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A hand gripping a dagger with a wooden hilt

The classic ‘icepick’ grip, by far the most common in late medieval paintings of assaults and fencing manuals

In the past year I succumbed to the allure of two of Leo “Tod” Todeschini’s products: a table knife and a baselard. In the late middle ages baselards were big knives with H-shaped hilt hung from the belt between the legs (in barbarous northern countries) or at the right hip (by polite and civilized Italians who had other ways to show they had something long and hard between their legs). He offers two standard models, one which was popular in the Alps and another which was more common in northern Italy and England.

Tod is a brilliant cutler. He captures the essence of knives as objects of lust which you buy and carry against your better judgement. (People in the fourteenth and fifteenth century were not idiots, their coroner’s reports and city statutes show that they knew that when young men start carrying big knives some of them will stab each other with them- and Chaucer always tells you what kinds of knives people are wearing, and whether they are mounted with silver or brass). Tod includes scabbards and suspensions which let you understand knives as accessories not just as something to hang on your wall or leave in your kitchen or your travel chest. The scabbards are painted in a single colour like many originals and lightly tooled like finds from the Thames and the Low Countries. The brass chape is brazed so well that it is hard to see the join (whereas most of the originals Mark Shier has handled are just overlapped or stapled closed). The baselard is beautifully finished, with the nails evenly peened and the wood smoothly set onto the iron core, and has a pleasant substance in the hand thanks to the thick, heavy forte of the blade. The 44 cm length of this baselard is pretty typical (there were a few smaller examples, and many the size of a sword). (Parenthically, his working, table, and kitchen knives would make excellent gifts for a chef or camper in your life). But there is one thing about this knife which is not ideal for me.

Six chapes of folded copper-alloy sheet

Some typical late medieval or early modern knife chapes of folded copperalloy sheet in the Gaukler collection. 10487 in the upper right is most typical of the ones he has handled.

The same baselard held in ‘sabre grip,’ a popular way of gripping a sword in 19th century Europe (if you look at old officer’s sabres, you can often see that the back of the handle and the inside of the guard are made to support it)

There is not much call for stabbing people in my line of work, so I bought this to understand how these moved. I find it very natural to hold this dagger point-up with a finger crooked over the guard, or even lay my finger down the back of the handle like a 19th century infantry sabre. Felix Reich noticed the same thing about the “rather long” grip of his baselard by Tod, and Jean Thibodeau liked holding his baselard by Tod in a handshake grip. As you see, the grip is two fingers longer than my hand. But when I look at art showing baselards in use, I see something very different:

Six scenes of soldiers brandishing daggers with black hilts studded with white rivetsin their bare hands

In 14th century art, baselards often have long blades but fit closely to the hand. Unfortunately, to see baselards in use you have to stare at some pretty gruesome images. From left to right and top to bottom: the sack of Troy in BNF Français 782 fol. 177 (painted at Venice in the 1340s), a martyrdom of St. Lucy in the Missale ad Usum Fratrum Minorum, BNF Latin 757 fol. 298r (painted at Milan in the 1380s), the army of emperor Henry IV in Biblioteca Apostòlica Vaticana Chigiano L VIII 296 (painted in Italy sometime after 1348), the martyrdom of an unlucky saint in Bibliothèque municipale Livrée Ceccano, Avignon BM MS.136 fol. 330r (painted by ?Niccolò da Bologna? around 1370), and two details from a Massacre of the Innocents by Bartolo da Fridi in the Walters Art Museum (painted circa 1380)

Baselards in art almost always have handles little wider than their wielder’s hands, and are used to stab overhand. The way late medieval Catholics wore their daggers supports this. Its not easy to draw a dagger worn vertically between the legs with the thumb to the crossguard, but it is easy to draw it with the thumb to the pommel. And while its fun to practice switching grips on a knife, I don’t think it happened very often in the circumstances in which these daggers were used given the design of their hilts. (There are other kinds of late medieval daggers, such as cruciform daggers, which encourage a more fluid grip, but when medieval artists show a stabbing the weapon is generally gripped overhand).

