Sheaths and Sword-Belts

Swords and Sheaths

A picture of three engraved brasses showing the sword belts of knights. All of the swords hang upright, one from a hip belt, one from a belt which wraps around a high waist at the right to a low hip on the left, and one from two short angled straps attached to a hip belt

Three common ways of wearing a sword in western European art, 1360-1410. Left: From a hip belt (brass of Ralph de Knevynton: St Michael’s Church, Aveley, Essex, England). Middle: From a slanted belt (brass of William Loveny: Church of St Mary the Virgin, Wendens Ambo, Essex, England). Right: From a hip belt on two short straps (brass of Sir John de St Quintin: Church of St. Mary, Brandesburton, England). Images courtesy of Effigies and Brasses (middle) and the Medieval Combat Society (left, and right).

This is not the place to talk about 14th century swords, but rather to discuss a mystery.

Between 1360 and 1410, by far the most common way to wear a sword was vertically from a hip belt. In this mechanism, there are usually no signs of short diagonal straps to control the position of the sword. How the sheath is attached to the hip belt is usually invisible, so it was probably hidden on the back of the scabbard. No scabbards with this suspension mechanism have been identified, but a handful of throats for sheaths with staples to take a single strap survive (eg. Portable Antiquities Scheme ESS-D85B66), and knives in this period were usually suspended from thongs looped over the belt and knotted closed. Another possibility is a ring on the scabbard and a hook on the belt: the Ewart Oakeshott collection once contained a fragment of a plaque belt with several plaques and a hook dangling below the main belt (The Archaeology of Weapons, plate 13a). This solution does not dangle gracefully behind the wearer like we expect a sword to hang, but it seems to have been the most common solution in this period.

Detail of the scabbard worn by St. George in the Museo Diocesiano in Mantua. Inv. no. 418/Cattedrale. Said to be by Jacopo e Pietro Paolo dalle Masegne.

a bronze statue of a horseman in late medieval armour, and a closeup of how his scabbarded sword is hung

The equestrian statue of St. George at Prague from 1373 (the original [right] is indoors, a replica [left] is out in the rain and the bird poop) with a ring or a buckle connecting his scabbard to the fauld of his pair of plates. A similar strap appears on his right hip to hold up his missing dagger. You can see another set of photos of the replica at http://www.svjiri.wz.cz/pages/sv_jiri%2032.htm Comparison photo c/o Dimicator https://www.patreon.com/Dimicator/

The sword suspension on an effigy from the Veneto (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, object A.24-1910). The will of Robert Norwich (February 1443/4) leaves someone a sword, buckler, and silver-mounted scabbard for riding “and if he desires to have the other scabbard used to carry the sword in the manner of a baselard, he may have it for a reasonable price.” (Blair, ‘The Word Baselard,’ p. 194). The museum estimates that the effigy dates c. 1370-1375.

Some other mechanisms appear in art. Sometimes the scabbard seems to be attached directly to the skirt of the cuirass, as in a statue of St. George in Mantua or several English paintings in Armour of the English Knight (British Library Royal MS 20.C.viii Tree of Battles, Bodleian MS. Auct. D.inf.2.11.Saints, fol. 44v). Sometimes the sword is attached to a belt which slants from the right waist to the left hip. Sometimes the scabbard is attached to the hip belt with two short straps or chains, one at the front edge and one at the back edge. A knife with a copper-alloy locket with two horizontal rings on the back survives in Salisbury. In all of these solutions, the scabbard usually has an elabourate metal throat, and the sword hangs upright or tilts slightly forward.

Type A-4 Paduan suspension, with a waist belt, two slings from the back of the scabbard which converge at the belt, and a female buckle at the mouth of the scabbard receiving the male end of the waistbelt. Modern scabbard-makers love these, but I only know of two clear examples in the entire corpus of medieval art, only one (and one possible) from my period.

Beginning around 1380, a very small number of paintings show swords hanging at an angle from a waist belt (Altichiero’s frescos in Padua, Padua Picture Bible, Getty Fior di Battaglia). A secondary strap reaches from the small of the back to 1/3 or 1/4 down the sword, raising the tip of the scabbard off the ground. This type of belt is very popular with scabbardmakers today, and very rare in art from 1360 to 1410.

The sword, scabbard, and belt from the grave of Bishop Gerhard von Schwartzburg (d. 9 November 1400) are preserved in the Domschatz, Würzburg DE (Oakeshott Type XV or XVI, overall length 100 cm, blade length 77 cm, photo in Jahn, Schumann, and Brochkoff, Edel und Frei, pp.180-181; I thank Roland Warzecha and Holger Heid for the reference). The one hung over the tomb of Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince (d. 1376), just consists of a leather cover and square gold or gilt ornaments with no throat or chape and no wooden core (Anonymous, The Times of Edward the Black Prince p. 21): presumably the heavy silver or copper gilt throat was stolen and melted down long ago. The sword of Emperor Sigismund I for the Order of the Dragon (c. 1433: KHM Wien, Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer, A 49) has a “pressed leather” scabbard and a chape but no throat/locket. Various websites mention scabbards or scabbard fittings in the Museum für Franken in Würzburg and a “St. George’s sword” in the Museum Schnütgen in Köln.

