This is the fourth post on my article series on the development of hand protection in sword fights. The articles so far:
- Design of the Crossguard and the Christian faith
- Hand protection for fighters through the (to me) known part of history.
- The development of handguards and armour for arm and hand
The first three articles already suggest that the regional available resources was one factor in the design of weapons (which is easily understandable), it is useful to gather a minimum of knowledge about iron and steel production through history. This article here will help to understand the reasoning in the series. It touches as an overview the surface of a subject, that could easily fill small libraries. If you are interested to learn more, go ahead, there is plenty of free material available at your fingertips, but there are better books at your next bookstore to order.
An Extremly Short Excursion Into The History Of Steel
In general there are two historical methods of getting steel. One is the direct path of getting bloomery iron from a so called bloomery furnace. The other way is using a cast furnace to get cast iron. Iron in a bloomery needs a temperature between 1100 °C and 1350 °C, which can be reduced to 800°C using additives. The amount of charcoal needed to have this temperature is quite large. To get 1kg of iron an amount of 15kg to 30kg of charcoal would be needed depending on the quality of the equipment, charcoal, and additives. To get steel in the refining furnace, the iron is melted again carburization process. I.e the iron billets were heated with charcoal in sealed clay pots that were placed in kilns holding metal and charcoal in ca. 5:1 ratio. In this process, a lot of fresh air was fed in with a large bellows, which burned the carbon for at least 5 hours. The result is inhomogeneous material that was treated by reheating in charcoal and hammering into forms the Celtic/Assyrian double pyramid or bipyramidal iron bars (450 BC) or the “currency bars” or “sword bars” (200 BC). They consisted of rather inhomogeneous iron / steel, just like the Roman standard iron bars centuries later. The amount of charcoal needed depended on the quality of the ore, the quality of the charcoal and the quality of the endproduct. The estimates go from two times the amount for making the iron up to ten times the amount. The quality of the charcoal seems to be the biggest factor. To create a steel blade from this material it needs to be reheated again, folded, hammered in a constant repetition between 20 to 200 times (strongly depending on the material and the quality of the outcome). The idea to need up to 300kg of charcoal to get 1kg of steel blade, will help to understand the efforts invested and the costs. Luckily a sword blade did not require to be made solely from the best steel.
Iron/steel was a good, that was traded world wide already around the 2nd century. And when I say world wide, I mean the known world (excluding the American continents and Australia, but including Japan). This trade replaced the world wide trade of bronze. With the change of metal the places of origin and trade shifted. I.e. Scandinavia was an import country fro bronze and developed as one of the biggest export regions for iron/steel in medieval times.
The reasons for large steel iron and production in Europe had been not only rich ore deposits and large forests that can be easily exploited, but inventions made either there or applicated in those places. Water driven trip hammers are reported by Plinius in the first century (the knowledge of horizontal and vertical water mills date back to the 3rd century BCE). Water driven trip hammers based on vertical wheels crashed the ore and later refined the metal in the so called Hammer Mills (estimated over thousand in the 13th century Germany). Water driven bellows allowed to work constantly on high temperatures above 1200°C in the furnace (and typical for Germans this was regulated. In the 13th century a resourceful entrepreneur had connected bellows for two ovens to the shaft of a single water wheel. This led to a lawsuit for unfair competition). Watermill hammers are not only used in producing iron and steel but as well in the smith’s workshop as well.
But long before Germany became one of the largest producers and exporter of steel, other regions had been known already for producing and selling iron and steel. One of the most reasons of having a good steel or iron was the same reason, why you may get a good steel or iron as today: the import and the pre production steps done abroad.
Globalization Of Production
To get a sword done, you do not go to the weapon smith and tell him to make a perfect one and he starts working from ore and coal. That is Hollywood. It happened only in the rarest cases. The production is a chain, not rarely distributed “globally”. In medieval times not less than three different guilds were known to the production of a sword – and this does not include the miners. The guilds not rarely had quarrels, who has the licence to produce which part. This is not only known to have happened in Nürnberg (the city with one of the biggest weapon productions in 15th century) between the knife makers and the sword manufactureres, but in other cities as well. In Bologna at beginning of the 15th century there had quarrels between the painters guild and the shield makers guild, who is responsible for adding the leather on a shield. The painters had been on the winning end, probably because the leather was coloured while still wet.
