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What is the most important part of a sword? An expertly-tempered blade will cut through your enemies, and a solidly-build cross-guard will turn aside the blows of your foes. But without a scabbard, your sword is useless: after only a few days’ travel, it would be filthy, knocked around and blunted, and corroded from rain or river-crossings. An unscabbarded sword is even potentially dangerous! Scabbards and sword-holders are found throughout the medieval period across all cultures, and they vary from basic, practical sword holders that perform functional role, to enormously opulent and elegant medieval scabbards that display the wealth and status of their wearer. Their potent symbolism traces a history stretching back into the mists of Greek prehistory, all the way through Norman Britain, to the Emperor Napoleon. If you are purchasing a sword from Medieval Ware, we highly recommend purchasing a scabbard from our range of high-quality medieval scabbards and sword holders – we have made sure that all of our scabbards for sale are made from the highest-quality materials, and meet exacting safety standards, so that your weapons will stay safe and pristine when not in use.  

A Quick Guide to Medieval Scabbards

Before we start – a brief note about the terms we’ll use below. Imagine a sword in a scabbard, with the tip of the sword facing downwards. Where the hilt of the sword meets the scabbard is the locket – a piece of protective material, usually metal, that holds the top of the scabbard together and protects it from rough handling. Sometimes, a scabbard will also have a throat at the entrance to the scabbard – a piece of bone, metal or wood with a slot cut into it that accommodates the blade and keeps it from moving around whilst in storage. Below the locket is the body of the scabbard, consisting of a narrow tube of material that sheaths the blade, usually made from leather or wood. Later medieval scabbards will sometimes have a middle band with a carrying ring or horse ring that permits a second attachment point to better suspend the weapon on the hip or to secure it to a riding saddle. At the bottom of the scabbard is the chape, a hard end to the scabbard, made from a hard-wearing substance like metal or bone. Sometimes the chape will have a drag, a slim projection to defend it from dragging along the floor.   The commonest means of wearing a medieval scabbard is on a sword belt: a leather or cloth strip that is looped around the waist, which is attached to the scabbard by threading it through a metal frog on the locket, or suspended by rings or buckles. However, some cultures have used the baldric, a belt which goes over the shoulder to the hip like a bandolier, permitting the sword to be either hung at the hip, or in the case of extremely large swords, worn on the back.  

The History of the Scabbard

Scabbards, like the sword, are unimaginably ancient. It is difficult to put an estimate on when the ‘earliest’ scabbards were made, but it seems intuitively near-certain that they appeared almost simultaneously with the first swords. Whilst there is a lot of debate when the first true ‘swords’ emerged (hot debate continues to rage over the bronze Arslantepe sword-shaped long daggers that date to 3,300 BCE), the earliest unambiguous date for the widespread adoption of swords is around 1,500 BCE in the Aegean Bronze Age. Whilst small bronze and iron knives have been discovered which long predate these, they are thought to have mostly been practical objects, used for everyday tasks like cooking, eating and woodwork: the sword is an exclusively and explicitly military object, rich with symbolism.

Scabbards in Bronze Age Greece

The swords of the Bronze Age in the Greek world are worthy of much examination on their own, but their scabbards and sword holders are much more elusive. This is partly because they seem to have been mostly made from perishable materials like cloth, animal hides and early leather – thus, whilst the sword has a much better chance of surviving three thousand years in the ground, their sword holders rarely do. But what infrequently does survive with these swords is the chapes, lockets and decorative pieces. Whilst these parts were frequently cast in bronze and richly decorated, examples have survived that were made from carved ivory and bone. However, these fragments are rarely in place, and tell us very little about how they would have looked or worked in practise. However, Greek art tends to have a fantastic degree of naturalistic detail that has permitted archaeologists to form a reasonable understanding of Greek sword holders. The ‘Pylos Combat Agate’, an intricately-carved precious stone seal from Bronze Age Greece, displays a dramatic battle scene between two warriors, who bear what appear to be leather scabbards with odd bulbous chapes. A beautiful ivory hand-mirror dating from 12th century BCE Cyprus shows a warrior doing battle with a lion – and his scabbard bears a twisted pattern with what appears to be a metallic chape. The Mykonos Vase, dating from around 630 BCE, shows sword-bearing warriors carrying their swords in baldrics rather than sword belts, with the sword-holders worn high on the chest. This style strikes us as very strange and impractical today – it is always difficult to work out whether these are artistic representations replete with some lost meaning, whether the artist was merely unfamiliar with how warriors wore swords, or whether this is indeed an authentic representation of common practise.

