 x 1.5 x 1.268.00.43.7
sword 390.010 x 2 x 1.378.50.54.0
sword 474.010 x 1.5 x 0.667.00.43.3
Graves, Crypts and Parthian Weapons excavated from the Gravesites of Vestemin, G. Karamian, K. Farrokh, M. F. Kiapi, H. N. Lojandi

We can safely say: The cruziform crossguard had not been invented by Christians! But did they at least saw the cruziform in the sword in their religious military campaigns?

A Religious Symbol In Christian Wars?

After we had talked about the Crusades in South, East and West there is a religious war, that needs to be discussed as well. We must talk about the Thirty Year’s War. On both sides they fought for their religious Christian faith and the war (and its followers disease and famine) killed at least 4.5 million people. I will never compare attrocities and horrors of war, but I can compare the amount of weapons used in a war, and this war stands out in size of swords built and used to praise the Christian faith. But you won’t find the symbolic crossguards on their swords. The crossguards had many weird designs and very few had any resemblance with the Holy Cross. If the crossguard had any Christian symbolic meaning, the warriors of faith did not care at all.

Officer’s Sword, German ca. 1620, from the collection of J. H. Fricker

A Christian Symbol In Swords Of Justice?

If it comes to symbolic acts the execution by sword could not be topped. But when the swords for civil and military use altered the crossguard for a better protection, the executioner swords did the same. Nobody would use a executioner’s sword for any other use than beheading someone in an act of justice, but nevertheless they followed the same design of sword hilts, and they did not care about the Christian symbol others may see in the crossbar.

Executioner’s Sword Hilts from the 16th to 18th Century

Swords Bearing Christian Symbols

Swords carried Christian symbols. For swordsmiths and the warriors the crossguard was only another piece of metal that could carry a symbol. The part of the sword, which was highly valued for symbolism was – no surprise here – the blade. In the image below are swords, which helped to build up the theory of the Christian symbolism of the crossguard. There is little information on most of the swords as they come from auctions and private collections with little scientific information, but they are said to have in common, that they are all manufactured at places south the 52°N latitude (probably south of 50°N on the continent).

“Knightly” swords with Christian Symbols (the leftmost with the “brazil nut” pommel seems to be not an original).

In the image below there are several most likely Christian crosses embedded into blades. The blades are mounted in the typical “heathen” style hilts, which are rightfully connected with the “Vikings” (even though this is a very none-scientific view). All of them are said to be assembled at places north of the 50°N latitude.

“Viking” swords with Christian Symbols (the two leftmost swords are probably not originals).

If the sword has a cruziform crossguard or not, was influenced by the place the sword was assembled and other factors, the faith did not play any thoughts in int.

Summary

The sword is a Christian Symbol, but not because of the crossguard, but because it is a weapon of the elite and justice. It was mentioned as the weapon of justice and punishment long before the crucifixion had any meaning for any faith. The crossbar was not put on the blade because it resembles the crucifix, it was a development of the weapon on which several more words are to be written in the upcoming articles. If at all, it was the other way round: the similarity was recognized and in some cases welcomed. But in the times, the weapon had any meaning as a weapon, the Christian symbolism of the outer form as a Latin style cross was a side effect, if at all.

References

If available I work with primary sources. Quoted source references are always next to the quote, as footnotes do not work online. Further sources, used in the article are in this list.

  1. Peter the Hermit and crusaders depicted in the Histoire Universelle, c.1286
  2. Tumbo menor de Castilla, 13th century
  3. Graves, Crypts and Parthian Weapons excavated from the Gravesites of Vestemin, G. Karamian, K. Farrokh, M. F. Kiapi, H. N. Lojandi
  4. Chronicles of the Teutonic Order
    1. Peter von Dusburg: Chronicon Terrae Prussiae (ca. 1326),
    2. Nicolaus von Jeroschin: Die Kronike von Pruzinlant, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 367, 16v
  5. Guibert de Nogent, Gesta Dei per Francos, 1007-1008
  6. Chansons de la Geste based on the critical editions published by the University of Alabama
    1. Le Chevalier au Cygne and La Fin d’Elias,
    2. Les Enfances de Godefroi 
    3. Le Retour de Cornumarant,
    4. La Chanson d’Antioche,
    5. Les Chétifs,
    6. La Chanson de Jérusalem,
      1. La Chrétienté Corbaran
      2. La Prise d’Acre, La Mort Godefroi,
      3. La Chanson des Rois Baudoin,
    7. La Geste du Chevalier au Cygne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.