Migration Period sword

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Migration Period Sword
Epee 193.JPG
Germanic type ring sword – France, 6th century
Type Sword
Place of origin Germany
Production history
Produced4th century – 7th century
VariantsKrefeld type, Alamannic type, Frankish type
LengthCa. 70 to 80 cm blade

Blade  typestraight, smooth or with shallow fuller, double edged
Hilt  typeshort guard, large pommel, ring hilted variants
Hilt of a Vendel period sword found at Valsgarde. Valsgarde svardfaste.jpg
Hilt of a Vendel period sword found at Valsgärde.

The Migration Period sword was a type of sword popular during the Migration Period and the Merovingian period of European history (c. 4th to 7th centuries AD), particularly among the Germanic peoples and was derived from the Roman era spatha. It later gave rise to the Carolingian or Viking sword type of the 8th to 11th centuries AD.


The blade is normally smooth or shows a very shallow fuller, and often has multiple bands of pattern-welding within the central portion. The handles were often of perishable material and there are few surviving examples. Blade length measured between 28" and 32" (710 and 810 mm) in length and 1.7" to 2.4" (45 to 60 mm) in width. The tang has a length of only some 4" to 5" (100 to 130 mm) long. The blades show very little taper, usually ending in a rounded tip.

Surviving examples of these Merovingian-period swords have notably been found in the context of the Scandinavian Germanic Iron Age (Vendel period).

Names and terminology

There is no single term that can be reconstructed as having referred specifically to the spatha in Common Germanic. There are a number of terms and epithets which refer to the sword, especially in Germanic poetry. [1]

Terms for "blade", "point" or "edge" which pars pro toto (“part for total”) could also refer to the sword as a whole include

From the testimony of Germanic mythology and the Icelandic sagas, swords could also be given individual names. Examples include the magic sword of Högni, named Dáinnleif after the dwarf Dáinn ( Skáldskaparmál ), Skofnung and Hviting, two sword-names from the Kormáks saga , Nægling and Hrunting from Beowulf, and Mimung forged by Wayland the Smith.

Early development

Roman spatha

Depiction of a late Roman spatha on a diptych (dated to 406 AD) Consular diptych Probus 406.jpg
Depiction of a late Roman spatha on a diptych (dated to 406 AD)

The spatha was introduced to the Roman army in the early imperial period by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries who continued to wear their Celtic long swords in Roman service. The earlier gladius sword was gradually replaced by the spatha from the late 2nd to the 3rd century. From the early 3rd century, legionaries and cavalrymen began to wear their swords on the left side, perhaps because the scutum had been abandoned and the spatha had replaced the gladius. [4]

An early find of Roman spathae in a native Germanic context (as opposed to Roman military camps in Germania) is the deposit of sixty-seven Roman swords in the Vimose bog (3rd century).

The spatha remained in use in the Byzantine Empire and its army. In the Byzantine court, spatharios (σπαθάριος), or "bearer of the spatha", was a mid-level court title. Other variants deriving from it were protospatharios , spatharokandidatos and spatharokoubikoularios, the latter reserved for eunuchs. One of the more famous spatharokandidatoi was Harald Hardrada. [5]

Krefeld type

An early type of recognizably Germanic sword is the so-called "Krefeld-type" (also Krefeld-Gellep), named for a find in late Roman era military burials at Gelduba castle, Krefeld (Gellep grave 43).

The military burials at Gelduba begin in the late 1st century with the establishment of a Roman camp in Germania Inferior, and they continue without interruption throughout the period of withdrawal of Roman troops and the establishment of early Frankish presence in the mid-5th century.

The Krefeld type spathae appear in graves from approximately the 430s through the 460s. In these graves, the exalted prestige of the sword is not yet fully developed, and some of them are surprisingly poor. They rather seem to still continue the tradition of military graves of the Roman period, of warriors buried with their personal weapon, the presence of a sword perhaps indicating service in the late Roman army.

