The Crossguard #3: The Development Of Handprotection

This is the third post on my article series on the development of hand protection in sword fights. The first one was some myth-busting, explaining, why the Crossguard was no design of the Christian faith. The second post was looking at the meaning of hand protection for fighters through the (to me) known part of history.

Lazy Reader’s Summary

The first requirement on handguards is to protect the hand of the swordfighter. This can be achieved by either letting the blade of the opponent “bite” into relatively softer material, or by deflecting the blade by hard material. Soft materials did not allow to build large crossguards without making the sword clumsy. Hard materials allowed large crossbars, but created the risks of ricochets and rebounds, which endangers the hand. Especially if the hard material is elastic to a certain degree, to survive the impacts. If ricochets and rebounds are to be expected, the handguard must be enlarged and designed to reduce the risks.

Neither practical nor artistic reasoning can explain the general absence of protective equipment for the hand and partly the lower arm for sword fighters in the European military from the 6th to the 11th century (there are other explanations to be named in the upcoming articles). Gloves had been known since 10 thousand years, and metal, textile, or leather protection had been existing at least from this time. Even if this ancient protective equipment had been never the standard, it had been common enough to be depicted and there are artefacts found.

A revival of the hand protection occurred roughly the same time, when the steel crossbar came up. If this is coincidence, correlation, or causality cannot be fully answered. But after reading the full article, the reader will be able to make up her/his mind about this much better.

Understanding Handguards

The majority of collectors, studied or amateurish researchers of history and metallurgy do not fight with the weapons, they are discussing. The books and the internet are full with thought experiments rarely accompanied by practical research. They try to answer why relatively soft materials (Mohs scale in brackets) like hard wood (3-4), brass (3-4), bone (4), ivory (4-5), soft iron (4-5), soft bronze (5-6), jade (6-7), or even leather had been used for handguards, while the blade was made from steel (8-9) of various quality. The musings are logical in itself and often argue about special way of fighting or weapon combinations, but rarely reflect the martial or battle situation, and not the training and learning of the art of fighting.

The myth that perfect fencing styles, soft martial arts, or a shield or other defensive weapon in the other hand, will make the handguard of the sword more or less unnecessary (or only a “backup” for eventual mistakes) is not even worth discussing. The associated idea that small handguards are the result of a certain way of fighting or indicate a certain combination of weapons is wrong. The absence of large handguards changes certain techniques, but not the martial training in general or the way someone fights. A large crossguard may be helpful few percents of techniques, but it does not alter not the basics or rules of sword fighting (unless it is a full handguard like basket hilts, we are not talking about here!). If the handguard is 12cm wide or 6cm wide, will not change the way to fence with a sword essentially. As long as the handguard functions in a way, that the opponent’s blade cannot cut the hand by sliding down the blade, the handguard functions fully.

Elastic And Inelastic Collisions

The Pell as a training tool for martial arts is part of the routine reported by the frequently quoted Vegetius. There are two versions of the pell in any martial art still: 1. the pell that gives resistance and let the force of the blow bounce back (elastic collision), 2. the pell that gives way and consumes the energy of the blow (inelastic collision). The two versions of collisions are systemantic to the effects in every martial art and especially in fencing with swords.

In regard of protection the simple rule goes: the more imminent and closer the threat to the body, the more energy should be consumed. In case of the handguard the application of the rule means, that an incoming impact must be consumed, unless the energy can be kept away from the hand:

  • Handguards made from softer materials allows the opponent’s blade to “bite” into it to consume the energy.
  • Large unbreakable handguards made from hard but elastic materials keeps the blade away and let the strike ricochet without endangering the fighter (the blade might get catched by the design of the handguard and the fencing technique applied).
Roman Handguard from Bone or Ivory (source unknown)

An opponent’s blade that bites into the fighter’s blade, shield or handguard is not an annoyance, it is a gift. It lets the fighter know and feel exactly, where the opponent is working. It may let the fighter win a fencing time and act accordingly. In battle it allows his comrades next to him (or the ones behind him with long weapons) to have a free attack at this opponent.

Jade Handguard with a Cut (or maybe broken), (cc) Canterbury Museum

Handguards made from materials like bone, ivory, hard wood are perfect for “consuming” the energy of sharp blades. Hardened leather will work similar but will not last very long. To keep the opponents’s blade away from the hand, the material, in which it can bite and get stuck a bit eventually, is made thick (3cm to 5cm). Adding a soft bronze or brass plate will see the handle endure more damage, without changing the energy consuming effect too much. But the metall plate allows a thinner handguard. Wrought or cast iron could work as well, but it must be carefully forged not to be too brittle, and it is very addictive to rust. To be at the safe side, again the adding of soft bronze, brass plate will support and protect from breaking. Jade is an expensive but good compromise, it allows wider and thinner guards, but still allows hard steel to bite in it, while soft blades will suffer from it. Handguards made from materials softer than the steel blade function well in keeping the blade away from the hand.