Broadly speaking, medieval scabbards for swords were made from two wooden slats wrapped in a sheet of vegetable-tanned calfskin, with additional layers sometimes added between wood and steel or wood and leather. There is a great deal of evidence for scabbards in the late 13th and early 14th century, including hundreds of leather covers for sheaths in Schleswig (Schnack Lederfunde) and Leiden (van Driel-Murray, Sword Sheaths from Leiden), the early 13th century ‘belt of St. Hadrian’ at the Historisches Museum, Bamberg, the swords and scabbards of Fernando de la Cerda (d. 1270: narrow thongs laced through the scabbard cover) and Sancho IV el Bravo of Castille (d. 1295: Z-shaped leather) in Spain, the sword and scabbard mounts from the sarcophagus of Cangrande della Scala (d. 1329: three small rings on the sides of the scabbard) in the Castelvecchio, Verona, and a sword and set of silver scabbard fittings from Westminister Bridge (Museum of London, ID 52.12(1) and 52.12(2)). Scabbard leather A3678 in the Museum of London probably dates to this earlier period, but other scabbards and scabbard leathers in the same museum may be later (22347, A24815, A26748, A26703, etc.)

Studies by Geibig and Esther Cameron (Leather and Leatherworking in York pp. 3366ff) are helpful for understanding the ancestors of this form of scabbard; Roland Warzecha is working intensely on scabbards and suspensions from the 9th and 10th century as part of his Viking shield fighting project. The last broad study of medieval sword belts was by Albert Hartshorne in 1891 and only covers art from England!

Scabbards were made in very similar ways from the early middle ages into the 19th century, and a number of texts describe the process. In order, we have the rule of the armourers and scabbardmakers of Angers (1488, see items 11 and 12), the rule of the fourbisseurs of Paris from 1486 and 1566 (item 21), a description by Randle Holme from 1688 (The Academy of Armory, or, A Storehouse of Armory and Blazon book 3 p. 91 “Draw out the Scale. / Rash it even. / Lining of the Scabbard, is the Linnen or Woollen Cloth in the inner side of the Scabbard. / Bind it up and glew it, is to tye the two sides of the scale when lined, together, the Blade being between. / Cover it with leather.”), and finally in Diderot’s Encyclopedie in the 18th century (the French entries for fourbisseur and fourbisserie are available online, and translated in J.D. Aylward, The Small Sword in England [quoted on Will’s Commonplace Book]. A.V.B. Norman summarizes several descriptions of the process in French guild rules in The Rapier and Small-Sword p. 304. These sources mostly say that the wood core should be of beechwood (fagus sylvatica) and the covering of calfskin.

It was very common to carry the sword in hand with the belt wrapped around the scabbard rather than wear it (donors at Naumberg Cathedral, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MET 2006.250 Laudario, trial scene in Trivulziana MS. 691, KBR Ms. 11201-02 Politica & Economica fol. 263r (Paris, 1376), BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 15939 Miroir Historial (Vol 1) fol. 37v, BNF Français 343 fol. 4r, 32r, Getty Fior di Battaglia, gambling soldiers by Altichiero at Padua, crucifixion in Schloss Eggenberg, Graz, BNF Français 356 Guiron le Courtois fol. 228r (France c. 1420)). Bishop Gerhard’s sword still has the belt with buckle and strap-end (mordant) wrapped around the blade.

Scabbards for swords and fighting knives generally had chapes, and copper-alloy and silver chapes appear in many collections. Some are made from bent and slit sheets of metal, others were made from two cast shells soldered together. A round or nut-shaped ornament (knop) was sometimes soldered to the tip.

  • Ottaway and Rogers, Craft, Industry, and Everyday Life p. 2094
  • The Gaukler Collection (the items he is willing to sell are listed at http://medievalwares.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=65_74_118 )
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme LANCUM-886FEF Sheet copper-alloy rolled with a knop applied to the point, no visible fastening at the seam
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme SWYOR-601C96 Sheet copper-alloy 0.6 mm thick rolled around the tip of the scabbard, overlapped and soldered closed, the tip slit and folded together
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme NLM-974F94 here the sheet is 0.5 mm thick
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme OXON-E75F00 ugly but they are explicit that the lapped seam was soldered and then the knop was soldered in place
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme SUR-997ED7 Some engraved decoration, and the seam is nice and solid
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme PUBLIC-F103E8 U-shaped chape, again from folded and slit copperalloy sheet
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme DENO-265393 This is like a five-sided box but there are the remains of iron rivets in holes; a few other chapes have single or paired rivet holes near the upper edge
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme BERK-85F302 a (cast?) ‘half clamshell’, I would bet that it was brazed or soldered to a matching half and fell apart at some point

Chapes in the Gaukler collection are often 0.018″ (0.46 mm) or 0.032″ (0.8 mm) thick.

… in progress, illustrations will come later …

Because this style of suspension is hidden between sword and body, and no surviving examples are known, understanding of this topic has been built up over decades by researchers such as Harry Marinakis, Mark Shier, Will McLean, and Ian LaSpina.

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