Six Krefeld type swords are known from Francia, four from Alamannia, and another two from England.

Merovingian period

A native industry producing "Germanic swords" then emerges from the 5th century, contemporary with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Germanic spatha did not replace the native seax, sometimes referred to as gladius or ensis "sword", but technically a single-edged weapon or knife. It rather establishes itself, by the 6th century, at the top of the scale of prestige associated with weapons. While every Germanic warrior grave of the pagan period was furnished with weapons as grave goods, the vast majority of the 6th- to 7th-century graves have a seax and/or a spear, and only the richest have swords.

Swords could often become important heirlooms. Æthelstan Ætheling, son of king Æthelred, in a will of c. 1015 bequeathed to his brother Eadmund the sword of king Offa (died 796), which at that time must have been over 200 years old. [6]

Gold hilt spatha

5th-century Alamannic gold hilt spatha found at Villingendorf Goldgriffspatha.jpg
5th-century Alamannic gold hilt spatha found at Villingendorf

The gold hilt spatha was a very rare and prestigious type of sword in the later 5th century. Specimens are known mostly from Alemannia (Pleidelsheim, Villingendorf), but also as far afield as Moravia (Blučina).

An "Alamannic type" is distinguished from a "Franconian type" based on scabbard mounts and hilt design by Quast (1993). A total of 20 examples are known, ten of each type. [7]

One of the "Franconian" examples is the sword of Childeric I (died 481), recovered from his tomb at Tournai. Some authors have suggested that Childeric's sword was a "ceremonial sword" not intended for combat, perhaps produced for the occasion of his burial. [8]


The ring-sword (also ring-spatha, ring-hilt spatha) is a particular variant of the Germanic migration period swords. Ring-swords are characterized by a small ring fixed to the hilt (not to be confused are Late Medieval to Renaissance Irish swords with ring-shaped pommels, also known as "ring-swords").

Ring-swords came into fashion in the last phase of the Migration period (or the beginning of the Early Middle Ages, in the 6th and 7th centuries. They were found in Vendel era Scandinavia, Finland and in Anglo-Saxon England as well as on the Continent (Saxony, Francia, Alemannia, Langobardia). [9] These swords were prestigious, prized possessions, probably reserved for kings and high nobility. The ring is interpreted as a symbolic "oath ring". [10]

The design appears to have originated in the late 5th century, possibly with the early Merovingians, and quickly spread to England (from the earliest phase of Anglo-Saxon presence) and Scandinavia. The Beowulf poem uses the term hring-mæl, literally "ring-sword" or "ring-ornament", [11] and scholars who interpret this as referring to this type of sword can point to it as one indication that the Beowulf poet was still drawing from an unbroken tradition of the pagan period, as ring-swords disappeared from the archaeological record with Christianization, by the late 7th century. [12] Some 80 examples of ring-hilted swords have been found in Europe, 14 of those in Finland. First phase swords with a loose ring have only been found in Kent, England, whereas second phase is prevalent on the continent, especially in France but also in Sweden, Finland (six examples) and Italy.[ citation needed ]

Examples include:

Transition to the Carolingian sword

Frankish sword (8th century) Frankish sword 8th century.JPG
Frankish sword (8th century)

In the 8th century, Frankish sword smiths increasingly gained access to high quality steel imported from Central Asia, where a crucible steel industry began to establish itself. [17] The earliest types of "Viking swords" according to the typology of Petersen (1919) are dated to the second half of the 8th century, while the "Viking sword" proper (and notably the Ulfberht type) emerges by the turn of the 9th century.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Seax Bladed weapon

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Blučina burial

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Trewhiddle style

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Shorwell helmet Anglo-Saxon helmet from the early to mid-sixth century AD found near Shorwell on the Isle of Wight

The Shorwell helmet is an Anglo-Saxon helmet from the early to mid-sixth century AD found near Shorwell on the Isle of Wight in southern England. It was one of the grave goods of a high-status Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was found with other objects such as a pattern-welded sword and hanging bowl. One of only six known Anglo-Saxon helmets, alongside those from Benty Grange, Sutton Hoo, Coppergate, Wollaston, and Staffordshire, it is the sole example to derive from the continental Frankish style rather than the contemporaneous Northern "crested helmets" used in England and Scandinavia.

