The blademaker’s boy wiped the sweat from his eyes with a fire-blackened rag, leaving a grey smear across his face. But there was no time to stop. Though his thirst burned from the raw air of the forge, his master needed every shred of heat he could squeeze out of the fire. Pausing only to heap on another handful of his master’s special reserve of expensive black coal, bought from a Danish trader three summers before and kept dry and safe in the lord’s hayloft, the boy returned to hefting the bellows with all his might.
Dark had fallen and owl hunted beneath waning moon before it was done. The master carefully balanced the blade upon a finger, testing its movement with a practised care, muttering an invocation to Woden, his father’s old god, to guide his hammer-hand. With a grunt of satisfaction, he gestured to the boy. ‘Bring the twist-iron here, quickly, now’. The boy, exhausted and breathing hard, almost dropped the glowing fragments of twisted metal, left to bathe in the heat of the forge for the final task. The master set them upon the blade, and hammered them home – inscribing the blade with unfamiliar runes to the martyred God of the Christians, as his lord had asked. Let the ploughshare-maker look upon my craft with envy, he thought to himself.
Plunged into the slack tub of icy springwater, it was black and scaled and beaten – but the master bladesmith knew it was his finest work. Inside, the folded steel ran like dragon’s fire, and its balance was wicked. This blade was not to be stacked with the others, to be traded for furs and amber from the hungry Danes. His fellow masters, the polisher with his water-wheel by the river and the bronzeworker in his smelting-house on the hillside, would release the shining inner spirit of this weapon, made to the glory of this strange new God.
Almost everything we think about Medieval sword-making is wrong. We think of it as a solitary occupation, performed by blacksmiths, only for extremely wealthy individuals. As we can see in our snapshot into the life of an Anglo-Saxon blade-maker, none of that is the case. Even in the Early Medieval period, blade-makers were but one craft amongst many, within a network of skilled artisans whose specialisms were all needed to produce different parts of the sword, and who frequently produced weaponry to be traded or sold. No mere blacksmith could make a Medieval sword! How to make a Medieval sword evolved over the millennium-long era we call the Middle Ages (500 CE – 1500 CE) – but the mastery and skill of the artisans who practised their professions remained critical to the whole process. Let’s take a stroll through the halls of history, and see how to make a Medieval sword.
The Right Steel
The first step in creating a Medieval sword is the acquisition of proper materials. Bronze weaponry was obsolete by the start of the first millennium CE, so the material for making medieval swords was steel. As we saw in our article on medieval steel-making, for most of the Medieval period, the kind of steel available was made in a bloomery: where iron oxide was baked with charcoal in a big conical clay furnace, producing a ‘bloom’ made of pure iron mixed with carbon and impurities. This bloom was then refined by heating and beating it to drive out the impurities and some of the carbon, to produce billets of finished steel.
However, this process was far from consistent, being reliant on the quality of the iron ore, the purity of the charcoal, and prevailing climactic conditions – so part of a blade-smith’s art would be assaying and selecting the best steels. Without any modern metallurgical testing techniques available, this was often fairly instinctive, and probably involved making some test-blades from a particular batch to assess the hardness and edge-retention of the steel. But once a batch of steel a had been assessed, it could be used in particular ways: for example, even Early Medieval sword blades, such as those made by Frankish smiths on the Upper Rhine, show evidence of being made from a softer, more flexible low-carbon steel core, with edges of high-carbon steel welded on for sharpness and edge-retention. Iron ore, being a bulk good, was rarely transported far, but high-quality steel billets were often traded both by land and by sea, implying the existence of an established materials market that bladesmiths would seek out.
With the advent of widespread blast furnacing in the 14th century, steel became not only more widely available, due to the scale of the industrialized process, but also more consistent in quality. Molten iron from a blast furnace would be refined by ‘puddling’, heating it up to high temperatures and skimming off the impurities. The resulting iron could be then worked in a charcoal-fired finery furnace to imbue it with a far more controlled amount of carbon, producing different qualities of steel. Although alloyed steels were still centuries off, Late Medieval weaponsmiths had access to far more consistent steels that would have allowed far more control over the results of the smithing process.
Division of Labour
Even though Medieval polities were fragmented and often conflictual, the process of weapon production required a great degree of specialism and co-operation between different trades. Blades themselves were often produced for sale on the market – for example, Carolingian sword-blades were renowned as some of the best in Europe, and they were highly sought-after by Scandinavian Vikings. Frankish annals record payments made to Viking raiders in the form of these blades, which would then be taken back to Scandinavia to be fitted with bronze or gold-alloyed hilts made by skilled Viking metalworkers.