No need to fear that the opponent’s blade will ricochet from the handguard

Handguards made from steel needs to be of certain extent and the quality of the steel must guarantee, that it will last against many impacts. For the latter it must be elastic, which requests high expertise from the producer. But even if the handguard is not made elastic by special design or thickness, the incoming blade is elastic or it will break. Elastic collisions will preserve a part of the the energy of the strike. This can be used by both fighters. It is the defender, who can benefit first, but the attacker can also use the energy for a follow-up action.

A handguard from steel can be made thin (0.6cm to 1,2cm). This allows to put the hand closer to the point of balance, and opens by this new options for designs of the complete weapon. Thin handguards allowed the fingers or the thumb to cross the crossguard by putting the thumb on the blade (very common), or the index finger over the bar in in a technique called “Fingering” (not so common). Later complex crossguards added protectional rings to allow these techniques in a safer manner.

Sleeves, Gloves, and Gauntlets

There seems to be astonishingly little development in the 2 thousand years from the Assyrian Empire in regard of military equipment up to the invention of the gun. If we look at the reliefs of Nimrud we see armoured fighters and armour-clad siege towers and rams on wheels. But that is only on the first sight, there had been many developments. Sadly, this article is limited on protective equipment to the arms and hands. While there are been shin and knee protectors to be seen at Assyrian reliefs, there are extremely rare depictions of arm protections found from the Assyrians, and no glove or gauntlet to see. Even though, the finger glove was known already when Nimrud was founded.

Arm(our)

Homer mentions in the Odysey XXIV.228, 229 a manicae (χειρίδες) worn on the arm and hands to protect them from briars and thorns. Palladius (de Re Rustica I.43) mentions the same equipment in the 5th century “ocreas manicasque de pellibus”, leggins and sleeves made of hides.

Long sleeves as an extension of the tunica (Tunica Manicata) in textile armour had been a concept coming up at larger scale with the Phrygians in 3rd to 1st BCE. And slowly it is found on Roman depictions and usage as well. But discussing Roman armour before the Marian Reforms in 107 BCE is a tiring endeavour, because individualism was great factor. Even later standardization depended on regional fabricae locations, which resulted in a large diversity of materials and production, even when the general design was similar (what was still not the case).

Roman soldiers with long sleeves arm protection from textiles, Sarcophagus Istanbul, 1st century

The Manica (long sleeve) as limb armour was made from scales over leather and textiles and was part of the “special forces” armour found from Romania to Wales. It is said to be a concept developed by the Parthians (the same ones, who made the first steel crossbars). It was combined with scale, mail, or nail armour for the torso. The Manica protected the sword arm only. The few Manica artefacts found in the castell Till-Steincheshof (Xanten, Germany), Newstead (Scotland) are made from copper alloy, the Carlisle (Wales) manica fragments from wrought iron.

Scales of armour had been found made from the usual armour materials: copper alloy, unadorned iron, and copper alloy-plated iron. A fragment of a lorcia segmentata found at the Coria fort south of Hadrian’s Wall in England is from a treated by carburising, a mild steel. But this was not the standard, as much as we know.

Latest in the fourth century gladiators had a variation that was extended as a gauntlet using the same materials (as far as we can assume by the colouring). But there is no evidence that such a manica had been a standard equipment of any part of any troop.

Valsgärde, in Vendel, Sweden, is famous for the “Viking” graves. Grave 8, a richly furnished boat grave of a Migration Age Germanic warrior, having helmet, mail and splint armour. Dated to the 7th centur, grave held spint armour for the lower arms, with mail attached probably over a leather mitten (according to current interpretation). A fragment of iron mail from grave 119 in Castel Trosino, Italy, which was found near the deceased body’s hand has the look of a mail mitten.

Hand And Fingers

The oldest existing finger gloves had been found in Tutankhamun’s Egyptian tomb in 1922 and had been made from linen in the 14th century BCE. Plinius the Younger mentions in a letter to Baebius Macer in the 1st century warm gloves a writer uses. Technically it was no problem to produce gloves, in which someone can write! Gladiators had been using textile or leather finger-free gauntlets, covering the back of the hand and the lower arm developed from the “himantes meilichai” since the 1st century BCE (later becoming mittens covering the finger).