Weaponry in Anglo-Saxon England Types and usage of weaponry in Anglo-Saxon England

Many different weapons were created and used in Anglo-Saxon England between the fifth and eleventh centuries. Spears, used for piercing and throwing, were the most common weapon. Other commonplace weapons included the sword, axe, and knife—bows and arrows, as well as slings, were not frequently used by the Anglo-Saxons. For defensive purposes, the shield was the most common item used by warriors, although mail and helmets were sometimes used.

Turko-Mongol sabers Type of Cavalry Sabre

These swords were used by the Turkic nomads of the Eurasian steppes primarily between the 9th and 14th centuries. One of the earliest recorded sabres of this type was recovered from an Avar grave in Romania dating to the mid 7th century. Although minor variations occur in size and hilt, they are common enough in design across 5 centuries that individual blades are difficult to date when discovered without other context.


  1. A monographic treatment of the question can be found in May Lansfield Keller, The Anglo-Saxon weapon names treated archæologically and etymologically (1906). See also C. Brady, '"Weapons" in "Beowulf"' in: Martin Biddle, Peter Clemoes, Julian Brown (eds.) Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN   978-0-521-03865-2; Viktor Lewizkij, "Germanische Bezeichnungen für Schwert und semantische Typologie", RASK – International journal of language and communication 34 (2011), 322.
  2. Maryon 1948, p. 74.
  3. a survey of alternative views is given by Lewizkij (2011).
  4. Lesley Adkins, Roy A. Adkins, Handbook to life in ancient Rome, Oxford University Press, 1998 ISBN   978-0-19-512332-6, p. 87.
  5. Kekaumenos, Strategikon, "Oration of Admonition to an Emperor", para. 81
  6. Dorothy Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge (1930), 171.
  7. Frank Siegmund in Ian N. Wood (ed.), Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian period: an ethnographic perspective, Boydell & Brewer, 1998, ISBN   978-0-85115-723-8, p. 192.
  8. Brady (2007:94); L. Nees, Early medieval art, Oxford (2002), 83.
  9. Steuer, Heiko (1987). Helm und Ringschwert. Prunkbewaffnung und Rangabzeichen germanischer Krieger. Eine Übersicht. Studien zur Sachsenforschung. 6. p. 22.
  10. H.R. Ellis-Davidson. "The Ring on the Sword." Journal of the Arms and Armour Society 2 (1958).
  11. Old English mǽl has a range of meanings, "mark, sign, ornament; cross, crucifix; armor, harness, sword; measure; time, point of time, occasion, season"
  12. Raymond Wilson Chambers, Beowulf: an introduction to the study of the poem with a discussion of the stories of Offa and Finn, 2nd edition (1932), pp. 349–352.
  13. V.I. Evison, "The Dover Ring-sword and other Sword-rings and Beads." in Archaeologia CI, 1967.
  14. S. Fischer, "The Typochronology of Sword Pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard" at http://finds.org.uk/staffshoardsymposium/papers/svantefischerandjeansoulat, 2010.
  15. Æ. Thompson, "STH711: Woden's Pommelcap" at http://thethegns.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/sth-711.html, 2012.
  16. Frans Theuws, Janet L. Nelson (eds.), Rituals of power: from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages, ISBN   978-90-04-10902-5, p. 425.
  17. David Edge, Alan Williams: Some early medieval swords in the Wallace Collection and elsewhere, Gladius XXIII, 2003, 191-210 (p. 203).