A gauntleted hand gripping a dagger.  There is significantly less space between the top of the hand and the pommel bar

The same baselard gripped in a gauntlet of the nicer style made in Florence in the 1360s and 1370s (the cheap ones had iron nails). Reproduction gauntlets by Jeffrey Hildebrandt of Royal Oak Armoury; for the original see Holger Grönwald, “Old Iron- Iron Fists and Other Finds from the Medieval Castle of Cugagna,” Acta Militaria Medievalia VIII (2012) pp. 127-176 https://www.academia.edu/8267957/OLD_IRON_IRON_FISTS_AND_OTHER_FINDS_FROM_THE_MEDIEVAL_CASTLE_OF_CUCAGNA and texts in the Archivio Datini di Prato

There is another piece of evidence. By the fourteenth century, even fairly poor people had access to an aketon, an iron hat, and a pair of gauntlets. And as soon as you put on a pair of late 14th century gauntlets, many grips become much less natural. Your thumb can’t rotate to go along the back of the handle, and its hard to splay your index finger and your middle finger apart. The hard edges of the gauntlets also lock it into the hand once drawn and make it hard to change grips. So I think if you drew a baselard with a gauntleted hand, you would probably stick with ice-pick grip.

I have photos and measurements of five fourteenth- and fifteenth-century baselards to hand: three in Salvatici’s book on the Bargello, X.297 in the Royal Armouries, and W-18 in the Allen collection. Their grips range from 8.5 to 10 cm long, so the handle on this is within the normal range of variation. But I think it is at the wrong end of that range for my hand, especially without gauntlets on, and if I had one sized for my hand I would find myself holding it differently. I think that this grip would suit a medium-to-large hand wearing gauntlets, and I have a small hand.

A neoclassical scene of a battle where one soldier stabs another in the neck with a dagger

The hilt of this baselard is six fingers long like the hilt of Tod’s. It is the only such long-gripped baselard which I can find in medieval art. Pierro della Francesca’s “Victory of Heraclius over Chosroes” (1442-1466) c/o https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/piero/2/8/index.html

Historically this was not an issue. If you wanted a new baselard, you visited the botega of someone like Francesco di Marco Datini and he had the boy who slept on the trundle-bed unlock the third strongbox from the left and lay an armful on the table. You would handle them and find one which felt right while he chattered about their many excellent features and tried to judge how much he could take you for. No two would be exactly the same, because sometimes the iron wanted to move this way not that way, and sometimes the bladesmith was bored with double fullers and made this one with three, and sometimes the cutler had an awkward scrap of ivory to use up and asked the bladesmith to give him one with an appropriate handle. Everyone could have a knife which fit their hand and taste, just like everyone who could afford new shoes could have a pair made to their feet. But cutlers today turn frustratingly homogeneous materials into goods to sell by mail order, and their customers pay them for minutes not hours of work on each item (A conservative minimum shop rate for independent artisans is USD 100/hour, about the price of one of Tod’s big knives with scabbard). That drives them to make things as close to identical as possible, and to make choices that sort-of-work for most people rather than being ideal for any.

I think if I had enough money for a custom baselard, I would ask for a hilt 1-2 cm shorter than this one. A dagger like that would be significantly more expensive, but also more educational.

Researchers like Dimicator and collectors like Matt Easton are educating the blade-buying public that short grips are often a feature not something they should ask to have changed, and I hope they succeed. Unless you are quite high-income and skilled at research, the tools you have available are shaped by the blade-buying public and their ideas of what historical weapons were like. Makers who want to stay in business have to strike a balance (warning: YouTube) between what their customers expect, what they are willing to pay, and what their research tells them the originals were like.

I can afford a few big posts like this with help from generous supporters on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

Further Reading:

  • J. Cowgill, M. de Neergaard, and P. Wilthew, Knives and Scabbards. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 1 (Boydell Press: Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000)
  • any of the many good books on violence in late medieval Europe
  • Dr. Fabrice Cognot’s photoessay of one way of forging a baselard from modern homogeneous steel
  • Claude Blair, “The Word ‘Baselard,'” Journal of the Arms and Armour Society XI.4 (1984), pp. 193-206, pl. XLVI, XLVII
  • Marco Vignola, Riflessioni sulla basilarda. Analisi tipologiche e spunti ricostruttivi (Bookstones: Rimini, 2016) {booklet on basilards with a typology, photos of surviving examples, and details for bladesmiths- I have not read this but I respect the author}
  • And aside from the baselards in the Castelvecchio, Verona (two, one of which Tod and generous patron Christian Cameron reproduced and a third), there is a beautiful basilard in KHM Wien, Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer, A 31a

Edit 2020-01-19: This is also a gender-equality issue! As J.M. Landels points out, a grip which is too big for most men will be actively awkward for most women Teaching Every Body: Adapting your Curriculum for Gender Differences (May 2019). Thanks Guy Windsor for the reference.