(About): A Sword Fusing Together Dark Fantasy and The Darkest Hour of Medieval History
The Black Death, in many ways, marks the beginning of the modern era. Amidst its near-total social devastation, the incomprehensible scale of which is only just becoming truly understood, the old feudal order withered on the vine. As it swept through the cities, towns and villages of a medieval Europe utterly unequipped to even comprehend its cause, it also swept away the old order, leaving a land with a whole new set of social relations in its place. As Death strode the land, so too were there fundamental changes to the way that warfare was fought in this new world. Our Black Death Gothic Sword, forged for us by the master bladesmiths at Darksword Armory, binds together the era of the Black Death into one sword: sinister and mournful, yet containing the promise of a new kind of society.
A Mortally Wounding Blade
The blade of our Black Death Gothic Sword is a dramatic and fearsome example of an Oakeshott Type XVIIIa. As plate armor began to develop through the 13th and 14th centuries CE in response to the devastating weaponry of the High Middle Ages, thus weaponry had to become even more sophisticated in order to circumvent these new defenses. Sword-smiths developed a diamond-shaped cross-section to some sword blades in this period to give them much greater stiffness. This meant that they were extremely effective at puncturing maille and exploiting weak-spots in armor – as well, they were very stiff and so able to deliver powerful percussive blows to concuss heavily armored opponents. Some swords of this type, such as the famous ‘Henry V sword’ which hung over the King’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, were ‘hollow-ground’ along the length of the blade to give the diamond-shape concave edges, thus reducing its weight and making the blade more agile.
However, for the knights who wielded a devastating Type XVIIIa, extreme agility and fancy fencing was far from a prime concern. The ‘a’ suffix denotes a two-handed greatsword, with a longer blade and a grip that accomodates two hands – our Black Death Gothic Sword is a monstrous 51” in length, a true giant of the battlefield! The long blade tapers almost evenly to a long point throughout its length, and it lightened by a deep fuller – this brings the point of balance closer to the hilt, and provides it with a wicked burst of speed for a sword so large. The blade takes on elements of fantasy with its deep and dramatic ricasso, an element incorporated into late-medieval blades to give this sword extra flexibility in maneuver – it can be gripped below the crossguard like a spear to give extra leverage for heavy impaling thrusts using the Halbschwert or ‘half-sword’ technique of the period.
Darksword’s Dark Talents
In terms of its construction and unique characteristics, Darksword Armory have used their signature 5160 spring steel in its construction. This magical metal is a close analogue for the kinds of steels used by late-medieval swordsmiths, who were beginning to become consistent in producing high-quality steels using blast furnaces and more advanced carburisation processes. Modern high-carbon spring steels are a level beyond in resilience and consistency: 5160 steel includes a small percentage of chromium which makes the sword stainless: it is far more resistant to corrosion than other similar blades made from 1095 or similar (although we highly recommend keeping your swords dry, especially in storage!). Darksword’s expert smiths use them in a combination of traditional hand-forging and the minimum of time-saving modern techniques, and the results are astonishing – they’ve tested their swords bending through 90º before returning to dead true! All of Darksword’s blades are dual-tempered with their secret heat-treating techniques, achieving 60 HRC at the edge of the blade and 48-50 HRC at the core: this means that our Black Death Sword is extremely rugged and resilient in everything up to light combat with other similarly-hard blades, and is also flexible enough to spring back into shape every time.
A Gothic Masterpiece Hilt
The hilt of our Black Death Gothic Sword is made from mild steel, providing an excellent foundation that will stand up to the rough-and-tumble of roleplay and re-enactment. The cross-guard is a unique design, created by Darksword’s designers by combining historical examples of mid-14th century cross-guards with a dark fantasy art style that has resulted in a sinister design echoing the death and devastation of the period. The grip is an instantly recognisable hexagon in cross-section, giving the whole hilt an air of Gothic angularity: it is made in a generous two-handed size to counterbalance the long blade, and wrapped in black leather to give an extra-stable surface. The pommel is forged in concert with the cross-guard in the same unique fantasy-Gothic style, incorporating a split-tailed design that perfectly finishes the atmosphere of Gothic horror surrounding this weapon from beyond the grave. Our Black Death Gothic Sword uses traditional full-tang, peened construction to unite all of its hand-crafted components: the guard, grip and pommel are all threaded onto the tang of the blade, and the tang is peened with a hammer to lock everything into solid union. This means that our Black Death Gothic Sword is a fully battle-ready weapon. It is also provided with a dramatic optional leather scabbard, and can be provided blunt or factory-sharp.