On another occasion when St. Columban had come to dine at the monastery of Luxeuil, he laid his gloves, which the Gauls [*should be Franks, i.e. German, who used this word] call Wanti and which he was accustomed to wear when working, on a stone before the door of the refectory. Soon, in the quiet, a thievish raven flew up and carried off one of the gloves in its beak. After the meal, the man of God went out and looked for his gloves. 

 Mabillon: Acta Sanctorum Ordinis S. Benedicti, Vol. I, Venice, 1733, pp. 3-26. Latin.

There is continous evidence for gloves and mittens used through the centuries in Europe:

  • 6th century – a single leather mitten in a young boys grave in the Cologne Cathedral
  • 6th entury – A mosaic inside the Falconer’s Villa. Argos, Greece shows the falconer with his gauntlet
  • 640 to 643 – Abbot Jonas of Bobbio mentions the working gloves of St. Columbanus
  • 6th to early 7th century – multiple fragments found
    • Fragments of a goatskin glove in a clerics grave in the church of St. Ulrich und Afra, Augsburg, Germany
    • leather fragments of most likely gloves in a grave in Trossingen, Germany.
    • leather fragments, that maybe gloves, in a grave in Oberflacht, Germany
    • leather fragments, of what may have been gloves in a grave in a cementary of Greding-Großhöbing, Bavaria, Germany
  • 8th century – leather gloves (one cowleather, the other deer-skin) in a “minstrel” grave in the church St. Severin, Cologne, Germany
  • 8th century – The Cross of Bewcastle shows falconer’s gauntlet
  • 843 – The inventory of St. Riquier names gloves “wanti castanei auro parati”
  • 7th to 9th century – Fingerless leather gloves from the Caucasian region (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York)
  • 8th to 9th century – Alanic glove, Moshchevaya Balka, Northern Caucasus.Leather, with applique of dyed leather

Using finger gloves, mittens or whatever gauntlets for weapon based fighting in the military, seemed to be a river not to be crossed until the 11th century in the regions following the tradition and claims of the Roman Empire.

It took until 12th century when the long sleeves of armour are drawn at multiple places in Europe simultaneously. Those sleeves with gauntlets from mail or other armour materials are found often in the miniatures. In the 13th centuries gloves became depicted as armour as well as textile adornments of the figures. Now it took not long until the first plate gauntlets appeared.

Armour for arms and hands had been known to the pre-Islamic world influenced by the Persians, of which the bronze Sasanian gauntlet of the 6th century is an extraordinary example (it seemed a good idea to mention, that the Sasanian Empire covered the grounds of the Parthian Empire – those with the steel crossbar, and the Manica).

While arm or hand protections are found pre-Islamic art, they remain invisible or disputable in Islamic art until the fourteenth century. There are textual mentionings in the chronicle of al-Ṭabarī and al-Jāḥiẓ, and al-Masʿūdī but it is not fully clear how this arm or hand protection looked alike.

No Gloves, No Gauntles, Only Sleeves For Centuries

The lack of evidence with few disputable exception of protective gloves from the 7th to the 11th century for gloves or gauntlets raises a lot of questions, that cannot be answered satisfyingly. If a majority of depictions in images, reliefs, statues would not show hand protection, but some would show them (like in the 3rd century), it could be either explained by specialized soldiers and/or by heroic depiction. But there are so few, that they can be dismissed by a failure of the artist or of the interpreter of the image.

Technically it would have been no problem, to fabricate gloves and gauntlets similar to the Roman ones, or even better. The material the Romans used like copper alloy, leather and linen had been available. Textile or leather protection of the hand, was not a thing that could not be produced in numbers big enough to fit to those warriors owning scale, ring, or mail armour. In the Scandinavian and other northern regions, where individualism of the private equipment was very likely, and gloves to warm the hands had been known, we would expect to see them.

We we can explain in a very plausible way supported by evidence, why gloves had not been used in fights of two people against each other according to the rules of the martial sport, or the rules of judicial fights, or the rules of knightly duels. We can explain the absence of hand protections for archers and soldiers using throwing, light or heavy spears. But we cannot explain the absence of hand protection for heavy infantry, which is expected to fight close combats with swords. The idea that the existence of large shields made gloves for the sword hand a somehow not so necessary equipment is busted by the huge amount of full armoured fighters using large shields after the 11th century and the roman Manica, which protected the sword arm explicitly.

All of the sudden in the late 11th century we see the first depictions of the long sleeves with gauntlets or gloves attached, and after at least 5 centuries without the depiction of hand protection it appears at multiple places in Europe. This fact itself is quite astonishingly, but may get explained with joint military ventures at these times. This article cannot resolve this riddle. But it is not the last one of the series. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “The Crossguard #3: The Development Of Handprotection

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.