Sword typologies and why we need them

Many of my swords on this website are defined by their “type”. What does that mean, and why does it matter?

The uses of sword typologies

Typologies need to be understood as a modern overlay, trying to bring meaning and order to the huge variety of swords (and other things) used throughout history. They are used by museums, academics, collectors, auction houses and others as a shorthand way of categorising things without long explanations being needed all the time. Ironically, as a result of these studies and archaeology, our academic understanding of the whole history of sword types is probably better than at any time in history, even the time when the swords we study were in common use.

We rely on documents for the names of the things we study, but within Europe the terminology varied from country to country and language to language, with terms often applied loosely or vaguely, and different spellings for the same objects (this was long before the dictionary had been thought of as a way to standardise spellings). Terms changed over time or even got reused with a different meaning. So, trying to understand the objects using their period terms is a complicated and difficult subject, requiring a lot of knowledge before even beginning to study the objects themselves, and this is why typologies have been produced, in order to make it easier to study the objects without needing to be a linguist first.

It is important to remember that typologies are artificial constructs, usually imperfect and in need of occasional updating as new finds change our understanding, and this especially applies to swords as the existing typologies are fairly old. There are also exceptions that are hard to categorise, and these need to be kept in mind too; I have even heard of people saying an item is “wrong” because it doesn’t fit into the standard typologies, but of course it cannot be “wrong” as it is part of the entire body of knowledge, rather it means that the typologies are incomplete or have grey areas.

Sword typologies for historic Europe

For the period from Rome to the Renaissance in Europe, there are several main typologies in use. For the 4th to 8th century, Behmer’s 1939 typology is generally used, and it concentrates entirely on the hilt forms and materials, ignoring the blade types. There is a good article on the four types and 9 sub-types here, Migration Period Swords and Fancy Hilts & Pommels.

For the Viking period (8th to 11th century) the enduring typology is that of Jan Petersen from 1919, with later extensions in the 1990s by Geibig and Jakobsson. Petersen focussed on the hilt styles as these were more distinctive than the blades and have clearer stylistic changes over time; with later extensions, this used the letters A through Z and AE for the types.

Petersen’s classification of Viking Age sword hilts.

Geibig also classified Viking blade types:

Geibig's sword blade types.

Geibig’s blade type analysis, sourced from Ian Peirce’s Swords of the Viking Age.

 Wheeler proposed a simplified typology in 1927. He used the Roman numerals I to VII for his seven types. Both the Viking period typologies and examples of the swords are well laid out in Ian Peirce’s 2002 book Swords of the Viking Age.

Starting in 1960, Ewart Oakeshott added VIII and IX to Wheeler’s typology, and extended it through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, with his own typology of types X to XXII.

Wheeler's sword types identified by hilt.

Wheeler’s sword types and Oakshotte’s extension of the classification.

So there are three main typologies for swords up the 11th century (Behmer, Petersen et al, and Wheeler), and one for the middle ages (Oakeshott).

Oakeshott’s typology and others

Oakeshott set out his first typology in The Archaeology of Weapons in 1960, initially finishing at Type XIX; in 1964 he expanded this in The Sword in the Age of Chivalry with a Type XX and adding sub-types such as XVIIIe for “families” within the types; and in 1994 with the publication of Records of the Medieval Sword (RMS) he completed it with Types XXI and XXII. The typology was based on blade shapes and features, as there was a much larger variety of these in the middle ages than previously; but as well as blades he categorised pommels and crosses into stylistic groups too, and this combined with the blade types made it possible to identify “families” of swords where the combinations cropped up frequently, sometimes to specific time periods and areas, using the fashion and functional changes that happened over time as warfare and armour rapidly changed during the middle ages.

Sword-site has linked several images to bring us Oakeshott’s typology at a glance.

The Albion Swords website also has an excellent breakdown of Oakeshott’s different types and subtypes with illustrations.

But Oakeshott did not categorise all medieval swords by any means. In RMS he had sections for Miscellaneous and Unclassified swords to show that some swords did not fit into convenient categories, or were too incomplete to properly classify. His typologies stop at about 1500 as there was such a proliferation of blade and hilt types after that, that classification become too complex and less useful. And Oakeshott’s death in 2002 froze his typology; nobody since then has felt game to try updating it.

Oakeshott also focused on the “knightly” sword, the double-edged straight bladed sword that defined the middle ages. He totally ignored the single edged swords known as falchions and sabres (especially popular in Eastern Europe in the later middle ages), that are also commonly shown in medieval illuminations and of which there are still many surviving examples. So there is no established typology for this large group of swords. This group may have even outnumbered the knightly sword in the middle ages as they were the weapons carried by less noble soldiery. So this leaves a large gap and shows that existing sword typologies should not be seen as the final word on the subject.

There are some recent attempts to set up typologies for single-edged swords, though none have been widely accepted yet. See Shad Brooks’ excellent summary of the Elmslie typology of single-edged medieval swords.

The existing typologies are so closely linked to the people that set them up, that others are unlikely to try extending, modifying or updating them. This could present a future problem as new finds change, refine and add to our understanding of the types of swords that were used.

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