This chilling sword straddles the boundary between life and death, between medieval history and Gothic fantasy – just as the Black Death itself delineates the boundary between the medieval and the modern in so many ways. For this reason, our Black Death Gothic Sword is a fantastically flexible weapon that would bring extra depth to a whole host of contexts and outfits. It would suit a historical re-enactment of a 14th-century swordsman amidst the depths of the Plague, and its dark-fantasy elements mean that it would be an incredible addition to a sinister fantasy roleplay: it has more than a little of the Nazgûl in it! It could be the sword of a dark mage, witch or blackguard. Building up the layers of your fantasy and historical impression by importing the real history of medieval Europe is a sure-fire way to build authentic stories – and our Black Death Gothic Sword allows you to draw on its darkest hours.
(History): The Black Death: The Dying of the Old, the Birth of the New
The Black Death is more relevant to us today than it ever has been. We have just lived through a pandemic which has taken many loved ones and turned all of our lives upside-down. When viewed numerically, the total death toll of COVID-19 will likely result in the deaths of 0.1% of the global population. When understood statistically in the context of our own fragmented lives, it is inconceivable to us what a pandemic resulting in the deaths of somewhere between 40-50% of the population would be like to experience. And yet that was the reality for the people of Europe in the middle of the 14th century CE, when almost half of the population was killed by the Black Death in four devastating years. The impact of 1347-51 cannot be overestimated in the course of European (and global) history.
Bubonic Plague: A Thoroughly Medieval Disease
Firstly, let’s look briefly at what the Black Death was. Medically, the Black Death was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, a nasty little germ borne by fleas. The bacteria blocks up the internal organs of a host flea, driving them into a hungry feeding frenzy inflecting host after host. Fleas, then as now, tend to be associated with small furry animals, particularly rats. Rats were one of the great beneficiaries of the medieval period, quickly adapting to life alongside humans in the burgeoning towns of the High Middle Ages. It is a great irony that the selfsame conditions which led to the growing prosperity in Europe were exactly those which opened it up to rat-borne disease: integrated trade markets involving even remote hamlets, new larger ships transporting goods great distances… It was only a matter of time before transmission from the plague-bearing fleas to humans would occur.
Bubonic plague, as it is known in humans, was in the pre-modern period almost always fatal. The most common form of plague resulted in the inflammation of the lymph nodes into painful ‘buboes’, before organ failure and death within a week, in around 50-70% of cases. This form was in fact relatively non-contagious, with rats and fleas being the primary disease vector, rather than human-to-human transmission. But there were even worse forms of the plague, such as the blood-borne septicaemic plague, or the infection of the lungs known as pneumonic plague, which were extremely contagious between humans, as well as certain to result in death.
Medieval peoples’ response to the Black Death the kind of confusion and soul-searching one might expect from a society dominated by religion and superstition – but it is easy to patronise from the distance that history gives us. For example, whilst there are examples of superstitious behaviour, such as rubbing the (infected) blood of religious flagellants into one’s eyes as a ward against the Plague, there are also strikingly modern responses too. The village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England, is thought of as one where the villagers selflessly quarantined themselves, practising a sort of medieval social-distanced mail-order by leaving orders for food and payment in pre-arranged places at the village boundary. But further study has revealed sharp class-divides, more of a picture of wealthy residents fleeing the village and imposing a quarantine on the poorer villagers from the outside. This could be a story from our own COVID-19 experiences!
The Dark Midwife of the Modern Era
The impact of the Black Death in the macro sense cannot be overestimated. Whilst the old systems of manorial serfdom were certainly in slow decline in Western Europe, the devastating impact of the Black Death on rural populations killed it at a stroke. Peasants were now in a significantly better position to bargain for their labor, resulting in new guilds and labor organisations. The influence of the Catholic Church was also fatally hamstrung: being a combination of pastoral workers and amateur healers, priests were enormously over-represented amongst the dead – despite being of a much higher social class, around half of priests died between 1347-51. This left the Church badly understaffed amidst a moral crisis during which society was grappling with its relationship to a God who had apparently sent a terrible plague against them. It’s widely agreed that the philosophical (and temporal) impact of the Black Death on the Church was a major contributory cause of the nascent Reformation over the following century.
None of this to say that the Black Death was ‘a good thing’. One only need read the contemporary writings of Boccaccio, Agnolo di Tura or John Clyn to understand the sheer human horror that the Plague was to live through. Most of the ‘gains’ experienced by the surviving peasant class were almost wholly negated by economic dislocation and social disintegration. But there can be no doubt that the Black Death ended the ailing old world, and catapulted Medieval Europe into a callous, modernising world full of terrifying new forces. This is the conflicted dual legacy embodied by our Black Death Gothic Sword.
Total length: 51 inches
Blade length: 39 inches
Blade width: 2 inches
Blade material: 5160 carbon steel
Blade hardness: 60 HRC at edge ; 48-50 HRC at core
Guard and pommel material: Mild steel
Grip material: Leather
Weight: 3lbs. 7oz.