As the Medieval age progressed, so too did the complexity of the craft of bladesmithing. As commercial markets became more developed, so too did the scale of weapon production: small sites which produced a handful of weapons would scale-up their production, sometimes even applying mechanical innovations like water-powered trip-hammers (such as those employed by weapon-makers in Florence). Especially in urban environments, the beginnings of wage-labour relations began to form, with the emergence of trade guilds which controlled the production of swords, managing the division of labour between blade-makers, grinders, polishers and finishers.
The Qualities of a Blade
So – you’ve sourced a few ingots of fine steel, and your master blade-smith is ready to work. What is the master craftsman actually looking for as they create a blade?
Firstly, the process of actually forging the blade itself is a delicate one. With a well-made bellows and a firebrick hearth, even charcoal fires can get hot enough to melt steel (c. 1400°C / 2500°F) – and this is extremely important to avoid, since getting steel close to its melting point drives the carbon out of its structure and degrades its quality. Some steels, such as the mysterious wootz steel (aka Damascus steel) that made its way from Western India into Medieval Europe in small quantities, must be worked gradually at a much lower temperature in order to maintain is unique crystalline structure – often a slave versed in the working of wootz would be traded along with the steel as a living instruction manual! Nevertheless, working some steels too cool could be disastrous, introducing work-hardening and stress fractures that might cause a blade to break at a later date. So knowing the specific method of handling one’s specific material was critical, which, in lieu of textbooks or YouTube tutorials, would only be acquired with many years of apprenticeship and mastery.
In terms of the geometry of the blade, the Medieval period saw some important advances. From the end of the Migration Period (c. 568 CE) onward, swordsmiths had perfected the distal taper, narrowing a blade in cross-section toward its point, resulting in a lighter, more agile blade that remained extremely effective at cutting. Swords remained lenticular (lens-shaped) in profile, with a high degree of flexibility – these swords often had spatulate (rounded) points, and were largely useless for thrusting. As chainmail (and later transitional and plate armor) developed, cutting blades became less important, and their design evolved in favour of thrusting power: swordsmiths developed a stiff, diamond-shaped cross-section, with edges that would narrow to an extremely long and sharp point. Hybrid cut-and-thrust swords, as well as large two-handed swords also developed.
As we saw with our Anglo-Saxon blademaker above, Medieval swordsmiths clearly already had a significant understanding of the qualities of steel blades that make them effective. The balance-point of a blade, where it naturally balances, is critical: the further away from the hilt the point is, the heavier the cuts it delivers will be, but also the less wieldy it will be. Steel blades also have what is known as a ‘vibration point’ – a point where it can be struck without transmitting vibrations to the wielder’s hand. Effective Medieval blades have a vibration point about a third of a way down the blade, where a swordsman is most likely to intercept an enemy’s blow, deadening its impact and keeping the wielder’s grip secure. As well, many Medieval blades demonstrate a carefully positioned ‘centre of percussion’: this is the spot at which a blade can be struck without generating a moment of torque at the other end – effectively, this minimizes a sword being twisted from the wielder’s grip during a sword fight. Whilst we have vanishingly few written sources about these topics dating from the Medieval era, these concepts were clearly known about and deftly manipulated by master craftsmen (though the words and ideas they had were surely different from those of modern weapon-makers): surviving Medieval swords compromise between these different qualities to produce incredibly effective weapons.
Quality and Quantity
The surviving Medieval literature about the craft of sword-making can mislead us into thinking that swords were made only for wealthy patrons, requiring months of dedicated work. Unsurprisingly, the wealthy were the only people for whom written works were made: the habits of ordinary people have to be inferred from other sources, such as archaeology. As the Middle Ages progressed, blades became a common item for self-defense, displacing other forms of simple weapon such as the axe. Consequently, the vast majority of swords that were made in the Medieval era were simple, functional weapons designed entirely functionally to fulfill their purpose.
Individual craftsmen would indeed have been commissioned occasionally to make extremely fine weapons for wealthy nobles or church officials, investing many months of work into the finest materials and beautiful decorative finishes – but most ordinary swords would have taken no more than a couple of weeks to make, with little in the way of ornamentation. Surviving archaeological finds of these ‘ordinary’ weapons shows them to be as effective and dangerous as the expensive ones, exhibiting fine balance and usability – a testament to the skill of the artisans who produced such weapons consistently on a ‘mass’ scale. There was also a thriving ‘second-hand’ market for used swords, and many smaller Medieval swords and daggers show evidence of having been made from larger weapons that gradually wore out from many years of hard use.
So – now you know how to make a Medieval sword! Take your finest steel, your specialized artisans and your centuries of combined weaponsmithing experience – and prosper!