But global production chains had not been invented in medieval times. In regards of weapon making this was already done in the Bronze Age and the old trade routes were also frequently used for metal in Iron Age, but with a shift of directions. The ancient Greeks and Romans got iron even from distant places like Sri Lanka on the maritime Silk Road thenthousand Kilometers away (see the findings in excavations near Godavaya incl. shipwreck, that was transporting a cargo of raw materials including glass ingots and iron ingots, also reports in the “Περίπλους τῆς Ἐρυθράς Θαλάσσης”). Steel from Sri Lanka and India was highly valued in the Islamic medieval world. Al-Idrisi (Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Idris al-Idrisi, 1100 AD – 1166 CE), praised Indian swords for their sharpness: “it is impossible to find anything to surpass the edge”.
The Romans had ready made blades from Persia (early iron swords had been found from 1100 BC in Cyprus and Syria, Hama). Neuenbürg was the place to be, when you want iron in the Hallstatt or La Tene period. Wetzlar known for good iron and steel since the 5th BCE became famous in the 6th century. Solingen was producing awesome blades since the 8th century, and became a world wide distributor after the 11th century. Steel and blade from this places traveled far south and east.
Sweden had high quality resources regarding steel, and produced huge amount of blades. Al-Kindi (Abu Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, 800 AD – 873 CE) describes the pattern-welded blades as steel with a “river-like appearance“. Ibn Miskawayh (Abu ‘Ali Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ya’qub Ibn Miskawayh, 932 – 1030), who describes Scandinavian warriors, has a sitenote on the conquest on the Iberian peninsula, when they encountered Rus settlements in Barda: “the Muslims opened their graves and took out a number of swords, that are in high demand until today because of their sharpness and excellence“. In the book Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam (حدود العالم translated as “Boundaries of the World”, 10th century of an unkown author) we can read that the Rus made “blades and swords, which can be bent double, but as soon as the hand is removed, they resume their original shape”.
Ibn Hodeil (Alī ibn ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn Hudhayl, 14th in Andalusia) century wrote in his book “Knights Ornament And The Emblem Of The Brave” (حلية الفرسان وشعار الشجعان, translated to Spanish and French in 1922) about Frankish blades “that the fabrication is the work of masters. They are more resistant to blows one gives with them even during cold weather, while the hindy sabre often breaks when the weather is cold”. It is not clear, where these Frankish blades had been made. The common assumption is from Germany.
Passau in Germany marked the blades with a wolf from the 14th to the 17th century. They exported blades from Sweden to Spain and from Scotland to the Sudan. They had been so successful, that there had been trade mark piracy. Other producers copied the mark and sold them as blades from Passau.
Toledo in Spain became famous in the 16th century. The history of these famous blades are somehow lost in legends. A constant production since Hannibal is suggested in the legends. The amount of exported blades reported from the 16th up to the 19th century may lead to the assumption that not all blades bearing the mark of Toledo makers, had been made with the famous steel, in the slow and complicated method.
These are the most famous places, they are known to have produced steel and blades in a high quality. There are more places like these, but for each century there had been only few places worldwide known for high quality blades, probably less than a dozen. But they had been traded world wide.
Globalization Of Knowledge
To accomplish the making of steel weapons you need rare experts with special knowledge. Iron could be made by amateurs as experimental archeology demonstrates. While archeological evidence proving the production of crucible steel credible can be found from the 4th century BCE onwards (see Claudio Giardino, “I metalli nel mondo antico”, 1998), with the trade soon following after. Historical sources on the knowledge transfer are much more recent. The oldest known recipe is handed down by the Greek alchemist Zosimos from Panopolis in Egypt, who taught in Alexandria around 300 CE. His knowledge probably goes back to much older sources.
