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A Private Visit to the Museum of London

By Grant Thomas

In the last ten years there has been an interest in what is considered to be the lost Western Martial Arts. Serious students of Eastern Martial Arts and other schools of defence, scholars of historical weapons and medieval academics have steadily come to the realisation that there was a western tradition of schooling in methods of fighting with the weapon technologies of the time that started in the feudal era and continued until the domination of gunpowder.

Fighting manuals describing detailed techniques with swords, daggers, bucklers and such exist in full or fragments from each century in the medieval era, indicating tantalisingly towards a continuum of martial study and practice amongst the fighting classes that has largely been lost. Through the study, translation and application of these manuals by a wide variety of serious researchers and students across the globe, a consensus is emerging as to this lost Western Martial Art.

London is blessed with one such school of medieval fighting techniques. The Boars Tooth Fight School founded by Dave Rawlings strives to revive these lost western fighting traditions and techniques through the study of ancient fighting manuals, the application of modern understanding of the physics of personal combat and defence, and the implementation of the weapon technology of the day. It’s a fascinating way of enjoying history and makes for an energetic break from toy soldiers, for this author. Getting into the detail of how medieval men thought about personal combat and wielded their weapons of choice completes the broader view of an evening of wargames in a very satisfying manner.

Anyone who is into historical weapons knows how important it is to examine actual specimens first hand; to feel the heft and balance of an original. Even the finest reproductions are no substitute for contact with the real thing. Dave Rawlings arranged such a day of research for his students at the Museum of London to examine and handle a variety of swords from the museum’s collection.

So we assembled on a frigid Saturday, at the end of 2008, under the guidance of John Clark, (to the right in the first photograph) the graciously accommodating Senior Medieval Curator at the Museum of London. The museum itself is one of London’s overlooked gems; it is one of the best lit and well documented historical museums in the capital with engaging displays that record the long history of the City of London and its environs.

John had laid out nine swords for Dave and his lucky students to examine. After an initial briefing by John, which explained how all of the swords had been recovered from excavations around London, as far as Ponder’s End, and the in the depths of the Thames, we donned gloves and dug in.

It was a broad selection of swords from the museum’s medieval displays, but as John explained, there were a few he wanted to share with us that were just too inaccessible due to the way the display cases opened. Three Saxon/Norman era swords, two 14th century swords, two late 15th century swords and two early 16th century swords were available for hefting, measuring and weighing.

Dave’s talented armourer friend Magnus, (on the left in the second photograph) who designs weapons for films when he is not recreating historical blades, was on hand with a portable scale to weigh each sword. He set about recording with Dave (on the right) the approximate weights, balance points and other detailed measurements not found in the museum’s documentation, copies of which were kindly provided by John. As with many collections, documentation of the weapons at the Museum of London does not include weight (or point of balance). As most of the swords were recovered from the Thames and in excavations below the water table, many were quite corroded, so when weighing or recording the point of balance the loss of original material and missing grips had to be taken into account.

One of the benefits of a salvaged collection is a sampling of classic sword types, the real workhorses of their respective eras, not the unique one-offs or display swords which are kept because of their beauty or unusual style and therefore are usually found in better condition, even if they were never intended for actual use. The swords presented to us most definitely served their owners at some point in combat or deterrence and not as mere mantle decoration. I was very pleased with this selection that could largely be easily classified using Oakeshott’s typology.

There was one exception to the broad sampling of archetypal swords, being most unusual in its circular guard and pommel, looking more like a sword from the far-east or the classical age, instead of its origin at the Villa Basilica in the 1490 as indicated by the maker’s mark. It quickly became the favourite of Pete, one of our fellow students in attendance, despite or because of its distinctive hilt. I think we probably each had a sword we’d liked to have taken home by the end of the day.

The most complete specimens were the later swords, one of which still had the gilding intact on the hilt. It was listed as a ‘Landsknecht type’, but hardly the massive ‘zweihander’ expected of such a description, rather more like a side sword, to me, with a lovely ‘S’ shaped hilt and other signs of early Renaissance styling, with three fullers running its length.

Most of the other swords, though mostly complete, were corroded enough to warrant that they be hefted with the blade supported. As such, we weren’t able to flourish with the specimens to get a full feel of the blades in practice. However, it must be said, there is something very special about being so close to such rare artefacts. All the specimens were light, slim in profile, balanced and overall graceful in the hand, once again maligning the old myth of medieval swords being clunky, ill formed cleavers. Surprisingly, one of the heaviest for its size was a smallish late 14th century youth’s sword (designed to develop a young sword arm?).

Many of the swords on the display had interesting histories, which John enthusiastically related. Like the 10th century ‘Viking sword’ (Type X) whose tip was found nearly a mile down the Thames and a full year after the rest of the sword was discovered by the Putney Railway Bridge in 1905. This one was particularly charming, with a very nicely preserved tri-lobe pommel. Another type X sword had its original pommel, possibly a ‘brazil nut’ shape, replaced in the 16th century with a hollow embossed sphere, demonstrating that some swords led long and probably very interesting lives.

Some discoveries were made on the day. A mend was noticed for the first time towards the point of an early 14th century sword, which has appeared in Oakeshott’s Records of the Medieval Sword. Whether this was a contemporary mend will have to wait on further investigation. The same sword had a maker’s mark, which has not been identified or noted in the documentation. The most intriguing discovery didn’t involve a sword, but will require additional examination by Dave and John, and so will have to wait till next year.

After we had satisfactorily sated ourselves and all measurements completed, we went for a quick tour of the museum. It was somehow satisfying to see the place-markers in the displays where the swords we had viewed had been removed, and strange to be on the other side of the glass. One great two-handed sword hung conspicuously undisturbed by our visit; probably in one of the cases that couldn’t be easily opened—one to look forward for another trip to the museum.

The day finished suitably at Dave’s house where we were treated to fine Spanish port and viewings of Dave’s ample collection of swords, many from the Albion forge and a medley of recent swords from Magnus’ foundry that he brought along from France.

The author inspects a specimen