Celtic Scabbards

The Celts of Iron Age Europe took scabbard design to the next level. Their stunning animist art, combined with their expert metalworking skills, proved to be the next step in scabbard design. Unlike the Greeks, we have vanishingly few representations of Celtic figures (and even fewer with any degree of detail), but instead we have a large number of sword holders and scabbards that elucidate distinctive Celtic design. The jaw-dropping ‘Cernon-sur-Coole scabbards’ demonstrate this advanced metalwork art wonderfully. They are a pair of wholly-encasing scabbards made entirely from copper alloy, crimped at the edges to form a tube, dating from around 280 BCE. Note the frog on the locket of the scabbard – this indicates they were worn at the hip, unlike the outlandish Trojan styles on the Mykonos Vase. Although only fragments of the Cernon-sur-Coole scabbards have survived along with the heavily-corroded sword blade, the detailing is incredible: flowing, abstracted animalistic and vegetal forms cover the scabbards, using the late La Tène style that flourished in Central and Western Europe in the millennium before the Roman Empire. In a wholly agrarian society like the La Tène culture, metallurgy represented an enormous amount of hard labor from miners, refiners, and druidic smiths. Each worker devoted to such work represented less work in the fields, and therefore indicates the scale of kingdoms who could support populations over and above subsistence. This means that the incredible works of art on Celtic scabbards must have been visual representations of immense wealth and power.

The Mystery of the Viking Scabbard

The Vikings were one of fiercest and most important martial cultures in European history – they raided and pillaged virtually every coastline in Europe, kick-started post-Roman European trade by forming profitable trade routes with the Islamic world, and they colonized from modern Ukraine to Iceland, and even crossed the Atlantic to the frozen coast of Canada. And yet, despite this vast impact, we have little idea how they wore their swords! Partly, this is a function of the general state of Viking history. During their existence, the Vikings left only a handful of written sources in the form of monumental runestones – all of the ‘Viking’ written histories date from after the Viking period. The sagas, for example, are mostly Christian Icelandic literary works based on the remnants of the Viking oral tradition, written in the Viking successor state from the 13th century onward. Physical objects give us some clues to Viking scabbards – but suffer from similar problems to the ancient Greek swords mentioned above: whilst we have found amazing fragments of Viking scabbards, even the best preserved are incomplete, and the organic parts of the scabbard, sword holder, belt or baldric have deteriorated beyond interpretation. For example, many beautiful scabbard chapes have been found across Europe – these are frequently richly decorated with Viking knotwork. Pictorial representations are only a little more helpful. There are very few images of Viking figures, and even fewer with any detail applied to depicting the arms and armor beyond simple representation. Even the spectacular ‘Sigurd portal’ at the Hylestad Stave Church only depicts the hero Sigurd with a simple scabbard at the hip in one carving, with no real detail given. However, we can have a little more success looking at similar contemporary cultures who were literate and left detailed pictorial records. A medieval manuscript with the catchy title of ‘Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1’, a collection of astronomical, mathematical and religious texts from 11th century Canterbury, contains an image of an Anglo-Saxon man wearing a scabbard that is very clearly attached to a baldric looped over his shoulder. Whether this is an Anglo-Saxon style rather than a Viking one, though, is debatable. Other contemporary images show individuals holding their scabbards in battle, and with others still with their swords simply floating at their sides – but, interestingly, very few depict what we might consider waist belts. Archaeologists point to the fact that few if any surviving Viking scabbard fragments have identifiable loops or hangings, leading some to theorise that Viking sword holders were very much an optional matter of personal taste, made entirely separately to the scabbard. The mystery continues!