Centuries later, Arab scholars reported somewhat more frequently on techniques to produce unrivalled good steels. These include Jābir (Jabir) ibn Hayyān “Giver” in the 8th century, Ya’cūb al-Kindī and Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi in the 9th century, and Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī in the 10th century (see “Antike Stahlerzeugung, Ein Nachweis der Aufkohlung von Eisen aus Augusta Raurica” by Alex R. Furger). The author named “alkarym” in the Fightbook GNM 3227a cannot be resolved, but still in the 14th century Arab sources are seen as leading authorities on the treating steel. Lookint at Arab texts praising Frankish steel and German texts praising Arab knowledge, we cannot ignore the aspect of “foreign authorities” to sell a message by the authors. An aspect I like to mention, but not to explore in this article.
Even blades had not been made always fully with hiqh quality steel. The requirements you have on a sword is that the blade should not break and not bend too much during a fight. This essential requirement does not include “that it stays sharp”. Swords had been made with steel core and soft iron edges. A partly dull sword still kills by stabbing and still shields by guarding. A bent or broken sword does not it will take you days or weeks. Sadly he does not talk about cross guards.You want the best affordable material for the blade (core) and the rest could be made cheaper. The idea of early researchers that this was done to enable the soldier to “repair” a dull edge himself by a hammer like a farmer would sharpen a sickle by “dengeln” is far away from that what happens with swords, when they got into battle. And it ignores that an troop large enough to fight any kind of battle had a weapon smith.
Knifes as tools having the exact the opposite requirements. The edge needs to be and stay sharp, the back has not to fear any hard impact. So the back is i.e. made from soft and/or inhomogeneous iron based on bog iron ore (Raseneisenerz in German), while the edge is made from steel based on magnetite sand (Magnetitsand), or iron ore of some quality from the mines.
The economical needs later developed an art of bringing several kinds of steel and iron together into one blade, to have the best possible solution for the personal requirements. In Bergkamen, Germany, a grave (found and excavated in 2011) consisted next to other items a sword. The 3D computer tomography of the blade showed that the 7th century spatha has a multi-part construction consisting of two cutting edges and eight composite bars. There are only a few similar swords, so its manufacture was very elaborate. The welding patterns formerly visible on the blade also prove that filigree and meticulous craftsmanship was used here. But swords like these are not made for the thousands of soldiers in the body of the army (see Ulrich Lehmann, Wurmbunte Klingen. Studien zu Konstruktion, Herstellung und Wertigkeit der frühmittelalterlichen Spatha in Westfalen, Veröffentlichungen der Altertumskommission 21, Münster 2016).
Army swords, even if the had been similar designs from the outline, had not been made the same way. Standardization of design did not mean that the resources had been available at any time and at any place. Roman swords of similar design are especially known for having very different quality and methods of making the blades.
The Trade Of The Blade
The famous places of steel produced high quality steel rods and steel blades for export. But like the producers of obsidian blades traded across Mesoamerica during the early and middle Formative periods, they rarely produced finished weapons for exports for the following not exclusive reasons:
- Weapons are individual and localized social objects. Even if they are standardized like the Roman gladii, they are made “special” in a way, that they are distinguished from others. Either to be identified as the owner’s item, a family item, or social group’s item. With few exceptions the individualisation of the item had been done by craftsmen in direct contact, and not by producers far away.
- Weapons are “fashion statements”, they are not only practical, they present information on the social status and the wealth of the person.
- Excellent steel was really expensive and cross guards and pommels had not been “valued” enough to be made from expensive material.
- Transport costs. The volume to transport blades is much smaller than the transport of swords. A pack of blades could be transported safely packed in oil, so that they will arrive unspoiled. The same amount of swords needed a complex and difficult packing and much more space.
This trade of blades lead to the effect, that the blade of a British Mortuary-Hilt Sword was nearly identical to the blade of a Sword of a Sudanese Sultan in the 17th century. Both blades had been made in Passau, Germany. The swords themselves could not been more different. The final sword had been manufactured locally. The available resources in the region defined next to many other factors the final design of the sword. What this means in regard of the handguards will be the subject of upcoming articles, which will look at specific regions.