The Scabbard of Joyeuse

The official coronation sword of the French crown is called Joyeuse (‘joyful’), and is probably one of the most famous existing swords. It resides in the Louvre, Paris, and was used in the coronation of French monarchs stretching back to at least the 13th century. Legend has it that it is the sword of Charlemagne, the 9th century founder of the French state, and the first Holy Roman Emperor. There is an outside possibility that this is indeed true: part of the hilt are certainly Early Medieval, with some scholars taking particular interest in the pommel, which bears a striking similarity to Sassanian designs from around the 9th century. However, most scholars agree that most parts of the sword date definitively after the death of Charlemagne. The most likely timeline is that parts of a sword dating from around the time of Otto III (r. 996 CE – 1002 CE) were incorporated into subsequent re-makings of the official French sword of state, like Theseus’s ship. The modern Joyeuse is probably largely the creation of Cardinal Richelieu (d. 1642), who restored the sword as part of his state-building effort to restore royal prestige under Louis XIII. Thus, the scabbard of Joyeuse is a complex object, layered over with many centuries of meaning. The surviving scabbard is a wooden frame, covered with velvet and overlaid with a gold frame, chape and locket. The locket is set with eight enormous gemstones, with the belt hanging set with one more for a total of nine. There is a good chance that these jewels are in fact the oldest part of the entire sword, as they would have been the least likely to corrode or spoil, and would be easy to remove and re-set in a new scabbard. They are smooth-polished, rather than faceted, the latter technique only emerged in the 13th century, and they would have been a magnificent statement of wealth and status. The scabbard of Joyeuse is set with dozens of small gold fleurs-de-lys, a symbol of France dating back to at least the formation of the Medieval Kingdom of France in the 11th century. Originally, the hilt of Joyeuse was also studded with these symbols, as can be seen on Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV (c. 1700) – however, they were the victim of changing symbolism. Napoleon used the sword at his coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804, and extensively restored the sword and scabbard for this purpose (some argue that Napoleon in fact completely replaced the ‘original’ Joyeuse with a replica). But the fleurs-de-lys on the hilt were thought to have unsavory royalist connotations, and so they were filed smooth!

The Scabbard and the Sheath in Medieval England

It’s worth looking at the word ‘scabbard’ itself, since etymology can often shed light on the contested history of objects in the Medieval past. The word ‘scabbard’ first appears in the High Middle Ages as ‘scabard’ – it is a Middle English word, dating from the High Middle Ages, and it comes directly from the Norman French word ‘eschaubert’. It is roughly equivalent to the Middle English ‘sheth’ and the Old English ‘sċēaþ’ – whose descendants ‘sheath’ and ‘sheathe’ we still use today. In modern English, we use the words ‘scabbard’ and ‘sheath’ to mean different things: a sheath can be any protective cover for a knife or axe, but a scabbard refers only to a protective covering for a sword – a split that we can see in Middle English, with ‘scabard’ (from Norman French) and ‘sheth’ (from Old English) in use alongside one another. The scabard/sheth dichotomy reflects a common pattern in the development of the English language, where low-status objects retain a word rooted in Old English, whilst high-status objects are named with words descending from Norman French. Many English words which have a root in Medieval French were brought over by the Normans who acquired land in England after the conquest of the Anglo-Saxon state by William I in 1066 CE. They did not do so by way of a slow mass migration, intermarriage and sporadic conflict, like the Angles, Saxons and Jutes did in post-Roman Britain – but rather by a swift and violent takeover, with a relatively small number of Norman nobles being given conquered Anglo-Saxon lands to rule over. Thus, the Norman nobles used their Norman French terms to refer to the finer things in life, whilst ordinary Anglo-Saxon peasants continued to use Old English – gradually merging into a synthesis of the two languages known as ‘Middle English’. We can see a similar pattern to scabard/sheth in multiple modern word pairs, particularly in the world of food, where the stock animal frequently retains an Old English name whilst the fine meat is rooted in Norman French: beef / cow (‘boef’, Norman French / ‘’, Old English) mutton / sheep (‘mouton’, Norman French / ‘sceap’, Old English) venison / deer (‘venesoun’, Norman French / ‘dēor’, Old English) So we can see immediately that, even in the word used in Norman England for medieval sword holders, complex historical gradations of status and class are at play!   When you are designing a roleplay or re-enactment costume, think about what your choice of scabbard says about your character. Throughout most of the Medieval era, even bearing a sword was a mark of status: whilst most people would have worn simple knives, even the choice to have a scabbard is an immediate statement either of knighthood or of nobility. We have made sure that our range of scabbards for sale will allow you to select the perfect one for your impression.